Wednesday, 24 September 2014

You've Ruined Your Own Lands! : WoW, ArcheAge, Everquest

Roger at Contains Moderate Peril offered a rebuff to Sig's post at Crucible Gaming, in which Sig made the bold statement that WoW ruined MMO gaming. Sig's post there is unusual in that it offers a clear and, to my memory at least, accurate picture of ordinary, mid-level, quotidian MMO gameplay, pre-WoW.

It remains, however, only one aspect of that gameplay. Roger makes the point, very forcefully, that he approaches the MMOs he plays "from the position of single player working towards personal goals" and that he's "not primarily looking for friends or a broader social experience". This certainly sounds a lot more like 2014 talking than the common conception of the genre back in 2004 when WoW appeared, but is the coming of WoW and the passing of a few years really all there is to the story?

One of the many things about the experience of playing pre-WoW MMOs that rarely gets acknowledged is how solo-friendly they were and how large a part soloists played in their communities. The history of MMORPGs mostly seems to have been written by people who were either in or aspired to join end-game raid guilds. Those people are hardly representative of the day-to-day gameplay the rest of us enjoyed.

Within a few days of installing Everquest in late 1999 I was searching the internet for advice on soloing and I had no trouble finding some. Much of it wasn't very helpful, which is how I came to spend two weeks getting a dwarven cleric to level nine, but there was certainly no shortage of suggestions. The game might already have had a reputation for forced grouping but there were plenty of people playing it who didn't want to be forced.
I joined a few groups very early on, mostly in Blackburrow, and decided that far from being a faster way to level it actually got me killed. A lot. In the days of level loss that risked literally sending my character backwards so I stopped. Soloing just seemed safer and for the following few months I probably soloed 95% of the time. Even when I dipped back into grouping, when I had a character leveling up in Kunark, it was something I mainly did at weekends, just for fun.

Three players in this picture: one we still play with, one we haven''t heard of for a decade and one who was instrumental in our changing servers so we'd never have to play with her again. MMO communities in a nutshell.

One of the key differences between pre- and post-WoW MMOs is player agency. While it was possible to solo any class to the level cap in early Everquest (there were masochists who soloed rogues, for Brell's sake!) in order to enjoy it you needed to pick the right class. You couldn't just re-make your favorite character from a fantasy novel and expect him to be able to do anything you wanted. You had to accept that the gameplay had been designed in such a way that some classes were solo-friendly and others just weren't. In short, you needed to choose the correct tool for the job.

With WoW, Blizzard's designers attempted to improve on a number of the things they felt hadn't gone as well as they might have done back when they were all playing EQ. In their attempt to hand back a good deal of the agency to players that Verant, with their telling catchphrase "You're in our world now", hadn't felt necessary, they managed to create the expectation that you could pick any tool and do any job with it.

By doing so they did indeed hand agency to players but, arguably, at the cost of a paradoxical lack of choice. As they say, when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Over time we moved from any player being able to solo to any character being able to solo and that, in my opinion, is the real root of the problem (always assuming we believe it is a problem).

A lack of clearly-defined character roles, bounded by in-game rules, led to the blandness and lack of coherency from which many post-WoW MMOs have sometimes appeared to suffer. If you allow players to make exactly the character they prefer and use it to do any of the things the game offers, they will tend first towards doing the most accessible things, the things that take the least organization, and later, if asked to do otherwise, they will balk.

Nothing says "Community" like an MGB. Tips gratefully accepted.

At some point it must have become apparent to design teams that they were facing a choice: either produce high-end content that could easily be soloed (since that was clearly the preference of the players who had been attracted by the changes that had already been made lower down the level range) or carry on producing organized high-end content that required multiple players to complete but make the organization itself easier and more accessible. Presumably with retention and income-stream in mind, they went for the latter, which is how we arrived at automated group-finders and raid-finders, public quests,  all-pile-on open grouping and the rest of the toybox of wonders that makes up a modern MMO.

