Saturday, 6 August 2016

When You Climb To The Top Of The Mountain

I arrived in Bloodstone Fen last night in the middle of a heated discussion in map chat over whether or not GW2 was a "grindy" MMO. The first line I read was "if you don't like it go back to WoW" so it was already clear any further contribution on my part would be pointless. Not that I let that stop me.

A little while later, tabbing to check Feedly between zones (GW2 has some of the longest zone loading times I have ever seen, although the new PC has improved things somewhat) I came across Aywren's plaintive post entitled "MMO Soul Searching: How Do You Learn to Relax at End Game?". The two events, co-inciding, set me thinking.

Aywren's post has attracted some excellent, thoughtful and helpful comments from Jeromai, Dahakha, Karinshastha and several more. Some could easily stand as blog posts in their own right and the thread is well worth reading in full.

My own reply there is perhaps more negative than I intended but the question of what to do at the cap has always been a thorny one for MMO players. The traditional vertical progression model, developed in the days of a near-universal subscription model, has always relied very heavily on building retention, often at the expense of entertainment. As I said in my comment "these games rely on players never reaching a plateau where they can stop, relax, look around and take stock. If that were ever to happen there would be a significant proportion that would conclude they had “beaten” the game; they would stop playing and stop paying".

I missed that memo. Again.

As a natural Low Energy gamer, playing primarily for relaxation and amusement, I have not spent a great deal of time at the cap in most MMOs. My tendency has been either never to reach the maximum level at all, even in games I played for a significant period of time (Dark Age of Camelot, WoW, LotRO), or to quit altogether soon after I did (Wizard 101, Rift).

It's very telling that the handful of games in which I continued to play just as fervently after hitting the cap are those that heavily encourage the making and leveling of "alts". (Alts is a term I have always disliked and avoided but that's a topic for a post of its own. I'll stick with it for clarity).

Aywren's difficulties in FFXIV, as she describes them, are twofold. Firstly, the activities necessary to continue playing and - most importantly - to feel she is pulling her weight at the cap, tend to be stressful rather than relaxing. Secondly, due to the game's "do all the things on a single character" design, the escape hatch offered by other games of simply rolling another character is firmly closed.

As she says, "FFXIV really discourages alts...in fact, rolling an alt just feels like even more work". My own short time with the game, which I loved in many respects, told me exactly the same thing. Indeed, the sheer implausibility of ever playing and enjoying multiple characters in Eorzea was one of the main reasons I declined to subscribe after the free month.

Now what, Piggy?

MMOs in which I have had - or currently do have - one or more max level characters all take the opposite approach. EverQuest, EQ2, Vanguard and GW2 each have many races and many more classes, multiple starting areas and an array of disparate leveling paths that make it not just possible but positively appropriate to repeat the leveling journey over and over, even when the destination has already been reached.

They all also benefit very strongly from having either a huge choice of horizontal content, alternative and discrete vertical progression paths, or both. Frequently, if you would like to become self-sufficient - always one of my goals, if one that's seldom achieved - an army of alts is not an indulgence but a necessity. Players of the traditional "one Main, one Alt" variety find this approach as unattractive as I find it delightful, which is, of course, how game economies are built.

The argument in map chat over GW2's "grindiness" fell down over definitions: one person's "grind" is another's "farm". I confess to willfully contributing to the confusion. Sometimes I just can't help myself.

I have a very straightforward definition of "grinding" in MMOs: grind is any form of repetitive activity I don't enjoy. "Farming", on the contrary, can readily be defined as "something in game that I'll happily do over and over and over just for the fun of it". 

Harvesting nodes for materials or killing easy mobs for faction so that I can make an item that will make my character more powerful or allow her to use a vendor that currently won't trade with her  - these are classic farming activities. Running the same dungeon over and over to kill a boss who may, but most likely will not, drop a piece of gear I need to raise an arbitrary statistic on a specific slot by a small amount so she can edge a step closer to passing a gear check to enter another grade of the same dungeon and begin the process all over again is a classic grind.

Farming and Flying
There is no natural law that says spending time on one of these activities is morally superior to the other. It's all pixels as the saying goes. Some people absolutely loathe harvesting or faction grinding, seeing it as busy-work of the worst possible kind. I'm not attempting to place any of these essentially frivolous ways of passing the time into any kind of hierarchy of value.

What I am saying is that, while there may not be any extrinsic difference in worth between grinding or farming, there is a difference nonetheless. That difference is Agency.

When you farm you have complete control. It's a pick-up and drop activity. You can start it when the mood takes you and jack it in when you get bored. No-one is relying on you to hit one more Ancient Wood node or kill one more Corrupt Guard. No-one, that is, but you.

What's more, farming generally allows you to be as social as you wish. You can chat on all your channels, with your guild, your friends, randoms in zone, while keeping the mats or the faction flowing. By contrast, for all, its supposed social benefits, grinding, at least in its modern LFG/LFR form, has become a soulless, mechanical, silent drudge. If you're lucky.

