Player vs. Everything: Fear is the missing ingredient

When I was playing EverQuest in the Kunark-era days there was one item that stood head and shoulders above all the others for me: the Fungus Covered Scale Tunic (affectionately called "The Fungi"). It was the ultimate twink item, allowing you to regain your health at a rate unheard of in the days when long rest periods between each minor battle were the norm for solo players. The Fungi was something I lusted after, wished for, and dreamed of, but I was never able to actually lay hands on it during those days, due to the extreme difficulty of obtaining one. If you wanted one, you had to take a full party of maximum level characters into an exceedingly dangerous area, far from the reaches of civilization, and fight your way to a rare spawn deep in the ruined city of Old Sebilis. Very rarely, he would drop the prized Fungi, which you could then pass on to your low-level alts or sell on the open market for hundreds of thousands of platinum pieces.

Other than the fact that it was a fantastic twink item, what made the Fungi so compelling? It was that you really had to risk something to get it. EverQuest, with it's naked corpse runs, experience loss on death, and horribly dangerous dungeons, made adventuring into a real adventure. Getting to Old Sebilis required traveling across several dangerous and hostile jungle zones in the forgotten continent of Kunark, far from the nearest hub of civilization. Dying in the depths of Old Sebilis was a sickeningly punishing experience in those days -- something you avoided at all costs. When a battle started going sour, you could feel your hackles rising, panic setting in, and a real sense of fear that made victory that much sweeter and death a soul-crushing experience. Is that sense of fear something we're missing out on in the modern MMOG?

You probably think I'm going to dredge up the old "death penalty argument" and talk about how real gamers should be willing to put hours of their game time on the line to make the overall experience of playing more exciting. Maybe I am, but only sort of -- that's a dead horse that's been beaten into a pulp long before I ever came onto the writing scene. Instead, I want to talk about the concept of risk in our MMOGs in general. I suppose death penalties do tie into that, but it's a larger issue.

In today's games, I rarely feel a sense of adventure, risk, or exploration. Especially in World of Warcraft, I feel more like I'm walking through an amusement park with quests for rides than like I'm exploring some dangerous territory as a rugged adventurer. I think there are a number of factors which contribute to this. One thing that particularly annoys me is that you never feel like you're on the fringe of civilization, with untamed wilds stretching out in front of you. There's always a handy outpost, chock full of NPCs, vendors, guards, and quest givers. You're not a courageous explorer -- you're a thrill-seeking Johnny-come-lately who showed up to skin a few tigers after the real work of carving a civilized niche into a hostile wasteland was already done by the cheerful NPCs who preceded you. There's a town of some sort in every zone, and you're never far from the welcoming comforts of modern life.

It's convenient, but it makes the adventure pretty trivial. Why bother avoiding risks or watching your back when a handy graveyard and a repair guy are always 30 seconds away? What's the point in PvP when the enemy you've just defeated will be back in 10 seconds, ready for more? There's no sense of panic when you've underestimated your opponents, no worry about jogging happily through the monster-infested brush, no care or concern to watch out for your foes. We've traded excitement for our precious convenience. It's like playing with kid gloves on. Sure, we're having fun. Nobody scrapes their knees or gets knocked down a peg, and nobody feels anything more than a slight annoyance at getting planted in the dirt -- but you also never experience the rushing thrill of beating the odds and knowing that your victory meant something.

I do remember how much it sucked to have a 45 minute run back to your corpse through hostile territory with none of your gear available to you and seven days to recover your body (or your possessions would be gone forever). There's a reason I'm not playing EverQuest anymore. The fact that I did play back in those painfully punishing days, if nothing else, should tell you that I'm perfectly aware of all the reasons why the MMOG community doesn't like real setbacks. Still, I imagine there has to be some happy medium in there. How can we capture the feeling of fear without needlessly punishing ourselves in a game where we're supposed to be having fun?

I don't have the answer to that, but I like to hope that someone does. I love that feeling of venturing out into the unknown, leaving civilization behind, and being genuinely afraid of death -- it's the heart and foundation of every adventure book ever written! Gulliver's Travels, The Odyssey, Heart of Darkness, Robinson Crusoe, and Robert E. Howard's Conan series all capture this "wandering hero" feeling with great skill, and these are the books that have been delighting and inspiring people for generations. Those are the same feelings I look for in my travels through the virtual worlds of MMOGs, and that's how I know I'm having a good time. I really think that a genuine fear of setback, a chance to be dashed on the rocks by the hand of fate (however it's presented), is the only way to truly capture that.

An amusement park like World of Warcraft, however nicely it's dressed up and however much fun it is, is never going to feel like more than that.


Cameron Sorden Cameron Sorden is an avid gamer, blogger, and writer who has been playing a wide variety of online games since the late '90s. Several times per week in Player vs. Everything, he tackles all things MMO-related. If you'd like to reach Cameron with comments or questions, you can e-mail him at cameron.sorden AT weblogsinc.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.