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|
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.
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.