Monday, 20 February 2017

Starting Over

Telwyn, inspired by Chestnut, posted about starting over in MMOs, saying "I’m an altaholic but usually stick to one server in a given MMO". That made me think about just how much my own habits have changed over the years. Not, I suspect, always for the better, either.

When I started out in EverQuest one of the very first things I had to learn was what a server was and why I should care. Before the game would allow itself to be played it wanted me to pick a name from a very bizarre list.

Almost everything looked as like a scattering of random letters from a Scrabble bag - Xev, Xegony, Bertoxxolous... Maybe not so random, come to think of it. Someone was clearly fond of the letter "X". Maybe they were working on a high score...

There was a smattering of semi-coherent options - The Rathe, The Nameless - but even those seemed alienating. What was a "Rathe" anyway and why couldn't anyone come up with a name for "The Nameless"? In the end I went for one I thought I might be able to remember - Prexus. Another "X" now I come to think about it.

It soon transpired that I might as well just have flipped a coin because I didn't last very long at all on Prexus. I tried Brell Serillis and Test before two new servers, Luclin and Lanys T'Vyl, popped up on the same day as SOE attempted to accommodate EQ's ever-increasing population, something that would be repeated many more times over the next four or five years until the arrival of WoW shattered the paradigm, along with Smed's hopes and dreams of never-ending fortune and fame. Or not.


During that now almost unimaginable period of continual expansion I developed the habit of making new characters on every fresh server as it opened. On their opening days and mostly for a few weeks more I played on The Seventh Hammer, Antonius Bayle, Stromm, Maelin Starpyre, Tholuxe Paells, Mordern Rasp, Morrell Thule, Sullon Zek and probably a few more I've forgotten.

All of which meant that I took "starting over" as the norm for MMOs. How was I to know that it wasn't meant to be that way? Let's not forget that those were also the days when "twinking" was almost as dirty as it sounds, when people genuinely agonized over whether passing a Shiny Brass Shield from an old character to a new one meant they'd lost their moral compass.

When Mrs Bhagpuss and I moved, fairly briefly, to Dark Age of Camelot, an MMO with a tri-partite structure that forbade anyone to play characters of different Realms on the same server, what was the first thing we did? Made characters on three different servers so we could play them all, of course.

As the years rolled by and with them more and more MMOs, the pattern repeated itself over and over again. If a game chose to segment itself by race or alignment or region then I'd do my utmost to make sure I rolled and re-rolled until I'd seen it all. Well, all the starting areas, at least.

For the most part that meant more than just playing through the same levels a few more times with a different backdrop. It meant starting completely from scratch, without hand-me-downs or pre-acquired skills or a bank account groaning with gold.


The one thing that could always be ported was knowledge. Even with the best role-playing intentions it's hardly feasible to unlearn your understanding of how the UI works or where one zone lies in relation to another. Even so, in those days before Free to Play gave us all more worlds to play with than we could ever find time to explore, Starting Over allowed anyone to experience something of that New Game rush at will and at no extra cost.

Trends changed. Convenience took over. Exclusivity began to be seen as an impediment instead of a selling point. While many MMOs continued to pay lip services to RPG tropes like alignment and race it became commercially expedient to separate lore from practice.

Good guys and bad guys joined the same guilds, battled the same enemies, used the same banks. Player characters from races who'd been at war for millennia cheerfully traded magic items with each other while characters owned by the same account used shared facilities that meant they could help each other out even though, since they could never be online at the same time, they could never meet.

By the time we got to Guild Wars 2 the unit of participation had become The Account. Well, mostly. At the beginning there was still an inelegant melange of Character and Account Based play, something that persists to some degree even today in aspects such as Map Completion or Personal Story.

For the most part, though, every character is part of a team, whether they choose to be or not. All the myriad currencies go into a single wallet no matter who earned them and the achievements of one are the achievements of all.

There are no servers, or "Worlds", any more, other than for the competitive game mode of World vs World, which is in terminal decline, most likely to be replaced one day by a less archaic format. As far as PvE is concerned, we're all one big, happy family. Megaserver technology sees to that, as it or something much like it does in most MMOs these days.

Incremental change is insidious. The world alters around us and we barely notice. As I think about it now, though, I would hesitate to say it's all been change for the better.

Like Telwyn, if I step off the treadmill and begin afresh I find myself missing all the benefits that having established, integrated teams of characters brings. It makes it a lot harder to stick at it, when I begin in a new game or even on a new character. That feeling almost everyone must have, when they can't keep from noticing how much time they're spending doing things their other characters, whether in the same game or another, could do so much faster and more easily, it wears at my resolve.

