Monday, 27 June 2016

Too Much, Too Soon : EverQuest, GW2, Pantheon

Something that was mentioned in passing during the Pantheon stream about the tendency of newer MMOs to over-reward struck a chord with me. Casting my mind back to the early days of EverQuest, two of the most motivating aspects of the pacing were the five level gaps between spell upgrades for casters and the relatively sparse, partially random chance of acquiring better armor and weapons.

Given that even the lowest levels seemed to take a very long time, waiting five levels for every new set of spells could be frustrating. The significant upside was that impact those new spells had when you did get them was immense, even game-changing.

The acquisition of a new pet could transform the gameplay of a Magician or a Necromancer out of all recognition. With the arrival of each set of spells, things that had been out of reach would become, if not easy, then entirely possible.

Your character might suddenly be able to breathe underwater or fly (okay, levitate). Leveling up didn't merely mean a percentage increase to DPS and some more hit points - it meant you could do new things, almost as though you were suddenly playing a new class.

Similarly a single, fortuitous drop from a Named mob could raise your character's game substantially. Acquiring a weapon that procced Snare or Fear might allow your character to kite mobs and thereby solo when previously she'd needed a partner or a group to do anything much at all.

A rare sight!

At the time, though, this didn't necessarily seem like such a great trade-off. Oh, it was wonderful when it happened, but for every bonanza level ending in zero or five there were several levels of increasingly arduous diminishing returns, where each session could seem like a struggle and a Ding! could end up leaving you feel weaker not stronger. For every life-changing drop there might be countless disappointments as camps dragged on, Nameds failed to spawn and rare drops eluded the RNG.

When EverQuest moved to giving new spells every level instead of every five I was initially wary. It seemed as though something would be lost. At the lower end of the level range, to some degree at least, that turned out to be true. In general, though, the pace of that particular MMO was so stately that a single level provided plenty of time to come to terms with each set of new abilities before the next appeared.

Also, casters in EQ get a lot of spells. The amount you would get all in one go after five levels could be overwhelming. Even spread out there were always enough to go around, something that never changed even when the level range eventually stretched to three figures.

When my Magician dinged 90 last week she went on a spell-buying spree. The scrolls she needed to buy ran into double figures. Of those almost none were upgrades to existing spells. Most were new abilities entirely. It was an entertaining and satisfying session.


In time I came to prefer the "every level" approach. I definitely wouldn't revert to a five level spread. It's nice to have something to look forward to every level and since levels don't exactly fly by the sense of anticipation is retained. That's not something I can say for GW2, where "Reward Tracks" were recently added to World vs World.

Reward Tracks have existed in Structured PvP for a long time as a means of providing players who don't do PvE with most of what they would get if they did. Whether it's a good idea or not to attach the rewards from one part of the game to the gameplay from another is a question I don't propose to debate right now. That decision having been made, however, I do take issue with the implementation.

Much more typical.
Rather than add any sense of excitement, anticipation or satisfaction, mostly what the coming of Reward Tracks to WvW has brought for me is irritation and inconvenience. GW2 is already infamous for showering players with an endless rain of bags and boxes to be opened, many of which contain yet  further boxes and bags. The Reward Tracks follow that pattern almost to the point of parody.

As I ran with the zerg my limited inventory space was already constantly filling up with loose pieces of white, blue and green quality weapons and armor, the main function of which is to be salvaged and sold on the Trading Post. Along with spikes and similar items intended only to be sold to NPC vendors for a few copper and the mats from the deconstruction of the said items, plus the bags filled with the salt tears of our  foes (not literally, sadly; just more mats) space runs out fast.

Now, to that monsoon of convertible currency, we have to add box after box of "Rewards" from dungeons or PvE maps that, you might imagine, were I to want, I would be doing instead of what I actually am doing. All of those have to be opened and dealt with, either in the odd hiatus as we cata down a recalcitrant fortification or enjoy a rare two-minute drinks break, or else at the end of the session.

