A Bit of Ancient History that Still Sticks With Me…

There has been this problem in MMORPGs of having to have sufficient content… in the form of whatever bad guys or monsters… or mobs if you want to go Diku MUD old school in your terminology… available for players while not looking like you are packing them in like a vending machine.

This was not really a problem back in the days of MUDs simply because the populations were tiny.  A MUD that kept 100+ player population online around the clock was a booming success in 1995.  But when it came to Ultima Online or EverQuest there was a mass of players eager to play and advance, and advancement comes through the slaying of foes.  At least in old Norrath that ended up meaning a pile of mobs outside of home towns to start with, most non-aggro, and then a sort of series of concentric circles of higher level, more difficult mobs in bands as you moved further from the starting zone.

Yeah, this looks familiar

Out in front of Qeynos during the low level bubble

It wasn’t quite so cut and dried in the early days.  EverQuest was pretty well known for mixing high and low level mobs together in a zone.  West Karana was mostly a low level hunting ground, but had that cyclops and a werewolf and a few other surprises lurking about.


Froon in West Karana

But by 2004 and the introduction of EverQuest II and World of Warcraft the idea of how mobs had to be stratified seemed to be pretty settled.  Outside every town or quest hub would be several layers of mobs of increasing levels of difficulty.  My mind immediately goes to the vast array of gnoll camps in the low hills of Antonica, outside of Qeynos, back in EQII.

When it comes to WoW, Westfall springs to mind with its rings of Defias around the main alliance outpost.

In both cases, there were lots of mobs present, spread out to accommodate parallel sets of adventurers, and just sitting there, milling about, waiting for somebody to show up.  You could avoid them… in both zones the general logic was that such groups would be clear of the roads… but they certainly looked like they had the place surrounded, if in a somewhat desultory way.  They were off far enough to not aggro anybody accidentally, spread out, oblivious to their fellows being slain while clearing in line of sight (but outside of their aggro radius), and looking pretty static.

And they remained there long after you were done with them, but still had to be avoided unless you just wanted to kill a few extra gnolls or Defias.

Blizzard set out to solve this and, with Wrath of the Lich King introduced two things.

The first was phasing, where the environment changes after you complete a specific quest or task.  While problematic, it did allow the game to remove mobs that no longer made sense in the context of the story.

Then there was a slightly more subtle bit of work that took all those mobs idling around the quest hub and gave them something to do.  They were put onto the field with a like number of your allies and set in a pitched battle, NPC on NPC, so everybody looked busy.  That also kept the field from being a nightmare to pass through, as the hostiles otherwise engaged would not aggro on you unless you attacked them.  But the NPCs were otherwise barely chipping away at each other, so you could step in and attack a hostile and end up battling them directly, as aggro was easily pulled from the NPC it was fighting.

And, as it happened, that worked out and has become a staple of Azeroth ever since, an easy way… well, I don’t know if it is easy, so maybe just a reliable way… to put that first belt of mobs out there that you need to kill without having them look idle or bored and without them becoming an annoying wall of conflict when you need to move through them to the next location.

Old news.  That was back in 2008, which is further from today than from the launch of the game.  But I was reminded of how that played out when I ran across an old screen shot from EverQuest II, a screen shot that raises my hackles to this day.


I needed that runesmith!

SOE was on to a similar idea to what Blizzard eventually adopted, that mobs ought not to be static but should interact with their environment and trade blows with their natural enemies should they run across them.  And they put a bit of that in from the start of the game.

So we have the Deathfist runesmith in the screen shot battling with the local faeries.  They are natural enemies and they should not get along.  Dynamic environment!

The problem here was implementation.  Unlike the Blizzard solution, SOE left the locked encounter code in place, so when the the runesmith began fighing with the faeries, you could no longer attack him and get credit for killing him.  And you needed to kill him, as you were likely there in the Valley of Sacrifice to slay him and seven more like him.  Only he was something of a rare spawn.  And when he did spawn, he spawned near the faeries, who would immediately engage him.

