Tuesday, 26 July 2016

The Low Level Life : WoW, EverQuest, EQ2

It didn't take long for MMORPGs to develop a reputation for being all about the "end game". I'll have been neck-deep in the hobby seventeen years come November but the only brief respite I ever had from the bitter knowledge that everything happens at cap came way back at the turn of the 21st Century.

For the first six weeks or so that I played EverQuest I played with the /ooc channel switched off. Back then I had this quaint idea that I was involved in some kind of role-playing experience, living a vicarious life in a virtual world. Conversations about sports or current affairs or even just general chit-chat were immersion-breakers I could do without so I did without them. For a while.

As the weeks drifted on and the initial, overwhelming wonder began to bleed out into a less intense yet more urgent need to know, so the research phase began. I discovered EQAtlas, Allakhazam, Caster's Realm, The Newbie Zone. And I switched the /ooc channel back on.

From my foreshortened perspective down in the twenties much of the conversation was hard to parse but it was impossible any longer to ignore that Norrath, like every other society, had its clades and hierarchies. This was still a couple of months before the release of EverQuest's first expansion, Ruins of Kunark, the expansion Wilhelm likes to refer to as "the best MMO expansion ever and the mood was one of impatient expectation.

My Nightmare

Until RoK arrived in March the cap remained at the launch level of 50. The out of character chat channel revealed to me a whole dissident world; discontented, fractious, self-identifying as "bored". These were the Level Fifties, tired of Lower Guk, done with Nagafen's Lair, already looking past The Plane of Hate toward the jungle coasts of Kunark.

The pecking order was well established. At the apex, the ten percent: proto-raiders, developing DKP and strats. Below them the rest of the Fifties, running the treadmill handful of high-level dungeons over and again, complaining all the while. Then came the Dungeoneers in their Trinities, pushing to the cap as fast as the merciless mechanics allowed.

These three groups appointed themselves the Royalty, Aristocracy and Nobility of Norrath. The Commonality, making up the great bulk of the ever-growing population, toiled away in overland camps and semi-open dungeons from The Commonlands to The Karanas. Many of those commoners would gain enough confidence to become Dungeoneers in time. Others toiled all the way to the top under open skies, making do with the lesser xp, all the while attempting to shrug off the contempt of their peers.

On the fringes mavericks and malcontents soloed, some with arrogance, some with self-loathing. Druids, bards and wizards and most especially necromancers, they camped static spawns, killed guards, kited. Verant/SOE's official position, as expressed by a series of deeply unpopular Community Managers, particularly Abashi and Absor, seemed to suggest soloing was a necessary evil, not something to be encouraged. Bottom-feeders was one of the more polite descriptions.

I'm sorry, that was just a noise.

Regardless of the status of your clique there was an expectation so ingrained it never needed to be articulated: everyone was heading, however slowly, to the top. When the Ogres began launching their terrifying barrel rafts towards The Overthere every player clinging to the rigging knew Kunark meant the future. Only in Kunark could you hope to break the statistical ceiling and soar, or scrabble, to Level 60.

And yet, Kunark did not arrive as a neatly packaged new ten levels to bolt on to your existing game. Kunark came as a continent. A whole New World. It brought a new playable race, the Iksar, with their great city Cabilis and their four (count 'em - four!) starting zones.

My initial Kunark experience, once I'd recovered from the loss of half a level and an unrecoverable corpse for my mid-20s druid, who retired to The Karanas to rethink her options, consisted of leveling an Iksar Shadowknight from Level One. When Scars of Velious, the second expansion, followed just nine months later (believe it!) there was no longer a logjam at the top.

Phat Lewts!
Kunark was vast. Velious arrived long before most people were done with it. New hierarchies had barely had time to establish themselves before the paradigm changed again. Some would say it was a Golden Age. From there the train rolled on through a total of twenty-two expansions and counting but only twice more did an expansion amount to a complete reboot.

Shadows of Luclin, the much-maligned but loved by me third expansion added not just a new continent but an entire new world. Cats on the moon and another new start, this time one that took. My Iksar SK is still somewhere in the high teens or low twenties but for a long time my Vah'Shir Beastlord was my highest EQ character, topping out at 84 before the Heroic Boost saw my Magician hurdle her and push on into the nineties.

SOE's last shot at starting over came five years later with The Serpent's Spine, an expansion that had its moments but proved to be the death-note for growing the base. For the following decade everything has been about keeping the established order onside, about adding more storeys to the teetering top of the skyscraper.

And that, by and large, has become the model for every MMO, for the genre. The base game establishes the setting and the world, sets the criteria for success. Most every subsequent expansion, update or DLC adds content at the cap.

Even Guild Wars 2, the supposedly level-neutral poster child for horizontal progression, has settled into a penthouse life. When Living Story 3 debuts later today you will be required to have a Level 80 to follow the plot. Of course, ANet have removed any need for you to go through the tedious process of leveling one. To play through LS3 you also must have the Heart of Thorns expansion and that comes with a Level 80 character boost ready to pop.

I bet they have better weather at the cap.

 Legion, when it appears at the end of next month, adds another ten levels to Azeroth. Ten levels appears to be the industry standard for building on top these days although some games scrape by with five. Once again, with the box comes the option to skip the tedious chore of getting there. One hundred levels of content you don't need any more.

Except that it turns out some of us do. I do. Playing EQ2 and WoW through again as I am right now I find it is, after all, this low-level and mid-level path that I want to follow. It seems I can indeed go home again and, what's more, find a welcome equal to any I've had before.

