Overthinking social

Back when the Massively team started the Kickstarter to launch their own site, i spent some money on my favourite MMORPG-related website. That enabled me to provide a question for the team to tackle in their “Massively Overthinking”-column. Yesterday, it was published and today, i’d like to share my thoughts on that.

The Question

This is what i wrote:

We criticize MMO devs for making our MMO experience less social, but are they the only ones to blame? I think our (the players’) behaviour to others and within the games themselves has also changed. I’d like to know if you can think of ways we players could improve that situation – from behaviour, less game or guild hopping, ways to grow our friends lists – to make our MMO experience more social again.

I knew from the beginning that some answers would suggest behaviour that i’m struggling with myself- for instance, i expected an answer along the lines of concentrating on one or two games.

Now, i’ve thought on how to formulate the question for a long time- i think i’m one of the last backers to have their question posted. Reading the answers, i wonder if i did phrase it correctly, because staff and commenters alike mention genre-developments and “forced grouping” as solutions or problems, depending on their point of view. I’d have liked the answers to concentrate more on the player-side of things- what can we do to make our MMORPGs more social again, grow our friendslists.

Thankfully, the staff and most of the commenters didn’t forget about that part and so i still think the answers are great and- in context of the guild/community i might be starting with an online friend- inspirational.

The answers

You can read them in their entirety on Massively Overpowered, of course. And you should. Here’s my take on the staff’s answers. They suggest to

  • focus on a few games, if it has to be more than one
  • building your own guild/community or actively take part in your guild
  • think about your own behaviour
  • just be! (Syp, my personal casual-superhero)
  • be the change you want to see

All of them ring true, but i think in Bree’s answer there’s a sentence that basically tells it all without being too general.

[…]attend events, host their own parties, put together their own painstaking groups, promote guilds and forums, form alliances, work around the game’s limitations. Does it suck? Hell yes. It’s work.

Handiwork. Do it yourself. That’s something i read on a forum these days, as well. The author pointed towards the /who feature to build groups. That’s a really old-school way to build groups, but truth be told, i’ve always found it to be one of the most effective. Dungeon finders “improve” on the efficiency, but the social part falls by the side there. When i played WoW and needed a group for a dungeon, i started by asking for others in guild chat. Then i tried to fill the gaps with my friendlist- if i couldn’t do it, i’d ask in general chat but would simultaneously seek out players of missing roles by searching through the /who list and sending them a tell. Usually, the ones that joined the group were those who i talked to directly. They’d also join the guild from time to time and if not, some of them made it on my friendslist.

There’s another comment, again made by Bree, that’s significant to me:

Social once existed in the cracks between the game, and those cracks have been sealed up.

That’s on point on where i wanted the discussion to go- i’m totally against forced grouping or some kind of “hardcore” mentality and i don’t want to be surrounded by people who only care for ingame progress. So this is it- “social” isn’t really a part of game design, it used to be a lack of game direction that possibly made those “older games” and/or the players behave in a more social manner.

So in part, it is a matter of game development these days, but let’s not forget that it’s us, the players, who drive development- that’s where Larry was going with his answer- customers feed devs who feed customers. Nobody is really “wrong”. If the cracks are sealed, though, i’d like to think about ways to open them up again.

The other day some commenters here were stressing/agreeing that to enjoy Wildstar you have to force your pace on the game. I guess this is one way to open the cracks back up.

All staffers on Massively have a point, and of course, as is usually the case, i’ve found myself agreeing with Eliot. It’s strange, because his opinions also make me feel guilty most of the times- but he’s still right- you can’t expect to make social ties when you only use other players as a means to an end (which i rarely do) and guild- and game-hop like a crazy frog (guilty on all charges- or at least the second part). I have to say Eliot’s answer surprised me the most, not in attitude but in execution- it’s a great and unexpected point-of-view. I expected him to concentrate more on continuity.

Syp is just…well, Syp. I really don’t know how he does his thing. He’s casual, he’s got three kids at home (and a fourth on the way, i think?!?), other responsibilities, plays like a thousand games at the same time, with hundreds of characters in each of them and yet….he’s got maxlevel characters in most of the games he plays. He also has a really good track record of finding nice guilds, so i wasn’t surprised by his answer. He still has a secret, because there’s talent in finding and engaging those. My guess is that he is quite outgoing himself- combined with his positive nature i can see why he doesn’t really struggle to create social bonds.

