Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Every Convenience

Belghast posted a list of his Gaming Grievances and Telwyn followed suit. I don't have any such gripes to air, being largely willing to take games as I find them, but I did spot a trend in both their lists that I thought I might pick away at, just a little.

I think it would not be too presumptious of me to suggest that both Belghast and Telwyn are a heck of a lot more social in their gaming than I am. Based on their blog posts, Belghast knows and teams up with a whole host of people across numerous games, while Telwyn has a regular cadre of friends and family to adventure with. For both of them, the facility to play with the people they want to play with seems to trump most, if not all, other concerns.

Telwyn articulates it plainly: "It’s a golden rule in MMORPG design as far as I’m concerned – just let friends play together without any barriers to fun!". Belghast says "...we as players should be able to group freely with our friends".

I don't have any gaming friends to speak of, these days. Mostly I play on my own or alone in crowds. Even so, I think I understand what Belghast and Telwyn are up against. I did spend years grouping with various people fairly regularly and at that time there were some pretty high walls between factions in certain games I played. In Rift and Dark Age of Camelot you had to play on different servers if you wanted to have characters on opposing factions. In EverQuest II, if characters had the temerity to join guilds based in the opposite faction's city,  they couldn't even get guild writs to help the guild level up.

I played EverQuest when the entire game revolved around which character race was kill on sight to which NPC faction. Players could mingle freely but only at the risk of seeing their character's reputation dragged into the dirt by dint of their choice of friends. Scabbling to drop group because someone accidentally or intentionally aggroed something on a faction you relied on was an everyday event back then. Even in more modern times Guild Wars 2 put faction at the core of what was originally intended to be its primary end-game content, World vs World.

As the years passed and the genre widened and diffused, MMORPGs have tended towards universality. All of Belghast and Telwyn's walls and barriers have been under siege and most of them are crumbling. There's plenty of data suggesting what growth there still is within the hobby comes first and foremost from within - people who play introducing and inviting people they know. Without the extrinsic growth earlier games enjoyed it's been commercially incumbent on developers to make it as easy as possible for people who already know each other to play together without hindrance or inconvenience.

And for a good while convenience was itself the watchword. MMORPGs had an unfortunate reputation for awkwardness. Not for difficulty, a term core gamers take to themselves with pride, but for irritation and annoyance. All those pettifogging details, ineligant systems, outdated mechanics. The sheer amount of reading and learning involved before you could just play the goddam game. All the nit-picking rules you had to follow when you did.

When you looked at the barriers preventing you from playing with the people you wanted to play with and those preventing your own characters from interacting usefully and easily between each other, it all seemed like too much trouble to even begin. Surely it always made sense to sweep all that away and the silly restrictions on things like class and race along with it?

Yes, well, up to a point. I was never much convinced by some of the arguments that backed up the changes as they filtered in and I'm even less convinced now, having seen the result.

The idea that game systems prevent people playing with their friends always rang a little hollow to me. It seems that about the only genuine, insurmountable barrier to playing with your pals is region-locking, the one thing Belghast's list I'm fundementally against on a matter of principle. The internet ought to be global not local.

I might not approve of it when it happens but I recognize that the primary reason companies region-lock is commercial. Not everyone is big enough or rich enough to go it alone. Local partners have be recompensed somehow. Regional exclusivity is a way of achieving global reach at affordable cost. Doesn't explain why Blizzard does it...

Outside of IP blocking , though, I've never really bought the argument that in-game faction or server restrictions prevent people from playing with their friends, be they in other countries, other states or other rooms in the same house. Back when I used to play MMORPGs with other human beings, if I wanted to play with someone new and they weren't on my faction or my server I'd roll another character.

In-game restrictions apply to characters not players. Players can always play with whoever they want. If the problem is that the person you'd like to play with is playing a faction you'd rather not play, then it seems to me the issue is with personal taste, not outside restrictions. If playing with the other person is the priority, which faction or class or race you choose to make that happen is surely incidental.

Moving from the specifics of playing with friends to the generalities of "convenience", it would seem to be even less reasonable to object to further barriers being removed. Who wants inconvenience after all?

Well, I guess I do, sometimes. Although I suspect I don't so much want it as need it. I'm no different to anyone else when it comes to an easy life. If someone offers to make something simpler, smoother, less of a nuisance I'm not going to argue with them. I'm going to let them get on with it, take full advantage, and then complain about it.

