Tuesday, 10 January 2017

All For One : EQ2, WoW

Telwyn posted recently about the dubious attractions of repeating the same content you just completed with one character on a second...or third...or fourth... This was something of a theme throughout 2016, from Legion leveling in World of Warcraft, through the Dark vs Light event in SW:tOR to the pre-reqs for EQ2's Kunark Ascending expansion.

There's nothing strange about repeating yourself while playing an MMO, of course. We all know the MMORPG genre was built almost entirely on repetition from the very start. Indeed, all the way back in 1999, when I was doing a little research before deciding whether to plump for Ultima Online or EverQuest, I remember being struck by the extent to which the anecdotes I was reading centered around doing the same thing for what sounded like a very long time. Chopping wood, mostly, as I recall.

In the early years there was, by and large, a distinct division between that sort of repetitive rote activity, required to raise levels, skills or faction, and what we might loosely call story-related content. Quests tended to be a once-only affair, often relevant only to a particular class or race.

There were also, usually, many classes and races in an MMO and many starting points for the leveling journey. Add to that the length of time it took to take a character from creation to cap and the problem of finding yourself doing the exact same thing on a new character you'd done only the week before on another rarely arose. By the time you did get round to doing something for the second time, chances were it was so long ago you'd pretty much forgotten it anyway so it might as well be new content.

Wait a minute...haven't I been here before?

One of the innovations that WoW brought to MMOs, many of which swept through the genre like a forest fire in the years following Blizzard's unforeseen runaway success, was The Quest Hub. It established The Quest as the basic unit of currency for both progression and narrative and that has caused problems ever since.

Certain activities, it seems, can be repeated ad nauseam by many players, with the nausea not appearing for thousands, tens of thousands, millions of iterations. We call it "grinding" and whether it's good, bad or neutral has been discussed, debated and battered into the dirt as a topic for as long as there have been MMOs, without a consensus ever being reached.

Still, people will do it, if grudgingly. Over the years there's been a move by many developers to hide or soften the grind to make it more palatable. Daily quests, weekly quests, bonuses, points systems, you name it, someone's tried it. Perhaps the most dramatic of all these shortcuts has been the move from character-based play to an account-based focus.

When MMORPGs began they were very strongly rooted in the RPG tradition. The idea of characters being interchangeable bits on the drill-head of the player's account, slotted in and out to fit a specific purpose, would have been an anathema to the core playerbase of the era. There was an expectation that the player would have done at least some minimal imaginative homework in preparing the character. The Paper Doll often came with a space specifically for that background to be entered so that it could be perused by other players in the longueurs between pulls or in the fashion parade in front of the city bank.

No, but I have.

WoW changed that not by any intentional move away from its roots but by the sheer, runaway success with which it mainstreamed the genre. With an overwhelming influx of paying customers for whom "RPG" had a very different meaning and with every developer scrambling to re-bottle Blizzard's lightning there was a race towards convenience and ease of access that led directly away from the granular nature of character-based progress towards the inclusive, smooth integration of Account play.

At the same time and for much the same reason, leveling and progression paths were flattened, focused and accelerated. Starting choices were restricted, divergent options were culled and bottlenecks through which all characters had to pass were created. Players arriving in a new game would learn to ask "Where do I go to level at 20?" and expect to get a simple, unequivocal answer.

With each new character taking a fraction of the time to level up and with the progression path taken by a healer, a tank or a scout looking very much the same, player resistance to going through the same content was considerable, exacerbated by the indissoluble connection with narrative through the Quest Hub mechanic. Some developers dealt with this by mono-focusing their design to encourage players to stick with just the one character but, since it's presumably commercial good sense to encourage players to keep making more characters, the more common approach was to make doing so simpler, easier, more convenient.

And then that stopped. Last year several major MMO developers seemed to decide that the trend towards encouraging large stables of characters should come to an end. I'm sure that's not what happened but reading back from the decisions that were made it does look a little like a gentleman's agreement. However it came about the outcome doesn't seem to have been entirely what was expected.

At least it gives me a chance to admire the amazing Art Nouveau interiors.

As Telwyn and others have pointed out, basing a major selling point of your expansion around diversity (Class Halls) and then implementing mechanics based on unity is not an entirely coherent through-line. At least that all involved new content. In EQ2 and (as I understand, not being a player) SW:tOR, the requirement included going back and re-doing (or doing for the first time had you chosen to dodge it first time round) older content.