Playing through the low levels in MMORPGs is fun. Not for everyone, that's apparent, but for me. I enjoy high level content. I enjoy new content. I like novelty and I enjoy a sense of achievement. In the end, though, I have to accept the evidence: by choice I return, over and over, to begin again at the bottom.

There really is nothing to match the satisfaction, the involvement, yes, the immersion. Stepping out in rags with a rusty sword or a knobbled stick, making your way in a hard, harsh world, being useful, helpful and always, of course, violent. Learning a craft, finding a path, seeing your rags turn to riches or at least to leathers.

Sure Kyle, only some of us have other plans...

Taming pets, earning mounts, flourishing your first cloak. Seeing your reputation rise. Watching the world open up around you. Making space to stash the treasures you find. Paying the rent on your first home and laying down the pelt of that great bear you slew, in front of a roaring fire you made all on your own.

At the cap the explosions are louder, the colors brighter, the numbers bigger but somehow the magic dries out. Not always, not inevitably, but often. Sometimes it can all go a bit Nigel Tufnel.

I miss the days when we had it all. When expansions meant both much more to do for the ennui-ridden capped and a new start for the dilettantes at the bottom. When the expectation was that new players would want to jump in at the beginning, would grab a fresh opportunity with all claws. I miss the days when developers were able to look out on occasion, not always in.

Yes, I miss those days and it would be so fine to have them back but the world doesn't turn the other way, not even for Superman. Wishing doesn't make it true but luckily, for me, it doesn't need to. Recent events prove to my satisfaction that all the old magic is still there, just waiting on a click of  the character create button.

If MMO developers are determined to keep adding to the top I'll just keep diving to the bottom. It's funny but I find I can breathe much better down there.

9 comments:

  1. Something about the beginning of a journey - the anticipation I think - makes it easy to start, to begin. Do the middle levels slow you down? Do you begin again? Where do your middle characters end up "resting"?

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    1. Yes, I think that has a lot to do with it, plus the fact that the progression and development of your character at the beginning can be a lot clearer and less ambiguous than later on. As for where the journey stalls, it depends on the game, but it does tend to be somewhere between halfway and two-thirds of the way to the cap, I think. Some MMOs have mid and high-mid levels that get to be a lot more like work than entertainment - I found LotRO and WoW particularly bad for that, although in WoW's case I put much of the blame on The Burning Crusade, which was the "high-mid" for the period I was playing. Rift, on the other hand, goes completely off the rails at the very end of the leveling curve - it's fine all the way to 50 but after that it hits a wall in the very first post-50 level.

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  2. I know just what you mean. And I confess, I also tend to play strategy games that way--restarting for those early hardscrabble years. There's a joy to that stage of a game.

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    1. There's a virtue to simplicity, I think, or there can be. Also as Isey says the start of a journey is always a thrill. It's surprising how well it keeps on working even when the novelty has faded though, although of course starting over doesn't do it for everyone.

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  3. Excellent and nostalgic post! Of course, being in complete agreement always makes one appreciate a story more :-)

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  4. Ah, The Burning Crusade and Outland ... I try to get past it as quickly as possible, myself. I always enjoy Zangarmarsh, as well as the Nesingwary quests in Nagrand, so I enjoy incorporating those in my leveling. Otherwise I look forward to leaving Outland and getting to Northrend, which I do enjoy. Similarly, Cataclysm is an obstacle I work through before the beauty of Pandaria, although the novelty of the underwater zone experiment of Vashj'ir is a nice option to the Mount Hyjal path. :)

    In fairness to the devs on Cataclysm, they invested substantial work in revisiting the earlier zones and the leveling experience. Unfortunately, it turned out to be unappreciated by many and the need by developers to leave their mark on the world with every expansion by changing up the class abilities and talents quickly made their investment in the earlier leveling experience inconsistent. :(

    I would be curious to see their metrics on how many folks use the lower level zones as compared to the free boosts introduced with the Warlord of Draenor expansion, continued with Legion, as well as sold individually from their online store. With Blizz's cross-realm zone technology now creating zones to cluster folks together it may be hard to get a feel on how well populated the lower levels are with other Gnome Hunters?

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    1. It seems busy but of course it's a server cluster not a single server. I actually haven't seen anyone with my own server tag - Kilrogg - but I'm not sure if you do see your own server name or if that's just taken for granted. There's an awful lot I don;t know about WoW - most of it, really :P

      I am finding the Cataclysm changes very interesting now I'm playing through zones I can remember. I would definitely re-sub just to play my Gnome Hunter up through the original game, if only I was sure I'd have time to do it.

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  5. I stayed with WoW for five contiguous years mainly because of the joy of rolling new alts - levelling them to cap sometimes happened, oft-times not that quickly as we spent a lot of time delving into the relatively mysterious and expansive world.

    The Cataclysm revamp could have worked to rekindle our love of levelling, but the XP curve was so broken by that point that we out-levelled zones at a pace of knots.

    I've always loved the idea of MMOs adding a new levelling path with an expansion - Runes of Magic did this at one point, a new set of zones to take you from 1 to cap along with the introduction of the Dwarven race (if memory serves). WoW only ever added the 1-15 or 1-20 pair of zones for new races, which was a shame. The effort given to Cataclysm could have, instead, gone into a new continent or extra-planar levelling path to give us something new to do with the Worgen and Goblin characters.

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