Monday, August 22, 2016

Don't Make Me Get My Main : WoW, GW2, EQ, EQ2

The imminent arrival of WoW's Legion expansion has spurred a flurry of concern about what class to play as a "Main". Rowan, Belghast and Syp have all been pondering the problem, which is compounded by the extensive, some might say draconian, changes to the Talent system.

Some, like Chestnut, have already made their choice, while others prefer to defer, avoiding the difficult decision of which class to make their focus for the expansion by attempting to level everything to the cap before the demon army gets here. Stargrace and Tyler are working on that.

Then there are those who've seen it all before and don't feel the need to jump in any particular direction just yet. Wilhelm and Keen are sitting back and thinking, taking the long view.

Me? I find the whole thing a tad confusing. In all the years I've played MMORPGs I've never really accepted, far less adopted, the notion of a "Main Character". I remember being introduced to the concept quite early on in my EQ career and finding it problematic from the start.

When I first stepped out into Norrath it was as a half-elven ranger who promptly fell to his deat h from the platforms of Kelethin and was never seen again - or at least his corpse was never found. He was followed, not precisely in this exact order, by a human warrior, a dwarven cleric, another half-elf ranger (starting this time in the re-assuringly ground-based caves of Surefall Glade), a troll shaman, a human druid and eventually a gnome necromancer.

As I was trying out different classes and races and starting areas, coming to grips with the game and the fresh concepts that came with it, each of those was, for a time, my "main" character. The necromancer eventually made it into the twenties, pulling ahead of the pack, but I didn't stop playing any of the others.

The Great Test Wipe debacle shifted the emphasis from my necro to the druid, who made Kunark her home when the expansion launched. As the weeks and months rolled on I continued to create more characters, trying out all the classes and races and several combinations of each.

That was a period of amazing growth for EverQuest. New servers opened often and I developed the habit of making new characters on all of them. When the Scars of Velious expansion appeared, around a year after I first began playing, it turned out you needed a character in the low thirties to have much chance of joining in with the action in the lowest level of the new zones.

At that time I played every hour I could manage. I was working part-time and had plenty of opportunity so I'd always get in at least forty hours a week, often more. Despite this major life commitment my highest character, the druid, was around level 28 or 29.

The reason I was so far behind the leveling curve was simple. I had literally dozens of characters spread across more than half a dozen servers and on any given day I would probably play at least four or five of them. My established practice was to play a character until it hit a milestone of some kind - and a milestone back then might be one yellow bubble of experience, twenty per cent of a level. Then I'd swap.

Playing mostly solo this wasn't any kind of a problem. On the contrary, it meant the game stayed astonishingly fresh. Not for me the sad ennui of the bored fifty. Or sixty as it became with the coming of Kunark.

It did become something of a problem after Velious, which was when my grouping and guilding days really began. In order to function in a group, particularly in a responsible role like main healer or tank, the two positions I ended up taking most often, there is something of a requirement for the player to be, at least, competent with the class he or she is playing. If you play dozens of characters that competence can be harder to acquire.

People recruiting for groups tend to ask awkward questions. Questions like "is that your Main?".  The subtext being "...and if it is, why are you so bad at it?" Guild leaders and officers can be even more pointed. For administrative purposes they almost always want to know which characters are "Mains" and which "Alts". That was a question I could never answer.

The result of all this was the building of a network of open-minded, laid-back, non-judgmental friends and acquaintances, a list of people who genuinely wanted you to bring the player not the class. It also meant joining what used to be known as a "family guild", giving up any thoughts of participating in the then-cut-throat world of raid progression.

The compromise I made back then was to have a small number of "focus" characters. I played my Cleric and my Shadowknight - and later my Beastlord - enough to keep them at the level cap through a couple of expansions as well as to develop the instinct and muscle memory I needed to be effective in tight situations. At the same time I continued to play a whole slew of other characters, day in, day out, most of whom rarely met the rest of the people on my friends and guild list.

In the decade and a half since then not an awful lot has changed. The main difference is that, as MMO developers have chosen to make their games hugely more friendly both to playing solo and to raising a horde of characters, the choice of "who to Main" has become less and less of an ordeal.

In the old days a serious player would generally have a Main and an Alt. Just the one. The Alt would often be chosen to complement the Main, would always be in his shadow, often only coming into his own in the dog days towards the end of an expansion cycle, when the Main had Done Everything and the player was Bored.

These days, as can readily be seen in the current Invasion Frenzy, it's probably more normal for the average player to keep a stable of characters at or near the level cap. In GW2, where even at launch it barely took two weeks to hit cap, and where now you can make an Alt and level it to 80 in five minutes while standing at the bank, everyone plays everything.

And yet people still talk about Mains and Alts. The concept is deeply ingrained in the genre. It may never go away. And with good reason, because the fact remains that, no matter how swift and easy the journey becomes, there's really no short cut to becoming competent at your class. In the end you have to put in the hard hours, whether you do that leveling up or after you boost.

I don't have a "Main" in any MMO I play unless it's one that only allows a single character. That's for the same reason I don't have "Toons". All my characters, in every imaginary world I visit, are individuals. They're people in the same way the characters in a book or a movie are people. They aren't extensions of my ego or tools for me to use - or, perhaps I should say, they are much more than that.

All the same, I have to recognize that, in any MMO, there are only so many classes or builds I can play competently. In GW2, currently,  that's Tempest and Druid. In EQ2 it's Berserker and in EQ it's Magician.

For WoW, while I'm there this time around, it's most likely going to be beastmaster  Hunter and demonology Warlock. At the moment I have virtually no understanding of, let alone competence in, either but it will come if I keep playing.

