Saturday, 13 December 2014

In Which I Give Myself A Good Talking To : GW2, EQ2

It's one of the fundamental tenets of massively multiple online roleplaying gaming that everything is subject to revision. The imaginary worlds we pretend to inhabit aren't static. They are meant to grow and alter as though they were real.

We understand that each time we slip on our pixel skins and step out under those familiar, unfamiliar skies something may have changed. In this way it mirrors our lives outside. The walk you take each day is never the same walk. Businesses open and close, the traffic shifts, whole communities change character around us without asking our consent.

For the longest while this was a great part of what attracted me to the form. The mutability. The potential for wonder and surprise. The thrill of the new, the unknown. Of late, though, I find I weary of it all. Instead of yearning for the new, the fresh, the unforeseen, I log in hoping to find things much the same.

The nature and purpose of the changes seem themselves to have changed. Casting back, more than a decade, to a time when rude individuals set up their rough huts across Qeynos Hills and the agents of Bertoxxolous worked secretly in the shadows to bring the plague for the Plaguebringer, in that the long, golden age of mystery and suspense, I had no real understanding of what was happening around me.

Over what seems in memory to be a very long time indeed, a slow, obscure narrative played out, bringing great disruption and a clamor of excitement. Places that had been safe became deadly. Great forces contended but for what prizes it was not ours to know. Opportunities arose for those quick enough to grasp them. Change was all around and it felt right and good and natural.

Why we cannot have nice things: Fig. 1.

Today all change comes forewarned. It arrives on schedule. From the rote formality of the Living Story, inching forward a notch every second Tuesday unless holidays intervene, to the sporadic Issues and Updates of The Secret World or EQ2, anticipated, awaited, advertized and analyzed before ever they are played, little reaches us unheralded.

Change you know is coming is very different from change you don't expect. Even should you choose not to visit websites, click on links, watch Twitch streams and YouTube presentations, open emails or engage with social media, on the day of the Update your characters will certainly receive direct notification inside the game. There is no option to arrive unaware at the point of crisis, to walk in innocence into the line of fire, the way I did the day I became suddenly and fatally aware of the Dark Elven invasion of Firiona Vie.

Change is unavoidable but the greatest changes, while vital, used to be contained. Boxed expansions brought whole new continents to explore but largely left the known lands alone. If you wanted to go on as you had always gone on then that option was open for you to take.

In a geographic sense that remains, largely, true but over the years a miasma of minor and major visual polishes and makeovers has settled on the glories of the past, leaving an unattractive patina, not of neglect but of mismanagement. The endless attempts to update appearances - better textures, new character models, improved graphic engines - often sit on the surface of older games like the fashions of youth on an aging narcissist, fooling no-one but disturbing many.

Once reviled, now revered.

Then there are the repurposings. The villages of Freeport and Qeynos, instanced and questlined; all those new New Player Experiences, those zone revamps that follow no logic or lore beyond that of the extended focus group and the metrics report.

We always had upheaval, of course. How many times did Splitpaw change hands; or Grobb? Even ailing worlds like Telon, where one might have expected the tide of change to flow slowly if at all, saw heavy-handed tinkering along its fringes, time and again. If change feels more ponderous, less organic now, perhaps it's merely that the stardust is off our eyes.

Even when the terrain remains unaltered, to revisit often feels false because our characters do not. Beneath their surfaces writhe changes wrought by hands other than their, or our, own: adjustments made by the Gods of Design, who bring endless alteration to the physical laws of the worlds in which our characters and their own frangible, powerless Gods reside.

Through no exercise of theirs our characters strengthen. Unborn imaginary generations outstrip the fantasies of their fancied ancestors. Learning curves flatten, enemies weaken, skills and abilities are handed out as of right. Weapons that would have graced a knight in a former age become fit only for farmhands. Nothing stays the same.

Well, why should it? Time moves on, the world changes, you can never go home again and all the rest of that dismal, defeated claptrap. Only...

To be retained for F2P players as a default 50% xp reduction. Thanks for that.
Recently I read several proofs of novels to be published this winter and next spring. They were all very good and they were all very bleak. I was exhausted both by novelty and despair so I went looking for solace in the familiar. Instead of another new novel I picked out an old favorite and began re-reading. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change. Everything was familiar. Everything was in its place. Some things remain immutable. Time runs off them like rain. You can go home there and they have to take you in.

Were I to begin to feel, like Stargrace, weary of MMOs yet still not weary of gaming I could, fathomably, return to an offline favorite and find it exactly as I remembered. Perhaps that might be a little harder to do than picking up an old copy of a book; complex hardware mitigates against reusability, over time. Not impossible, however; just harder. In MMOs, though, there truly is no going back.

Next week the daily achievement system in GW2 gets yet another reset and WvW gains a new ruleset for a month. The two things I most enjoy doing in that game right now will no longer be what they were. Also next week EQ2 implements a radical overhaul of both the Dungeon Maker and AA systems, something that will bring profound change to the game experience of just about everyone playing there.

Like it or not change is on the way; change followed by change followed by change. Yes, I weary of it. Yes, I often wonder if I wouldn't be happier playing an MMO where nothing ever changed. Well, wonder away. That MMO doesn't exist. It never has and it never will.

Our boats drift with the current, borne onward ceaselessly into the future. Tomorrow is always another day. Get used to it.
















