Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Mission Creep: GW2, WoW et al

Over the past few weeks I've found myself idly pondering one of the eternal questions: what do I want out of an MMO? It's a very different question from "what makes a good MMO?" or even "what makes a successful MMO?"

Those are questions for which you might hope to devise some kind of scale or standard in order to reach some approximation of an objective answer, but the question of what you, yourself, want from the games you play is, by definition, entirely subjective. You might imagine that would make it easier to pin down. Not so, or not, at least, for me.

Mood and whim play such a large part. Circumstances within and outside the games dictate any number of changes of attitude, opinion and reaction. What felt good ten years ago may feel less so today; what feels good on a Sunday morning may grate on Monday night. Getting to a clear understanding of why the form appeals at all and what precisely I want and hope to derive from it is not a simple task.

Up above the roofs and houses...

Still, after more than fifteen years of doing this thing, I am starting to feel I might at last have a handle on what works for me in MMOs and what doesn't. At some point I'd like to set that down in some detail, so that I can consider it in another five, ten, fifteen years, should I be fortunate enough still to be around then to look back and see how well my argument stands up.

This is not that point and this is not that post. Thinking on it this morning, though, something else occurred to me. I've just had a long weekend during which I was free to play whatever I wanted. Before it began, in my mind I had a picture of what I might do. I imagined myself engaged with various this-and-thats in various MMOs - Everquest, EQ2, Istaria, GW2, TESO,  the Valliance demo, TSW...

It was an eclectic, engaging, appealing vision. In the event, though, I played GW2 for three days solid, the only exception being a couple of short visits to Tamriel, where my simple goal of reaching level 10 remains unrealized. Why did I do that?

One does not stop for a photo opportunity in Dragonball. It was this, the entrance hall or me, dead.

Is it because GW2 is the perfect MMO for me as Jeromai has claimed it is for him? Is it because Mrs Bhagpuss is ensconced there? Is it just habit? Or is it because, in common with a number of maturing MMOs, GW2 isn't really an MMORPG in the sense we once understood the term at all but the graphical front end of a suite of discrete games and activities, each of which scratches a different entertainment itch?

Here's a list off the top of my head of what I did in GW2 this weekend with a gloss on how they fit into the tapestry that is Guild Wars 2:

  • Dailies on three accounts. (Character progression with rewards available, in a mix-and-match format, for all three major game modes - PvE, sPvP, WvW)
  • Lunar dailies on three accounts. (Fluff Holiday content with PvE/WvW rewards)
  • Dragonball. (Instanced PvP Holiday Content with possible, very minor, PvE/WvW rewards and gold)
  • Instanced PvP. (Separate game mode with its own character progression but also with PvE/WvW-relevant character progression rewards)
  • The World Boss Train. (PvE Zerg content with large PvE rewards)
  •  Tequatl. (PvE Open Raid content with large PvE rewards)
  • WvW. (Separate game mode with its own character progression but also with PvE-relevant rewards)
  •  The Obsidian Sanctum Jumping Puzzle. (Open World (kind of) Exploration (kind of) Platforming (kind of) content with WvW/PvE rewards).
  • Open World Exploration. (Mainstream PvE character progression. What we would once, naively, have called "the game")
  • The Overgrown Grub. (Competitive PvE zerg/raid content in a WvW environment with PvE/WvW rewards)

Plus an awful lot of standing around in Divinity's Reach, Lion's Arch and the PvP Lobby making smart alec remarks in map chat, having trivial conversations with total strangers while taking screenshots of the Toy Golem Uprising.

Speculation on the forums was frenzied for a while but no, its not a Content Harbinger. It's a bug.

As can easily be seen, ArenaNet have made a concerted effort to tie all those activities and enterprises together by mean of the rewards they offer. Almost anything you do in GW2 gives you some tangible reward that can, theoretically, benefit your character in PvE and in the PvE-based player versus player WvW mode. Structured PvP, designed to keep a permanently even playing field, is the real standalone exception.

The theme seems to be "do whatever you like but remember it's all one game". It's a smoke and mirrors routine that all theme-park MMOs seek to bring off without anyone feeling they've been misled. Increasingly the audience seems ever-willing to play along. Hardly surprising; what we all fear is a content drought so we tend to grab on to anything that passes with both hands without questioning too closely what it has to do with what we came here for in the first place.