It won't make either of them my "Main" though. I don't do Mains.


  1. I'm with you. My main is the character I'm currently playing and leveling. Often I'm playing several at once. If I accept a guild invite, I want all of my characters to be welcomed. If they aren't, poof goes the guild membership.

    1. I only ever found it to be a problem in guilds with pretensions to raid progression. They tend to take everything far too seriously anyway!

  2. I was an inveterate altholic even when I played MUDs. In my then heyday, the spreadsheet count was some 30-40 max levels (some half of them gifted/inherited by quitting players and the rest legitimately leveled by my own hand) and 120ish non-max levels whose names I was just reserving or low level mules. This eventually backfired when the tedium of upkeep eventually drove me to quit cold turkey.

    I do, however, find it really easy to identify my "main" or "mains" on games.

    They were the character(s) I would use to hang out on the game with. The ones whose names you could call me by and I'd respond to, rather than pause and think "uhh, who? oh, me."

    Competence didn't fall into the picture. I'd have alts whom I was decently competent with that I'd use to kill bosses or achieve some kind of goal, but they were tools in a toolbox, albeit with a unique name and probably some kind of lore -appropriate background in my head.

    But my mains are the automatic go-to character(s) that I'd use to log into the game when there aren't any specific goals to be achieved.

    1. Ye gods - 160 characters!? Was that all in the same MUD? That makes even my roster look slim. Well, slimmer...

      I make it a practice always to use the name of the character someone is playing at the time I speak to them, regardless of any other name I may know them by. Mrs Bhagpuss and I do this without fail between ourselves, changing names every time we change characters. If I ever make a mistake, not having noticed that Mrs Bhagpuss has swapped characters, and call her by the wrong name I apologize and correct myself immediately. Many of our characters also have nicknames, often several nicknames, which we also use depending on the circumstances.

      It can get complicated but its all part of what I refer to as "character play", which is similar too but different from roleplay. Most of the time when we play we are being our characters first and our real-life selves second. When I'm in a kind of "family guild" I tend to do much the same and so do most of the people in the guild, by and large.

      That said, not everyone picks up on or abides by those conventions and I did used to get called by the name of my cleric or my warrior when I was playing other characters sometimes. I just treated that as another nickname.

  3. To be clear, as much as I like to talk about having a main, the truth is that "main" is at best a nebulous concept where I'm concerned. The character I view as my main and the character I'm actually playing the most are not always one and the same, and even when they are the gap between the playtime given to my main, to my main alt, and to my other alts tends to be pretty slender.

    It helps that I've played so many characters in so many MMOs that I have developed the ability to learn or re-learn a playstyle in remarkably little time, and for whatever reason I don't seem to be capable of losing my muscle memory for these things.

    1. I find it varies quite a lot. Some classes I can fall straight back into after months or even years as though I'd been playing only a few days ago. Others leave me staring at a bank of icons that mean nothing to me whatever. EQ2 Beastlord gets me that way every time, even though I leveled one to 90 when they were added to the game. It tends to be classes that have a mechanism requiring the building and spending of resources and/or the use of synergies that I find hard to remember - which makes returning to The Secret World a barrel of laughs, I can tell you!

  4. I'm closer to Jeromai with this. My "main", Braack in EQ (Warrior) is still how I am referred to by my EQ friends. In WoW, it was Couchon (Druid). Even when I was on my Shaman (who I raided with through an expansion cycle when chain heal reigned supreme) they still called me Couch or Couchon on vent. So, bring the player, not the class/character, but the character is who people identified me as. Even when I wasn't playing him.

    The concept of declaring a main also works for me right now with limited playtime. I find if I get too distracted and repeat content on multiple characters that I end up enjoying the game less, not more. That is exact opposite to when I played 40 hours a week - then I enjoyed taking a break from my "main".

    I also remember a period where alts were often anonymous to take a break, but that is a whole other discussion entirely =)

    1. I used to find it surprisingly easy to swap focus from one character to another. I'd often swap characters half a dozen times in an evening, specifically doing X on the first, Y on the second and so on, following a kind of loose plan for all of them that went on indefinitely. That started to fall apart with the coming of F2P MMOs, at which point I began to spread myself thin across games rather than characters.

      That, also, is a whole other discussion!

  5. Heh, for someone who's always seemed to not have much more than a passing interest in WoW, you surprise me by using an old WoW fan song for this post's title! At least I think that's not a coincidence...

    I'm also with Jeromai in terms of identifying the main as the one that I and others identify with me the most. I remember having a real crisis of faith in WoW whenever my main was hit by some nerf that pushed me towards playing something else that was better at the time (only for the good of the guild). Competence wasn't an issue, but it just didn't feel like me. I also always find it mildly disconcerting when others change their mains too frequently - it's like it confuses my mental image of them.

    1. Somewhat unrelated, Cranius (the author of that song) seems to be into ESO nowadays. To me his most fun song will always remain the one describing some of the woes of pre-Transmog WoW

    2. The title was indeed an intentional callback to that song - or more specifically the YouTube video. I first came across it when it was linked in someone's blog - probably Wilhelm's - and I've always remembered it. Someone was referring to it in GW2 only last week so it still has some value as a meme. Thanks for the link to the other one though - I hadn't seen that before.

  6. I am the same - I always have at least one of every character class, often of every race, and I play them all based on my current mood or whim. The only reason I ever called anything my 'main' is because a guild insisted I do that, especially if it was to get into a raiding team. However, I was always dallying with alts when they would have preferred I was 'focusing' on upgrading and honing my main. That's what I feel is fun in these kind of games.


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