Monday, 9 March 2015

You Can't Always Get What You Want: Everquest, GW2, FFXIV

Syl is excited about the upcoming Heavensward expansion for FFXIV, due out this June, and who can blame her? It sounds solid and the visuals look fantastic. Like the recent addition of The Golden Saucer it pushes me to consider giving Eorzea another run, sooner or later.

GW2's Heart of Thorns, about to go into beta, also seems packed with content and visual flair, with the latest teaser for the new WvW map looking particularly intriguing. For all my carping and critiquing I'm looking forward to it very much.

Neither, however, admirable and enjoyable as they no doubt will turn out to be, is really what I think of when I hear the word "expansion". As I continue to self-examine on what MMORPGs mean to me it is becoming uncomfortably apparent that I may never again get to see a real expansion for any MMO I play.

My expectations of what to expect from an MMORPG expansion come from Everquest. I began playing in November 1999 and in less than six months the first ever EQ expansion, Ruins of Kunark, arrived. At that stage, having played with increasing fervor and dedication throughout the winter into the spring, my highest character in a game with fifty levels was somewhere in the low twenties.

Kunark accommodated me. It arrived with a vast, new continent that not only offered a huge increase in content for max-level characters, and ten whole, new levels for them to grind, but with a new race, a new starting city, four new starting zones and a full range of new open-world maps and dungeons for all level ranges.

Did you hear? Over in Eorzea they're getting flying mounts!
The first EQ expansion effectively welded an entirely new MMORPG onto the side of the existing one. It could perfectly easily have been released as a separate, standalone game. A mere eight months later almost the same thing happened again. The second EQ expansion, Scars of Velious, didn't include any new playable races or starting areas but it added another major landmass whose sprawling icefields and foreboding dungeons offered exploration and excitement for characters of all level ranges from the mid-twenties.

Still, there was considerable criticism at the time. Even such a modest step-up made the expansion seem, for some, too obviously aimed at a high-level elite. Come the third expansion, which took a whole year to arrive, SOE appeared to have taken these criticisms very much to heart.

Shadows of Luclin wasn't content just to add another continent like Kunark and Velious; it added an entire new world. Once again it came with a new race, a new starting city, new starting zones and full, fresh and complete content for every level.

In less than three years Everquest had effectively been launched and relaunched four times with expansions that might just as easily have been released as four separate, complete, self-contained MMORPGs. That was my introduction both to the genre and to the patterns of growth it entailed.

After that things began to fluctuate. Legacy of Ykesha was the first (and only) "extension pack", a much smaller and less ambitious version of the full-blown expansion. Planes of Power returned to the expected, monumentally huge scale but placed all its content firmly in the hands of characters pressing up against the "end game". Lost Dungeons of Norrath, the expansion that, for good or ill, introduced instancing to the genre, made all of its content available to every character from the late-teens onward.

The Undiscovered Land
Finally, as SoE established a breakneck, six-monthly expansion cycle, the format of expansions began to crystallize into something aimed squarely and solidly at those players who had finished the previous one and were hungry for more shinies for their high-level darlings. There was only one more attempt at a Kunark/Luclin style re-beginning;The Serpent Sea. It didn't go down very well and there's been no attempt to repeat it in the last eight years.

Well, phooey! It turns out that sprawling expansions that introduce new races and offer a whole new creation-to-cap leveling track are precisely what I really want. I want to go to a new part of the world and start all over again from scratch. I don't particularly want to take my existing characters onwards and upwards. I want to park them for a while, make new ones and womble about in the boondocks of some strange new place, making my own jerkins out of scraps of new-world leather and my arrows out of the fallen branches of strange new trees. Then eventually, when I get bored with that, I want to wake up my various stable of characters and truck them through the harder bits.

Fat chance of that. It's so inefficient, isn't it? So wasteful? Look how it spreads out the population and makes the world look empty. See how confusing it is to new players. All that duplication and redundancy; all those unused zones.

We knew no better back then, of course. Some of us even thought we were exploring. That there'd always be another continent or another world. That every new box would be the game all over again, the same game we'd bought the last time and the time before that and hoped to go on buying forever.

Well nothing lasts forever. The MMORPG expansion as I knew and loved it had a brief and spectacular flowering that faded long ago. We will not see its like again. Looking back, it's scarcely believable it happened the first time. I'm just happy I was there to see it and experience it in all its crazed glory.

So, bring on Heavensward and Heart of Thorns. If you can't get what you want sometimes you just have to make the best make of what you can get.




20 comments:

  1. I have a draft post floating about that is pretty much a love letter to Ruins of Kunark that I will finish up some day. I have, at times, called it the only truly good expansion. It certainly was the prototypical expansion that set our expectations for the future.

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    1. I look forward to reading that one!

      Kunark arrived so soon after I'd started that, much though I loved the new opportunities and my Iksar SK, I found it too much to take in at first. I was still getting to grips with it by the time Velious arrived and it was years later before I finally saw most of the dungeons. All those expansions are just incomprehensibly huge though, looking back. It's no wonder I was overwhelmed.

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  2. Gah, I just want one GAME to capture my time and imagination, let alone any sort of expansion. I also have a post up in my head about missing launches - you know how incredibly difficult it is to get into and enjoy an MMO that is so messy and convoluted to start with? I made it to level 18 in EQ2 when it launched, I tried to start again this weekend. So hard.

    My highest level character in EQ (without the bump) was 52. That was when I left that world for good, until recent nostalgic returns. Something fitting having Braack stuck there.

