(No, not the album by Spock’s Beard.)
Imagine this situation. You are in a somewhat old-school MMO. You are running and meeting someone else on the road. Let’s say you’re a priest or mage in WoW and meet someone in the Barrens, or a shaman in EQ and meet someone in Karana. What do you do? (PVPers who answers with “I stealth and gank them” may stop reading now). To me, the most natural thing, even before thinking of a /wave or anything, would be to target them and hit my buff button. Fortitude, Arcane Intellect, Spirit of Wolf.
I loved doing that. Just randomly be kind to other players, help them out a bit. It made the other happy, sometimes you got a “thank you”. Every now and then, it even sparked a conversation. I only realized how much I liked buffing people randomly after the ability to do so went out of fashion. Ask yourself: what was the last game you played that allowed you to buff random people on the drive-by? I thought about the games I played in the last couple of years. LotRO? Nope. EQ2? Nope. Rift? Don’t think so. TSW? Nope. EVE? Muahaha… hahaha… *gasp*… sorry. Kind to strangers? That was a trick question, of course. Vanguard? Ok, you got me there, Vanguard lets you buff strangers. But the way this game promotes the old-school vibe, it only reinforces my impression that this is something that MMOs have phased out.
Why do games not allow me to be kind to strangers in that way any more? OK, so there might be ways to exploit this to grief people. But you have to look really hard and really close, and even then, I can’t think of anything but rare cases. The only one I can come up with was the ever-so-popular “Zeppelin Fortitude Splat” (a name I just invented) in WoW. I’ll segue for a second, just because the thing makes me smile even now.
So, Undercity and Orgrimmar were (and still are, I think) connected by a Zeppelin line. When you arrived, you could jump off before it moored, and save some time. You’d take falling damage, sure. Lots of falling damage (easily 90% of your health). But you didn’t die, because it was always a percentage of your maximum health (unless you jumped off too early and straight up died from the fall). Fortitude, on the other hand, increased your maximum health. It didn’t increase your current health, though. So let’s say your “victim” had 1000 maximum health before buffing. Fortitude increased that to 1200 maximum health, but the current health was still 1000, slowly regenerating. Buffing someone right when they jumped off… Well, 90% of 1200 is more than 1000… I’m guilty of doing that a couple of times. I always offered a rez afterwards though, and apologized.
Anyway, I digress. So, why did games stop doing that? These days, buffs area almost always group-only, so you have to form a group with people before you can buff them. Which kind of works ass-backwards considering so many games try to lower the barrier to interaction by doing informal grouping with transient groups, or with kill-sharing without joining any group at all. What are developers afraid of that they took those tools away from players? Are they worried about balance? That people will either be way too powerful with buffs, or not powerful enough without them to progress in the game? That doesn’t make sense to me, because in-the-world events are typically not carefully balanced anyway. The only serious balancing seems to be done to group and raid dungeons, and if the buffs are group-only, you still have them there.
Are they worried most people might not be able to manage buffs properly? That they forget to renew buffs, buff new group members, forget to buff altogether? In that case, the developers at least chose an effective solution. These days, most buffs I can think of are fire-and-forget. Like an aura, they apply to yourself, are eternally in effect until cancelled (sometimes even persist through death), and automatically apply to your group members as long as they stay in your group. On the other hand, that also makes such buffs immensely boring. It takes away the gratification you get from buffing someone and see health, run speed, or whatever, increase. Would anybody design all damage spells to be auras that automatically apply to close enemies, without any interaction? Of course not, that would be silly! So why are buffs treated that way?