Sunday, July 6, 2014

Dry Top, Soggy Bottom : GW2, Everquest, CoS

Five days in and the choice of Dry Top as our entry-point to Maguuma shows an increasingly wry and knowing edge. After nearly two months without the constant drip drip drip of Living Story One this feels like a hiccup in the pipe, a short splash that might presage a flood and then...doesn't.

Leaving aside my feelings on the size of the map itself, which haven't changed and have indeed only become more intense as the details of the explorable area become familiar and known, there's the question of what there is to do there. Dry Top really sums up the problem, if problem it is, with GW2 in particular and, to some extent, theme park MMOs in general.

It's been a good week to make connections and comparisons. GW2 began Living Story Season Two, Everquest has a double-xp weekend for Independence Day and then there was my return to City of Steam, bringing a wider perspective and some sometimes-painful clarity.

The whole theme park/sandbox dichotomy has always been an anathema to me or perhaps more accurately a puzzlement. For the longest time, many years, I found it quite difficult even to comprehend the supposed distinctions that were being drawn by the proponents on each side of the argument. From there I moved to something approaching an intellectual understanding of the differences without ever feeling an emotional connection to them.

It seemed to me (and still does) that almost any MMO, so long as it provides even a vestigial approximation of a virtual world, can act as a sandbox for any player willing to come to it with sufficient open-mindedness, imagination and individuality. Most of my time spent in so-called theme-parks wasn't spent on or even near the rides and I rarely felt the dead hand of an organizing power shove me squarely between the shoulder-blades to send me stumbling along some appointed path.

These last few years things have changed somewhat. Thanks to this blog I'm even able to point, approximately and retrospectively, to the precise moment the rot might have begun, so early in my blogging career that it's fair to say no record of my pre-lapsarian state of mind exists in the record. This week, moving between three disparate settings, I really felt,  possibly for the first time in fifteen years, less than wholly in control of my own destiny. An uncomfortable feeling.

Taking the three MMOs in ascending order of dirigism, for anyone outside of a high-end raiding guild Everquest is generally an extremely laissez-faire affair. The world is almost incomprehensibly vast and sprawling. At any given level there are probably dozens of places you could profitably spend time and many ways you could choose to spend it. For a long, long time as you play, which you choose really doesn't matter all that much, but eventually, no mater how individualistic your playstyle, assuming your base goal is to see the level of your character rise or the number of her AAs increase, preferably both, the rate at which xp ceases to flow and begins to trickle will tend to nudge you towards efficiency.

Efficiency in leveling an Everquest character can mean many things. It can mean grouping; it can mean knowing and understanding how ZEMs (Zone Experience Modifiers) work; it can mean using xp potions and veteran rewards. For the general, casual player, however, it probably means not much more than knowing where to find Franklin Teek and how to get to the current Hot Zone for the relevant level range. This does act as a voluntary choice limiter and on my current drop-in schedule of a handful of hours a week, if I play my level 87 mage I tend to end up grabbing a couple of Teek's "simple tasks", legging it out to wherever he wants his murders done, popping my Lesson and doing whatever he's told me to do.

It's simultaneously tedious and satisfying. On a double xp weekend with a potion running it's tedious, mildly stressful and very satisfying indeed. It doesn't in any way compare to, y'know, playing the character properly, as I was doing with my Enchanter recently in Befallen.I do know at all times, however, that I'm only burning through that thirty-minute lesson in such a clinical and cynical fashion because EQ is no longer my focus game. It's an expediency. Were I to be spending 20+ hours a week there, hot zones and lessons both would figure much less prominently. Knowing that at any time, should I choose, I could re-immerse myself in the vast, still considerably unexplored world outside of the Golden Path removes almost all the sting of doing things the "right" way.

In the middle comes GW2. At under two years old there's clearly no way Tyria Mark 2 can compete with Norrath, with its decade and a half of development and twenty expansions under its belt. GW2 did, however, set out at a dead run with a very large, open, explorable world filled with incident, spectacle and stuff to do. It also featured, at launch, an ethos so far from imposing direction on players that the main complaints came from people who felt lost, unguided and uncomfortable with the lack of hand-holding and signposts.

