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MMORPGS: The History of Stealth

When kicking off this new format for our site, I knew what I wanted to focus on. It’s been the focus, or perhaps obsession of mine since Crowfall’s Kickstarter launch. Most of that stems from time spent within Shadowbane, and the stories I can still tell to this day about my experiences in it. I think that is perhaps the most important element to gaming, more than any others, that really distinguishes a game from a memorable game. If you as a player, fondly remember a time and place in a virtual world, as if it happened yesterday? That has to be the dream of any game maker. And so, when I personally think back to my fondest gaming memories, I quickly noticed that they almost always involve stealth.

As someone interested in a thorough discussion with informed players, I felt it necessary to kick this whole shindig off with a lengthy article exploring the (somewhat) complete history of stealth in MMORPG’s. Up front, though, many of the previous generations of MMOs were PvE-based, and thus balancing stealth systems in the context of PvP wasn’t vital to their well-being.

MMORPGS: The History of Stealth

I find myself constantly engaging in discussions over the merits of Crowfall’s proposed stealth mechanics and always found myself (and my debate opponents) referencing other games as evidence of our point. In that sense, to have a better conversation, I felt it prudent to cover what’s been done in the past before we begin the conversations on what’s to come.

Let’s start by first narrowing down our MMO list. I feel a comprehensive list of MMO’s going back a ways would help us cover a lot of ground, but there are a ton of duplicate stealth systems out there. Therefore, the list I selected is not intended to be a comprehensive list of MMORPGs, but rather a more purposeful trip through history to find interesting or different stealth implementations within them. So let’s get into it and take a look at how exactly Stealth worked in the past.

EverQuest

EverQuest is one of my really old favorites, and it’s the first place I began to fall in love with stealth (ignoring the obvious Tabletop bias I had coming in). It allowed you to get into places others had to have whole groups get them into, and gave Rogues passive income by pick-pocketing the various monsters scattered throughout the world. It wasn’t totally creative, deriving much of its function and implementation from Dungeon & Dragons tabletop games of that day, but it was certainly fun to see it brought to life for the first time in a 3D environment. (Shout out here to the original Rogue theorycraft forum, TheSafehouse.com, still around ~20 years later).

In EverQuest, stealth had two active components activated by a Hide button and a Sneak button. Sneak made you silent, and if you were behind a monster he didn’t sense your presence, nor would he attack you. Effectively, you were hidden as long as you were behind him (270 degrees). Hide made you invisible, but if you moved or were attacked (AoE) or attacked someone, it ended. When you combined them both simultaneously, something only the Rogue class could do, you were invisible and could move about potentially undetected (Undead monsters, however, ignored any forms of invisibility till much later in the game’s existence). Each of these abilities were tied to skills that each had level caps, but that generally just meant you had to use it until you were a master at them (relatively short grind involved).

Travel speed while stealthed was slower then walking (not running like you typically get in MMO fare these days). Rogues could also pickpocket and steal from monsters (and presumably players, though I never tried PvP in this title).

No hard counters existed in the game, but that’s not particularly relevant considering it was mostly a PvE game, Invisibility worked in PvE scenarios, but I’m fairly certain they patched it out from working on PvP ones.

Dark Age of Camelot

I didn’t play DAoC for very long and I avoided my roguish-obsessions with this title. Yet, Dark Age of Camelot didn’t reinvent the wheel here.

Stealth was pretty standard fare with full invisibility and movement speed reduced (half speed in stealth). You appeared nearly invisible to friendly players, and entirely invisible to enemies. Most of the rogue’s abilities (well, pretty much every ability) in DAoC were positionally based, and some classes even keyed off of the Rogue’s first strike ability.

They even had counters in place for squishy classes to prevent insta-death by a well timed assassination attempt. There was no true hard-counter to Stealth, however, in this game.

In PvP, stealth was highly useful (obviously). However, due to the inability to re-stealth while in combat, Rogues were extremely limited in using stealth abilities during the average PvP encounter.