Often it takes me fifteen or twenty minutes to clear my bags. More. An activity I used to look forward to as a treat, it long ago lost its allure and now threatens to become a chore I resent.

So, there's a balance to be achieved between a satisfying flow of meaningful rewards and an endless drip-feed of things you don't want but can't bring yourself to destroy. Modern day EverQuest still hits that balance, just about, although I notice even there that I spend more time clearing and re-clearing my bags than I used to do.

Whether contemporary players would ever be content with a "less is more" approach, though, I am not so sure. I imagine my objections to the Reward Tracks in WvW would put me in a very small minority of dissatisfied players. Most would probably want the rewards to come faster even than they do, whereas I'd rather see them removed completely.

Pantheon probably isn't attempting to reach the average contemporary player let alone the average GW2 player, so the benchmarks it will need to hit may be very different. Still, getting to that sweet spot, where satisfaction and frustration balance each other out, won't be easy. The ideal would be to make every reward welcome, even thrilling, yet still have them appear with a periodicity that isn't off-putting.

I'm not sure if that's achievable but it's definitely something worth shooting for.

14 comments:

  1. I wouldn't mind shorter levels but less reward for each level. I also prefer Alternate Advancement to most similar systems in other games. I think it should be possible (and sometimes preferable) to halt the level grind in favor of working on specific training. I'd prefer that kind of system to the automatic scaling up and down that newer MMOs want to implement.

    As far as other rewards, I don't mind them being more spread out, but the time it took to move up five levels in EQ was abysmal. Not only do MMOs now reward far more but also far more often.

    My ideal preference would be less levels overall with longer levels, but each level is broken down into four points. Dungeons & Dragons Online did these. Each quarter-level would award you something, as well as give you a full heal for an added bonus (plus some additional pomp and circumstance).

    More things would be unlocked through Alternate Advancement than through leveling.

    The last 5 to 10 levels would all be designated as hell levels. They'd have mostly cosmetic or incremental rewards, but would take significantly longer to achieve. There could also be some quests that require these higher levels.

    The game would be balanced at the last level before these levels.

    Alternate Advancement wouldn't have a cap, but would become increasingly harder to level.

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    1. EQ2 moved to the "upper levels are hell levels" approach a few years back. Every level after 92 takes about 5 times the xp of level 90-91. I can't say it's an approach that appeals to me.

      I'd go the opposite way from you. I'd have far more levels and all of them much shorter. Take the example in the post, where I got ten spells at Level 90. That could have been ten levels with one of those spells at the end of each. Same amount of xp to get them, just numbered differently and with ten dings. I'd be happy for MMOs to have a thousand levels and each of them to take 30-60 minutes. I bet that would get annoying too, though. There's probably no way to do it that won't wear out its welcome eventually.

      I agree on AAs though. They are great in most games that use them.

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    2. My problem with more levels is that it becomes harder and harder to navigate or balance the world. I mean, do you really want to live in a world where people are asking, "Just dinged 978. Where do I go now?"

      If you crunch levels, then you make it easier to keep away from a natural stat inflation and you make each level seem more worthwhile. The quarter-level rewards keeps the same since of satisfaction/growth.

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    3. I think Murf is right about the inflation aspect of more, shorter levels. Awarding a level-up brings with it an expectation of a power increase, so to avoid that getting out of control (as WoW found) you need to curb the rate of level gain.

      Perhaps the answer is in a mix of the ideals. Make levels shorter - or use the mini-levels system of DDO - and make the actual power increase only happen every 5 levels. Each level in between can offer utility abilities (flight, run speed increase, better trap detection, etc) so that you are still getting something, but the power balance isn't such a nightmare.

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  2. That "spells every five levels" was another of those things drawn straight from TorilMUD. Getting to level 6,11,16,21,etc. used to be a huge deal, driving people to binge play just to get that last level and get something new. (In TorilMUD when you gained a new spell tier, you also used to stop fizzling on the old one as well. I do not recall if EQ had something similar back in the day.)