Jef and MJ concentrated on the “play one MMORPG and create the community yourself”-part. I really like MJ’s way of putting it.

In my ideal gaming universe, folks would settle in a virtual world (or two) and spend their time, effort, and resources on building up their community. There are many ways to bolster a community, from running guilds and events to joining said guilds and attending those events.

Jef’s opinion is similar

Do that by being an active guild leader, organizing server events, constantly communicating the need for more social gameplay to devs, and basically spreading the gospel of MMOs by showing people how and why MMOs should differ from single-player games.

Brendan focused on the technical part, unfortunately, but he also states that you should

deliberately seek out guilds of likeminded individuals

So what did it accomplish?

Maybe i’ll take on the comments one of these days, because there are some very note-worthy comments below that article, but this post has already gotten very long. It’s a coincidence in timing, really, but what these answers achieved was to strengthen my resolve of founding, co-leading and maintaining that guild we’ll probably create.

All staffers- magic Syp aside- agree that it takes some considerable effort to create and maintain social bonds in the genre. We can’t do that in a passive way, “social” won’t come to us anymore like it used to when we were all flabbergasted by the fact that we could play games on the internet. We have to build that part actively.

I honestly can’t and won’t believe that we can’t have social (gameplay) elements and ties in MMORPGs anymore just because we’ve gotten more casual. And honestly i think this blog proves that assumption wrong- not because of its contents, but because i’ve made some ties this way already. And i’m a casual blogger.

If you have anything to add or suggest on topic, i’d really appreciate if you’d comment on that- still looking for input!

Backpacker: from Duillond to Bree

Lord of the Rings Online has almost never been my main game, but since it was released, it has always been my “comfort game”- the game i’d return to, if other games weren’t as good as i thought or something else came up. I really like Lord of the Rings for many different reasons- the atmosphere, the landscape-design, middle-earth (of course) and the very relaxing gameplay. Unfortunately, the last one can make it tedious to play in long stretches, as well. Lord of the Rings Online- at least in the way i play it- is mostly about the questing and i do get tired of the questgrind quite quickly.

When i started to play the game in 2007 or early 2008, i created an Elf-Loremaster and wasn’t very patient when it came to seeing the Shire and Bree for the first time. I made the trip as early as possible- by foot. The world of Lotro is a great one- at least in the early levels- there’ll be villages, roads, all kinds of things to explore and see. And it is large! When Lotro released, large game worlds were the standard- if you’d compare it to the size of newer worlds and what we are used to by now, Lotro’s Middle Earth becomes huge.

Map of Ered Luin
Map of Ered Luin

Nowadays, we can ride on our own mounts. So i did, to recapture that old experience i’ve only made once and see how long it would take me- the answer? 18 Minutes, on a horse, with some ore-gathering strewn in between. This is, by the way, the road from the first questing area (for dwarves and elves) to the second. I can’t remember how it used to be- if we had to walk this distance, which, by foot, would take more than 30 minutes. But i think we had to.

Ered Luin

As an elf, you’ll start in Ered Luin. It’s a small starting area, by comparison, because it is divided in two starting experiences for levels 1 to 15, unlike the Shire, where only Hobbits begin and the Bree-Lands, where the 1-15 experience for humans takes place in only a fraction of the whole map.

Celondim
Celondim

I’ve never played a Dwarf in Lotro, so i can’t comment on their starting experience- for the elves, the story revolves mostly around the threat of war between dwarves and elves. There’s an “elf prince” that got kidnapped and the elves suspect the “good dwarves” of commiting the crime. In the course of the storyline, we’ll find out (i really don’t think a spoiler warning is needed here) that they didn’t do it, but another family of dwarves. We’ll then work together in defeating the threat of peace in Ered Luin.

Duillond by night
Duillond by night

The rest of the elf storyline (read: the normal quests) is mostly about ruins, some missing persons, two brothers who can’t decide and/or persuade each other whether to stay or leave Middle Earth and things like that. It all gives the sense of a race that had its best days in the past- they’re practically living in it and almost every quest- at least those that i remember- has a connection to the past. Only the true filler quests (too many wolves, please kill 10 of them) don’t.

Kheledul
Kheledul

As notable locations, there are the towns of Celondim, where you begin your journey, Duillond, a refuge whose design i never really understood (many bridges- its layout is simple, really, but the steps/bridges always annoy me), a few ruins, Kheledul, a dwarf-port that’s been taken by the evil dwarves, a Vineyard, overrun by goblins, Thrasi’s lodge- a cabin with a few quests the dwarf-town of Gondamon, where the Prologue ends and Rath Teraig.