13 comments:

  1. And that is why e.g. Legacy Servers are so often asked for :P

    The desire for Expansions that are 'just' an addition of extra continents/horizontal expansions is voiced by more people, even with games like WoW (which is pretty much completely endgame focussed by now, and has since Cataclysm seen pretty much an almost-complete overhaul of certain mechanics every Expansion).

    Personally I'm right in the camp of 'horizontal Expansions', I find the most tiring aspect of MMORPG's the seemingly constant mucking -up of mechanisms that almost invariably invalidate some game-aspect you like and/or effort you expended based upon how a certain mechanic (used to) work (s) before they mucked it up, as well as forcing you to focus on the (imo) least interesting aspects of virtual world games (mechanics, rotations, calculating BiS etc.) instead of the virtual world experience itself

    Add in that a lot of mucking up is 'justified' because of the problems the seemingly-insatiable desire to plonk ever more levels atop of game systems that weren't originally designed to handle such increasing numbers to begin with (pretty much every RPG is designed, numberswise, around bell-curves, with the top of the curve being the 'level' everything 'works' the best; level increases try to move that top along but it almost invariably leads to 'wonkiness'), and I so, so much would love to see a game that centres on finding different ways to get to cap (and hence Alting) instead of just increasing the level cap.

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    1. The endless fiddling with process has annoyed me from my early days in EQ onwards. The big one used to be "class balance" which went on and on and on in most MMOs I played. It always reminded me of the slapstick routine where a couple of clowns start cutting pieces off the legs of a table to try and get it to stop wobbling and end up with a flat board lying on the floor.

      These days the one they can't leave alone seems to be traits/skills. That's even more annoying because every change results in a points reset and having to respend them all. I hate doing it once let alone repeatedly and Mrs Bhagpuss hates it so much she has left a couple of MMOs altogether when required to re-allocate points for the third or fourth time.

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  2. Beautiful post :) I hear ya, but then you knew that already.
    I think the early days of MMOs are the best for this reason, when the game is still unaltered and not as over-analyzed and reported on, with no thoughts and tweaks given for the midterm and new player experience etc. A while back when I wrote about how big expansions are a problem for MMOs, I suggested to have 'sercret patches', as in not announcing what's being added or changed in the world, even if soon enough someone would no doubt share what they found and blog about it. Still, patch notes and achievements and markers are basically telling us what it's all about before we even got there and that is what I will always take fault with, directed gameplay in what's supposed to be an open world.

    About this:
    "I was exhausted both by novelty and despair so I went looking for solace in the familiar. Instead of another new novel I picked out an old favorite and began re-reading. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change. Everything was familiar. Everything was in its place. Some things remain immutable. Time runs off them like rain. You can go home there and they have to take you in."

    ...the 'solace of the familiar' is what has kept so many MMO players in WoW and keeps so many returning. In many ways, WoW is my Dragonlance, which is the one book trilogy that I always return to, to go catch my breath when the rest of the world has become alien and unsettling. It's an interesting thing about change and innovation - we crave it but it also wears us down. Maybe it's not so bad having a staple MMO like WoW always waiting for you, while also trying out new games every now and then.

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    1. Thanks! I really wanted to work in a link to your excellent recent post on change and community but I couldn't quite find the appropriate lead-in. So I'll just link it here instead in case anyone reading this hasn't seen it (although I imagine we have a pretty close correlation in readership).



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    2. Oh thanks! and I imagine we do :)

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  3. I love how into books you are (you often comment around them) and that constant is always there. This is why it is nice to have different mediums to play in. OF course, we would like the better parts of each (or our personal perceived better parts of each) to exist in the others, but where is the fun in that?

    I have two big temptations right now. One is to play Dragon Age: Origins again, a fantastic single player store. The DA:Keep isn't working for me (although it found my saved game file) and I can't remember my choices. That single player experience I can own!

    The other is to go back to WoW to precisely see the changes. There is still a familiarity there that trumps all the things that have changed. Those are my 10 year old toons who deserve to see level 100 =)

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    1. Books, music, cinema, comics - all of those, all my life, but books probably most of all. I'm always toying with the idea of starting a blog around some or all of those in addition to this one but really, where would the time come from?

      As for seeing changes to MMOs I've played, I find that hard to resist too. Even if I end up hating them I still want to see them.

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  4. I pictured myself sitting by a fire in a comfy chair sipping on hot chocolate while reading that. Beautiful prose!

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    1. Heh! Thanks! I wish I'd been doing that while I was writing it.

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  5. Very well written and relatable. I don't envy the developers' job of having to find a balance between changing things to keep them fresh and still retaining the original feel of the game throughout.

    I could never point to a single change in WoW that prompted me to stop playing after more than five years, but I think the fact that so much had changed and kept changing with every expansion had a lot to do with it.

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    1. Thanks! Me neither on the devs' part in all this. You can see the tension very clearly nowadays in both EQ and, especially, EQ2, as the devs try to play off their own creative desires, the need to keep the games as current as they can be to bring in new blood and the often-contrary need to keep the longtime fans on board too, Not infrequently they seem to end up pleasing nobody.

      Doing nothing and leaving the game in stasis just isn't an option though. Even the most conservative diehards still expect new content.

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  6. In any game, MMO or single player, I love to explore and check out whatever new zone/land there is. That is the best part of an expansion, adding some new lands. I would do not like is when they constantly change game mechanics. I hate having to relearn how to play a character I may have been playing for years.

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    1. I'm with you there and I think a lot of people are. More of what we already know we like, that's what we want. It sounds obvious but for some reason we don't seem to get it all that often.

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