However, this column doesn't care about them fancy games with their exclamation marks and free-to-plays, no sirree. We're all about the love for classic MMOs, and it would behoove us to consider supporting that which we love.
It's that time of year when I feel the call to return to one of my first MMO loves, Anarchy Online. After tangling with the account page, looking for a subscription variant that apparently no longer exists, and mentally adjusting to the extremely dated graphics, I started to wonder if it was even worth it. But a little perseverance paid off, and I wanted to share a few lessons learned about overcoming obstacles when it comes to diving back into the past.
If you've been in the game before but it's been years since your last log in, chances are you don't remember squat about your account information. If it's your first time, you're going to need to body wrestle with a system that might not have been updated since the Clinton administration. Either way, prepare for the possibility of headaches.
Because older MMOs have a vastly reduced staff from their heydays, you can't necessarily expect there to be phone support or a large office floor full of GMs ready to handle your ticket. If you run into Imperial entanglements, do what you can through the site and then go a step further by digging through the game forums. Often in classic MMOs, the loyal community becomes its own best source for tech and account support.
This continues into the live game itself. Smaller gaming communities cherish new and returning players, so there's much more of an emphasis on reaching out to them, providing helpful advice, and being resources for bugs and workarounds. The help or newbie channel is invaluable. And some games even have player organizations dedicated to shepherding new players and easing them into the game.
Obstacle: The decision to pay or not
With so many free offerings in the modern MMO field right now, it's counter-intuitive to think, "An older game? I'm so paying a regular, premium-priced subscription for that!" With the exception of SOE's library, most of these games just don't have the manpower or financial reason to convert to free-to-play. So they continue to cater to the loyal subs and present a substantial obstacle for returners.
I can't tell you whether or not spending $15 to sub up for a 2001-era title is a good idea. That's completely up to you, your finances, and how much you think you'll get out of the game. Don't do it if you're going to be dabbling only once or twice a month, of course, unless you like the idea of supporting the game above and beyond what you get out of it.
If the title is one of the rare older games to have free-to-play, well then, you've got an easier choice to make. Other than that, you might want to take advantage of any trials or special offers (look around -- they often do exist) to wrangle some free gaming time in advance of ponying up cash. Some of the games do offer different levels of subscriptions as well, so there could be a more affordable version out there.
Obstacle: The UI is so painfully dated
Ugh, I think this is a near-universal problem. Even with years of development, these games often get into a visual rut that's really hard to pull out of. Devs figure that the players are used to how it handles, anyway, and efforts to "modernize" a game's look probably won't be pulling in large crowds. Sometimes a classic MMO's charm is in its retro look and UI, and I've certainly met players in those games who are proud of mastering slash commands and obtuse widgets.
That doesn't mean you have to stand for it. The first step is to investigate the options menu and see if you can't reconfigure everything to look and handle in a more familiar fashion. With Anarchy Online, I pretty much turn off all of blocky interface elements and then move the rest around so that it mimics a standard MMO setup.
Many of these games allow for mods, and modders are quite keen on creating more helpful and aesthetically pleasing interfaces. Go with the popular crowd and see what everyone else recommends more than anything else. A good UI mod can go a long, long way to bypassing days of frustration and inaccessibility.
Above we have a picture from Asheron's Call next to one from Guild Wars 2. It's kind of like looking at primitive cave art compared to an IMAX feature film, isn't it? Hard to believe that a mere decade separates the two. In any case, it illustrates how far MMOs have come in the art department, which can make it quite painful to regress to an earlier era.
Usually there's little you can do to improve your game's graphics. We've already covered the topic of these titles upgrading their looks, which I still think is a lot of work to never make the game look completely modern. The only game where I'm seeing players trying to beef up the graphics is the open-sourced Meridian 59. So what can you do?
If you can't get into the retro spirit of the graphics, then try your hardest to get past the game's looks and figure out what makes it so appealing to those who do enjoy it. Don't judge a book by its widescreen HD resolution, my mother always said. After all, there are MMO players out there who enjoy games that are completely lacking in graphics altogether! Engage your imagination and allow it to pick up some of the slack that the game's engine can't pull.
Obstacle: Feeling alone in a lonely world
Heading into an older game can be like returning to high school when everyone has graduated and moved on. It's still there, still mostly as you remember it, but you feel more disconnected from it, too.
In my opinion, this is the most significant obstacle to overcome. If you can't connect socially in these older titles, then you're just not going to last in them. The playerbases are usually so small that you're not going to be tripping over other gamers that you might expect elsewhere.
The good news is that the players who are there will most likely be overjoyed to see you. So you really need to put yourself out there, both on the forums and in the general chat, and find a guild or group that is active, friendly, and supportive.
Another idea is to return to a game with someone else. Form a leveling pact with a significant other, a friend, or even a group of friends. Having others go through the exact same experience is a big bonding moment and one of those things that glues us together as people. Hey, you might be lost, but at least you're lost with company!
Enough of my advice; I want to hear from those of you who have gone through the process of heading into classic MMOs. What words of wisdom would you give to those thinking about it?
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.