That's very much what happened across the genre over the best part of a decade following World of Warcraft's incredible break-out success. In trying to re-bottle that lightning developers cast around for anything that might be holding their games back, even though they really had no clear idea what that might be.

It seemed for a while as if Blizzard's magic dust might be ease of access. Everything that felt like grit in the machine had to be vacuumed out. Unfortunately, as we've seen with the return of Classic, the version of WoW that got the outside world's attention wasn't really all that accessible by modern standards. In quite a lot of ways it was really bloody fiddly. And yet, somehow, people couldn't get enough of it.

Of late there've been a few tentative moves in the other direction. Daybreak stopped adding color splotches to the map to direct you to your quest destination, at least in new content. Blizzard took away the right to fly then gave it back but told you you had to earn it.

Flight and quest-markers were arguably always controversial additions to the games. Shared bank vaults and account-based flagging don't seem like obviously bad things. That's because they aren't. They're good things for games and for gamers, by and large. Heaven knows, I love my shared banks. I complain a lot when I move from a game with account-based progress to one where I have to do everything separately for each character that wants it.

If I stop and think about it, though, it's the individual characters that matter to me, not the account. I prefer games that make the characters feel like individuals and where they don't I almost unconsciously try to rectify that. In GW2, the most account-based of all the games I play regularly, I've mitigated against my own convenience by running three accounts for most of the lifetime of the game.

Three accounts, eight or nine guilds, seventeen characters, all having to swap and shift and mail and trade between each other. I'm never quite sure without checking who's done what in which event. It's frequently inconvenient but I'd give that very inconvenience a deal of the credit for keeping me interested all these years.

I'm not going to trot out the old saw about the grit and the pearl. I certainly don't endorse poor design or excuse ill-considered mechanics, on the grounds that a bit of hardship makes us better people. I'm entirely in favor of sleek, seamless, integrated systems that make playing games a stressless, satisfying experience.

What I am wary of is creating a monoculture, where every game plays the same and every character feels like a cipher. It already feels far too much like that in some MMORPGs I can think of but I'm uncomfortably aware that it could feel a lot worse.

Or, perhaps I should say, a lot less.

I began this post by claiming I tend to take games as I find them. That's largely true. Only, sometimes I find myself wondering. If it wasn't for all those inconveniences, would I even remember I'd played the games at all?


  1. Love this post, because it articulates several things I've also often felt but couldn't quite express, because as you say... who can honestly say that they're against convenience? But filing off the edges does always take something away - and while I'm sure that many of these edges have absolutely been worth filing off (the age thing in Wilhelm's old MUD that he wrote about the other day comes to mind), if you just keep going and going, you're not left with much of a shape in the end...

    1. It's a bit like the old joke about sharpening a pencil and never being quite satisfied with the result until eventually you end up with a pencil too short to write with. It's not any single adjustment that matters, it's the cumulative effect.

  2. Regional exclusivity is a way of achieving global reach at affordable cost. Doesn't explain why Blizzard does it...

    Ain't that the truth.

    Even in Classic, Oceanic is lumped in with the Americas, but Europe is off on its own island for some strange reason.

    In SWTOR, you can play on whatever server you like, just recognize that some of them are in different time zones. I've done that by playing on European servers, and my oldest tends to play LOTRO on a French server to keep up her knowledge of the language.

    But for the rest of the article, about convenience and that "secret sauce" that Blizz has, one thing I know for certain is that WoW was a step forward in the "ease of use" category from earlier efforts. Things such as no loading screens between zones making Azeroth feel more seamlessly alive. But I believe that we also have to acknowledge that Classic and Retail WoW are two completely separate games that happen to share some of the same DNA.

    The more I've thought about it, the more I've come to believe that --for the time-- WoW was pretty polished, and when you combine that level of polish with the rise of high speed internet, the encroaching ubiquity of the PC, and the "gamer stigma" being dealt a fatal blow by the rise of the PS2 and original XBox consoles, there was bound to be a breakout game that married all of those things. WoW just happened to be it. And once the first Toyota ad featuring WoW was released, it was well on its way to being an MMO juggernaut.

