Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Pass The Cheese, Please

UltrViolet is wondering why he's not feeling the same buzz around WoW's upcoming expansion as everyone else. (Alright, not everyone). In reply, Jeromai, another WoW refusenik, describes his own unconvincing introduction to the West's biggest-ever MMORPG:

"I’ve tried WoW, and it’s not for me either. The furthest I’ve gotten is soloing an undead hunter to 60 or so during the Cataclysm era. I’ve blanked out on most of the story/quests. I got speedrun by a friend through a dungeon via him outleveling it and gifted stuff (a faster way to kill my interest in the mode I cannot imagine, to realize that someone can solo cheese their way through something via incrementing numbers rather than through skill, ie. that gifted gear will be valueless in a few levels, so why bother to even group through it properly?)"

I did get a bit further than that my first time through, although not much. I think I topped out in the early 70s, back in mid-WotLK, when the level cap was 80. It took me six months to get that far.

I was playing WoW as my main MMO at that time and from memory I would probably have put in around 25-30 hours most weeks, which suggests leveling must have been a much slower process than it is today. Of course, I did play a lot of other characters and I recall doing an inordinate amount of PvP in Battlegrounds, which maybe didn't give leveling xp. I can't recall.

At the time I knew no-one who was playing WoW, except Mrs Bhagpuss, who started at the same time I did. I knew of people who played but I wasn't blogging then so I didn't even have that shared experience to draw on. Consequently I didn't have the problem of over-zealous friends trying to give me an unwanted leg-up.

It is something I've run into in other MMOs. It's something I've done myself. When you know and love a game and you see someone not quite getting it there can be a huge temptation to jump in and carry some of the weight, just to get them over the hump. Or maybe you think the real game begins at the end and everything that comes before is just an annoyance, to be disposed of as fast as possible. Or perhaps you just get a kick out of playing the all-knowing, all-powerful superhero. There are as many reasons to jump in and lead the way as there are players to be led.

Always keep an eye on the horizon.

Sometimes it works but often it has the effect Jeromai describes. Instead of connecting someone with the game it alienates them from it. Even so, it always puzzles me when someone comes to the conclusion that because a higher-level, better geared, more experienced player can trivialize lower-level content that content is by definition trivial.

This seems to me on a par with believing that because you can read the precis of the plot of a mystery novel on Wikipedia there's no point or purpose in reading the book. Yes, you could turn to the last page, solve the mystery and be done in a moment. You wouldn't, though.

If you did, you'd not have read the book. You would have no feeling for the language, no understanding of the characters, no sense of the author's purpose. You'd have gained nothing, learned nothing and felt nothing. Oh, you'd know who did it. There's that.

Anyone who reads mystery novels  - any novel, really - knows they could turn to the end to see how it all turns out but they don't. Knowing doesn't void the experience of doing. The content is the content. This is similar to but different from the journey being its own reward.

MMOS are all about the content. A traditional MMORPG is a portmanteau and a palimpsest. The leveling game hasn't been the be-all and end-all for a very long time. Story, plot, narrative, they form only a small part of what there is to do. You don't have to focus on any one aspect and you don't have to buy in to all the expectations. You can pick and choose.

Even with that freedom of choice, in all MMORPGs with vertical progression, which is almost all of them, you have to accept impermanence. Yes, your Best-in-Slot weapon will be time-expired the day the new expansion drops. Yes, the Tier 1 armor set that took a month of grinding will serve as the bare minimum for your next month as you grind for T2. So what?

That's the process. If it seems hollow then congratulations, you've seen through the trick. Magic happens because you choose to believe in magic not because magic's real.

If we keep the lights low enough no-one will see the wires.

Some people like to know how magic tricks are done. For them, understanding the mechanics make the whole thing more fascinating, not less. For most, though, once a trick's explained, it's dead. Explain enough tricks and all of magic dies.

Which is why you need to be careful and cautious when showing someone around the back of the set. If you reveal all the trapdoors and uncover all the mirrors there's nothing much left but dusty boards and flat canvas. At least let the newbie see the trick done properly, once.

I love cheesing dungeons. I love outleveling content and sueprheroing through it. I love soloing bosses meant to challenge two dozen mighty heroes of yester-year. I love doing it because I did it the hard way the first time and now it's payback. Or because I never could, then, and now I can.

