Sunday, 3 July 2016

In Praise Of The Zerg: Rift, GW2

When some Ancient from the last century came up with the acronym MMORPG, the first two letters represented the then-astonishing ability of the internet to allow large numbers of individuals around the world to play together in the same game space. Back in those halcyon days, when everyone was making - or talking about making -  Virtual Worlds rather than mere games, to qualify for the double M club it was enough for large numbers simply to share the same imaginary milieu.

From the very early days, though, there was a drive to do more than just parcel the worlds up into pockets and have all the pockets talk to each other at a distance. EverQuest began with no formal raiding structure but players invented one of their own, bringing larger and larger gangs to clear entire zones in a rolling wave of terror. When SOE formalized matters with the Planes of Power expansion the raid size was set at 72, a number that sounds pretty massive even today.

My own first memory of truly huge conglomerations of players comes not from EQ but from Dark Age of Camelot, which debuted in 2001. Realm vs Realm saw the creation of massive forces that came together to siege or defend keeps. My PC could not handle those numbers. My experience of siege-play consisted mainly of extreme close-ups of the stretched and degraded textures of a game engine under stress as I pounded on a wooden door for what seemed like eternity.

For a while it seemed as though technology would fail us. I quit DAOC. EverQuest pared back its ambitious raids from 72 to 54 to 42. World of Warcraft set the bar at 40 and let it decline from there. It looked as though the concept of massiveness itself had been redefined.

I first noticed the tide begin to turn with the arrival of Rift. The early beta weekends were an exhilarating rush as Trion unveiled their USP - endless, rolling incursions and invasions that brought dozens, scores, hundreds of mobs down from the skies, demanding a co-ordinated response by similar numbers of players.

Someone's technology had improved. Ether I had a better PC or Trion had better developers. Whichever way round it was, for the first time I found myself caught up in truly overwhelming fantasy battles, surrounded by an army of allies, facing off against a horde of enemies, with fireworks and explosions detonating endlessly all around - and I could still move!

Rift changed everything. Since then I have felt the tug of massive-scale events like a comet feels the pull of the sun. No matter how far I retreat to my own, isolated solo instances, or potter alone in forgotten zones, the call of the crowd always draws me back to the core.

Apart from technological progress, at the heart of the ongoing, successful integration of very large scale events into the genre is the removal of the requirement for formal organization. Warhammer's Public Quests are usually quoted as Year Zero for the new age of automated socialization but for me it was Rift that set the pattern.

When it comes to reasons not to raid one of the biggest negative factors is the sheer time it takes to get things moving. I always liked the idea of raiding - conceptually. It was the experience as it played out in real time that drove me to find something more interesting to do - like sorting my bank vault or watching paint dry.

Those first beta weekends in Rift were a revelation. Instant raids, no drama! All the fun and none of the tears - of boredom. Instead of competitiveness there was camaraderie - a sense that we were all in it together, at least until we ran into those filthy Defiants/Guardians (delete as applicable).

Over time, for reasons that escape my ability to comprehend but which, no doubt, have their roots in finance, Trion chose to dilute and eventually dismantle the underlying raison d'etre of their flagship game. Instead of the magnificent turmoil of unpredictable, inescapable and never-ending planar invasions we moved to an on-demand service.

First we players were granted the ability to craft lures that allowed us to rip open the skies and bring down the invaders we wanted, when we wanted them and wherever it was most convenient. Then came Instant Adventures. All the action you can handle at the click of a button. 

A few nights ago, back in Rift after a long, long lay-off, fiddling with the UI trying to find out what stuff does, I found myself in a Raid. Just my Rogue and twenty or so of her closest complete friends she's never met before and never will again, throwing themselves like chaff into the blades of godlike creatures in the expectation of certain death, certain loot, certain XP.

I had no clue what I was doing. No-one spoke. Prompts appeared across the screen so I followed them. Hammy, post-modern voiceovers stripped away all conceivable veneers of belief. I died and died and died. Then I died some more. 

My roles had long since been revamped in my absence to the point where almost none of the icons on my hot bars did anything at all. My contribution over half an hour was limited to auto-attacking with a bow. No-one complained. No-one cared. No-one noticed.

