MMO Mechanics: Three old mechanics I want back

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My column has typically heralded modern MMOs as superior advancements of the genre we all adore, but in this week's MMO Mechanics I want to share a small list of some old mechanics I still mourn today. Many older MMOs featured gameplay that could simultaneously exasperate and impress players, especially when the mechanics in question supported a real sense of immersion or realism in otherwise virtual worlds. Recent titles have aimed to open up the in-game world by making it more accessible and much less infuriating, but this has put some of my favourite mechanics and little touches on the development chopping block.

I'm particularly fond of game mechanics that make real-world sense. Real life would not reward you for falling off cliffs, running headlong into a crowded room of enemies, or stumbling off the well-beaten track into the untamed wilderness. Consequences in real life can feel rather scary, so I really enjoyed the fear factor of some older MMOs because this allowed for a much more thrilling -- and ultimately rewarding -- gaming experience. I am going to talk about just three older mechanics I particularly enjoy that have fallen out of fashion, but feel free to lengthen my list by adding your favourites in the comments below.

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Taking the path most traveled (and choosing when not to)

Creating a relatively safe route through zones may initially strike modern MMO players as lazy railroading gone wrong, but it makes good sense for speedy navigation without the headache of clearing potentially dangerous mobs every time you wish to run from one place to another. I like using roads that are lined with lanterns to keep the wilds of the surrounding forest at bay or trading routes that are maintained and manned by the local city's guards. I also particularly enjoy getting NPCs to safety when they wander through areas that are not so safe, when bandits are likely to patrol the area and traversing the wilderness becomes a necessity. It makes my character seem much more involved in maintaining order, and while some players might find seemingly trivial tasks like keeping civilians safe somewhat dull, I really enjoy the realistic side of being a well-known and helpful face in troubled times.

Having said that, I wouldn't feel like much of a hero if I didn't have grand offroad adventures to bolster my civilian-nannying, so knowing that danger could lie just beyond the roadside builds up a great capacity to explore the more dangerous side of my chosen virtual world. I know that wandering means looking for a fight and will ready myself for every trip off the beaten track. Exploring and stumbling across hidden structures or camps of enemies is great, but modern titles with more intuitive maps and clear quest markings kind of ruin the surprise. I miss entering a particularly dangerous or contested area and not knowing what might spring from around the corner or seeing soldier patrols frantically fending off encroaching enemies. With modern map layouts, flight mechanics, and more accessible terrain, MMOs now offer many more options for the leveling process. But I liked having the simple,clear delineation between safety and danger that obvious roads and paths provided.

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Traditional questing before the minimap

I'm really enjoying Neverwinter right now, but I often find myself switching off my brain and entering an almost zombie-like cycle of following the breadcrumb-trail and smashing whatever happens to lie at its end. Minimaps that direct players to quests and highlight nearby points of interest have much the same effect. Don't get me wrong: I really enjoy not getting lost every time I step out of a campsite, especially since I'm the kind of person who could get lost in her own home. But when I'm using game features to save me from this frustration rather than engaging my brain, it feels like sacrificing immersion for convenience.

Sure, a game taking me by the hand will stop my "where the hell am I now?" tantrums, but it also streamlines the leveling process to the point where each ding lacks a sense of achievement and satisfaction. Getting lost and actually working out where I should be headed slowed me down and kept me focused and immersed in older MMOs, no matter what kind of quest I was completing. I seldom feel that sense of monotony when playing older MMOs that have traditional quests but few mechanics designed to hand me all the answers. Even the dreaded "kill ten rats" trope is made much more interesting if you need to first locate the source of the vermin problem.

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Penalising stupidity

I earned an achievement in World of Warcraft by walking my Mage off the lofty peaks of Thunderbluff without dying. I'm just going to let the enormity of that settle in for a moment: My character fell over 65 feet and lived to tell the tale. Realism equates to immersion to me, and dropping a character off a cliff without dying a very bloody death simply because the toon in question is a high-level beefcake just feels so very wrong. Pair this with how soft WoW's death mechanics are and you have a recipe for hilarious but ridiculous kamikaze antics every time an elevator "boss" pops up. While WoW isn't exactly the newest kid in MMOville, the title has set a precedent for many newer models that have since graced my monitor.

Contrast this with older games like EverQuest in which falling from a mode of transport (Ocean of Tears, anyone?) would cost you precious time and could potentially sever your character from valuable loot. Failure has consequences in real life, and I think this should remain true in the virtual worlds of MMOs. Trolling and griefing aside, a severe lack of consequence in most new MMOs makes danger a thing of the past, and thus the fear factor that is so compelling is lost. Fear in older titles kept me on my toes, made me evaluate my playstyle and actions, and made me a better player. A serious death penalty makes sure your character's feet are quick and your mind is firmly in the game.

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I know that some old mechanics now feel harsh, limiting, and uninspired, but I also find the aspects of older MMOs mentioned above to be equally engaging and meaningful. I like having consequences for my actions, and games with mechanics that keep me focused on the task at hand will keep me playing for much longer than their nannying counterparts will. While some retired game mechanics deserve to be kept on the scrap heap, others could have modern applications in new MMOs and shouldn't be ruled out forever.

MMOs are composed of many moving parts, but Massively's Tina Lauro is willing to risk industrial injury so that you can enjoy her mechanical musings. Her column, MMO Mechanics, explores the various workings behind our beloved MMOs every Wednesday.