Blizzard clearly understand that mindset. They are building it into the structure of their benchmark MMO. You can go back and cheese WoW's dungeons and Blizzard will make sure you get all the drops you would have gotten with friends, at level, back in the day.

You did do those dungeons with friends, at level, back in the day, didn't you?

Even when I played WoW a decade ago, when my highest level characters were in the fifties or sixties, I went back and soloed The Deadmines for fun. Because I could. Because it was profitable and because it was satisfying. It might only have been a few weeks since I struggled through those caves, dying often, but already it was history. My history.

In EQ, there was a genuine, visceral thrill in going back, years later, to romp around the Gates of Discord zones. They'd terrified me at launch and broken my guild along with many others. I had, quite literally, my most terrifying times in MMOs ever there. Now I owned them. It was glorious.

It also works when you level up to see content that you couldn't even get to first time around. In EverQuest some of the most fun I ever had was in a duo with Mrs Bhagpuss, clearing the Planes in the Planes of Power expansion . We were half a decade behind the curve and twenty levels over par but who was counting? We came late to Castle Mistmoore in EQ2 as well, but by the time we were able to duo it it was a fun riot.

How many pairs of pants does the average character get through in 120 levels anyway?

The thing about all of these experiences is that they were aspirational. In every case I was doing something I'd always wanted to do but never could until then. That aspiration needed space to grow and time. Doing those dungeons, those zones, that content, attritionally or awkwardly, slowly, painfully or arduously, at level, built that desire. So did being locked out, left out, denied. Or trying and failing.

It's all a mind game. You know none of it matters yet it does. It matters because you make it matter. Yes, that again. It's the trick that works until it doesn't.

It's also a trick that comes easily to me. I can believe two contradictory things at the same time. Always could. Understanding that something both matters and doesn't matter is second nature.

I have a lot more trouble with the other part of Jeromai's assessment, that things would be different (better) if there was skill involved. Treating the intellectual, emotional, psychological and physical cost of acquiring high-level skill in a specific video game, let alone a specific encounter, as an appropriate use of my finite personal resources is a step too far for my suspension of disbelief.

It's around that point where pragmatism pitches in. If I find myself up against a skill wall in a video game my response generally isn't to git gud. It's to get out. If it's going to take that much effort there's plenty of work around the house that needs doing. Or if we're talking skills, maybe I could learn to speak another language or to play a musical instrument...

Which is not to denigrate the efforts of those who worship skill in video games or the satisfaction they get from their successes. Everything is worth precisely what it's worth - to you. I don't deny the value, I just can't share it. Instead, when people start discussing the need for "skill", I find myself questioning my sense of belonging, just like UltrViolet.

It's all about finding your tribe. And my tribe likes cheese.


  1. I actually agree with Jeromai on this one, it's sad to see content in MMO neglected because it's 'old'. Splitting game into small 'current' part and very large 'mindless farm' part doesn't lead to anything good except satisfying players who prefer mindless farm to actually playing the game.

    1. It absolutely doesn't need to be an either/or, though, does it? In EQ2 SOE and now DBG have been working systematically through the game's many dungeons, creating a range of versions suitable for all abilities and tastes. The original dungeons sit there unchanged. You can do them at level just as you always could or you can rip through them mentored down, which supposedly puts you at the right level but actually leaves you enormously overpowered.

      You can also do them in "Level Agnostic" versions, which means you can group with anyone of any level (pretty much) and the dungeon adapts to present a relevant challenge to all of you at the same time. If you want to have the original difficulty but at endgame you can do the "Fabled" versions, which are the old dungeons ramped up to match the abilities of current max-level players. Also for years most new dungeons in EQ2 come in multiple difficulties, Solo, Duo, and Heroic (full group).

      Flexibility in design should be able to keep all content (well, all the good stuff that people like) in play indefinitely. There is always the issue of critical mass to contend with, though. The more successful you are at keeping your older content relevant the more widely you risk spreading your playerbase. It's not so much a problem for newer MMOs but older ones with sprawling virtual real estate and a shrinking audience often need to create reasons for players to stick in one place not spread out.

