Heroism in a World Full of Heroes

A conversation I had yesterday really stuck in my mind. One of my raid team was talking about how he enjoyed the task of “marking”, because it made him feel useful, and let him be a raid hero for that section of the fight.



A bit of an aside: “marking”, in general, means calling attention to a particular enemy or point on the ground that will be important for handling some upcoming mechanic. Sometimes you mark the next target, sometimes you mark a target that everyone needs to stay close to, sometimes you mark a point on the ground that someone (or everyone) needs to run to. This generally needs to happen while the rest of the fight is happening, so your attention is split– you need to be fast and accurate, and still be contributing in the usual way while doing so. It’s a difficult job, and generally your efforts aren’t noticed if the fight is going smoothly– it’s only if you miss the marks or forget to mark that things go downhill and people notice.

Our discussion went on to talk a bit more about how FFXIV does a good job at providing moments for players to be heroes in group content. A few things contribute to this. Really impressive spell effects, especially for big hits or potent cooldowns, call attention to someone’s efforts. This culminates in the Limit Break button, which charges up slowly for an entire group and can be used by a single person to execute a massive protective barrier, a powerful group heal, or, most commonly, a devastating, highly visible attack. It’s a single button, but you get to press it pretty rarely and it’s a ton of fun when you do.


FFXIV also doesn’t revel in killing you. Other MMOs I’ve played have boss encounters where a single hit from the boss will outright kill any single player who isn’t a tank. In FFXIV, this is very rarely the case. Non-tanks won’t necessarily survive very long against a boss’s direct attention, but there’s enough time to regain control of the situation. This means that, in a pinch, it’s possible for someone to stand in and take a bit of punishment to allow time for a tank to recover (or, in extreme cases, get Raised) and return to the fight. These sorts of clutch saves are thrilling, and are a lot more possible in FFXIV than in many other games.

It’s incredibly satisfying to have a heroic moment in a raid situation, and what really makes it work is the sense that it isn’t artificial. The game isn’t blatantly setting you up to look like a hero and get fanfare without you doing work, your act of heroism is a legitimate act borne of your skill and your presence of mind. It’s a satisfaction that’s hard to manufacture, and it’s gotten me thinking about how we’ve lost our way a bit when it comes to making players feel heroic.

There’s an adage in game design that drives a lot of design work: “Show, don’t tell.” It shows up in a variety of media, from writing to film to theatre, and the same concept holds in games. Put simply, having an NPC tell you about the dragon that attacked the city is much less interesting than actually seeing the dragon attacking the city. Turned around the other way, having an NPC tell you how awesome you are is a lot less satisfying than genuinely feeling awesome in your own right.


In World of Warcraft, I completed thousands of quests. To hear the NPCs tell it, I saved tens of thousands of lives and was responsible for the livelihoods of countless unseen people, all of whom (I was assured) owed me a great debt. You get numb to it pretty quickly, but what I do remember is learning how to solo elites, back in Vanilla. Elite mobs, at the dawn of WoW, were intended to require a group to fight, two or more people, and were generally pretty deadly. Being able to take on elite mobs on your own, especially ones that were at or above your current level, was a mark of accomplishment and pride. It meant that you could easily beat quests that other people struggled with, and you could traverse parts of the map that other people avoided. I would occasionally fight an elite that I knew other people couldn’t handle, and would occasionally see players stop, try to determine if I needed help, and be impressed when I’d win on my own.

In Everquest, I remember cowering at the edge of the Kithicor Forest, which was an idyllic green forest during the day and a haunted nightmare hellscape by night. If you were travelling through the area, you quickly learned to wait at the edges of the forest for dawn, because the monsters within would tear you to bits. Occasionally, you’d see a group of players head into the forest at night, armed and armored to the teeth, after some rare item or another, and when I eventually became one of those players and did it myself, it felt significant, because I not only knew how dangerous it was but also knew that I could handle it.

Artist: Henderson, Mike

Artist: Mike Henderson

I’ve played games in which I’ve stopped world-ending plots over and over again, sometimes twice before dinner and again after a bite to eat. We’ve raised the stakes in our narratives to the point where they strain credibility; every quest is an earthshattering dilemma and without our intervention, all will be lost. It’s not simply that the presence of other players breaks the illusion, it’s that we just finished saving the world over the last rise. It feels manufactured and artificial.

The alternative is to save the really big stuff until it’s more appropriate, and fill the game up with smaller, more down-to-earth tasks. It’s how “kill ten rats” became a thing, and our collective design solution for the KTR problem was to make the rats into giant slavering werewolves, until there was a deadly threat lurking behind every corner and under every bush. In some cases, this is absolutely literal– there are zones that are simply full of deadly enemies packed so tightly you have little hope of navigating without bumping into one or ten. Why anyone would live in a place like that is beyond me, but there they are, and they really need you to go collect slavering werewolf meat so that the town can avoid starving to death.


I think we solved the wrong problem. It’s not that killing ten rats is an inherently boring quest, it’s that we’re limited in the verbs we can use to approach it. We have ten rats, we have our weapon, and we apply axe to (rat) face until there are zero rats, except there are never zero rats, because there are a bunch of other players all doing the same thing.

Imagine instead that you walk into a blacksmith’s shop to get your gear repaired, and the following dialogue shows up:

“I’d love to repair your gear, but I’ve got a bit of a problem. Rats are infesting my workshop, and the traps I ordered haven’t come in. I won’t be able to fix anything until I can do something about these rats.”

Now, going in there sword swinging is a choice. You can also go and see where the traps are, or possibly you’re good at crafting your own traps and can simply make some for the beleaguered blacksmith. Maybe you’re an accomplished beast tamer and can coax the rats out, pied piper-style, or you’re a ridiculously powerful mage and can set magic wards around the workshop to keep the rats away. Instead of the blacksmith setting you to a task, he’s set up a problem and you can come up with a solution. When you do, he’s appropriately thankful that you bothered to intervene (you didn’t have to!) and is happy to repair your gear (a sensible, meaningful reward). Furthermore, that’s a quest that is appropriate for anyone of any level– being more advanced simply means you have more interesting, more efficient options at your disposal.


Quests have become an exp treadmill– go here, click on this, return, go there, kill these things, return. Sometimes they’re a bit more involved than that, but the verbs are always very simple and are almost always entirely explicit. They HAVE to be, because that’s the main method of progression. The questing system in EQ is positively archaic compared to what we can do now, but quests in EQ felt meaningful because they weren’t the main thing you were doing to progress.

Why do you feel like a hero in FFXIV when you save your raid with a sudden moment of clarity and action? It’s because you’re doing something outside of the norm, something unique to that moment that you alone are in a position to do. You’ve broken out of the usual set of verbs and are doing something a little different, just for a moment, that makes all the difference.

We’ve become so afraid of our MMOs feeling grindy that we’ve filled them with quests and stories, and in our haste to distance ourselves from the days of mob camping and aimless wandering, we turned the stories themselves into a grind. When every story makes you a hero, and you’re told constantly what a hero you are, no matter how finely crafted the storytelling might be, it’ll ring hollow.

Source: Digital Initiative
Heroism in a World Full of Heroes

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