    Watching all of these game companies try to emulate WoW is like watching music execs try to figure out how to package boy bands in the late 90s (and mid 80s, for those gray beards). The problem is, there's a certain specific world that boy bands can inhabit, and when the world changes the appeal of boy bands fades as well. The same goes for MMOs: the aughties were ripe for MMOs until they weren't.

    In its own way, the rise and decline of MMOs remind me of Fred Saberhagen's Swords Trilogy. The Trilogy begins with mankind dreaming of gods, and Hephaestus is seen toiling on the mountainside, preparing to forge the Swords. And the ending is the same Hephaestus, on the same mountainside, fading away as the dreams of mankind changed, demanding to know that if mankind created the gods, then who created mankind?

    WoW was birthed into a world where the internet exploded in importance, but before Facebook and Twitter and all of the other social media platforms that are now dominant. The darkening of the internet --if there ever was an era of golden idealism anyway-- became more obvious the more people realized how the internet could dominate our lives. WoW and other MMOs back then were the social media of their day, and its dominance helped fuel the rise of YouTube and other forms of social media.

    If an MMO wants to duplicate the glory years, what it needs to focus on isn't mechanics so much as the social aspect of things. And not so much the corporate driven lunacy that frequently falls on deaf ears of gamers, but how to create a social media platform first, and then write a game around it.

    1. I ought to have mentioned ArenaNet too on the region-locking thing. They also have completely separate EU and NA server clusters for no apparent reason. There must *be* a reason why companies do it but I have no clear idea what it would be. Maybe it has something to do with the EU's specific legislation on internet-related activity? I do wonder what's going to happen next year, when the UK isn't part of the EU any more. Will we still be considered part of Europe for geographical reasons or will we be moved into the "Rest of the World" category? Given the size of the UK's gaming economy I don't imagine many companies are going to want to lose the revenue but how they'll handle it is something that I have yet to see even mentioned let alone explained.

      As for what fueled WoW's extraordinary breakout success, well that's a topic for another occasion, I think. There are plenty of theories, many of them pretty convincing, some less so, but I tend to agree with you that there was a lot of "right place, right time" in the mix. I love the boy band analogy, too. It works right to the point where it seems as if some parts of the world can produce and sustain far more boy bands than others.

    2. It works right to the point where it seems as if some parts of the world can produce and sustain far more boy bands than others.

      You're thinking K-pop?

      Another analogy would be Disco, where it loitered around in other parts of the world long after Disco died in the States. Although some of the former might have been the legacy of ABBA, which wasn't as popular here as in Europe and elsewhere.

  3. Excellent post!

    One thing I often think about whenever I see the "play with my friends" subject is - how and where did people meet these "friends" to begin with as a gamer?

    I've been on Steam since the Alpha/Beta days, and the friends that I still have there after 16+ years were all people that I met during my first-person-shooter days of the mid to late 1990's. Then WoW was released in 2004 and I joined a guild and made three times as many friends as I had on Steam. In WoW, my player reputation - in terms of skill and being available, were what drove my acceptance by the top guilds as I wound up on the friends lists of many of their members. Even today I have no problems jumping back into Classic and finding a group of skilled players to run dungeons or raid with.

    But none of this revolved around social media. We all shared our time as like-minded gamer's who share a common passion for the games we played at the time we the point of having our own website and forums in which we still use to keep in touch to this day.

    I think it needs to be said that a specific type of "vetting" process needs to be able to take place inside of a game to allow for players to have the freedom of choice of who they play and become friends with.

    1. Other than the raiding part that's roughly how things went for me for several years in EQ/DAOC/EQ2. I tended to meet people in the course of playing, built up a friendship or at least an acquaintance with them as we did stuff in the game and eventually reached a point where we'd game together by arrangement. I didn't translate that into long-lasting friendships but that was my choice. The games changed to make close social ties unecessary for progress and that suited me quite well so I went with it.

      I prefer the way things are today but I wonder what would have happened had the games not changed. I'm not at all sure I'd have wanted or been able to continue that process of making new friendships in new games across two full decades. I did it for something like seven years and by the end I was pretty burned out on that process. The new open grouping systems and focus on solo play in games like Rift and GW2 came as quite a relief. I can see why people play with fixed groups across multiple games for that reason but I can't say I ever met anyone who did that back in my own grouping days, other than the odd family members or dorm mates, who were playing together out of circumstance as much as choice. Meeting people in game and becoming friends because of it very much seemed like the norm, then.


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