So you had to clear all the faeries, clear all the place holders, and keep clearing them across a stretch of land, because if you missed a faerie your runesmith might spawn and get tagged before you got to him.

And that all assumed you were the only one out there looking to get him.  Solo, and in optimum conditions, I have spent well over an hour trying to get those eight kills.  If somebody else was there hunting Deathfist runesmiths as well, then the competition became fierce because… if I recall right… back in the day you didn’t just have to kill them, but you also needed a drop, a drop that wasn’t 100%.

And you couldn’t just dump the quest, as it was step 8 in a 23 quest long chain that ran all over the isle of Zek and which would eventually send you off to Feerrott.

SOE had the right idea.  The implementation was just such that it seemed to maximize frustration.  If it had been some common mob, it would have been interesting.

Then again, they did create a situation that I still think of years after I last ran through the Valley of Sacrifice on the isle of Zek.  And I bet it hasn’t changed after all these years.

6 thoughts on “A Bit of Ancient History that Still Sticks With Me…

  1. C. T. Murphy

    The thing that kills me is how zone layout now requires each and every area to be of some specific use. I miss the EQ days when mysterious areas like the Chessboard in Butcherblock remained pretty strange until later on when you could fight them. Now, every place has a quest associated with it or a public event. Maps feel more like a themepark than they ever did before and I absolutely hate it!


  2. bhagpuss

    Hmm. I thought they removed the whole locked encounter thing long ago, for players as well as NPCs, but now you have me thinking maybe it’s just that it’s been so long since I had to compete with anyone for a kill in EQ2 that I’ve just imagined it’s no longer an issue. I’m going to go log in and go to Zek and check…


  3. bhagpuss

    …yep! Locks are gone. I flew my Warlock out to the very spot in your screenshot and just as I arrived an orc runesmith came trotting into view. The fairies laid into him and he was giving as good as he got but no-one was making much of a dent in anyone else so I had time to move around and check carefully. No padlock symbol on the encounter.

    I blasted the orc with Thunderclap and he dropped down dead (not surprising seeing my Warlock is level 90). I got all the relevant faction hits so it was a bona fide kill – would have got quest credit and/or items at level.

    So, yes, that mechanic is no more. I remember how very annoying it was. My memory tells me that it went as part of Scott Hartman’s huge revamp. I’d be amazed if it hung around much longer.


  4. Wilhelm Arcturus Post author

    @Bhagpuss – Glad to hear that the whole locking thing was removed… that was a bad idea put in for the wrong reasons… but I am not sure it when it was taken out. I couldn’t remember if I saw locking or not during my last run, but then again I never competed with anybody for mobs during that run either. It looks like I put this picture into a draft post in late 2008… it was far enough back that WP.com doesn’t actually remember, but it was right after a draft from 2009… to remind myself to write about this particular annoyance and then never quite got around to it until this week. Ancient history, but my scribbled notes seem to mean that I saw this after Blizz had already gone to their system.

    Edit: Ah, wait, the picture URL itself shows the upload date as July 2007. After Faydwer but before Kunark. Let that one sit a while, didn’t I?


  5. bhagpuss

    I did a bit of googling because even 2007 sounded very late for what I remembered. The big change that I was thinking of came in GU13 in September 2005, the same update that brought Desert of Flames. http://eq2.wikia.com/wiki/Update:13

    It does specifically say that “There are no longer lock icons on you or your enemies” but it also says “If you prefer to keep outside players from assisting or interfering with the fight, you can use the /lock command. /lock will lock the targeted encounter if the user of the /lock command is a member of the group that first engaged the encounter.” Whether that would then produce a padlock icon, who knows? Maybe the fairies were still using the /lock mechanic as late as 2007. I wouldn’t put anything past those freaky little gnats.


  6. flosch

    “SOE had the right idea. The implementation was just such that it seemed to maximize frustration.”

    Isn’t that the story of SOE’s life? They often seemed to have great ideas. Sometimes even the right ideas. Just rarely the great implementation to go with it.


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