There’s more, of course, but that were the places i visited before turning to level 15 and riding for Bree.

Memory Lane

Unfortunately, you can’t reach Bree from the Ered Luin without a portal. Most of Lotro’s world is open, not zoned, but at some points, there are only portals to get you from one area to the next. For the release version of Lotro this is the only portal i can think of (besides housing zones).

The other side of the portal
The other side of the portal

You’ll then continue through the Shire. The Shire is one of the places where you can really see how much passion Turbine put into it- the realization of the Shire is all it needs to be. From the Hobbits, the landscape to the general atmosphere and the music/sound everything fits. The quests, as well, but that’s not the topic for today.

Hobbiton
Hobbiton

In the Shire, there are a few villages- and i think every one of them has its own Inn. I’d like to visit them another time. The Lotro Shire not only fits my imagination of the Shire from the books, but also my ideal for an MMORPG zone in general- villages, fields, woods, many, many signs of civilization.

Crossing the Brandywine
Crossing the Brandywine

The Bree-Lands are equally good, by the way, with the namesake town as the highlight. Bree is, in my opinion, one of (if not the) best designed cities in MMORPGs. It isn’t “economic”, many times you’ll have to travel annoying distances between, for instance, the auction house, the bank and the crafting house, but it is a great town- and again, it is very atmospheric- it seems like a town, that one.

Sunrise over Bree
Sunrise over Bree

And then, of course, you’ll reach the Prancing Pony and the trip is over.

Reaching the Prancing Pony
Reaching the Prancing Pony

So much more

All this, you get to see with level 15. And writing this, i could think of so many things to see, explore and write about- the Inns of the Shire, the Villages of the Shire and the Bree-Lands, other interesting places, the quests in the Shire and why it fits into this region. Bree alone could fill a posting like this one, the exploration deeds in these zones and so on.

For explorers and lore fanatics, Lotro has a lot to offer. I’m taking it slow on this one, because i don’t want to fall into the trap of not-reading the quest text again, but i had a lot of fun in these first 15 levels.

The curious case of Wildstar

OK, first of all- i’m not going to write anything regarding choice of guilds or games on this blog again, ever. It seems whenever i publish something along the lines of “i’ll stop looking for guilds” or “i’ll play only one game” or “i’ll play one hundred games” something happens that’ll make me reconsider. And then i’ll feel bad and think i couldn’t possibly blog about a change of affairs again. But since this is my internet-space here and it’s either being honest or shutting up, i choose the former.

For reasons i don’t want to elaborate on, it seems like one of my long-time online friends and me are going to start a guild/community of our own. It’s something i would have never thought would happen to me again, largely because of a lack of time and other commitments, but to be honest, i really looked around and couldn’t find a german community that is close to what i have in mind.

There are international communities that come very, very close, like Belghast’s FC in Final Fantasy XIV (where you’ll still find me when playing FF14) and i’d really recommend looking into The Arcane Light (for The Secret World and Skyforge, i guess) and/or the Remnants of Hope (for SWTOR, GW2 and Wildstar). Both of them are quite organised in terms of policies, though, which is my preference when it comes to guild/communities, but if you prefer a more casual approach to guilds, my advice would be to look into one of the new Massively Overpowered guilds, active in Marvel Heroes, SWTOR and Everquest 2, if i remember correctly. For my friends, though, joining an international community is not an option.

Now, we’re still in the planning phase and might still call it off, but it doesn’t seem likely. The funny thing is that we needed a game, as well, and didn’t know which one to pick- the best candidates were GW2, SWTOR and Wildstar. I’ll make it short, for our very first regular game, we chose Wildstar. This will be the game in which we’ll start looking for other players.

I think Wildstar is an excellent choice, because there are many elements you could tackle in a group- regarding PvE, but also social activities, especially with the coming neighbourhoods. Housing, Crafting, PvE and setting deviate from the norm- i don’t have the insight yet if these systems are implemented in a good way or not, but at least they’re there. And lastly, Wildstar is going free-to-play soon(tm) and there will be an influx of players returning or beginning with the game, providing us with a pool of potential guildmates.

And then, i started playing.

