Sunday, September 23, 2018

Some Thoughts After Revisiting Dragon's Stand In Late 2018: GW2

Last week I read an interesting post at MMOBro entitled "When Is an MMO Really Dead?". Tyler (of Superior Realities) split the concept of MMO death into four stages: Decline, Maintenance Mode, Closure and Extinction, making the point that MMOs are a lot harder to kill than people seem to think.

The whole idea of games being "dead" is an odd one to begin with. I don't recall anyone ever sticking their head round the door of a pub and asking "Is darts dead?" before deciding whether to come in and chuck some arrows.

Even in video-gaming, the concept of mortality seems to rest solely with online games. Various companies have been making a good living for years now out of reselling not just old games but also the retrofitted hardware to play them on. Syp has a series at Bio Break where he plays ancient games from before the discovery of fire and no-one seems to think that's weird.

Apparently MMOs are different. Quite a lot of people seem to want a written guarantee that they won't be wasting their time on a daed gaem before they're even willing to "risk" creating a free account. What risk it is that they think they'd be taking, I'm not sure. The loss of an hour or two that could have been better spent translating "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" into Sanskrit, perhaps?

People even ask the question of MMOs that are self-evidently vital and vibrant. What anyone means when they claim World of Warcraft is dead is beyond rational interpretation. If WoW, with its hundreds of servers, millions of players and ability to spawn a major Hollywood movie a decade after launch, is dead then presumably almost all other Western MMOs are cremated and scattered to the four winds, their very names no longer even a memory.


In the week that I read Tyler's post there was a thread on the first page of the Guild Wars 2 forum titled something like "Is GW2 dead?". I'd link it but it's gone now, or at least I couldn't see it on the first seven pages, which was as far as I could be bothered to look.

I imagine it was removed. ANet don't have much of a sense of humor when it comes to people claiming their bread and butter has fallen face down on the shag pile and who can blame them?

It's hard (although not impossible) to imagine it was a genuine query, anyway. You have to have bought a copy of GW2 even to post on the forum so it's a bit disengenuous to go there and ask if the game is dead - you could just log in and look for yourself.

Which people do. Not that it makes them any less likely to be trolls. After all, if someone makes an account for an MMO, creates a character, then logs in just to guffaw "People still play this thing?" you have to assume an ulterior motive.

Trolling aside, there are good reasons to be cautious when choosing a new-to-you MMO or even returning to an old favorite. It's there in the title: Massively Multiple. Kind of suggests the games require a critical mass of people to make them viable. But do they?


Back in the day there might not have been all that much you could do without either a bare minimum of half a dozen staunch friends or a pool of  pugs to slot and fit into a group session. And that's not even touching raids.

You'll notice I'm using the subjunctive even for that scenario. I'm not personally convinced it was ever true that you had to have lots of people online at once to enjoy an MMORPG. As the century turned, I learned to play EverQuest  on the Test server, where I sometimes never even saw another player in an entire session, far less grouped with one.

Still, for the sake of argument let's say it was true then. It's surely not now. One of the loudest grumbles from complainers' corner these last few years has been over the supposed way MMOs have all turned into single player games. We're all online, playing alongside each other, hopelessly alone, apparently.

The mechanics of many MMOs have even been tweaked to the point that other players actually make progress harder. Someone was complaining about that very thing in the latest Living Story for GW2, where trying to do the main narrative instances in a group is apparently awkward and offputting.

If you don't need other players to play the game then how can it be dead without them? The NPCs and mobs are still there and these days it's likely they'll scale in difficulty to match your level and your numbers. If they don't, chances are there'll be a Solo setting on the dungeon door to fit your circumstances or a computer-controlled mercenary or three just waiting for you to drop them a few gold so you can group with some imaginary friends instead of trying to badger your real ones into playing.