    But as you note, the number of spells you might get at a new tier, especially as a pure caster class, could be crazy. Of course, I also liked how EQ made you choose just a few key spells out of your spellbook to be available to cast. So what you had hot and ready to go was always a nice, small selection... it was just the pool on which you could draw that was such a mess. Of course, you could opt not to buy spells, but who would do that?

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    1. One thing I used to really enjoy was the frenzied sitting and memming of a new spell in the heat of battle, when something happened you hadn't expected or prepared for. I used to find pulling off a rescue that way as a cleric or enchanter was one of the most satisfying things that could happen in a session. In EQ2, where I generally have literally every spell or ability in my book displayed on six or more hotbars, the main challenge is remembering what half of them actually do. Both approaches have merits but on balance I prefer the more minimalist approach.

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  3. It sounds to me as if the problem is less with the amount or frequency of rewards and more with the way they're implemented. I haven't played GW2 in a while, and never any of its PvP, so I have no firsthand experience of what you describe, but it does sound pretty awful.

    However, it also sounds like the sort of thing that could be solved by streamlining crafting mats, moving certain things to currency tabs, offering more inventory space, and other quality of life changes.

    My own viewpoint has always been that MMOs are, as a rule, incredibly miserly with their rewards, so while I'm sure it's possible for an MMO to over-reward its players, I've never actually seen it happen.

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    1. See my reply to Simon below re the implementation. it is diabolical. Can't think of any MMO that does it in a more awkward and convoluted fashion. Well, maybe LotRO. They could easily fix it except that apparently fixing anything in GW2 is never easy. They seem to have to re-write the entire game engine to make the smallest alterations, or so they often suggest.

      I can think of a few MMOs that have been over-generous although I agree it's usually the opposite. For example, as I've mentioned before, Mrs Bhagpuss and I left EQ2 a few weeks after the Rise of Kunark expansion in large part because of the ridiculous amount of upgrades showered on our characters.

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  4. Showering players with "rewards" seems to be one of the side-effects (or perhaps necessities) of a F2P game, or one with a serious cash shop (like GW2).

    I noticed this with LOTRO once it went free to play. Your inventory starts filling up with "free samples" of all the various buffs, pots, reset tokens etc. that are available in bulk in the store.

    And I honestly got the same feeling in GW2, though it wasn't as bad when I played. A proliferation of currencies or rewards just means more that they can sell you in the store. (Or alternatively, the more they can confuse you when you try to convert between them and understand what their value is).

    The sub games I've played, like WoW and ESO (which even now though B2P, still seems like a premium sub game), seemed to lack the continual flood of rewards. If I remember correctly, of course.

    -Simon

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    1. In essence it isn't the quantity of the rewards that's the problem in GW2 - it's the ridiculous delivery method. In part it's because they used a stat - Magic Find - which directly affects your chance of getting better drops, then added in a whole progression mechanic for it which apparently made it too good, so they decided to nerf MF by putting almost everything inside bags because MF doesn't affect the drops you get when you open (most)containers. That doesn't explain why we get containers inside containers though, and even containers inside containers inside containers! It's not the sheer volume of loot that wears me out so much as the endless clicking to get at it in the first place.

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  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. That's what you get when you talk about necromancers in your posts...

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    2. Dr Z has to be a Named. I wonder what he drops?

      And how did that one get through Google's nigh-infallible spam filter? One of the weirdest spambot messages I've ever seen...

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  6. Such a good subject. I used to really enjoy the inventory management mini game - especially action rpgs. I think where things get confusing is when the crafting side of the game has confusing 1-off components. It makes logging into a game after months and seeing purple crafting mats in your bag and being afraid to sell/destroy them for fear of nixing some ultra rare item you may need in the future. If mmos either put links for these rare components in the item description or just stuck to basic materials, i could see this inventory nightmare going away.

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