Nooria Mersault is born

Changes

My biggest concern with the game last year wasn’t the subscription- it was that i found the game to be utterly stressful- mob spawn rates were almost as fast as in Vanguard-on-life-support, the action combat made combat an active thing, which is great, gameplay-wise, but in addition the game kept shouting at me. Challenge here, challenge there. LEVEL UP. And so on. Also, Elder Scrolls Online also launched in that same timeframe, so Wildstar had to compete with that. At that time, i preferred Elder Scrolls Online.

There are a few subtle changes in Wildstar that improved the game experience much in my opinion. Namely: using a mount at level 3 and the redesign of the “Challenge” UI. It doesn’t scream as much, anymore. And maybe i’m wrong, but i’ve got the feeling the time you have to finish a Challenge has been increased- these Challenges stressed me out, big time, last year- this time, i can do most of them easily.

Similarities

Wildstar is often compared to World of Warcraft- with the art style and the raiding, “hardcore” mentality and their obvious attempt to give “The Burning Crusade”-players a new home, i can see how this came to be. In my opinion, right now, and i’ve read something like that implied by Bhagpuss, as well, the comparison i’d make is Everquest 2, though.

There are many systems i really like in EQ2, and while Wildstar doesn’t do things exactly like EQ2, there’s a counterpart for almost everything.

Things i love about EQ2 are: open world bosses, an alternative and viable way to level from one to max in a group, open world dungeons, the crafting, housing and some “fluff” features like the shinies.

It's also quite beautiful
It’s also quite beautiful

While you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more modern MMORPG with the same type and scope in these systems, i think two games come relatively close: Rift and Wildstar. Sure, if you go through that list, almost every item will get a “yes, but” for Wildstar, but still, they’re there. There are open-world bosses and achievements tied to killing them, there are ways to level as a group- at least starting with the first shiphand at level 6 and the 5-level-distance of dungeons coming with free-to-play. They’re instanced, though. The crafting system is different, but i think it provides value (i’m an architect, by the way). There’s the path system and the wardrobe for fluff and then there’s a great housing system. There’s mount- and pet collecting and who knows what i still don’t know about.

Fun

The most important part is that i’m having quite a bit of fun in the game. It still is quite stressful; i’m level 12 now and have almost 20 active quests in my questlog- in my opinion, that’s too much, it’s distracting because you’ll log in and have to find out what you wanted to do next. Wildstar, more than other games in this genre, requires me to actively “take it slow”- if you let the pace of the game carry you along it will be exhausting.

That’s why i actively set time aside for exploration, gathering, crafting and soon housing and the auction house / commodity exchange, as well. As long as i’m able to pace the game down, i’ll be quite happy- and i’m really looking forward to free-to-play.

What i won’t do, though, is calling Wildstar my one-and-only MMORPG. I’ve got some goals to achieve in many, many other MMOs, as well. As i said in my last post: i’m done restricting myself and will simply do what feels right…and fun.

Project Trinity: calling it quits in august

I’m late on the whole Blaugust thing, so i think that ship has sailed, although i might be looking into how it works and maybe join the ranks because participating might be fun. I’ve been away for the last three weeks, at a place where i couldn’t read my mail, use Twitter in a meaningful way and read/write WordPress blogs. No, i haven’t been to the moon, only china. I’ve been following the news, though, mainly through Massively Overpowered and i’ve read some of the non-Wordpress blogs.

Celondim, where elves begin their journey
Celondim, where elves begin their journey

Anyways, three weeks gone from any MMO gaming opportunity does change one’s point of view. Interestingly, the games i’ve missed aren’t Final Fantasy XIV or Star Wars: the old republic but open world games like Lord of the Rings Online and World of Warcraft as well as full-featured themeparks like Everquest 2. Of course, all three of these games also featured heavily in the news- EQ2 with its TLE servers, Lotro with the coming server merges and WoW with the expansion news- so that might also be at work here. With WoW, i can honestly say that i wanted to play even before news of the expansion broke. I still do want to play, but the subscription is keeping me at bay for now. What i might do, though, is to level the classes i’m most interested in to 20- that would probably be the Shaman, Druid, Priest, Monk and maybe Paladin.

Still, with all this longing for the mentioned games, i still don’t want to leave SWTOR and FF14 behind. While i don’t have very pressing goals in FF14 for now- the expansion has launched and i’m way behind the curve again, i do want to level one character- possibly the Jedi Sage- in SWTOR to 60 before the expansion hits in october.

A long road ahead
A long road ahead

And then, there has been news, as well. Bad news.

