By the standards we use to judge games today, Ultima Online, at launch, was a terrible game full of down time and grinding. Let me give you a recap in case you never played it. The land of Sosaria was mostly wilderness when the game launched. There were a handful of cities with guards that offered limited protection (they either had to observe a crime or ‘hear’ you call for help before they’d intercede), but otherwise it was a brutal place to live. Not only was it an open PVP world, but there were thieves who could pluck items out of your pack. When you died, all your belongings stayed on your corpse, available to anyone not above plundering the dead.
Travel? Initially you walked everywhere, dreaming about having a horse. Getting a horse was a matter of either buying one from another player, or spending a lot of time learning to tame animals (first birds and bunnies, then perhaps dogs and cats, and finally horses) and then training it to be ridable. When you finally got a horse, you’d have to keep it fed and treat it well. A mis-treated animal might escape and return to its wild roots. Assuming you did all that correctly you’d have a trusty steed…until some malice-filled cretin decided to kill it on you.
There was also limited teleportion. You’d have to make or buy a rune and then use it to mark a location, after which you could teleport to that location, assuming you had the required reagents. Those were gathered from the wilderness, either by you or another player.
There were some NPC merchants that sold some very basic items, but their stock was limited. These NPCs would buy items from players as well…assuming they needed what the player had to offer. As an NPC’s stock levels rose, they’d offer less and less for that item until finally they’d just stop buying altogether (one conceit to gameplay…every so often NPC stock would ‘reset’ to get rid of excess materials).
What few ‘quests’ existed were found by talking to various NPCs. These didn’t have an ! on top of their head; you had to find them. Crafting meant tedious gathering of materials and working at a forge or a spinning wheel or whatever tool you needed. Gaining skills meant spending a lot of time in front of a training dummy, or beating up lesser creatures. How’d you know it was a lesser creature? Either by common sense (a rat or a bunny) or by trial and error. There was no ‘con’ system to tell you such & such a creature was 1 level below, or 3 levels above, you. (Heck, there were no levels!)
In short, if Ultima Online version 1.0 launched today it would be ripped to shreds by most gamers and reviewers. And you know what? It was a glorious game. The one game that was so compelling that I truly did get ‘addicted’ to it. I missed work because of that game. Lost sleep. It almost destroyed my relationship. These are not things I’m proud to admit, but I share them just to illustrate how compelling the game was.
Today’s games are kinder, gentler beasts. We have fast travel, and clearly marked quests, and death penalties that don’t even feel like penalties. Why? Because that’s what players say they want. We complain if we have to spend more than a few minutes traversing the world to meet up with friends. We complain if we lose progress. We complain if we have to repeat the same actions multiple times, calling the game a grindfest.
And the developers hear us and they adjust their designs to give us what we want.
And the more the devs do this, the more I hear about RPG ennui. People jump from game to game, looking for something sticky but not finding it. They give up the genre altogether, or resign themselves to retreating to whatever game they have high-level characters (or a bunch of friends) in. Often this retreat is done out of resignation rather than enthusiasm.
Enter Fallen Earth and Demon’s Souls. Now the latter isn’t an MMO, but the point I’m making isn’t limited to MMOs. Both of these games buck the trend of adding convenience to games. Fallen Earth has no fast travel. It doesn’t have an apocalyptic Walmart where you can go and buy anything and everything you need. You have to ‘grind’ a lot in terms of gathering materials to get good enough to make the items you need, or to get enough cash up to buy what you need from other players or the few NPC suppliers out there. It isn’t a complete throwback, mind you. The death penalty is very light, there’s no theft and your transport can’t be killed or stolen.
But a lot of what Fallen Earth does is ‘wrong’ by the standards players demand from modern games. And yet people who try it out tend to stick with it. This shouldn’t be. The game isn’t all that polished, the graphics pale in comparison to something like Aion, the interface is kind of clunky and has to be learned. But the population of the game continues to grow while that of Aion and Champions Online apparently dwindles.
Demon’s Souls should be a flop, too. It’s an RPG with no quests, a relatively stiff death penalty, a ton of grinding, non-consensual PvP and game systems that can only be figured out by trial and error. And yet all the reviews that I’ve read have been glowing, and the community is enthusiastic as hell. The game is compelling and engrossing.
What’s the common theme between Fallen Earth and Demon’s Souls? Immersion. All the convenience factors in modern games make them feel like modern games. The boring stuff, the frustrating stuff…that makes these games feel like immersive worlds. Without pain there can be no pleasure, to go all zen on you. A reward without any struggle just isn’t as sweet (for many of us) as a reward we had to work for.
This doesn’t apply to everyone who plays games. Not in the slightest. But it applies to those of us who still embrace the Role Playing in RPgs. I’m not talking about role playing in the sense of gathering with a few other players and doing a skit. I mean the internal role playing that some of us do. The role playing that lets us use these games as portals to other worlds, the same way a good book can do.
If you don’t know what I mean by that, this post won’t make sense and I’m sure you’ll disagree with it. That’s fine. But if you get what I’m saying…if you know the delight of just sinking into a good virtual world and existing in there for a few hours, then please give Fallen Earth and/or Demon’s Souls a try. Both are excellent ‘throw-back’ games that bring the immersion back to our hobby. Games like this need our support. We need to send a message to game developers that there are still players who appreciate a good immersive game, and who still appreciate a challenge.