MMORPGs in 2018 can pretty much play themselves. Players are all but optional. The games could all run on indefinitely, perfectly prepared for the occasional visitor, providing an hour or two of innocent entertainment in much the same manner as a What The Butler Saw machine might have done in a seaside arcade between the wars. Okay, not exactly like that...

A lack of players in itself doesn't make for a dead MMORPG. Left alone, MMOs don't die. They carry on regardless, neither knowing nor caring that they've been forgotten. No, if you want shot of an MMO, it has to be killed.

Sometimes it's a simple business decision. Sometimes there's a political or personal factor. If the servers are shutting down , though, you can bet that someone, somewhere, sometime, made it happen.

Of course, knowing it was someone's choice to flip the switch doesn't make it any easier when the last world goes dark, sending your characters on a one-way trip to oblivion. And that's why everyone is so nervous all the time. Nervous enough to ask "is this game dead?"when it so obviously is not. It isn't now but it might be one day and that would hurt.

You know what? There are no guarantees. Nothing lasts forever, not the games, not the characters, not the players. If there's one server up the game's not dead. If you want to play, give it a go. What have you got to lose? After all, as they say in PvP , it's not like you're going to die in real life, right?

9 comments:

  1. Very good post and I agree with most of it, though I do feel the need to add that if you're interested in doing large scale group content or PvP, you do need a certain amount of active players to get going. Also, I think WoW's automated queues for everything have set people's expectations incredibly high, where they expect a fully formed group for any kind of group content to be ready at the press of a button and within minutes, without considering what an insanely large server population that would require. I actually wrote a post about this once.

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    1. The original motivation for the post, which in the end survives only in the title, was my experience on Sunday morning, doing the huge Dragon's Stand event in GW2. That event is the climax of the entire Heart of Thorns expansion and it's one of a handful of genuinely entrancing and exhillarating, truly massively multiple events I've seen in MMOs. Not too long after HoT launched I asked a rhetorical question here, wondering how long such an event could be sustained after the expansion was no longer the focus content of the game.

      The answer seems to be "indefinitely". HoT was three years ago. It's no longer the latest expansion and it hasn't been current content for eighteen months or so but there were at least two full maps doing Dragon's Stand yesterday (at around 1.30am - 4.30am US time, too, on US servers) plus the map that I was on, the only one I could find that wasn't already full.

      Our map failed because although the content scaled excellently up to the mid-point, at that stage the mechanics require something like a minimum of 30 people, split into three groups of ten. We almost had that but not quite. To be fair, that segment often goes horribly wrong even with 90 people...

      ANet have done a superb job of keeping all content in the game active, relevant and played. If they want to, they can certainly tweak this so it works with a lower population but so far that's clearly not needed because the game is very far from any definition of "dead". Still, as you say, and as this demonstrates, there always will be some content that requires a bare minimum of bodies on the ground. And for my MMO money, that's the most memorable content of all.

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  2. Also agree. I'm downloading WildStar right now to enjoy what I can until it shutters. I might even make it to 50 and see the things I wanted too. If I'm enjoying myself, the time invested isn't a waste. If I'm not enjoying myself, well, I'll just stop playing. No harm in trying.

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    1. I very much had WildStar in mind when I wrote the post. I would also like to revisit WS before it closes. Unfortunately, last time I tried the game simply would not load on my machine. It kept throwing an error and no amount of googling or re-installing would fix it. I may try once more but I don't have high hopes of it working.

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  3. From all these years of blogging, and watching forums, it does seem the playerbase of most if not all MMORPGs has plenty of those trolls - people who's life's work seems to be to actively damage a game's reputation or play experience. Not just in game, but trolls who take the time to haunt forums or other independent sites just to repeatedly state how bad/dead a game is.

    As you say in the post it's such a misnomer. It's perfectly possible to play these games with a few friends and have a great time regardless of the server population (I did in Guild Wars 1).

    I find the comment about games carrying on regardless to be double edged. It does speak to the lack of permanent impact that we can, as players, have on most of these games. Yes, we can leave behind effects on a community, but in most MMOs there are no player made objects in the world that can attest to "I woz here". Does that matter though?