Funcom is looking for a merger/acquisition. Now, we all can take a guess what that will mean for the future of Funcom’s games. Personally, i’m hoping for the best, which would mean no jobs lost, all games remain intact and get the same kind- or even better- attention in the future. But i wouldn’t bet loads of money on that outcome. So, while i really don’t know what the outcome will be, i’m kind of bracing myself for shutdown. And that would be bad on so many levels. Especially The Secret World is a great game, i’ve come to respect Funcom for what they do. I’ve also found it quite sad, really, Funcom is one of these companies providing us with games from the genre we love. I think it’s time to ask ourselves some uncomfortable questions- concerning business models, for instance. Or maybe not- maybe they’d be in an even worse state if their games would still follow the sub model. What i’ve found really disheartening, though, is that- again- there’ve been comments welcoming these news, thinking that it would be well-deserved and things like that.

So, TSW needs to go back into my rotation. It might not- and let’s just hope that won’t be the case- be around much longer. The same goes for Lotro, really. We don’t know when it’ll end, but i think the best guesses would lean towards a 2017 closure…maybe. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, either.

Coincidentally, those are the only two games i ever bought a lifetime sub for. At least for Lotro, i got my money’s worth. For years it had been my “return-to” MMORPG and i loved it- Lotro is one of the most relaxing MMORPGs out there. It’s also very atmospheric and the landscapes still look stunning. I’ve never made it through Moria, though. With TSW, it’s even worse. While i feel i got a good deal there, as well, neither my /played time nor my progress could serve as proof for that.

So when i thought about ways to shrink that roster down to my usual three, i realized that it isn’t really possible. I want to experience FF14, SWTOR, TSW, Lotro, EQ2, maybe WoW and/or even more games when i feel like it. I also want to make some progress in all of them. And there’ll be releases this year, as well. Wildstar f2p, Blade and Soul, the Repopulation.

For now, the most pressing concern is to reach level 60 with my Jedi Sage before the SWTOR expansion hits. With 12XP, i think it’s very possible, even for me, if i concentrate on the story mode and leave other things like crafting, the strongholds etc. out for the time being.

Lotro is for fun, but i’d really like to progress through Moria to see what lies on the other side. It’s also the game i’ve been playing since our return home on tuesday.

For now, i’m done with forcing myself into a schedule/a roster of MMOs, and i’ll simply do and play what is fun to me. “Of course”, you’ll say, because that’s the way one should do it- but there’s still the knowledge that i don’t really play that much- reaching significant progress in all these games with my available time might be quite difficult. I’ll try it that way, anyway.

adelbern5

When the closure of Tabula Rasa was announced, i was quite sad- i really, really liked the game and miss it to this day. Then, i decided that i wouldn’t continue to play it as i’d lose my characters/the game anyway. Nowadays, i often wish i would have decided the other way round- to try and experience as much as possible. With the news coming from Funcom and a refound love for Lotro, i’m not really in the mood to limit myself right now.

The PvE MOBA, offline persistency and the system-driven MMORPG

There have been a few very interesting opinion pieces out there for a couple of days. I’d like to- somewhat- chime in and express my own opinion on that matter. First, let’s take a look at what we’ve got.

I think it began with Ravious’ “Modicum of Interaction”, where he described his experience with starting on a pvp server in World of Warcraft and came to the conclusion that what he really wants in an MMO is persistence and interaction.

A day later, Bhagpuss described the “pinball machine in an arcade” analogy as being fitting to his own feelings- that you’d want to play in a world where other people play, as well, because it feels alive. He also states that MMORPGs have changed- they’re not new anymore- not in the way they used to be. It wasn’t about features, graphics or somesuch- it was all about the wow-effect of other players from all over the world connecting to the same shared online world. That was the feature that sold MMORPGs. It doesn’t, anymore, and Bhagpuss is ok with that.

The same goes for Syl and her entry of “MMO heartbreak”. She agrees that the MMO experience has changed but that there are still “rainbows to find”, that there’s still interaction- it changed somewhat, but it’s still there.

All these posts are worth a read and i encourage you to go and read them if you haven’t- in my opinion, all of these put the finger on the wound many of us feel while being positive in their base tone.

Another post that’s going to be related to this one is Belghasts “Chase for a PvE MOBA”, as well as the Massively Overthinking column on Massively Overpowered concerning the popularity of MMORPGs.

New MMO games

I think we need to further break up the MMORPG genre. You know the opinion that’s always going to pop up as soon as content becomes soloable? If you don’t like to group up in MMORPGs, play singleplayer games, they’re better for story. This “argument”, if we call it that, leaves the pinball-in-the-arcade and the reading-in-a-cafe out of the equation. I’d like to turn it around and state that if you like small-group-instanced-content, there should be a genre for you.