Atten-hut! Golems, by the left, kawiiiick march!

I don't play WoW at the moment and I didn't buy Warlords of Draenor but even from my remote vantage I can hear the rumblings of discontent over in Azeroth. Green Armadillo is scratching his head over what he might do with the second 30 days of his 60 day timecard since he's about finished with the expansion after just three weeks. Eliot at Massively OP, discussing the postponement of the much-desired Iron Docks content drop, summarizes things thus: "...the problem here comes down to one of perception, presentation, and the simple fact that there’s plenty to do at level cap in Warlords of Draenor… but also absolutely nothing to do.

It's nonsense of course. There's simply masses to do; in WoW and in all the mature, developed, maintained MMOs. It's just not always what people expected they'd be doing or would have chosen to do. What surprises me most is how many of these things are really other games in disguise, from the Pokemon-inspired Pet Battles to the MOBA-like Arenas as experienced by The Duke of O , who observes "My friends and I don't even play WoW as an MMO - we play it as a MOBA, spending the vast majority of our time in instanced Arena or Rated BG matches, and consider the rest of the game as an added bonus."

It probably shouldn't surprise me. It's been going on for a long time. I guess the first example I can bring to mind was the introduction of instanced Battlegrounds to Dark Age of Camelot. That was the first time I can remember seeing content separate from the game housed within the game in an MMO.

Open-field siege is not considered bad form when you point your ballista at a Grub. We still got trebbed from the keep though.

As Virtual Worlds the game-spaces always gave themselves willingly to self-directed segregation by players. In any public space knots of activity tend to grow around individuals who share a common interest and MMOs were no different for being virtual. Like people in a park, however, all those groups needed to be aware and mindful of the other groups around them. No kicking your ball through the picnic area or throwing your frisbee over the bowling green. Not if you didn't want the Parkie to turn up and tell you off. Or the GM. When we had in-game GMs.

Over the years we seem to have moved to a patchwork, ad hoc arrangement, by which some activities take place in the open but in set locations out of everyone else's way while others are hosted out of sight in the walled gardens of instances. Moreover, there are entirely enough of these discrete and semi-discrete pastimes and pleasures for any one of them to absorb most or even all of a given player's attention.

I only went to Obsidian Sanctum to find the GvG arena. I have no idea how I ended up doing the entire jumping puzzle and missing Tequatl. I don't even like jumping puzzles although it seems these days I don't even know what I don't like.

In GW2 there are plenty of players who only play WvW or only play sPvP. They are at best amusedly tolerant, more often sarcastically dismissive, of much of what constitutes the bulk of the game. In EQ2 there's a whole community of people whose main and sometimes only interest lies in designing and decorating houses. Every mature MMO plays host to special-interest groups largely unknown each to the other. At some stage, without my noticing, it seems MMOs ceased to be single, coherent entities and morphed into portmanteau collections.

I don't have any great conclusion to draw from these observations. I'm just thinking aloud. Maybe it isn't so different from the days when Dungeon players looked down on Outdoor players in EQ or Raiders considered themselves a breed above non-Raiders in...well, every MMO that has raids (except, on Aywren's evidence, FFXIV).

I don't like sPvP either. Except apparently now I do. Especially when I win.

It does feel different though. It's as though the set meal of the first generation MMOs has been replaced by a buffet. The whole concept of playing a specific character in a specific place alongside other people doing exactly the same seems oddly old-fashioned, although no less attractive to me.

And maybe it's why I keep on playing GW2. I don't have time to play several MMOs when the one I'm playing is half a dozen different games already.  And since all the games feed my characters the things they desire it's all too easy to slip into believing I'm still playing one of those old virtual world, character-based MMORPGs after all.

7 comments:

  1. Grinding away at the luminescent set, ascended armor sets, and random collections here and there have given me such purpose in life.

    The camaraderie though, is what makes it real fun. Is the social factor a result of a great game, or is the game great because of its social factor?

