Saturday, June 7, 2014

First Cut Is The Deepest

I'm not stalking Syp. Honest. Nor have I run out of ideas of my own and found myself reduced to mining Massively for inspiration. I just happened to read his insightful piece on Lord of the Rings Online as I was tabbed out from Everquest while I was logging in my enchanter.

One of my enchanters, I should say. I have three. At least three. It's hard to remember. The one I've played the most is a dark elf, I think my only dark elf. He's somewhere in the fifties as I recall. Then there's my favorite, a gnome, inevitably, somewhere in the thirties. The one that I'm currently, repeatedly, getting killed (enchanter is hard, yo! Especially when you're wearing full raw silk and wielding a mithril quill like it's 1999) is a human and she's level 19.

I forget which of them came first. They've all been around for a while. About as long as EQ, give or take a year. This one has a /played of just over 6 days and she was born in August 2000. I created her as an apprentice to what was then my "main" character (a meaningless term given the way I approach MMOs), my first gnome necromancer. Her job was to go places he couldn't and get him stuff.

Naturally that didn't last long. She had other ideas and struck out on her own, although given that it's taken her fourteen years to do nineteen levels that may not have been the wisest career move. Her current awakening results from my recent purchase of the White Wolf EQRPG Scenario Book "Befallen". It made me want to go play through Befallen again. Go figure. (I wonder, given the resurgence of tabletop gaming posts from bloggers I follow, such as Ravious, Tobold, Tipa and Ardwulf, whether there's anyone out there running an EQRPG campaign. I'd be very interested in joining an online version if so...).

Anyhoo, to get to the point, I think Syp really put his finger on it when he says

"We form strong attachments to our first experiences and areas in the game for both that new zone smell and because we've gone through those areas on alts so many times."

No matter how long I play MMOs, and it'll be fifteen years this autumn, it remains an unshakeable fact that what I like to do most of all is play character after character through the same low to mid level zones. It literally never gets old.

For a long time there were practical reasons for that. MMOs got harder as you leveled up. Often a lot harder. Nowadays newer MMOs like GW2 do a brilliant job of evening the playing field so that the transition from low to mid to end game is both seamless and painless and yet it's still the lower zones that hold the strongest appeal.

It's not a simple cut-off. For Syp the grey mist comes down at the end of the original game that shipped when LotRO launched, most probably because that game has a linear progression. No LotRO expansion ever arrived with a brand new starting area, unlike Everquest, EQ2, WoW or many others. Every re-start offers the possibility of a new emotional connection akin to the original, something expansions that increase the level cap only can never match.

So, I have something close to the same affection for Field of Bone as I have for East Commonlands, for Darklight Woods as I have for Antonica. Close but not quite the same. It's still the zones that launched with the very first iteration of any MMO that have the edge. It's not an insuperable advantage, to be sure, but if developers want their new creations to attract the same degree of commitment as their initial offerings they don't just need to reach that bar, they need to vault it in style.

I'm off on holiday next week so it will be quiet here for a while, but when I return all eyes (well, all eyes that aren't on WildStar) will be on ArenaNet's second season of The Living Story. We're all just about as certain as we can be that with it will come with the first new, permanent map we've had since Southsun and the first real expansion of the boundaries of Known Tyria since the game began.

That's a challenge. Here's hoping Anet can meet it. History suggests otherwise.


  1. I think another reason why the first installment of a game tends to feel the best is that then still all the numbers 'feel right', while in later iterations Power Creep tends to become a real issue and may even necessitate complete overhauls (e.g. WoW's upcoming Stat Squish, which btw doesn't seem to tackle the core issues that caused the problem in the first place)

    What in my book doesn't help is that MMORPG-designers are convinced that you HAVE to increase the Level Cap etc. (leading to Power Creep) with every Expansion. Personally I'd much more prefer the approach of PnP RPG's: not so much Vertical Expansion (producing number issues, and possible immersion issues - why again are the beggars in X so much stronger than the elite soldiers in Y 'before' it? And why does the king of Y then not hire those beggars to become his soldiers instead?) but Horizontal Expansions (creating more parts of the world to visit, Classes, races etc. - or 'ways to get to cap').

    Frankly, 50 levels are more than enough, and a lower number makes it psychologically easier for newcomers and new characters in general .

    1. Very much so , the numbers thing. It's part of the whole "all of a piece" feel of original content, I think. Much as I love leveling up, I would also go for more races, classes, starting areas, alternative low-mid level zones every time when it comes to an expansion. Developers fear splitting the playerbase, though, and with good reason.

  2. I love starter areas too, devs do seem to front-load a lot of creativity into starter zones and thereafter zones get less and less detailed. I loved the variety of starter zones in World of Warcraft, it hid quite nicely the fact that the choice of zones as you leveled narrowed down pretty rapidly. It's one reason why I never got into alt creation in Rift, the two factional starter zones offered very little variety at low level.

    Guild Wars 2 took it to a new level in a sense as the starter zones were so rich and rewarding to explore, you even had the personal story linking in with the racial lore. Sadly that just made the transition to one of the three org and then to Trehaerne even harder to bear as what came before was *so* much more interesting and replayable than what followed...

    1. Rift got a lot of stick for just having those two starter areas and indeed for the smallish number of zones overall and their relative blandness. I didn't find it anything like as bad as people were making out but I'd hardly make a case for Rift standing up to any number of other MMOs in that respect. I bet it hurt the game's retention figures compared to what they would have been with a wider choice of leveling routes for alts.

  3. I have a post tucked away, partially done, about MMO zones I have never tired of playing that fits in with this. They are, almost exclusively, zones from the initial launch. But they are not all low level zones. They are usually zones just after that, where things start to get interesting for me. The starter zones are fun, but they zip by too fast. It is zones like Zek that I seem to be able to go through again and again.

    I will get around to finishing that post at some point.

    1. Yep, it's often the low-mid level zones that really set the hook. The Karanas, The Lone Lands, Southwatch, Zek, Diessa Plateau...

      I might borrow your post idea and riff on it sometime...

  4. Ak'Anon in EQ is still that zone for me. I remember the first toon I rolled in EQ beta was an even ranger in Fawydark(sp). I hated it. Always fell and died, couldn't find my corpse. So I tried gnome and that was the fit for me =)

    I would grind in the basement until that named mob dropped.. I don't even remember, but had a mace. I did that so often (but it has been so long) I farmed Mino axes. I know all the camps and areas so well there. It just feels so comfortable. I remember watching high level druids kite the guards...

    Oddly enough too, I have 3 enchanters. Love that class =)

    1. Haha! Did everyone start with an elven ranger, fall off Kelethin, fail to find their corpse and reroll? I know I did. It was that that put me on the road of beginning every new MMO as a human warrior just until I had the basics down. Human warriors always start in the most obvious place and have the simplest starting mechanics. Also the most boring, unimaginative race/class combo, obv. so the highest I ever took one in any game was about level 9.


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