On hard-coded values and unintended consequences.

Serious degrees of navel-gazing going on in today’s post.  You are forewarned.

As I mentioned the other day, I’ve gotten through the story content in the latest Final Fantasy XIV expansion and decided to start checking out some of the end-game encounters.  Specifically, I took a couple of shots at “The Dancing Plague (Extreme)”, which is a turned-up-to-11 version of one of the mandatory story encounters and which drops the current best weapons in the game.

I didn’t actually beat it, but I felt like I was doing better on every attempt.  I’ll try a few more times in the coming week.

Anyway, one of the fight mechanics is needing to dodge an area effect spell that inflicts a “Confusion” status effect on your character.  This makes you lose control of your character  at a point in the fight where not having control of your character is a very bad thing, since he or she suddenly starts running around randomly instead of going to the very specific safe spot he or she needs to be in.  Seeing this happen reminded me of one of my favorite stories from the days of Everquest, which I will now inflict upon you.

Some background.

Everquest was designed during the days of dial-up internet, so it wasn’t too weird to lose connection to the game.  In anticipating this, the developers didn’t want to leave you completely defenseless as the result of a momentary dropout, so they coded player characters to behave as non-player characters for the duration of their “linkdead” status.  So your character would defend himself or herself, not terribly WELL but well enough to maybe survive the fight they were in at the point where your internet decided to drop.

That’s one important thing to know.  The other important thing to know is that the original Everquest was designed with a level 50 cap, and the developers wanted to make sure that anything you were fighting in a raid encounter couldn’t be trivialized by crowd-control spells designed for monsters you were fighting in group content, so they put in a hard cap where spells like sleep, fear, and stun wouldn’t affect any monsters above level 52.  Spells cast on player characters did NOT have this same cap, mind you.

OK.  So, as time went on and Everquest started accumulating expansions and level caps, most of these hard caps got lifted.  Fear, however, stayed stuck with a level 52 cap from 1999 all the way until March 2005, when it was removed to address a long-standing complaint from people playing the game’s “Necromancer” class.

Again, my head is full of this sort of trivia and I really wish I could scrub some of it to make room for more important stuff.

Where this all comes together is with a raid fight where you face off against an undead dragon named Aerin’Dar, the Crystalline Dragon.

For obvious reasons.

Aerin’Dar was part of the 2002 expansion, Planes of Power, and he wasn’t much of a challenge, even if you counted the ten guardian golems he came with.  He really was just one of a set of fairly easy encounters that you needed to overcome in order to gain access to the REAL raid zones.

One of his few mechanics was a nearly-irresistible Fear spell that would make everyone stop what they were doing and run away for six seconds, while also doing a little bit of damage (700 hp, maybe 15% of the average player’s health).  Not terrible, really.  It usually meant a few missed heals and maybe a couple dead players, but as long as you were on your toes recovery wasn’t an issue.

So.  March 2005 rolls around, and I am part of a rather behind-the-times guild just going through Planes of Power raid content, and we are off to kill Aerin’Dar for the umpteenth time to get keys for some new members because they can’t get into the real raid zones without slapping the crystalline punching bag around.

Anyway.  This is where we discovered the interaction of quite a few interesting coincidences.

Aerin’Dar casts his fear spell, which causes everyone to lose control of their characters.  Rather than running around for a few seconds, however, everyone keeps running away, defenseless, and the pushover dragon and his laughable golem guards utterly massacre us.  The fight takes place in sort of a big fishbowl of a cavern and the players got to watch their characters literally climbing the walls to get away from this suddenly-much-more-menacing dragon, unable to do anything about it.

A couple more attempts at the fight went just about as well, so we retreated to lick our wounds and figure out what went wrong.

It turned out to be a combination of a few things.

  1. Aerin’Dar’s fear spell had always been designed to last for 42 seconds, not 6 seconds, and was supposed to be a damage over time spell causing 700hp damage every 6 seconds, enough to kill most players or at least bring them down to an extremely vulnerable point.
  2. On the other hand, a designer back in 1999 who was tasked with deciding what happened to players that were feared decided to just set them to “linkdead” status, so players would behave like NPCs for the duration of the fear.
  3. This meant that your player was seen as an PC when hit by the fear spell, so you wouldn’t be immune – but, after taking that initial damage and running away for a few seconds, the game would look at your character and go “here is an NPC that should be immune to the fear spell currently affecting it, remove the fear effect which also removes the damage-over-time effect.”
  4. You would quickly regain control of your character and resume beating up the dragon.

So removing (3) above fixed a long-standing bug that had made this encounter FAR easier than intended for nearly three years.  Only, since it had been bugged for so long, nobody had ever fought the as-originally-intended version to see how utterly brutal the full-duration damage spell was, or how the pathing for fleeing NPCs in Aerin’Dar’s chamber ignored the laws of gravity – with a short duration fear, you couldn’t reach the sides in the first place, much less climb them to the ceiling with a swarm of golems beating on you the whole time.

Anyway, it got patched in reasonably quick fashion.  Still, 14 years later it still comes to mind whenever I see a bunch of MMO characters running around wildly.

I may have even told this story before on this same blog at some point.

Hopefully I told it better this time.


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