I remember back to the early-ish days of TorilMUD, back when I was first getting into groups to do zones. Doing a zone was akin to what we would call raiding now, where a max size group, sixteen characters total, would set out to fight their way through a series of rooms and bosses, culminating the in the main boss of the zone.
Specifically, I remember doing the City of Brass zone. It was a popular zone to do for quite a while, one done almost every boot. (See an old post about how MUD crashes were a good thing back in the day.) It was an older zone, it wasn’t too big, there were a couple of possible drops for class quest items so somebody was always keen to go, and the general loot was pretty decent if you were just starting off doing zones. There were upgrades to be had and everybody wanted that flaming halberd for an alt.
Back then the approach to the zone was slow and plodding. Once through the Plane of Fire (you needed flying gear or the spell plus a fire protection item to go on this run) , the group would assemble and prepare outside the first room. Once spells were up the tanks would roll in, engage the mobs in the room, call everybody else to come in, and we would unload everything to clear the room.
We would then sit down, mem up our spells, then stand when we were done. When the call “spell up” came again, we would hit all our targets… as a druid I would cast vitalize, a hit point boosting spell, on some of the non-melee characters and maybe barkskin on the tanks and anybody who requested it… then the tanks would move into the next room, call us to come in, and we would burn down the next room.
It was rinse and repeat, taking down every room as a set piece battle. At boss mobs we would get special instructions. When spell feedback was introduced, a mechanic that would damage players if two people cast the same area effect damage spell at the same time, there would be some coordinating of who would cast which spell first. But otherwise it was the same thing every room, and it stretched out the time it took to run the City of Brass into a three hour event.
But as time went along the runs began to speed up. First, the overall quality of people’s gear began to improve. This made players more effective at slaying mobs as well as surviving fights.
Then there started to develop an ideal group composition. For example, whoever was leading the zone would never take more than one druid unless there was an empty slot that they couldn’t fill. They wanted a caster who could do the “dragon scales” spell on the tanks rather than the lesser spell “stone skin.” There were classes with buffs that were deemed essential for a run. Getting the right group comp made runs go more smoothly, especially at boss fights.
And the zone itself became a solved problem. The efreeti never changed. There were a couple of random spawns, but otherwise how to do the run was well understood. There were no surprises, a well defined route existed, and the boss mechanics were old hat.
Finally, there was a big change in how zones were run. Groups stopped doing each room as a set piece battle. Clearing up the trash mobs on the way to the boss was now easier due to gear upgrades, so we would roll through all of that with the various casters just keeping critical buffs up, refreshing them at need. To sustain this, the concept of “mem out” was introduced, where the raid leader would call “mem west” or the like to indicate where the casters could move to refresh their spells while the battle was still raging.
The latter kept everybody busy. Rooms with trash mobs took marginally longer without everybody blowing their whole catalog of damage spells, but that was heavily outweighed by the reduction in pre and post battle activity. Only boss fights got the big “spell up” treatment. The time to run the zone, from starting out in to returning home to Waterdeep, approached an hour if everything was going right, and it almost always did.
That is a pretty big speed up compared to three hours from the doorstep of the zone. And the time improvement didn’t stop there. TorilMUD, around for more than 25 years at this point, has never raised its level cap. Instead, it has maintained some semblance of stability by adding in new, harder zones for those at the level cap while re-balancing equipment over time with an eye towards keeping most level 50 zones viable. That generally means any gear that seems over powered, like the glowing crimson dagger or the haste enhanced grey suede boots, are likely to get a nerf sooner or later.
Still, even with that optimization happens. Old hands who have run a thousand zones have a bag full of gear so can pull out a set perfect for each task. I bet if I told long time zone leader Lilithelle I needed something from the City of Brass today, she’d throw together a group of eight to ten people and drag me along, finishing the zone in 30 minutes or less.
As the kids say, “Cool story bro.” But what am I getting at here?
This is what happens to content over time. Player optimization alone pretty much cut the run time for City of Brass by two thirds. And that three hour number was after the “learn the zone and the bosses” part of the process. Add it some of the usual gear inflation and that time is now down to one sixth the original time, and doable by half a raid group.
This is what happens to content over time, especially PvE content. It becomes a solved problem. Players learn how best to assault things and share that knowledge.
Sometimes that is okay. In MMORPGs where expansions use levels and gear to gate content, it is pretty much expected that older content will be made obsolete. Often, after enough time has passed, old raids become solo projects that people run to collect gear for cosmetic reasons or to fill out missed achievements. That is certainly the accepted state of affairs in World of Warcraft.
In other games it can be problematic. In EVE Online optimization is an ongoing battle for CCP. Without levels as a gating mechanism any new PvE content is pretty much solved immediately. So, despite there being something like four thousand NPC missions in the game, the PvE is generally considered boring and is subject to pretty extreme levels of optimization. This goes especially for null sec anomaly running, where titans are the latest high yield ratting option.
Only the Abyssal deadspace content isn’t completely solved, and that is only because it has a random aspect to it. Once you start one you are committed and cannot go back and refit if you have chosen poorly. And even that is only an issue for the level five runs. CCP last said that the percentage of Abyssal deadspace runs that ends in a PvE death is very, very low. I cannot find the number at the moment, but 3% springs to my mind.
Then there is PvP content in New Eden, where The Meta constantly strives to find the optimum ship for given circumstances and CCP is constantly tweaking ships in order to try to bring balance to the force, only to find that suddenly every big alliance is now focused on a specific hull for its main doctrine while the small gang and low sec forces have a new favorite of their own. And then there is suicide ganking in high sec. That has become one of the few PvP solved problems at this point, something CCP needs to shake up somehow.
And so it goes.
The thing is, a game’s core player base will always optimize. But outliers and new players tend to get left out of that. If a studio focuses only on the core, a game can become impenetrable to new players. But if you don’t focus on the needs of the core your most loyal fans may get bored and walk away.