The lobby dungeon experience

Interestingly, there isn’t. I think Forced did something to that end, but i’m still left wondering why we don’t have a game yet that’s based solely on dungeon experiences. The “world” and the “quest” part of MMORPG development are the money sinks in developing an MMO, so i wonder why nobody has thought of getting rid of that part and instead offer something akin to, say, Left for Dead or Payday in the MMORPG realm. This should be possible, right?

You would have to be honest about it, though- if you’d call this kind of game an MMORPG, it would get a similar treatment to Skyforge, which is being criticized for lack of an Open World while on the other hand- and that’s a very early impression- being quite ok for what it does. Even i went into an adventure by way of the group finder. It was a nice enough experience, although i’d have to say that my SWTOR companions are more talkative than the other players i grouped up with.

There could be a few ways to do a game like this- maybe go for the isometric view and create a co-op Diablo/co-op MOBA or go the 3D route and create and distill the dungeon experience from MMORPGs into a new game. You can even keep many of the MMO tropes- maybe a bit of grind, levels, content gating, gear, the trinity- and get rid of the more costly and fluffy parts- loads of text quests, maybe crafting and, of course, the world. Just cut it off. I would also leave out the single-player option entirely, although that could become a problem when the game matures.

The strange part? Even when i prefer open world MMORPGs, i think i’d like to see some kind of game like that emerge. They could do dungeons in different sizes for different session lengths and even go “hardcore” with raids or dungeons that last multiple hours.

I don’t know if this comes close to how Belghast expressed a PvE MOBA would be, but i think it would be a great addition to the genre. Right now, i wonder if there aren’t games like that out already- couldn’t you play Diablo 3 or Marvel Heroes this way?

The persistent and interactive singleplayer experience

Another way to evolve would be to go the route of Elite: Dangerous and further down the line Shroud of the Avatar– give players the option to experience an online world by themselves and have persistency and interaction become indirect, possibly through an ingame-economy. In Elite, i can fly around solo, but actions of all players influence the universe i’m living in- by trade prizes, faction balance and so on. I can play alone and it’s not exactly the “pinball machine in the arcade” experience, but there’s more interaction and interdependency in Elite than in many themepark MMORPG’s questing game.

The MMORPG: cut off rides and provide systems

I think- and in a way we already see this with games like Crowfall, Camelot Unchained and the Repopulation in development- that distilling MMO experiences in new subgenres would free the “real MMORPGs” to get back to a design that focuses more on giving players systems instead of themepark rides. MMORPGs could become more world-like- and cheaper in development, in the end, if they stopped trying to give players a linear experience and went on to being “everything-boxes”.

The funny thing is that i think a good MMORPG would cater to many different play-styles while on the other hand, the current themepark MMORPGs are making the mistake of trying to cater to too many play-styles. In the end, i think it’s the way content works in these games right now that is a hindrance- it’s designed content- designed for soloer’s, casuals, hardcore players, for crafters, traders, dungeon-delvers, raiders and so on. Everything is “handcrafted”, which makes content development slow and expensive. If you’d have systems that could provide the same; a good ingame-economy, open world bosses, dynamic events done right, maybe mob settlements that grow from being a single-player experience to being a raid experience, you wouldn’t have the need to handcraft all these experiences.

Backpacker: World of Warcraft’s Teldrassil

World of Warcraft has a few qualities, which shouldn’t be surprising since it’s still the most played MMORPG out there. For me, two are very noticeable- the fluid gameplay/combat/movement and the second one, the world/zone building. It’s not only the graphics and Blizzards ability to get the most out of their decade-old-engine that WoW still looks good- it’s because of the zone design. So i decided to start a “backpacker” series for that. It’s easy to do, too, since you can play World of Warcraft for free up to level 20. After some research, i came to the conclusion that a Druid would work best, what with the travel form and such. It might be possible to explore zones much further into the level bracket when playing this class.

Leaving Darnassus
Leaving Darnassus

I don’t know where this plan is going to lead me- maybe even into a subscription, but if i’m honest, the last times i started playing WoW, the questing got to me. It’s always the questing- with Rift, Lord of the Rings and WoW. While Rift has decent alternatives to level a character, i don’t think one could say the same for WoW. Sure, there are dungeons and they’re great experiences- but i wouldn’t know why i should play the instanced part of the game to experience the open world. And questing is slow. Exploration doesn’t seem to be rewarded with xp, so leveling through exploration and crafting/gathering is not a good alternative. So you’ve got questing, pvp, pet battles, gathering and dungeons as ways to level.

