About dungeon mechanisms and PvE in general

Recently I started playing Aion again, that I plan to write about later as well, but for now it made me think about PvE (Player versus Enemy) content of mmorpgs in general.

There are a lot of things that can be done well in such games, but usually they still end up requiring you to smash two or three buttons only, according to your class. The challenging content is shifted into the endgame, only players accessing them are the ones who already invested a serious amount of hours into the game.

There are, and there always were exceptions, and sometimes you find them at strange places. A semi-recent example could be Scarlet Blade, where even the first dungeon boss summons minions, and stands in a toxic water so you need to stay on leaves. Then the second one is a giant computer mainframe with several attack waves and repairing bots that heal during the boss fight. In several these phases, the mentioned boss release special attacks that can shock the players, so they need to move out of it’s way.


Let me mention the important part once again, this is low level content. You can get here in a day or so. Actually the game is full of nice mechanisms even in arenas where players fight each other, so if someone wasn’t scared away from the game because of the skimpy clothing then they could have some really fun times. What really killed the game is Aeria Games as usually, being greedy and trying to milk every cent from the game whatever it may cost. Yes, this is what you call p2w (Pay To Win). When you can’t get enhancement items in-game, only through an item shop then you can tell if a game is doomed to sink into this money devouring pit.

A friend of mine mentioned Final Fantasy XIV as a counter-example, but complicated boss mechanisms are endgame there as well. The situation is a bit different, because lighter variants of some fights occur on lower levels. For an example, I could say the Titan fight.


Players need to avoid damaging puddles, fight summons and the whole area you fight on becomes smaller and smaller with time. Of course, designing boss fights like in the famous game Shadow of the Colossus would be quite difficult for more than one players, but with such twists we are getting there. Maybe it’s not obvious, but too simple gameplay became an issue since the (in)famous Blizzard title, World of Warcraft. In most games all knowledge you need to know is your class type. Tanks try to get aggro (aggressivity, attack from enemies), healers heal, long-range and melee types are don’t even need to  do anything but pushing two or three buttons for a long time, usually. On another note, if you consider that these fights are done over and over again, then an overly complex mechanism like in Shadow of the Colossus could fail badly over time, as it becomes more and more dull and boring.


In a game I played for two years until the english side got shut down, the only twist was the kind of complicated weakness system. This was Shin Megami Tensei: Imagine Online, and after learning some basic information about your enemies in a boss room, fights went quite the same every time. An exception was the so called Diaspora, but that is more like a raid or event than a real dungeon. You need to get keys, combine them, and know right order while defeating challenging bosses. And once again, those runs are almost end-game content, as usually. My question is, that why? It doesn’t need to be this way, lower level fights can be challenging as well, without artifical difficulty of insane hp amounts or so. (Some fun fact: the highest level content players got on the english-side were the Shiva/Vishnu runs and those were basically textbook examples of button smashing. You kind of used 1-2 skills for half a hour, keeping Shiva or Vishnu harmless with curses and hitting it with as many damage dealers as possible, even with demons if you could.)


You would say that the possibilities are not endless, and designing such fights are lots of work. And yet, another game with exciting PvE content could be Phantasy Star Online 2. There are random mini-events on maps with giants enemies, that needs to be damaged limbs by limbs. Or even after a few maps, you encounter a giant dragon that can burrow itself into the ground. Fights require all of your attention, and they are exciting. Again, I mention this game because this is low level content as well. You can get to these things in a day or two.


So the thing is, I never said that big games nowadays like Tera, Rift, or even Aion wouldn’t have such content, but the games introduce them too late. It’s just my opinion, but working for weeks or even months if you are lazy, just to enjoy a game is way too much time. Players need to learn their classes and skills, but I seriously disagree if they would need this much time. It’s most probably about keeping people playing it, as in my opinion, these games are designed usually to be played the most time possible so they can generate income for long years. People are less likely to stop playing something they already invested thousands of hours into.


In my all time favorite mmorpg (SMTI) the content was quite straightforward, but it was kind of a learning game. You had to know what do you do or you were dead in seconds. Study skills, study enemies and their weaknesses. The interesting map mechanisms were shifted towards endgame as well, what kept me playing was the Shin Megami Tensei world and the nice community only. Well, the combat system was quite different as it was more like a rock-paper-scissor system just like in Mabinogi, but in the end you ended up casting Megidoraon all the time. Either you, or your demon, if you wanted the easiest way, that is.