EVE Online

An interesting take on the stealth concept. Obviously in a corporate-ridden, science fiction environment things had to be altered from the standard fantasy fare. In EVE Online, stealth exists in the form of Cloaking Devices. Nearly any vessel can “Cloak” and become invisible, but it forces the vessel to cut its engines, effectively making them stand still.ships_03

As a result of these cloaks, players cannot physically see them, but a variety of in-game tools still reveal their general existence. The moment these ships move (generally requiring you to turn off the cloak yourself), they appeared immediately in space. Some ships, after a great deal many weeks of real-life passive-skill training, could equip the Improved Cloaking Device or even a Covert Op’s Cloak which grants varying percentages of movement while remaining invisible. Typically only specially designed ships can make use of these cloaks, as there are certain inherent ships which have bonuses that make it possible to equip them.

What’s interesting to note here, for our purposes of stealth discussion, is how EVE created stealth among several tiers and roles of ships within the game (frigates, cruisers, and even battleships!). Think of this as extending stealth to three different classes; a tank, a DPS and even a support/healing role in your favorite RPG. It offered a unique stealth-only approach to tackling the many challenges within the EVE universe, and some corps were almost exclusively stealth as a result!

Hard counters for stealth in EVE did exist, and were pretty straightforward, though not necessarily easy to pull off. It was possible to use combat-probes and scan down a ships location in space. If a pilot wasn’t paying attention to his sensors for these probes, it was entirely possible for an enemy to pinpoint your location and warp right onto you. At which point the proximity of another ship within a certain distance automatically destabilized your cloak and revealed you.  Many a player felt safe in the comforts of EVE stealth, only to lose everything when they went AFK!

Shadowbane

Shadowbane was a relatively fresh and unique approach in a fantasy environment at the time, and one that was deeply memorable to me. Of all my memories of stealth, this was my favorite. Oddly enough, I didn’t main a stealth character in my time with this game (I played a Confessor of all things). My experiences with it were during downtimes for my guild. I’d logon to my Thief, and run around and pickpocket/steal from groups I came across. It was highly entertaining in that regard alone, but add in the people who tried to stop me…we’ll get to that.

Stealth in Shadowbane was similar in concept to the original EverQuest. You had two skills, Hide and Stealth. Hide allowed a player to go invisible, but no movement was allowed. Stealth allowed players to go invisible while moving. Of course, the associated skills allowed players to hide from others better, and all of these were used in determining your success against others trying to find you.

And that brings us to the second game that offered a hard counter to Stealth. In Shadowbane, Scouts had the ability to track players. They did this by opening up the tracking power window, which showed players in a radius around the scout. If you selected one, an arrow popped up over your head indicating which direction the player was in. This allowed you to zero in on a player. If your cursor suddenly flipped behind you, congrats, you had just run through a stealthed player.

If you were quick enough, you could pop Detect, and if your skill was higher or equal to the other players… the stealthed character became visible again! Pretty cool stuff. Damage (especially DoTs) would also bring you out of stealth, so some people resorted to AoE attacks to bring out stealthed players.

What resulted from this system was a mini-game within Shadowbane, of cat-and-mouse going on as the politics of a server raged in the foreground. Lots of people participated as the cat (scout) or mouse (thief) and many fondly remember this aspect of the game. Of course, PvP was the main recipient of benefits in this game as it was the game’s primary focus.

World of Warcraft

What is there to say about World of Warcraft? It’s clearly the largest MMO success in history. Though, in my opinion, not when it comes to its implementation of stealth. This is really an area they mostly overlooked and went with pretty typical EverQuest fare. Multiple classes can stealth in this game, Druids and Rangers being the most capable. Full invisibility, with minor movement penalties (though at certain points throughout the game, they can take choices that make them move just as fast/closer to normal players).

Many of the abilities they had keyed off of stealth, and WoW was very big in giving a lot of stealth-related tools to Rogues/Druids (a whole hot bar of alternatives). In combat, Rogues had the ability to re-enter stealth with a combat-stealth Vanish power. This could be repeatedly used during encounters, despite having a relatively long cool-down.rogue-stealth-approaching-boars

In terms of counters, stealth wasn’t an absolute guaranteed success against opponents. Occasionally you’d hear them slip in and out of stealth, and so sometimes non-stealthed classes could get warning you were nearby. AoE Damage would hit stealthed characters, but it didn’t necessarily cause their stealth invisibility to wear off. In the most recent expansion, Demon Hunters were granted the ability to see invisible characters.