The invention of Dailies muddied the distinction between grind and farm and between agency and obedience. Dailies were introduced, in part, to counter discontent with the perceived "grind" of faction farming (see how confusing these terms are?). They replaced killing large numbers of creatures Faction A disliked in order to make that faction like you by doing a small number of tasks for Faction A instead.

Easy Dailies!

This approach, which caught on and replicated across the genre like a virus, offers an uncomfortable half-way house for Agency. You have a limited freedom over which Dailies to choose and when (or rather whether) to do them but they tend to offer a much smaller range of options to achieve the same result and they come with a timer that the old farms happily lacked.

You don't have to do your dailies every day but, hey, they're called "Dailies" for a reason, aren't they? Miss a day and feel yourself slipping behind. And that's also the innate problem with vertical progression for anyone who isn't wholly on board with a life of High Energy High Achievement as a preferred way of spending their leisure hours.

Story time. There was a brief period when I was at the cap in EverQuest. It wasn't even that brief: I'd been at the Velious cap of 60 since some point in the life of the following expansion, Shadows of Luclin. I reached the  increased level cap of 65 during the Planes of Power expansion in 2002. I remained there until the cap was raised to 70 in Omens of War two years later.

I played EQ for four expansions at the 65 cap. I had two max level characters, a Cleric and a Shadowknight. I didn't raid but I both healed and tanked regularly for full groups in at-cap content for a couple of years.

I also played umpteen lower level characters throughout the run. By and large I managed to retain a Low Energy approach even though much of the activity was nominally High Energy. The way I did that was by retaining the maximum possible amount of agency throughout.

I did the entire Bard Epic. I never even played a bard.

At that time Mrs Bhagpuss and I were in an active guild and we did a lot with them but our primary social resource was a cross-guild custom chat channel. This was started by a friend of the time with our encouragement and over a couple of years we used it to build a network of like-minded individuals.

We invited people who enjoyed running dungeons for the fun of it, not just to get specific drops. We were laid-back enough about it all that, generally, we wouldn't even need to use /random to determine who would get most items. People were added to the channel based on whether they were good company not on how well they played.

How good anyone's gear was didn't even get a look-in when we were handing out invites or picking groups, although we did end up with a couple of top tier raiders, who appreciated the opportunity to kick back and relax once in awhile. As a Cleric I should have had my Epic. All clerics had to have their epic. But I didn't and it didn't matter.

Epic Quests were on the list of things I didn't fancy much, like raiding and getting flagged for the higher Planes, so I passed. Ironically, I did take part in several, but only as one of the party or raid helping someone else to get their Epic weapon.

I even once tanked Trakanon (the relatively easy triggered version) for a friend's Bard epic, probably the highlight of my limited tanking career but the only Epic I ever completed on my own behalf was the famously short and simple (relatively speaking) Beastlord version.

Another day, another Epic.

That was years later on another server and by then I was high enough level to solo most of it. Another Low Energy option - wait it out. Meanwhile, back in the PoP era, my capped characters opted out of the gear grind and yet were able to enjoy a full and varied palette of max-level content for a couple of years until EQ2 came along and derailed the train.

 At the beginning of my reply to Aywren I claimed "I think it is, both by definition and by design, impossible to have Low Energy fun *and* remain competitive in the endgame of a vertical progression MMO – especially one that uses a subscription-based payment model". The key word in that sentence is *and*.

If your goal is to live a relaxed, low energy life at the cap of an MMO designed around vertical progression you have to accept that you will not be competitive. You won't have the best gear. Your iLevel or equivalent will be sub-optimal. You won't be top of any ladders, meters or leader boards. You will, in the estimation of some, be coasting. You may feel your more driven friends are carrying you and they may be.

This is fine. You don't need to be competitive. You merely need to be competent. As Jeromai says "Priorities shift so that it’s no longer mission critical to be considered best of the best… “Good enough” will do". And "good enough " is by definition good enough. Your friends, if they are your friends, will be willing, happy even, to take some of the weight but that doesn't mean you need to be a burden.
Venril Sathir - is that the Druid Epic? It's all just a blur.

I was a good healer as a cleric in those days. I didn't have my Epic and my gear wasn't cutting edge but I knew what to cast, when and on whom, I didn't panic in a crisis and I kept people up when they might have gone down. My cleric was a first pick when groups were being made, partly because back then all groups wanted a cleric, but also because I was a good team player and because I was "good enough".

As a low energy gamer playing for relaxation and fun at the cap it is, in my opinion and from my experience, essential to be "good enough" while taking things seriously but not too seriously. You are there to enjoy yourself. If you find that, for whatever reason, that's not happening then it's time to make a polite excuse and leave.

