Perfect Ten: What you need to know before you play an older MMORPG

Guess who's back. Back again.

I cut my teeth on MMOs with the launch of Final Fantasy XI in America. My roommate in college was interested in the game, so I went with my girlfriend at the time, headed to the mall, bought two copies of the game, and spent most of the night downloading patches and getting the whole thing set up. For years I thought things like the archaic half-functionality of things like PlayOnline constituted a feature rather than a drawback solely because of that title.

There are a lot of older games out there, older even than FFXI in chronology and in design. There are games that launched later that feel older. And after a discussion about exactly that, I found myself thinking about the things you may not realize if you go back to play an older game. If you cut your teeth on more modern games, stuff designed and launched in a more recent environment… there are elements to consider before you download the client and start playing.

1. You’re probably not playing the game people remember

The Final Fantasy XI experience I had is gone. I don’t mean that the game is gone; I mean the experience that I had is gone. When people wax nostalgic about the title, they talk about elements of the game that just aren’t there any longer. The title is less populated, grinding in parties is no longer a constant thing, and you can play the game without being perpetually terrified of accidentally hitting the windows key. It’s still the same title, but it’s not the same as it used to be.

This is one of those things that seems counterintuitive but is intensely important. If you weren’t there for the game’s time of relevance, you are by necessity missing out on at least some of what made the game what it was. Don’t expect to have the same response to these titles that veterans do; you’re coming in long after the fact.

This looked cheesy then too, though. Let's be real.

2. Design has changed in ways you don’t realize

There are a lot of positive shifts that have happened in MMOs over the years; some of them were highlighted by Justin’s last column. But there are other subtle things that we don’t realize have changed over time, bits of design that aren’t really good or bad, just not something that we think of.

A prime example: In order to trade items to an NPC in FFXI, you have to manually open up the trade interface and hand them over. This isn’t really easier or harder than having a window pop up (you don’t need to talk to the NPC first or anything), but it’s just different from what we’re used to doing, and on some subtle level it feels clunky. Even though it’s not really a shift at all, it feels like a pretty notable change. Approaches to usability and access have changed over time, and you will not realize how much of a difference those things make until you’ve experienced them.

Then again…

3. The changes you realize still hit harder than you expect

You know, objectively, that the games you will be playing work differently than modern games. That’s part of the point. And I am entirely sure that you logged into EverQuest because you wanted to go back to, say, a world with fewer fast travel options to help it “feel” bigger. But you will also find yourself scowling and wondering why in the world it’s taking you so long to get from one place to another because your idea of “travel time” is pretty thoroughly grounded in what current games expect from you.

The point is that you should expect to be a bit surprised by the things you do know are coming. Objective knowledge does not change subjective expectations.

Plus ce change choses, &c.

4. Most of the players will be entrenched

Anyone who has been playing Ultima Online since launch is now deeply invested in that game. Even if they’ve left and returned on various occasions, you will not be running into many people who just casually decided to get into the game on a whim after never having played it. More often than not, the people you will be dealing with are players who have knuckled down and are in this game for the long haul.

The benefit to that is that most of these players are overjoyed to see someone new and likely to be quite helpful. It also means, however, that these players may operate on an intensity level that you generally don’t. One does not casually play Anarchy Online any longer.

5. Finding guides can be difficult

The internet has a long memory, but it sometimes forgets stuff. Topical guides to titles that are no longer exactly happening things are frequently on the list of things to forget. Web server storage space costs money, and if you’re choosing between keeping the lights on for a currently relevant title’s fan site and a Guild Wars character build guide that may as well be made of cobwebs, that isn’t a difficult choice.

Even when you do find guides, older guides can be worse than useless; places that place a high priority on keeping guides up forever can often still run afoul of the guide creators losing interest over time. Sure, that guide to making a useful character build was really good when it was written, but the game is still being updated, and the guide maintainer lost interest back in 2008. It’s probably not super useful now.

6. Patience will be a virtue

Design is slower. Your knowledge base is diminished. Your access to players is diminished. You are dealing with a game in every respect that is a product of a different time. That makes patience a virtue right there.

Even beyond that, however, there’s the simple reality that you’re learning about a new game that will not go out of its way to teach you about how it works. That necessitates a certain degree of patience. You want to let yourself ease into the title and gradually discover what it contains. Let yourself take the time.


7. You will never exactly “catch up”

If you just started playing Dark Age of Camelot last week and are enjoying it, that’s great. But you should accept right away that you’re not catching up to the people who have been playing it forever. I don’t mean just in the sense of not finding all of the same nuanced stuff that those players have found; I mean that you are always going to be a few steps behind those players because that’s the fundamental nature of the beast.

This is all right and does not in any way mean that you will not be a welcome member of whatever parties, guilds, and communities you find therein. It just means that you are going to be the new kid pretty much forever, and you should grow accustomed to that fact. There’s no catching up, just falling into step.

8. There’s probably a reason something didn’t catch on

The other day, I was talking with a friend of mine whom I will refer to here as “the lizard” because that’s generally what we call her anyhow. She and I were talking about City of Heroes, which is not uncommon for us, and Final Fantasy XIV, which is also not uncommon for us. Specifically, she was wondering why FFXIV didn’t adopt CoH‘s party dynamics and roles to allow for greater job flexibility.

Our discussion ranged for a while and wound up settling on a discussion of how CoH‘s party dynamics, while fun, were entirely oriented toward allowing ad hoc grouping with non-structured content. This had the benefit of allowing any group of players to team up and take on huge groups of enemies with little forward planning… but it didn’t play nicely with structured content or firm role delineation, which are two things that are central to FFXIV‘s design. It’s a neat idea to play with, but it’s really asking for one very good game to copy mechanics from another very good game in a way that diminishes rather than enhances.

The point of this anecdote? If you see a system in an older title and wonder why every single game doesn’t use that system, there’s probably a reason why. Games are not designed by maniacs with no sense of scale or design unless you’re talking about H1Z1. And figuring out why these things didn’t catch on can be a useful thought exercise.

I know it's unfair, still there.

9. Others may not share your enthusiasm

I noted back when the first trailers for the new Star Wars movie came out that it was an odd time to be someone who didn’t like Star Wars. That was all anyone wanted to talk about, and the fact that I had no interest in doing so left me out of conversation for a little bit. (The fact that I wound up adoring the movie more than I ever would have expected is not the point here.)

Playing an older game is kind of like that. You want nothing more than to shout about how much you’re enjoying Anarchy Online, but the rest of the world isn’t talking about it. The rest of the world may not even remember that the title exists. Even if you’re blogging about it on a regular basis, it feels a bit like shouting into an oil drum – you’re not hearing anyone’s voice but your own.

10. It’s worth it while you can

City of Heroes is not the greatest game of all time, but it was a great game, and it’s gone now. That’s sad, but it’s a reminder and an acknowledgement that games are not forever. Just because Ultima Online has made it nearly two decades does not mean that it is immune to shutdown forever.

Even with all of the caveats I’ve listed here, going in and exploring older games is a worthwhile experience. You may not find a new home, but it’s a chance to walk through the history of the genre, explore things you may not have seen in the past, and learn something about the games we all enjoy. What’s not to like?

Everyone likes a good list, and we are no different! Perfect Ten takes an MMO topic and divvies it up into 10 delicious, entertaining, and often informative segments for your snacking pleasure. Got a good idea for a list? Email us at or with the subject line “Perfect Ten.”
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