From that enviable and admirable start the developers have backpedaled away about as fast as their development cycle will carry them. To rehash the reasons would make this post even longer than it's already shaping up to be. Suffice it to say that GW2 has become a game based around daily tasks and tables of "achievements" all set not by the players but the makers. Everything is codified and calibrated, from the Tournaments to the Living Story. The great, open world is still out there to explore but except and unless a particular locale is featured in the story arc nothing changes and, more importantly, nothing is added.

Our new playground, Dry Top, consists of a small, self-contained area that flips between two states (Sandstorm and Not-Sandstorm) on a set schedule. Players can't affect whether or when a storm arrives. Nor can they affect its intensity. All they can change is the price vendors charge for the supposedly-desirable items they sell. Neither can players make meaningful choices abut how they bring about this fiscal benefit. Events pop on what appears to be a fixed timer or a trigger. By doing events players fill a progress bar. The more events they complete the better a deal vendors offer. That's about it, unless there are subtleties I've missed, which is always possible, even likely.

In addition to the events and the worked-for, paid-for rewards there are some achievements to knock out (finding Lost Coins is particularly enjoyable so long as you don't have an aversion to ArenaNet's obsession with jumping). There are also the Buried Treasure Chests which appear during the sandstorms and which contain a range of crafting recipes and useable items. To open the chests you need lockpicks, which you can get from completing the storyline instances or from the achievements you can get while repeating them. Alternatively you can buy lockpicks from the vendors using the special currency, Geodes, that you get from all events both in Dry Top and in the associated storyline. It's a neat, closed system. Talk about owing your life to the company store.

Still, it's fun. For a while. Especially if the chests or the vendors have things you want and for as long as the events remain fairly fresh. The tradeable items and recipes, which appears to be most of them, are already on the Trading Post at very reasonable prices, though, making the prospect of grinding for lockpicks and a random chance of getting items I want seem unattractive compared to grinding some other content for Gold and just buying them. And even if I wanted to do it the "proper" way, the crowds seem very fickle already. On the opening day they were light and that's being charitable. A day later there were big zergs. Now, on the first weekend, it feels quiet again. The chances of those vendors lowering their prices doesn't look good but then again I'm not sure that matters.

Far more interesting than any of the prepared entertainment on offer are the conversations between Dry Top residents and the intrigues they hint at. For now this corner of the park is very much all about the rides but we can at least imagine that when the Living Story carnival packs its tents and moves on something of more substantial, lasting interest might replace it. Similarly, after a whole year of LS2, we can hope for a significant tract of land in which imaginary people lead imaginary lives the way background characters in MMOs do.

It's a hope beyond anything I can muster up for City of Steam, much though I still, and
despite everything, retain a strong interest and affection for that game. The hopes of anything resembling a coherent, growing, developing world there were dashed long ago. Sad remnants linger to remind us of what might have been: the housing stubs, the railhauler stations, the billboards and signs in the city squares and streets. Beautiful and useless.

The main storyline plugs away, seemingly divorced from the reality around it, which reality being an increasingly impressive, entertaining and polished series of mini-games, activities and diversions attended to by an ever-cleaner, more responsive and intuitive UI. As a game, CoS:Arkadia is both slicker and better than it has ever been and I can endorse it more wholeheartedly in that context than at any time in its peculiar, shaky history. As a virtual world, however, it died in a ditch a long while back.

I'm really enjoying playing. I've gotten almost back to where I was on the old servers before they closed, hitting level 20 this week. I'm moderately determined to see the end of the storyline which is probably another fifteen or twenty levels away I would guess. I even feel that I might be willing to play up another character, which, given the unbending linearity of the format, was something I didn't think I'd ever say.

All of which gets us nowhere very much. Depending on context, undirected gameplay can be overwhelming, over-directed gameplay stifling. Depending on context, linear gameplay can be satisfying, free-form gameplay liberating. There's a point where too much freedom intersects with too little to do and another where a satisfying series of goals becomes a tedious succession of chores. Pleasure lies in the hinterland surrounding those points and a map to that territory could make someone very rich indeed.

I do feel that things are shifting, somewhere, very slowly. Things have changed. The upside is that I now get pleasure from activities that would once have irritated me yet at the same time I know I'm missing something I used to have: control. I'm just not sure, yet, whether it's control I've willingly given up or whether it was wrested away from me while my attention was distracted.

I just hope it's not going to take me another fifteen years to work that one out.

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