If you can hold on to some agency you can enjoy life at the cap as much as you enjoyed the ride that took you there. Some MMOs, like GW2, make that a much, much easier thing to do but if it can be done in classic EQ then it can be done anywhere. Even FFXIV.

I look forward to hearing how Aywren squares that circle.




5 comments:

  1. I think at launch GW2 tried to be the game where the low energy gamer could reach cap and be competitive. This was clear in the decision to make Exotics the top gear level in the game, and to make them easy to get. (I logged into GW2 the other day, and I'm still sitting on 1.5 million Karma from the early days before it was nerfed and fell like rain in WvW. That's enough to outfit 6 alts in end game Temple Exotics).

    But as you've pointed out many times, they reversed this design decision almost immediately and brought in the Ascended tier. Did they have evidence it failed? Or did they panic and jump the gun?

    - Simon

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    1. I believe the official line is that the Ascended tier was planned back in beta and was always going to be part of the game. If it was ever mentioned in interviews or PR before launch, though, I'd like to see a link. Although it did seem at the time that it had been added as a knee-jerk reaction to the bad reception received by both the supposed PvE endgame of Orr and the first major live event, the Karka Invasion, in retrospect, and bearing in mind how incredibly slowly ANet tend to work, it does seem likely they must have had Ascended in the pipeline already. I don't think they could have knocked it out in the time otherwise.

      After four years and the relative failure of HoT they do finally seem to be going back to that original low energy plan, or at least a hybrid version. I have considerable optimism for the second expansion - if they ever tell us what it is!

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  2. Sorry I didn't get to sit down and look at this article until today. I think you and I approach gaming very similarly and share a lot of philosophies. I am completely on the same page with grinding vs. farming, for instance.

    I very much have a good group of people around me who don't care what kind of gear I'm using and if I can play competitively. When we formed our FC, we made it clear that we were very much casuals, and accepted folks no matter what level or ilvl they have. This is probably the only reason I'm lasting at all in any sort of end game environment in FFXIV.

    I know I'll never, ever have best in slot for any of my gear. That's reserved for high-end raiders, which I'll never be. I'm okay with that.

    For the most part, FFXIV is pretty forgiving for casuals at end game. Every now and then, the story will mark a specific ilvl to complete story, like it did with patch 3.5. This is usually not too painful to reach, and once you're there, you can complete the most important content at end-game. So, I can't complain too loudly about the game's requirements in particular.

    I guess a lot of it comes down to my own expectations of myself. I only need to be ilvl 205 to do current content. But I tell myself I SHOULD be working on ilvl 240 gear because that's what others around me are doing. No one is going to kick me from a group for not having it, but my own sense of perfectionism is my worst enemy, and I'm aware I'm fabricating my own issues.

    My post was reaching out to other folks who have been in the same mentality to ask them how did they shake it. I did get a lot of good suggestions and feedback on that, and was really interested in hearing everyone's thoughts on end game. I'm currently trying to put some of that feedback to use, but I know a lot of it is going to be up to me to change my mind and gaming priorities to make being at end-game fun again.

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    1. There was a lot of good advice and plenty of helpful suggestions in the comments you got. I'm certain that, with the supportive guildmates and friends you clearly have around you in the game, you'll find a way to square the circle.

      The difficult part for most people who aren't natural end-gamers seems to be knowing where to push forward and when to sit back. I saw plenty of people burn out trying to keep up back in my EQ days, while others just coasted along, doing much the same content but apparently having a far less stressful time. Its all headology in the end! You just have to experiment and find your own, personal point of balance.

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  3. When I read the post and its comments I can't help but think that MMOs have become about efficiency more than the thrill of exploration and play led activities. I think Wolfshead's blog has mentioned this more than once. When I remember playing Everquest much time was 'wasted' wandering around, creating things, talking in the common lands tunnel - not very efficient according to modern metrics. Yet it is this wasted time that allows community to form and friendships to build, and low energy moments of relaxation to occur. Has everybody forgotten that friendships are built in all that wasted time together. Hanging out - doing seemingly nothing - is the crucible of relationship building in MMOs and life. Or do we prefer to be so efficient that we are alone together - too busy chasing ephemeral goals to bother about who is with us on our adventure. Furthermore, there is the extremely scripted nature of everything that we are doing, where we are driven by the imagination of the developer, rather than our own. Where is our imagination, have we forgotten what we did so well as children? I think Everquest gave us many of these things – they weren’t perfect – but they allowed us to imagine and create our own adventure according to our own timeframe, and allowed us many low energy moments. Actually, often high energy moments were interspersed with low energy moments of ‘meditation’ or downtime during battles. Without the obsessive directedness of developed ‘quest’ goals we were free to adventure in a virtual world according to our own timeframe, our own goals, with the friends we made during ‘low energy’ moments together. All this seems decidedly missing nowadays, although I remain hopeful of the promise of the upcoming MMO Pantheon Rise of the Fallen to redress many of these current shortcomings.

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