The case of SMTI is a bit similar to Wakfu, as it offers no interesting gameplay twists in boss fights but you are forced to know what are you doing, and it is fun to learn. Nothing but the skills of your enemies and your group, so a tiny bit similar to chess, even if equipment has an effect on it. But to be honest, what actually keeps me going is the lore, I can’t really help it, but I’m a sucker for occult, dark fantasy or cyberpunk, post-apocalyptics settings and such games can grasp my interest even with such flaws, and since Aion reminds me of the Planescape universe, I may be generous to it and keep grinding until the good part.





Massive MultiLayer (Neocron)

Choose a company, choose a life. Or be prepared for a ride of nightmare. Welcome to the future.


Atleast this is how cyberpunk environments generally work. The genre in the most compact summary means “high tech, low life” but varies greatly from Gibson novels even to The Matrix movies. Although a few mmorpgs can be quite cyberpunk-like (eg. Anarchy Online) they usually aren’t, besides a few aspects or areas, except Neocron of course that has clear goals with the mentioned genre.

Most of the people can mistake this game for a Deus Ex mod quite easily, and it’s hard to blame them. The closest game to the general ambience and graphics quality would be that one for sure. All in all it’s still a quite reasonable quality for a free game without any proper backing options. No in-game item shop, no subscription. Don’t forget the first release date either, as this is from 2002 originally.


The game UI is not intuitive at all, but you can get used to it and it’s not bad after a while. It’s probably just old, and nothing works the way you would expect it to do so. It’s like finding a tool that looks useless, but turns out to do everything you wanted it for, just right. Even if you can’t find a district or a shop, there is your Nav-Ray to show a route to your location and the whole path will show up on your screen, little green arrows and a dotted line showing the way.

There are classes and professions that may sound like you have all possible combinations to choose from but don’t get fooled. Professions limit a lot of things, so you will most probably use certain combinations only.


Your skills advance as you use them. That is a system I like a lot, but some could find it frustrating. Why? As you may guess, it means a lot of skill grinding with higher values. Instead of just killing for xp then distributing points you really need to use your skills, over and over again. A lot. Think of the same mechanics The Elder Scrolls games use. With my implanter/poker (a character that applies biowares or implants into others or themselves and optionally repair or even construct them) I ended up removing and equipping implants for long-long hours just to gain some skill points.

On another note, this is still nothing compared to most of the asian mmorpgs. You can just put on a chill tune, chat to people, or even watch a movie while you grind your skills and you will get there eventually. Every time someone mentions grinding, people’s taste scale greatly and it’s hard to find the perfect amount as well.


You get a small apartment from your corporation, loud club music coming through one of the walls, making your mind numb so you stay in the other side of the room instead where your computer is located. You log in to check the news, but it’s all the same, every day is exactly the same.


There is a really neat in-game BBS system that has serious bugs (like no reply function, it’s kind of annoying) but still a nice feature. You will mostly find old messages though, the most people I saw at the same place at Plaza SEC1 was maybe 20 or so. And that is the district people afk or gather and meet at. So it’s a really, really low number for an mmo.

Why would you even care about a 12 years old game? You could also ask though, that why isn’t it completely dead? Because of two main factors. It’s still under active development, and has a true and strong atmosphere. The music, the environment, even the game mechanics are just like a spell cast on you, and you end up standing in the subway looking around charmed. I can’t really emphasize how important active development is, especially when you consider that most of the free mmorpgs are released and never really fixed or took care of after their short open beta phase. They are only used by publishers to generate some income through in-game purchases.


On  a negative note, maybe the only real problem with Neocron is not the dated graphics or the low population but that it has no feel of a direction, your game time seems pointless quite often. There is not much of a main story here you could follow, only your new life and usually the ad-hoc missions you get or make up to grind your way up the virtual hierarchy of the game. This is a pretty big issue, especially when you try to introduce someone to a new game. The only main quest you can follow is a so called Epic Mission that has 6 quests, depending on your Faction (usually a corporation).

Despite being a Windows only release, the game runs smooth under Wine, even some old posts you find about messing with configuration files (eg. to skip precaching) is very often not needed at all any more.


There is another possible reason Neocron is not really successful, and it’s because cyberpunk kind of lost it’s original charm through the years. As more and more aspects of the genre became non-fiction, you don’t really need games or books any more to experience it. You shouldn’t forget, that runners are just criminals and the whole, the usual cyberpunk setting became reality even if with a few twists of course. Maybe it’s easier to see in Eastern Europe than in the USA but this is the case nonetheless. Touchscreens were science fiction not even long ago, something you only see in Star Trek, but now nobody is surprised by them. This is quite the same pattern. Most of the privacy and surveillance issues are all real, and just as neglected as in the once-was fiction stories. Most of us are enjoying the safety of corporations, even Megacorps (Shadowrun term) could become a thing quite soon with Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, Wal-Mart and so on. Suddenly the cyberpunk genre is too real, and not subject of games any more, but the news instead.