Gathering could work. But it would take a lot of time, too much for me, even when i could combine it with grinding mobs.

Anyway, the possibility to level a character to 20 without paying gives me the option to travel through quite a few zones. I’ve always been an Alliance player, so i’ll use a Nightelf Druid for this, even if that means i’ll be starting on the wrong continent. I think i can leave for Stormwind come level 10 (already there, but haven’t looked if i can take the ship over there).

So let’s take a look. I don’t really know how long this lasts, but WoW’s zones are believable to me, and that’s the great advantage. In Lotro, for instance, the third zone you’ll play in will consist of one village/inn and some ruins as homesteads for people. I don’t know why these people don’t build and seem to be content in their ruins, but it strikes me as odd. In WoW, which i didn’t experience a whole lot (until Un’Goro in TBC’s time), the zones leading up to Un’Goro seem…well, despite it being a fantastic, sometimes odd world, it seems more “civilized”. I mean, villages look like villages.

The starting village of Shadowglen
The starting village of Shadowglen

Look at that- that’s where your life as a nightelf begins- it might not be exactly as big, but the whole layout is similar to the faction capital of the Guardians in Rift, Sanctum. I’d like to highlight that i don’t want to devalue Rift by stating this, but simply to state how much i like these sort of things. And it’s an exaggeration, of course. Sanctum is still bigger than Shadowglen’s center.

Another thing that i didn’t remember – and that might change later on – is that World of Warcraft really is generous with space/landscape. In other, more modern games, mob density is quite high- it’s for the sake of accessibility, of course, so that you don’t have to search for the mob you need for a quest or compete with other players for the same mobs, but if you look at zone design from that perspective only, what remains is a functional map. When you leave room for all kinds of things- villages, wildlife, trees, the odd cavern, rivers, lakes and whathaveyou- the zone looks and feels a whole lot more believable.

Lake Al'Ameth
Lake Al’Ameth
To Dolanaar
To Dolanaar

WoW’s zone design always impressed me. Sure, i like my fantasy worlds even more “open”, even less “zoney” and not as “themepark-styled” (thinking about the “haunted house zone” for levels 20 to 30), but there are few games providing that- the last one i know was Vanguard, which had a great world albeit with its own flaws. Other games are good, as well- Rift and Lotro’s worlds are open, and especially Lotro offers great landscapes that still hold themselves very good in terms of graphics, Final Fantasy 14’s zones are of a very good design, as well, but they feel quite small.

Exploring Teldrassil

Dual Wielding: pay-to-win edition

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

Don’t miss out on Ironweakness’ take on the subject.

Free-to-play as a business model comes in many forms. You’ll have the mostly free experiences of games like TERA and the free-to-play-but-we-really-want-you-to-subscribe model of games like Star Wars: the old republic. Whenever free-to-play is mentioned, there’s another term coming up: pay-to-win. Almost every developer that transitioned one game from sub to f2p will have the pay-to-win question in their FAQ. The answer is always the same: no, this game won’t be pay-to-win. The interesting part is, that when you think about it, this is both an impossible thing to state and true in every case. In the end, it depends on two things: the player perspective and the game design perspective.

What is pay-to-win?

Wikipedia has the following to say:

In some multiplayer free-to-play games, players who are willing to pay for special items or downloadable content may be able to gain a significant advantage over those playing for free. Critics of such games call them “pay-to-win” games.

I have to say that i agree with this definition but would add that gaining an advantage in most themepark MMORPGs isn’t something one should worry about. For the advantage you buy there has to be some impact on someone else who didn’t pay- this impact doesn’t really exist in most of the current MMORPGs.

What is winning?

This is another question you’d have to answer in order to really understand and define pay-to-win. In a recent “Perfect ten” column on Massively Overpowered, Eliot Lefebvre wrote:

[…]what qualifies as a “winning” advantage varies between person to person. If you really try at it, you can argue that paying for anything at all is winning because it involves getting an advantage you wouldn’t have playing completely for free.