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    1. Stargrace was posting along those lines earlier today. Both the EQ games seem to me to be completely forbidding for anyone to return to after a long lay-off. Like anything else, though, if you stick at it it will come. How many people are likely to stick at a ten or fifteen year old MMO, however, is another matter altogether.

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  3. On the other hand back then you didn't have 5 zillion MMORPGs with a new story and lore to explore.

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    1. Very true. I did, however, make sterling attempts to try every one I ever heard about, even while I was being overwhelmed by content in the one I was meant to be playing. I was never made to settle for just one MMO, that's for sure.

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  4. I do miss those days. New places and races in the world you love. Great read :)

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  5. Yeah, I miss those days. I miss the feeling of a new character being just as much "playing the game" as any other level of character would be. Even with games adding in scaling, reasons to alt, or other methods, new MMOs don't really feel like much of anything until you've reached some arbitrary end game finish line.

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    1. Scaling really is a double-edged sword. GW2 probably has the best scaling I've seen and it still doesn't really work. Then again, you have to ask whether you'd really want it to work. If it really was as difficult to kill a level 30 wolf with your scaled down level 80 as it was when you were actually level 30, wouldn't you begin to wonder why you'd ever bothered leveling up in the first place?

      In the end, most of the solutions we see to the "underused older zone" problem seem to me to be commercial solutions not gameplay solutions. In gameplay terms I can't see there was ever a better choice than "keep making new zones and leave all the old ones in place for whoever wants to enjoy using them". You still get population density in the current vogue zones and you get vast variety for those who don't want to hang with the crowds. Companies just don't like the supposed inefficiency although what the actual cost of unused data potential actually is I have no idea. I bet it's not much though.

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    2. I agree. Plus those lesser used zones often feel like older eras of a MMO, so that can be fun to revisit. And developers can always update them in a later patch for a little added content life to the game!

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    3. Bit of lag there, Murf? I took out the two duplicated comments and left the third one in. Hope that was your final draft!

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    4. It gave me an error twice, so I thought it didn't go through.

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  6. I dunno. Yoshida CLAIMS that Heavensward will have the same amount of content as the original game did at launch, and he's given me no reason to disbelieve him so far.
    http://www.polygon.com/2015/3/7/8166645/final-fantasy-14-heavensward-expansion-reveal-yoshida is a solid interview with a lot of coverage.

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    1. FFXIV is a top-quality product and Yoshi P has a masterly grip on the controls. I don't doubt for a moment that Heavensward will be both substantial and satisfying. From everything I've ever heard him say, however, he's a pure hardcore gamer. He makes frequent statements that make me grind my teeth with frustration at the underlying assumptions, as, for example, his observation recently reported by Massively that "no one wants to do content that puts him or her below the level cap". For that reason I can't imagine him ever authorizing the kind of content that I personally want to see from an expansion, namely extensive, new starter, low and mid-level territory suitable for a full, alternative leveling path to that which already exists. For him the game starts at the level cap. For me that's often where it ends.

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  7. Wow, did I love those days but I got started a bit later than that. I think I started right around the release of Velious maybe closer to Luclin, not sure. I just remember running around Faydark and making the trek to Qeynos thinking this game was huge! I had no idea there were more lands to explore from expansions. I still remember a friend telling me to go the nexus to get to the bazaar. I had no idea what they were talking about. Love that feeling of exploration.

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    1. Hehe! I remember that feeling so well. The start of a new expansion and new lands to explore and no-one has any clear idea how to get there!. Still happens of course - it was only last week I was running around searching for The Golden Saucer.

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    1. I'm on Goblin!!!! It's in the same Data Center, for what that's worth... Are LinkShells cross-server?

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    2. Oh dang!!! :( don't think so!

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  9. The 'empty zone'-syndrome also stems from a (imo) design flaw: instead of creating actual virtual worlds, too many games are essentially making Boss-Level games where everything is neatly stacked according to level.

    This leads to a loss of suspense of disbelief (so...the rabbits from [latest X-Pack] could gobble up the Raid bosses from the starting game? M'kay....) and the oh so dreaded 'empty zones' (which, frankly speaking, doesn't really have to be a problem in the fist place:the Group Finder randoms have illustrated once more that you may very well not want to associate with other players to begin with).

    If however higher-level content is layered into the world itself, characters of various level ranges will be present in the same 'provinces'.

    At the risk of sounding like a broken record in my praise of it, in my current poison of choice for example (Scottish-made Eldevin), NPC's that were involved in Quests I did at (eg) level 5 have recurring roles in later quest lines at later levels as (eg) there is one ancient Treant that is 'the oldest living being' instead of a new one every time, and as you - naturally in a virtual world, a horrid crime in so-called 'progressed' games - visit them in their house/lair because of their role in the world you automatically also visit the same zones across your levels, making few if any zones 'empty'. Same with sprinkling Instance entrances in already-visited lower level zones in an organic manner (though sadly still with level requirements to enter, one of the reasons that I don't like Instancing).

    The thing is, such interconnection is both basic 'table-top RPG' campaign world design and how famously Marvel made its original, popular Marvel Universe (e.g. if they needed a photographer in a NY scene or a lawyer, they'd use Peter Parker or Matt Murdock just for a cameo) so I am always a tad surprised when Devs on the one hand claim they are huge comic book and D&D geeks yet at the same time seem to display little or no recognition of such simple techniques to aid both immersion and avoid 'empty zones'.

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