    2. Well, your last paragraph is actually right on the money, it really makes sense to consolidate playerbase in a few zones rather than spread them thin on ever increasing amount of content. I'm not so sure about multiple versions though, from my experience, people always choose the path of the least resistance if they are allowed to. Even in FFXIV that is praised for keeping content current actually hard content only exists in Stormblood where there is no option to cheese it with unsynched mode (where you are not scaled back to intended level).

  2. I think (hope?) you meant to say Jeromai there at the end instead of UltrViolet, because I don't think I mentioned anything about skill in my post. My thoughts on skill in MMOs are probably similar to yours. I never play MMOs to challenge my skills, I'm usually more interested in story and exploration.

    1. Hmm. That's a really difficult sentence to punctuate. At first I thought it was a misplaced comma but it can still be read both ways even with the third comma removed.

      For clarity, what the sentence means is that when people (unnamed, generic people, not specifically referring to Jeromai but with his comment in mind) talk about skill then I find myself questioning my sense of belonging to that self-defining group, in the way UltrViolet questioned his own belonging to another self-defining group.

      I should probably move the final relative clause ahead of the mention of your name, actually. That would remove all ambiguity. Let's do that. Just for posterity, the original sentence, which won't be there for long after I finish this comment, went like this: "Instead, when people start discussing the need for "skill", like UltrViolet, I find myself questioning my sense of belonging.

    2. I think the ammended version is weaker but clearer :)

  3. Great stuff! I think you could keep the original just move it around slightly and achieve clarity: ... The need for "skill" I find myself, like. UV, questioning...

  4. I'd like to add an addendum that my comment was intended to be less about that elusive quality summarized into one insufficient word often used to bludgeon others by self-styled elitists, and more about my general "I don't get it"-ness with regard to the magic trick of feeling powerful by exponentially incrementing numbers.

    I don't understand "skill" as used by that vocal subset either. What is it defined as? Being able to control the sequence of keypresses well? That can be influenced by prior thought put into proper keybinds.

    Reaching a certain target number? If I am only able to reach 2/3 of the desired number on week 1, is that defined as "suck" while reaching the target number on week 2 defined as "skill?" Am I not the same person behind the keyboard? Except that I have perhaps put a little more thought into what I'm doing, or checked a guide or practiced some in the intervening time?

    Using the best tool for the situation? Or knowing how? Or executing that knowledge? If a competitive e-sports team loses a match on day 1, but wins on day 2 versus the same opponents, are they somehow more 'skillful' in the space of 24 hours? What if someone can teach or coach others on how to do something, by being good at explaining the whys and breaking it down, but cannot execute it themselves - is that "skill?"

    Anyway, that's a whole blog post in itself, so I'll stop there.

    My mini-tribe of (currently) one is more puzzled by the illusion that some players enjoy, that of grinding items with bigger numbers to help their avatars do bigger numbers and then self-attributing power/superiority based on that.

    I can more or less get my head around the idea of planning and making decisions on a build that incorporates incrementing numbers. as long as there is some complexity in the choice beyond "this number is higher, so I shall use A and B is junk."

    But I just don't get the subset of players who feel more special by owning higher number gear. Heck, I don't get the subset of players who feel more special by purportedly being "skillful" either.

    Nor do I understand a family member who attributes 'skill' and specialness to one player being able to catch a legendary Pokemon versus another who did not - if all other factors are equal - the ball lands, it's a 'great' throw, then there's a X% chance. It's luck, it's probabilities, it is absolutely not skill. But you will not be able to convince them otherwise. Person A who caught it is 'better' 'cleverer' and more 'skillful' somehow. *sigh*

    1. I specifically didn't want to include you in the "skillz r all" crew because I know it's not ho9w you see things. You've written extensively and eloquently on the subject often, as you just did in the comment above. You only got pulled in by association because you happened to use the "S" word :)

      By the same token I didn't mean to out myself as a "Big Numbers Good" kind of player. One of the first things I do in any new game is go through options to turn off all the messaging about combat. I especially dislike the overhead numbers that show you how much damage you're doing. I can tell if I'm doing enough damage by one very simple indicator - the mob is dead. If I'm alive and it's not that's all I need to know.

      What I do like is certainty, though. Having better gear and bigger numbers increases the chance that the mob will die and I won't and that's about all I'm interested in. Being way over level increases the chance to 100% and I like that a lot. I know a lot of people find it boring and I would if it was the only option, but as *an* option I like it a very great deal!