This decision, naturally, turned out to have its own downsides. Without a strong sense of personal discipline and a clear understanding of personal goals, a diet of easily-achieved or acquired content can pall relatively quickly. In the old days, highly-motivated, organized individuals tended to gravitate either to long-term solo play or high-end leadership roles. The bulk of players hung around in the middle somewhere, clustering together for comfort and security and, because they tended to form relationships with other players while doing so, they also tended to hang around a particular game for a lot longer than they do now.

As Carbine found with WildStar the genre has undergone a cultural change that can't simply be switched off. The combination of years of accretive accessibility inside games and the growth of always-on social media outside them have brought us to a place where the bulk of the potential audience for MMOs is no longer willing to be dictated to, within a given game, over what kind of content they can and cannot consume there, while at the same time they no longer need those games to provide them with the kind of virtual social networks they used not to be able to get anywhere else.

My Imaginary Friend. Players? Who needs 'em?

Weak demand coupled with a wealth of choice puts MMO developers in a very fragile position. It's easy for players to walk away and hard to persuade them to stick around. Right now, ArcheAge is attempting to go around that hurdle rather than jump over it by introducing a whole raft of activities hitherto unknown to most MMO gamers.

Impermanent, insecure personal possessions. Predation. Vulnerability. Risk. To survive and prosper in AA the current thinking is that players will have to co-operate, form communities, make personal interactions with other human beings a part of their day-to-day routine.

Whether this will prove any more attractive, long-term, to a mainstream MMO audience than WildStar's failed, attritional, grind-to-raid end-game remains to be seen. My feeling at this point is that both games employ a remarkably similar light, bright, fluffy wrapper to hide a very spiky, unforgiving core and the end result may not be all that different.

Still, if nothing else, ArcheAge and the publicity that has surrounded its seemingly successful launch may at least introduce a few modern MMO players to some unfamiliar concepts, not least among them teamwork, co-operation, awareness of your surroundings and the outside possibility that you just might not get given everything you want just for turning up. Sometimes you might even miss out altogether.

I don't suppose it's going to bring back the kind of List-based camp grind gameplay Sig recalls. I bloody well hope not! It might, though, prepare the ground for a few new twists and wrinkles to the gameplay that has staled over the long years since WoW seemed such a fresh breath of air. Let's hope so.

10 comments:

  1. As I put in a comment elsewhere, what WoW did was free us from the tyranny of the group. You could go out and do something on your own if you didn't have a group or just had a short time on a weeknight.

    What WoW did, inadvertently or by design, I couldn't tell you which, was make solo the most efficient trip to level cap. There were, and still are, any number of quests that were very annoying to do in a group relative to solo.

    If they had managed to make grouping more efficient, but left soloing viable, we might be having a different discussion today.

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    1. The problem is with the "most efficient" mindset I remember from EQ is that there is only one 'most efficient' way to do anything, and that is where everyone is going to gravitate. SoE tried to make grouping more efficient as soloing became possible for more people and that went nowhere fast.

      There were always calls to open up more planes in PoP and I observed that even if more planes opened up, everyone would gravitate toward the 'most efficient' place to get exp and complain it was too busy. Which is exactly what happened when BoT opened up.

      If soloing is at all viable, it's going to be the best way to level, just given the overhead of getting everyone online and in the same place.

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    2. I agree that "efficiency" is the real buzz killer for MMOs. If you create an experience that, fundamentally, comes down to pressing a lever to get a pellet, which is what the Progression in MMOs amounts to, people will always gravitate either to the lever that's easiest to use or the one that drops the most pellets per push.

      It's hard to see any outcome other than niche MMOs for people who have psychological issues that allow/compel them to behave inefficiently enjoy it or mass market MMOs that cascade towards the most efficient mechanics the game will stand before everyone decides it's not even a game any more and leaves.

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    3. @wilhelm Perhaps they're saving that up for Titan. Oh, wait a minute...