Since Kunark Ascending was announced and the pre-reqs revealed there's been a continual grumbling about it in the EQ2 community (although when isn't there, over everything, he grumbled?). A few months after release the positions seem to have hardened to "It sucks but suck it up", "Well it's your own fault - you should have done it the first time" and "Stuff this for a game of soldiers - I'm out". Naturally, because all MMO communities are in the end, a self-selecting group of "willing" volunteers the consensus is settling on "Suck it up".

Whether this is a valid or sustainable design decision in commercial terms I guess we will have to wait and see. Wilhelm has an excellent analysis of the current prospects for the remaining DBG MMOs and as he observes the litmus test is whether these games continue to get expansions. If development money continues to be spent making expansions then the least unlikely explanation must be that those expansions make money.

DBG has a year to assess whether taking this particular approach has made more or less money than they expected or hoped. Only a year because for all the troubles and tribulations of recent times SOE/DBG have always managed to knock out full-size expansions for the EQ titles at least once a year and they have already confirmed that work on the 2017 EQ2 expansion has begun.

And I'm still too short to reach the pestle and mortar. #ratongaproblems

Blizzard takes a lot longer. They may not even announce an expansion this year and certainly no-one on the planet expects them to release one. With those longer gaps between them WoW expansions tend more towards game resets anyway so it's always likely that each will see a sharp change of emphasis, direction or approach.

I'm in two minds. Emotionally I'm a fervent backer of character-based play so I see enforced requirements for each individual character as a positive. For that reason I back the return to content that needs to be completed by each character individually, not just by the player as controller of the account.

Which is fine in theory. In practice I have become soft just like everyone else. I've become used to convenience. Having to do the same thing on my Warlock that I just did on my Berserker and thinking while I'm doing it that I'll have to do it on my Inquisitor next week is not necessarily firing my pleasure centers.

Then again, I don't dread it, either. When all's said and done, this is entertainment. I am choosing to do it. If I decide I don't want to click through another fifty screens of overwritten fantasy twaddle or click on another fifty glowing ground spawns there's no-one making me but me. When I stop having fun I can stop trying to have fun.

The stage awaits. Who's on next?
The current approach to progression, narrative and character that developers seem to be taking in many MMOs, especially the ones that have been around a while, is a muddy, messy compromise but when wasn't it? MMOs are messy.

Trends and fashions in game development come and go and we as players live through them. This, too, will pass. For now I'm probably going to set my focus a little more narrowly and try to run a smaller team in most of my MMOs than I have been wont to do. Something closer to The Legion of Super Pets then The Legion of Super Heroes.

Which, come to think of it, is an analogy that's more apposite than I'm likely to admit.

8 comments:

  1. I have rose-tinted glasses about leveling alts being better in late Vanilla/TBC era WoW. Leveling was slow and there were several possible combinations of zones to level through. Plus dungeon leveling was viable back then too (in Legion not so much). I'm coping by ignoring anything in Suramar and beyond on alts - that's several grinds (reputation, mana crystals and layered, time gated quests) I can't fathom wanting to repeat anytime soon.

    As for trends, I have no particular 'horses' among the new crop of upcoming MMOs but is the focus on sandbox/old-school design ideas that seems to be a common trend indicating a change on this front?
    In SWTOR I have always been careful to avoid replaying planets too quickly. At least now that the side-quests aren't mandatory anymore it's easier to mix and match content to make it more varied. The last two expansions are super-directed narratives, worth repeating for sure to experience all the little class or faction specific nuances, but not something I want to repeat back-to-back.

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    1. I'm sure leveling was a more complete and nuanced experience ten, let alone fifteen, years ago. I don't think that's a rose-tinted memory. On the other hand, it was also slower and more frustrating so it's not a clear-cut decline. On balance I preferred the older version but ideally I'd like a hybrid of the two.

      We'll see what happens with the huge glut of self-described "sandboxes". I predict the same cycle of hype and disappointment we had with all the WoW clones, only on a much-reduced scale since most of the sandboxes are from independents. After that burns out perhaps we'll get something fresh. We'll see.

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  2. I'm always going to have as many alts as are allowed. I usually have a lead character who I "send on ahead" through the new content to max, then I pick another. Something about Legion, though...it made me decide to rotate through many of my characters who are spread throughout the game world instead of leveling a single one to max level. I think this time around I am seeing nothing really good at the top but the beginning of an awful grind.
    I don't need games to be "alt friendly". I just want the alternate adventures and gameplay various classes offer.