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    1. Logging in to troll the existing population of an MMO seems to be almost a hobby in itself. I tend to think its mostly es-players who've suffered that famous "burnout", where they made the game the focus of their lives for a while and then found it couldn't sustain their obsessive need indefinitely. It's very much like those people who can't stop dissing their ex even though they split up years ago. Other players' reactions to such trolls seems to have changed, though. Trolls like that used to be able to start furious slanging matches that lasted until a GM or moderator arrived to mute or boot them but these days the response is likely to be a mix of sarcasm and dismissive put-downs, followed by a mass blocking of the troll, who ends up talking to themself in their own pocket chat universe.

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    2. Oh, and I forgot to reply to your final question! I don't personally think it matters because in my mind players are just the tourists in worlds where our characters actually live. The worlds carry on quite happily without us, even after the servers shut down.

      In terms of players affecting that world, that's why I think housing is so vital - and proper housing, too. In EQ2, for example, if you use a Premium, rent-free house as the base for your build and set the permissions to allow visitors, your creation will become a part of the game for as long as the game lasts. Mrs Bhagpuss built a whole load of beautiful houses. She hasn't logged into EQ2 for more than five years but some of those are still there, open and waiting for anyone to come and wander round.

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  4. "I don't recall anyone ever sticking their head round the door of a pub and asking "Is darts dead?""

    I don't think a dart board has quite the maintenance and security update concerns that face the server running an MMO. If the publican had to pay a couple hundred bucks a month to hang it on the wall you might find darts being dead... though no doubt somebody would hack together a pirate/private board that mostly worked.

    And, as Shintar noted, there is likely some level of critical mass required if you want to go on all the rides in the theme park. Then there was that side discussion we had about the economy in EVE Online. I bet, if left alone, it would reach a point where the general economy would collapse. But I have yet to show up in Jita and not be able to buy whatever it was I came for, so we're not there yet.

    But for a lot of people I think the declaration of an MMO being "dead" is more a statement about them than about the game. They've grown tired of the game or their friends have stopped playing or they have just gotten good enough at the game that it doesn't seem all that fun anymore. I think our instance group had more fun when we were struggling because we were bad at gear and rotations and stuff than when we wised up, because it turns out the game isn't all that hard once you know the basics.

    And MMOs... well, MMOs with levels, which is almost all of them... do have the problem over time of the population bubble being at the level cap, so when new players wander in they find the starting zones dead and the auction house empty of anything they can use or afford. The game can seem quite dead then, even if there is a thriving population out there.

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    1. That last paragraph is the key, I think. There's an almost unsquarable circle in many MMOs between holding the interest of the veterans you already have and attracting new blood. The vets mostly want to keep getting more and more powerful; the last thing they want to do is start over. Hence the acrimonious forum spats in EQ/EQ2/WoW between those who want to see Progression/Classic servers (mostly ex-players not currently subbed) and those who see it as a waste of resources (active veteran players commiotted to current endgame content).

      If you play to the vets you have then your starting zones are a wasteland and any new players you pick up quickly leave because "no-one plays this game any more". If you devote time to attracting new blood, pretty soon they want to join the "real" game at the top, only to find it's going to take them weeks if not months to level up and get geared for endgame.

      It's why we have all these boosts and bonuses to skip people over what used to be the content. Much though I love leveling and the low to mid-level game, I'm coming round to the idea that straightforward vertical progression alone doesn't work over a timespan of years, let alone decades. There's plenty ANet have done wrong with GW2 but they have at least managed to keep the entirety of the game in play all the time. It's quite difficult to go anywhere and not see at least a few other players and the starting zones are always very busy. ESO, I believe, has managed something similar. It's probably the way to go if you want to avoid giving new players the impression that your game is dead just because everyone is actually in some far-away instance or zone they can't reach and have never heard of.

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