In general, WoW took a fairly reserved approach to stealth, which isn’t surprising at all. At this point in MMO history, it’s likely most people considered this the gold standard of stealth just due to the game’s immense popularity. The truth is, most games have rarely deviated from this implementation since WoW.

Guild Wars 2

This game is noteworthy on several fronts, but most especially in our look at Stealth. Unlike almost every MMO that came post-WoW, this game decided to take a different approach to stealth altogether. Guild Wars 2 stealth was granted to the Thief class exclusively, but its major point of difference was its duration. Guild Wars 2 stealth was short, limited bursts of invisibility, almost entirely based on you meleeing an enemy. From within stealth, Thieves could regenerate health and power to launch even more devastating attacks from the comfort of a brief invisibility window.maxresdefault-1

What followed, was a dance of combat-stealth intensity that forced the Thief to close distances to take advantage of its most powerful abilities. In the realm of non-permanent stealth, the Thief was one of my favorites. After having played it for a considerable amount of time, however, I longed for the days of full-stealth. Guild Wars 2 traded the implementation of full stealth for the Thief role for the ability to dictate when and if a fight was going to happen with another player. Stealth played a key role in this determination, but mobility ultimately was this class’s real strength.

Guild Wars 2 stealth could not be broken by damage (the thief still took the damage), nor did it have any hard counters in Guild Wars. Due to the limited time span that stealth lasted (~10 seconds or so) this wasn’t a traditional advantage in any sense.

Elder Scrolls Online

Probably one of the more controversial takes on Stealth, but they exist mostly due to this game’s pedigree. Transferred over from the single-player series, Stealth in ESO is not class-restricted. Anyone can click “stealth” and go invisible (does that sound fun to you? …hence the controversy). Your ability to stay invisible depends on who comes into range against you, at which point some formula determines whether or not you are “seen”; there is no skill check here by the person detecting you…its entirely based on the stealthed character and a die roll.

It’s interesting to note that while the single player game was much more careful about making it obvious… when your character was obvious, the MMO version allows you a greater degree of latitude. I found numerous examples of people complaining about a gank group (none of whom were even the game’s equivalent of a stealth class either) standing in the middle of a road in noon-sunshine. Good times.

The Nightblade in this game, is the class that takes advantage of stealth the most. It does so in a similar manner to the Elder Scrolls single player RPGs. Massive stealth attack damage, combined with fairly easy re-stealth mechanics, made this a not so different take from other games despite this games heredity. In the end, this is only slightly more realistic then the WoW model and barely so. The fact that stealthed players get a warning that they are about to be detected is the only really difference here when compared to other titles.

Hard-counters to stealth in this game are basically non-existent. Your chance of being detected was a die roll, weighted with whatever skill you might have in the stealth skill. *yawn*

Wait, Where’d Everyone Go?

Playing a character capable of stealth has been a favorite niche of many MMO players. Numerous single player games take great care in creating flawless systems designed to mimic what “real” stealth might feel like. In MMO’s, due to the technical limitations and balance inherent with a system like stealth, we tend to get not so imaginative approaches to it. As you look back at the various approaches, its clear that peoples opinions on stealth are as varied as its implementation has been. Are any of these systems better then others? That my friends, is best left for another discussion…

Editor’s Note: If you feel I left off an MMOs stealth system, one worthy of note, feel free to share it with me and I’d be happy to consider adding it in.

Scree

Started playing MMORPGs back on AOL in Neverwinter Nights Online around 1996 and has been a passionate advocate for the genre ever since. Currently an admitted Crowfall obsessed-fan; leading a Crowfall-exclusive stealth-first guild Obsidian, managing a web-magazine Stealthed (@stealthedBlog). He is also the project manager of the Malekai Project; a community-driven open-sourced API for sharing Crowfall related content.

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