      I also wouldn't want to give the impression I have no interest in "skill" at all. I do like doing things well. I was very proud of my abilities as a healer in EQ back in the day, for example. The "skill" involved there, however, was primarily the ability to stay alert, read the situation and react quickly. You can call that skill if you like but I would classify it as "experience".

  5. Interesting comparison to magic tricks. I've wondered for a long time why certain things bothered me in WoW even though other MMOs do them too and there I can deal with them, and I think you've hit the nail on the head here: the magic died for me because in WoW, all the tricks became too obvious for me.

    I grew to hate the constant gear resets every patch because I couldn't sufficiently suspend my disbelief anymore to work on character progression which I knew would be nullified in x months, to fight "threats" that the steep power curve would turn into pushovers if only you waited until the next patch (which you knew was coming soon).

    Both SWTOR and Neverwinter also have gear resets of sorts, but the curve is never so steep that what you owned previously instantly becomes pointless. SWTOR also has an extremely unpredictable patch/expansion cycle even nearly seven years into its life, so while I know that some things will reset/become obsolete eventually, I'm never sitting there counting down the days. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

    1. Yes, I think having the gear resets come at unpredictable times helps a lot. So does phasing them in and/or not making them ridiculously extreme. I actually quit EQ2 a week after the launch of the (excellent) Rise of Kunark expansion because Mrs Bhagpuss and I had come to it fresh from some seriously long and hard work upgrading out characters and in the very first zone of RoK the random drops from passing animals were huge upgrades. We went back to EQ in high dudgeon and didn't come back to EQ2 for six months!

  6. I played Wow for about a year between GW1 and GW2. Besides LoTRO it was my main MMO at the time. But i never got the story. I know there is supposed to be a story in the zones, but it just never registered with me. And yes i read the quest text completely. But somehow the story never congealed into something meaningful for me. I remember seriously overleveling every zone. Up to the point that i considered buying that item that stops xp gain. I quit somewhere in the second zone of WotLK.

    I think the most fun i had was soloing some dungeon to get an absolutely obsolete crafting recipe that was best in slot in some ancient time. Only to discover that the ingredients were extremely expensive :) I do not remember the name of the dungeon. Only that it's entrypoint was in a very small zone and it had a bar with a bar fight in it :)

    Oh and just for reference this was shortly after the release of cataclysm and yes i did every zone of the outlands except the last one.

    It was fun for a time, but somehow felt more of a chore without a proper story than an adventure. Perhaps i was just to late to the party. Or my insistence on slowly leveling a single warlock through all the content is the wrong approach. I don't know. I still have a three month subscription code lying around, perhaps i should try again some day.

    1. No, I never followed the story in WoW either and I also read every word of every quest. There were plenty of smaller "zone" stories that I followed and understood but the big overarching narrative went straight ove rmy head. I particularly remember doing the whole Death Knight storyline and having no more idea at the end about what a DK was than i had at the start.

  7. I have not-great reaction time and some perceptual limitations which mean that I'll never be good at raid dances or really competitive pvp. Please sign me up for tribe skill-is-optional! Next problem: where does one find actual people who won't treat me as radioactive for what I just wrote?🤔

    1. In MMOs that allow you to advertize in LFG with notes against your name (GW2 does it, for one) you do see people saying things like "Reading all the text, watching all the cut-scenes" or "casual, fun run". The answer to all grouping questions, though, has always been if you're having problems getting the groups you want, start your own.

      WoW has actually just added a version of the solution we used to use fifteen years ago in EQ, namely custom chat channels (called Comunities now in WoW). FFXIV has LinkShells which are the same sort of thing. The best regular grouping experiences I ever had were in EQ in a cross-guild custom chat channel. It lasted about 12-18 months, I forget exactly. We would add anyone we found to be of like mind who was interested when we met them in Pick-Up Groups, of which EQ had millions back then. After a while we never needed to PUG any more, we would form groups from within the channel. It was entirely skill-agnostic. We had top-tier raiders, people who had to ask which spells they ought to use and everything in between. What everyone had in common was a sense of humor, patience and a willingness to have an adventure.

      I'm sure there are still loads of players like that around - the only problem is finding them and putting them all in the same place.


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