In My Day, We Managed Our Aggro! — The Rantings of an Old School Gamer
A diatribe on how difficult gaming used to be and how it has changed
When I was a kid, my dad complained of growing up in harder times. I do too now, but in a completely different way. I am aging, and I am a bit of a nerd in some ways, which provides for an interesting combination that I’m not sure is precedented in previous generations.
You see, my generation was probably the first real video game generation. We started them young, grew up with them, and were the first generation to really take them into adulthood with us. I am not and never have been a professional gamer, but I was there to watch that concept dawn.
I’ve gotten to the age and the point in my life where I no longer really play video games. It’s not necessarily that I’ve outgrown them, though. It’s more that, as most people do with age, I’ve become less willing or able to accept and adapt to change. Video games were different in my gaming prime, and, I maintain, they were better.
If you don’t still fear death in a video game with every fiber of your being, it’s because you weren’t there, man; you don’t know what it was like.
When I say better, I mostly mean that I think they were more challenging. They were harder, more frustrating, even crueler at times. I’m not talking about the violence portrayed in the video game content but rather about the manner in which the game developers and entertainment companies treated the players. The mechanics of the games were sometimes brutal, and even the smallest achievements in these games required an unreasonable amount of practice, skill, and commitment.
Everquest was a prime example of this. That game was so unforgiving that customer backlash against it created a sea change in MMORPG gaming. We had hell levels. We had real tactics and strategy. We knew loss and defeat and frustration. We were constantly humbled. When we were victorious, though, it was glorious.
The amount of time Everquest required to accomplish almost anything of substance was unbelievable. The acquisition of valuable in-games items was often based on random and infrequent “spawns” that could mean long weeks between opportunities. I worked tirelessly for months just to gather the pieces required to forge the epic blades for my halfling ranger.
The entire concept of “working for months” in a video game was different then. I’m not talking about logging on for ten minutes at a time here and there every few days to make some progress. I’m talking about spending nights and entire weekends without sleep, continually staring at a screen, repetitively slaying digital monster after digital monster during what we called “grinding” and “camping”.
It was easy for things to go bad; one false move could, in an instant, ruin hours or even days worth of progress. And when things went bad, they went really bad. If you pushed a button out of turn or were not careful to keep your influence on a fight within very strict parameters, you could cause not only your own death, but the death of every character in your group or raid. Literally hundreds of man-hours could be lost. Offer a heal ten seconds too fast or rain down a powerful fireball one time too often, and in the blink of an eye the entire digital landscape would be littered with the corpses of all of your comrades.
Character death in Everquest was a devastating blow that could ruin a real person’s entire real-life day. With every death, a character would lose experience, sometimes even being forced backward to an earlier level, and losing earned and necessary abilities. When a character died in Everquest, the body and all its belongings dropped where they stood. If the area was hostile, as it usually was, a friend would have to brave the same danger to drag the corpse to safety.
The player who had died would then have to run, slowly and without any weapons or armor for defense, from what could be twenty or thirty minutes away through treacherous territory, now even more vulnerable to additional deaths and the additional loss of experience. I once died four times in ten minutes, and I felt like I’d lost a family member.
Players had to be constantly vigilant in order to avoid death in Everquest. It was around every corner, and it was often in motion. It was completely common to be standing in what might appear to be a completely safe location only to see the death message flash instantly on your screen because another player led dangerous monsters to you. Sometimes it happened accidentally; sometimes people did it on purpose. Either way, the result was the same: You spent the next half hour running naked through the world on the way to try to reclaim your ravaged corpse.
Everquest demanded cooperation and coordination. Individual characters belonged to very limited classes that each had very specific roles in a group dynamic. Normal combat encounters were difficult enough that it could be difficult or impossible for some characters to survive on their own. Players were dependent on each other’s abilities, and groups needed to include the correct composition to avoid disaster.
More modern games have caved to the customers’ desire to dominate. Most current games provide some avenue for players to not only survive but to advance effectively on their own. Characters are more well-rounded, and, as a result, more self-sufficient. Gone are the days when a nuker couldn’t take a hit, a healer couldn’t deliver much of a blow, a tank couldn’t stay standing without outside buffs and heals, and there were entire classes of characters that existed only to fill supporting roles.
The challenging nature of Everquest was even the necessity for the invention of a new lexicon. Players adapted an entire unique vocabulary to fit the common needs of the game. Speed and abbreviation were essential in this new language because the game would not often allow a player free finger movement for very long. Simple phrases gained complex nuance because efficiency was at a premium. A friend of mine was angry for days once because someone else in the group typed the phrase “healz yo”.
Even travel was difficult and time-consuming in Everquest. The world was absolutely immense, and filled with miles of semi-empty space that took forever to traverse. One could pass freely between “zones”, but only at designated points that very often were not marked and could be difficult to find the first time or two. It took forever to get anywhere, and a player generally had to pay attention and actively navigate in order to keep from quickly dying a horrible Everquest death.
There are so many awful details about how punishing that game could actually be that I can barely believe I’m remembering it correctly now when my old friends and I recount them. In direct response to the outcry from the “casual gamer” about the impossibility of advancing in Everquest without dedicating one’s entire life to it, World of Warcraft (WoW) was born in a much gentler light, and it became a smash hit.
Video game companies took note of WoW’s success, and basically every game followed suit. Everything got easier and more convenient. The vicious punishments for poor play were completely abandoned and thoughtless button-mashing was rewarded. Everyone quickly achieved the highest level and easily obtained the most outrageous gear in every MMORPG that followed. My old friends and I remember what it was like back in Norrath, though. If you don’t still fear death in a video game with every fiber of your being, it’s because you weren’t there, man; you don’t know what it was like.