And yet, when I start over, almost every time, I feel light, released, free. Everything that was old is new again. Life is simple on the up. All those dopamine hits the MMO leveling process was designed to provide come raining down just like they used to and it feels good.

That's the way I once played most of the time. Even when I had two level 60s, then two level 65s, when 60 then 65 was the cap, when my friends list bristled with names willing to go dungeoning at the drop of a tell, I spent time playing on other servers, among strangers, unknown and at the bottom of the curve.

I really don't do enough of that any more. Every time I do, mostly in unfamiliar games I'm trying on for size or on special purpose servers in MMOs I know, I find myself drawn in, pulled under, breaking the surface tension of the best-in-slot, meta, fractional upgrade path, sinking into the deep comfort that we call immersion.

You can forget what these games are for, sometimes. You float so long at the top of the tide you misremember all that lies beneath, the vast undertow, the waters that are never still. There's a lot more to MMOs than hitting cap and settling for the end game. I used to know that but I forgot, somehow.

It's never too late to start over. Let's go round again.

10 comments:

  1. The option to hide everything related to completionism would be nice. In Guild Wars 2, for example, the ability to make map/world completion statistics and the current personal story step invisible would be fantastic for that Starting Over immersion. But, there it is, staring at you even on the character select screen.

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    1. GW2 is a real mess as far as this kind of thing goes. I was very kind to it in the post above because i didn't want to derail my own argument but there is no coherence or consistency at all. The particular stats they show at character select seem to be intended to support their hapless desire for every player to play every aspect of the game and yet they are also unrepresentative and arbitrary. They also change according to ANet's current priorities, which makes them seem manipulative.

      I would love to be able not only to hide my record but to choose which characters are included in it. I'd like to be able to add and remove my own characters to and from the account-based record-keeping in exactly the same way you can leave or join a guild. But then, I think that so many issues in MMOs could be avoided with a good toggle!

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    2. You can hide some stuff.
      If you go to the World Map on the bottom left corner you can disable PoI, vistas, hero points, hearts, etc. Just keep the waypoints you already have.

      On the options\general options\user interface\content guide you can disable it. That will make you look harder for events and story location. You can even left click on the PS story UI thingy and only have the title of the next step (stays minimized between relogs).

      I know it is not all you want Karinshastha but it is a start.

      @Bhagpuss: I've always seen my account as a guild but then again my first "MMO" was GW1. I loved it when they allowed you to use your characters as heroes for whatever character you were playing in GW1.

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    3. In order to ignore it, it would have to be entirely invisible. Otherwise, it's no better than SW:ToR which shows you how many of the eight class stories you've completed on the character selection screen and awards you account-wide buffs for completing each one.

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  2. Anytime I have started over on a different server it was to serve the purpose of trying to play with friends. Group A on your current server and Groups B, C, and D on other servers (or factions, even). I would end up with characters on different servers and factions to try and spend time with people I cared to game with. OF course, would end up just doing the same / similar things, so always struggled with the enjoyment if there wasn't enough *difference*. Plus I'd just be behind everyone else on all 4 servers because they all had a dedicated main, so I would end up not playing meaningfully with any of them. Single world phases, level up/down to content are all good tools to let people game together, and I much prefer them.

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    1. I've never known that "come and join us on Server X - we'll help you get up to speed" thing work out well. People always end up missing the comforts of the server they left and drifting back. Saw that a few times in EQ, in DAOC and in EQ2.

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  3. Come on Uthgard then, relive daoc in its classic form. Im really enjoying the good old grind when you had time to type and chat.

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    1. Heh! Grind is the word for classic DAOC alright. I have a visual memory of whole areas even now because I spent so long standing in the same place killing the same mobs. I hadn't heard of Uthgard but I just googled it and it looks very interesting. Don't think I am ever likely to find the time to check it out but I'll bookmark it just in case...

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  4. I love how this has turned into something completely different. Your thoughts on the starting-over, as it were are interesting. I definitely agree on the immersion point. I seem to be more immersed and have a different kind of fun than when I'm on my max level characters. In fact, in some games, it's *more* fun to play those newer characters and experience it all again!

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    1. Thanks for starting the ball rolling and I hope your own restart works out well. Everything will be alright in the end, as they say, and if it isn't alright yet that's because it isn't the end.

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