    -Ursan

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    1. I can easily answer that from a personal point of view: the game comes first and last for me. Yes, I will sometimes play a game that I am not wild about for the sake of social ties, but not for long and not with any great enthusiasm. For example, I'm playing more GW2 than I almost certainly would otherwise because Mrs Bhagpuss is there all the time and a friend of ours plays regularly but a while back, when Mrs B and another friend were playing Rift a lot of the time for a couple of months I tried to join them and lasted about three sessions. Couldn't summon up any interest in the gameplay any more and that was that. I went back to GW2, EQ2 and several other MMOs and did my own thing until the Rift adventure ended.

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  2. Conversely, I've been too sick, busy and drawn away by Minecraft: Wanderlust Reloaded over the past two weeks to do much in GW2 besides quick dailies.

    What's really important (to me, anyway) is that I am not falling behind, in stats or in organized groups 'acceptance' factor. Two weeks from now, I could log back into GW2, ready to go full throttle again and jump straight into a WvW zerg or Triple Trouble Wurm daily, without having to scramble to update my equipment to the latest and greatest.

    Sure, I'm a little poorer in gold, crafting mats, and sheer quantity of blues and greens, not to mention overall social bonds (as relationships decay over time if not renewed), but no one measures those on a scale and says, sorry, you don't have enough gold or visual bling to run this dungeon with me.

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    1. Curiously, I saw from Ravious's interview today that Crowfall is using the offline skill progression mechanic from EVE (and also Alganon although no-one ever mentions that) for exactly this reason, so that players can come back at any time and not find themselves behind the curve. It clearly makes good commercial sense for businesses to remove any obstacles that prevent former customers coming back to give them more money.

      On the other hand, I do think it loses something. I don't at all like offline progression. I find it actively off-putting in fact. Score one more negative for Crowfall in my book. I prefer GW2's mechanic but, like The Mystical Mesmer, I really do miss meaningful stat/power growth. My only recourse is to keep leveling up new characters, which I do, but I would take having to catch up after a long break over never seeing my characters progress any day.

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  3. Glad you found a happy place =)

    I think we all ponder this (and often) as elder statesmen (delusions of grandeur!) of the MMO space. Last time I looked at it on my blog I put:

    “A non-instanced, strategically paced, skill based, single world, sandbox style, relationship conducive, emotional driven fantasy world that I can enjoy in chunks of one hour (or less) two to three times a week (or when family/work time allows).”

    That was the "technical". The other part of it was "I want a MMO that can illicit the emotion of the games I used to love". isn't that a tall order? Emotions aren't really tangible or measurable, at least, not yet. I also argued that WoW would probably play BETTER as a lobby game, but that is a whole other post.

    I have a draft about experiences that you actually encouraged me to write, that will hopefully get out of my head and on the blog this week.

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  4. Great article with a lot to think about. It's true that MMOs seem to be expanding all sorts of directions from the core. FFXIV's new Gold Saucer is also an example of this - we now have a theme park casino, a world-wide card game and chocobo racing. So much to do, and that's just the start from what I hear.

    I may grouch about story issues in GW2, but I always loved what they accomplished with gameplay and content. Running around in the PvE world, I'd always get side tracked by something. It was never dull for me, and I'm not a PvP player of any kind.

    Glad that you've found your game! While I don't play as much as I used to, I hope development and the expansion treats GW2 players well. :)

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    1. @Isey and Aywren I do really like GW2, it's true, and I enjoy playing it a great deal, but I was also trying to hint at something more sinister going on. Don't think I made that as clear as I could have done, reading back. It could be taken as a pure positive that MMOs have gradually evolved to encompass all kinds of content that I for one never even considered would be part of the form back in the early days. It has certainly been going on for a very long time and maybe it really is intrinsic to the concept of a "virtual world" that it can have analogues of any worldly activity within.

      It could, though, also be interpreted as a dilution of the core values of the genre, if, that is, you believe the core to be the development of convincing, individual characters within in a coherent, consistent, believable world. I'm not at all sure that I haven't been bedazzled by the sparkling lights and befuddled by the cries of the carnival barkers into spending my time throwing quoits at their slightly-too-large blocks in the hope of winning a stuffed animal when I should really be out adventuring and seeing the world.

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