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    1. These days I always play one character through new content first before starting on a second. I didn't used to do that though and I think the change has come about because of the way the content is presented these days rather than any intent on my part. There are frequently "unlocks" of various kinds that the first character makes which benefit those that follow so it doesn't make much sense to have several going through at the same time. It does make it seem more linear than it used to although I'm so used to it now that it's only when it stops, as it seems to have done in some of the examples above, that I notice.

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  3. I've always been okay dragging an alt or three through whatever content my current main has just been through. Being able to learn from the past run and be more efficient makes me happy, because there is always something I figure out too late on the initial run.

    So I am one of those people who had five fully upgraded garrisons in Draenor and then got a sixth together and a couple of potential additional alts ready in the run up to the Legion launch in WoW. But Legion's theme was, "screw alts, focus on you main!"

    Which is why I am now trying to play EQII again... though that isn't working out very well either. In Norrath one does not simply go to a new zone and find a quest chain ready to go. My insta-level 95 character doesn't have the right pre-requisites, hasn't done the right language quests, and isn't pals with the right factions yet. And all of that spells trouble for any alt ambitions I might have as well.

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    1. What prompted me to write the post was spending my last three EQ2 sessions back-filling holes in my (Warlock) Sage's resume so he could get started on the KA signature tradeskill line. First he had to speak to Captain Ethan and do the ToT pre-quests because those are needed to spawn the next version of Ethan that starts the actual ToT Sig line itself. Then he had to do that series in full, which got him the letter to go back and speak to the person who starts the KA intro.

      Finally I got through that and landed on the beach in Obulos Frontier, where I began the Sig quest itself, only to run into the next roadblock - my Sage (who has barely ever left his house and has all his Warlock levels courtesy of free Level 85/90 boosts) can't speak Gobblish.

      Now, there are two ways to "skip" that requirement that DBG have kindly provided: 1) you can study some stones on the beach that have goblish text or 2) if you have a character who's been through the KA Adventure line already (which I do) that character can buy an Heirloom item that alts can use to auto-omplete certain requirements including the Goblish language.

      Which sounds great until you find that your alts can't read the book unless they are level 100 Adventurers. And that you can't study the stones unless you have already got the quest to speak Goblish, which you can only get from a drop off goblins! CATCH 22!

      So now I'm back in Runneyeye killing goblins for the drop. As a longtime Norrathian I'm okay with this but I completely understand how frustrating it must be for new players (if there were any) and people coming back after a long break (of which there are plenty). If you're going to put in ways to avoid old content then at least make them actually avoid old content!

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  4. The pre-req's for the tradeskill timeline in KA were brought up many times in testing. They came out with the book to help alts through the adventuring timeline but it there was nothing designed to help with the tradeskill.

    I have my main EQ2 character finished with the KA adventure and tradeskill timeline. I will probably do the tradeskill timeline with 1-2 more alts. I won't even think about the adventure timeline for any alts. The grinding is too steep to get ready for heroics or raids this time around to be able to concentrate on multiple characters. With how powerful tithe is now plus the resolve checks, it's just not worth the time.

    I have thought some about the changes of EQ2 and have decided that a few years ago when I had more gaming time, I would have been fine with all of this. With my limited time these days, I do not think I am the audience they are targeting any more. I am ok with this, there are plenty of other games if they continue in this direction. I just think it is a poor choice at this late stage of the game. With such a low population, you needed everyone playing multiple characters to keep a healthy number of groups going.

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    1. EQ2, like most older MMOs, is in a peculiar place when it comes to holding and keeping players. The real hardcore, the players who make it their main leisure activity, and who, presumably, spend the most are both demanding of new things to do and jealous of their status. They want things that will occupy them for a long time and they don't want less ardent players to have those things without putting in the hours. You hear this sentiment expressed one way or another every day in chat.

      On the other hand, older MMOs have a huge potential resource in former players who can be lured back with expansions or other promotions. Those players need to be brought up to speed somehow, yet without that largesse upsetting the core players too much.

      Difficult balancing act. I think EQ2 has done a very good job of keeping both fully casual players and the real hardcore happy over the years. If you either mainly solo or if EQ2 is your main and only MMO and you play the traditional 30-40 hours a week then it works fine. The difficult area is for the people who are semi-casual, who want to do some top-end content but don't want to make it a career. It seems as though Kunark Ascending has finally broken with that middle ground, certainly as far as anyone who wants to keep several characters viable is concerned.

      One thing you an be sure of with EQ2, though, is that the status quo today won't be the status quo tomorrow. Someone is going to come up with another bright idea soon enough and we'll all be working on some entirely new stat or system. Whether that will favor alts more than the current favorite we'll just have to wait and see.

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