As Rift slumped towards self-parody, GW2 snatched the baton and ran. The direction the race was beginning to take was not universally applauded. Many seemed to fear a breaking of bonds between the human beings behind the avatars to be inherent in the move towards a more informal, ad hoc social structure. 

In the event, and with uncomfortable irony, it was the more formal matchmaking mechanisms implemented by MMOs that tried to shore up those failing traditions that led to a sense of increasing alienation. Their structures seemed designed to create groups that never spoke, their ever-shifting places filled and re-filled by strangers who came together in silent purpose, never to meet again. 

It transpired that the hurly-burly of the new ad hoc orthodoxy, counter-intuitively perhaps, fostered an atmosphere much more conducive to a sense of hail-fellow-well-met, we're all in this together goodwill. On a good day, anyway.

As this all played out ArenaNet waxed hot and cold over their own supposedly unique selling point, the dynamic event. The years piled up while they played with the concept, sometimes successfully, often less so. 

For a time they seemed set on huge, seething, surging map-wide brawls, an approach that reached its apogee with the glorious invasions of Scarlet's armies and the epochal Fall of Lion's Arch. That era seemed to end as Living Story 2 was parcelled up in instances, while the chains of timed, tamed events made gameplay in Dry Top and Silverwastes feel as desiccated as the landscapes. 

That trend continued into the dripping jungles of Heart of Thorns. Would the story of Rift repeat itself?

Coming into 2016 it seemed likely that the last remnant of glory would fly in tatters over World versus World, where the long-maligned zergs still roamed like wounded dinosaurs, awaiting the end. And then, once more, the winds changed. 

As we wait in the foyer of Living World 3, the new, post-Johansen GW2 slowly takes shape. A path to the future begins to emerge, picking its way cautiously between the wild chaos of Scarlet and her all-conquering armies and the stately dance of Heart of Thorns. 

The preliminaries began slowly but they are gathering pace. A patchwork of smaller events is building a palimpsest. The bandits, the anomalies, the competing factions, they all arrive without much fanfare but decline to leave. Now we have The Running Man and to a resounding cheer the rolling PvE zerg is back. 

All the new events are neither entirely random nor set to a fixed pattern. They move from map to map at a defined pace but incorporate an element of randomness that sees Commanders hopping waypoints, trailing their squads behind them.

This is the iteration we were looking for. It bodes very well for the still-unannounced, mysterious second expansion, and for the equally unannounced, equally mysterious Living Story 3.

The destiny of the MMORPG lies in each and every direction. The genre's greatest strength and most difficult challenge is and always has been its malleability. More so than any other form of video game, MMOs seek to be all things to all players, all at once.

Well and good. But the true defining trope remains encapsulated in that first initial: M is for massive. Without that sense of scale everything else is a mere collage of identities drawn from elsewhere. 

Let's get bigger. And then bigger still.

4 comments:

  1. I do love a good zerg. Come to think of it, it's rather interesting that I do enjoy them despite being so antisocial most of the time. Throw me a random invite while out questing and I'll start making the sign of the cross, but if a public event pops while I'm nearby, I'll drop everything and charge in without hesitation. It's practically Pavlovian.

    Obviously GW2 and Rift are the poster children for the concept, but I think TSW also deserves mention as a game that does public events very well. I have yet to experience anything in my gaming career quite as epic as watching ~100 players manning the walls of Harbaburesti against a world boss's onslaught.

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    1. I wanted to work TSW's current Gaea event into the post but it was running long already. I was counting on someone mentioning it in the comments so thanks for that :)

      I've done it in previous years and loved it. It's a humongous zerg fest and the way the community has created a communication and travel system to support it is exemplary. I want to do it again this year and use it to jump start my Museum but I don't currently have TSW installed on my new PC. Going to try to fix that this week.

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  2. "...like watching paint dry." Yup. My partner raids. I... do not. The organization over pace holds zero attraction for me. The stupid zerg shit, however... Yeah, it's a strange attraction, f'sure. :)

    -- 7rlsy

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  3. Great post, makes me miss the zerg even though I haven't been part of it!

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