That’s because (themepark) MMORPGs aren’t lobby shooters; in most cases, you don’t fight other players much and even if you do your pvp battlegrounds, it’s not an even playing field at all- players can join them when they are in a certain level bracket. A level 11 player will have trouble fighting- and winning- against a level 19 player. In times when World of Warcraft didn’t give out experience points for playing battlegrounds, there were “pvp twinks”, mostly level 19 and geared in a way that “normal” level 19 characters didn’t stand a chance against them. So if we’re talking normal battleground pvp and even open world pvp, it’s rare that every player is on an equal footing. And when/if they are- by game design- the devs won’t sell statistical advantage for their version of pvp.

In most other cases, it’s a matter of definition and what your own goals in a game are. If you’re an achievement hunter and a certain achievement will grant you some gear with just the look you want for your character, you could consider it pay-to-win if another player was able to just buy that stuff from the ingame store. If World of Warcraft sold flying in Draenor, plain and simple, you could consider it pay-to-win, as well.

Good MMORPGs are of the “Win. Your way.” kind- there are all kinds of goals to strive for. Since you can’t really define winning, “pay-to-win” is equally hard to define and, in most cases, both true and wrong.

Impact

On the other hand, there’s no impact. If you went out of your way to get that achievement for the cosmetic gear, that’s your experience and you’ll probably like the way to get there as well as feel rewarded when you finish it. It’s the experience, the journey, that counts here. Your journey wasn’t worse or less fun if “Killerrabbit1337” bought the same item in the store.

In most themeparks, there is no impact. Even if i were to buy a set of raid gear in Rift, all it would do is allow me to access content faster (or at all). In most cases, i couldn’t sell the gear on the auction house because of it being bound on aquire.

But, of course, there are ways to impact other players. And this is where, in my opinion, pay-to-win is a thing- and it’s a thing to be avoided. This is the case when it undermines fundamentals of how a certain game works. Let’s say you’re designing a crafting and economy oriented MMORPG- then selling crafting materials and/or the ingame currency would be a bad, bad thing, because if a player were to buy loads of crafting mats from the ingame store, he or she could hurt the price of these items in the auction hall. So there’s impact on all the other crafters who’d like to sell their goods in the auction hall.

So, in my opinion, for a game to be considered pay-to-win, there must be impact on other players either through pvp or the ingame economy. Using this definition, i can only think of two games i’d consider pay-to-win: EVE and ArcheAge.

In EVE, progress is measured in two ways: skill points and ISK, the ingame currency. While there is no way to increase skill point gain, you can simply buy ISK by buying PLEX and selling it on the market, giving you a huge advantage for instance in choosing what you fly- after all, one of the big rules in EVE is “don’t fly something you can’t afford to lose”- so skill point being equal, i could use this way of getting ISK to fly a better ship into battle- and that includes pvp.

In ArcheAge, a game i haven’t really followed up on after being disappointed by hacks and cheats, there are the labor point potions in the store. Labor points are used to craft and even to open up certain loot. As i wrote in another post, it’s a mechanic i like to a certain extent- by using up your labor points, you are encouraged to specialize/concentrate on certain aspects of the game/crafting. Labor point potions increase your ability to craft items- and while ArcheAge has somewhat moved away from being a crafting/economy centered game, it still is one of the huge qualities this game has. So buying labor potions allows the buyer to create more items, thereby influencing the ingame economy.

The future

Right now, there are several upcoming games i take a huge interest in. Namely, the Repopulation, Shroud of the Avatar and to a lesser extent Shards Online and Albion Online. Most of these games might be quite crafting/economy centered or allow for such a playstyle, at least. There are many ways to ruin these kinds of games when they are free-to-play or microtransaction based in general. Jewel has already voiced some of her concerns regarding the influence of free-to-play on Albion, and i agree.

I have seen how stuff like that, especially coupled with hacking/exploiting/botting can ruin a game experience for some players, but all i can do is hope the devs know what they’re trying to achieve with their games and try to keep the impact on the game design as low as possible.

Conclusion

Pay-to-win can be everything or nothing. Once again, i find myself agreeing with Eliot here, who also stated this.

When you can’t define conclusively what is or isn’t enough of an advantage to qualify as “winning,” you are using a term that you have to define before you make any use of it, which makes it inherently useless.

So the whole post is useless. The term is useless- in my opinion, as well, because we should talk about the business models in a more distinctive way. We can’t absolutely state that game x is “pay-to-win”, we always have to explain why we think it is. So the better way to say the same thing would be to state that “i don’t like the business model because they sell item x,y on their ingame store and it makes me feel like striving for the same goal ingame isn’t worth it, anymore”.