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    4. "If soloing is at all viable, it's going to be the best way to level, just given the overhead of getting everyone online and in the same place."

      Not if only certain classes are the only ones that can do so. Beastmaster was the only class designed to solo in FFXI and yet you didn't see that many of them around because they brought nothing to groups. The most efficient way to level was in groups.

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  2. Efficiency is always problematic. As Edward Castronova said, "Being an elf doesn’t make you turn off the rational economic calculator part of your brain." People want to have fun, but also want to use their limited time effectively. Remember Warhammer Online? Open world RvR was going to be the thing... only the efficient way to get PvP and level up was in their battlegrounds. So everybody did that and the RvR zones languished. But when an RvR zone actually had people in it, that was huge fun. You just had to wait around until people were there... so much easier to queue for a battleground.

    @Bhagpuss - Blizzard has made grouping up to level through some of the content very efficient in WoW. The way to get through The Burning Crusade is to queue up for dungeon finder groups. But those are random groups where people rarely talk and represent their own sort of evil in the whole "WoW killed the genre" view of the world.

    But here I am in a regular group that has done the content as a group for the last eight years. It is possible. It is annoying when Blizz punishes you for grouping, but we press on. What some people want is to go back to forcing people to play "the right way," or at least to punish them with hardships if they fail to follow the one true path.

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  3. Fascinating read for those us that weren't playing MMOs in those days.

    The thought occurs to me... when people are talking about picking the right tool for the job (as in only some classes are soloable) or the relative efficiency of different ways of playing the game, well you are presuming a heck of a lot of a newbie player.

    How is the person looking at the character creation screen for the first time to know if any given class is going to even be playable for them?

    I started playing MMOs well after the WoW days, and probably unusually for a new player I read a lot of info before making my class choices. And even then it dawned on me after playing for a while that soloing with my tank was on the tedious side because of low DPS. And at the same certain important quests were nigh on impossible to solo on level for a squishy hunter.

    If it was even than that worse before WoW, I can imagine how that would have been a major barrier to people taking up the genre, because they wouldn't have known what choices to make to not end up frustrated with their experience.

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    1. This is a really interesting point. The short answer to the question "How is the person looking at the character creation screen for the first time to know if any given class is going to even be playable for them?" is - they aren't. You can do all the research you like - I did a ton because at the time I was luck enough to have unmonitored internet access at work - but in the end you are never going to find out what you enjoy until you try it and in an MMO that really means playing until you get far enough to see the full capabilities of your class, which in htose days could take weeks, if not months.

      I'd been playing EQ for something like three years (with about nine months out in the middle when I went to DAOC) before I finally settled on the class I would take to max level and play "seriously". It turned out to be Cleric and it wasn't even MY cleric originally. I inherited him from Mrs Bhagpuss when we swapped accounts. She'd only taken him up to level 9 though - I did the rest of the 60, then 65, levels.

      It turned out that I *loved* main healing in group content. I'd had a taste of it playing a druid and enjoyed it but the full-on cleric experience turned out to be what I'd been looking for all along. I never felt I'd wasted my time on the classes I'd played before I discovered that, though.

      It does come down to personality and taste in the end. Some people relish experimentation and enjoy leveling up characters. For them its a positive pleasure to test-drive half a dozen classes before one finally clicks. Other people just want to concentrate on one character from the beginning. For them the idea that the choice they make at character creation may lock them out of entire playstyles or aspects of gameplay is clearly a major drawback.

      There probably isn't a right or wrong way for designers to go on this. It comes down to knowing what kind of game you want to make and thereby what audience you hope to attract. I tend to feel the pendulum has swung too far towards universal accessibility and we're due a change of direction but maybe that's just because it would suit me if that's what happened.

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  4. This is why the world needs Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. Look it up.

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    1. Check the labels at the foot of the column under "P". Or perhaps this one from six months before the 2014 post you just commented on, where I talk about the Kickstarter and how I plan on backing it - which I did, for what good that was...

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