Sunday, July 4, 2021

Foundations And Identity

Following yesterday's unscheduled rant I return you today to our scheduled programming, a meditation on the purpose and function of mmorpg gameplay. Or, then again, not. 

I was going to make some observations on how I look for different experiences from the games I play depending on what's going on in my non-gaming life. After a couple of years when, for various reasons, I've spent considerably more time at home than at work, when the time spent playing games has varied from much-needed downtime to something approaching house arrest, I thought I might have some perspective from which observations might be made and conclusions might be drawn.

And then Shintar asked a very purposeful question in the comments to yesterday's post. Actually a series of questions:

"It seems strange that you feel so compelled to play GW2 even though you find it stale. Is it just because of Mrs B? It seems like an odd juxtaposition that there are apparently a hundred games you'd like to play and for which you don't have enough time, but you play GW2 every day even though it annoys you now? Or is it still genuinely much more fun to you than any of those other games despite the annoyances expressed in this post?"

And Kaylriene gave a long explanation of his decision to leave his guild and how that might lead to his not playing World of Warcraft any more, in which he invoked the "sunk cost fallacy". And Wilhelm posted a digression on the definition of immersion , how we fall under a game's spell and how certain changes might or might not be enough to break the magic. And Redbeard concluded a lengthy analysis of Burning Crusade's Karazhan raid by invoking buyer's remorse with a terse "I busted my ass for this?"

All of which led me to conclude I probably ought to have a bit of a rethink. Why people play play the games they do, why they go on playing them and why they stop is a complicated process. Why I thought I might have a handle on it beats me, now. I wasn't thinking, obviously.

So, I'm not going to trot out a neat little piece about how sometimes you want thrills and sometimes you want to be sedated. Life isn't a Ramones lyric (probably just as well). I'm just going to dig into my own motivations a bit and see what I can find. No universal principles, just some self-analysis. Everyone else is going to have to work on their own stuff. 

Shintar asks some very good questions. Why do I play Guild Wars 2 just about every day, then complain about what an unambitious, repetitive, stale game it can be? How does that fit in with my regular complaints about not having enough time to play the ever-growing number of mmorpgs I wish I was playing? And how is playing a game and calling it "stale" in a blog post any different from being one of those people I've called out in the past for logging into a game just to tell everyone how bad it is and how bored they are?

I thought about all of this when I was replying to Shintar. I came up with a number of true and accurate reasons why I've played GW2 almost every day for ten years. It's easy, it's familiar, it's comfortable. It does feel great to play, physically. Plus, something I didn't mention, it's gorgeous to look at.

Perhaps most importantly of all, it's right there, all the time. It's a staple, like a loaf of bread. And just like bread you can still eat it and enjoy it when it's gone a little stale. You just need to toast it a little.

And that's pretty much what ArenaNet do. It's what most mmorpg developers do. They bake their loaf and when it starts to get stale they toast it a little to bring back the flavor. That's what all these endless holiday events and minor updates are: a little heat applied to bring the flavor out.

Okay, I think that's as far as I want to stretch that analogy. Trust me, I had a couple more paragraphs along the same lines but they weren't making things any clearer. Very much the opposite, in fact.


My point is, just because something isn't at absolute peak freshness doesn't mean you throw it away. Stale is very much not the same as spoiled. If the air in your room starts to feel a little stale you open a window. You don't move to a new house.

Ah, yes. Moving home. Here comes another analogy, although come to think of it it's barely an analogy at all. Swapping allegiance from one mmorpg to another is moving home, in a virtual sense. Or perhaps it's more like starting a new job. Let's not get bogged down in analogical analytics.

In twenty years, how many times would I say I've fully "moved home" in mmorpgs? It's a much more complex question than it seems on the surface. For the first decade I played there were homes within homes. It wasn't only which game I played, it was which server I played the game on. 

Moving server in EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot or EverQuest II was very nearly as big a wrench as changing games. It meant starting from scratch, leveling new characters, making new friends. It meant leaving behind any and all resources other than your knowledge of the game itself and sometimes even most of that. Adapting to the original Firiona Vie ruleset in EQ, for example, or changing from Albion to Midgard in DAOC meant a learning curve comparable to starting a new game.

I changed servers a lot in the first ten years I played mmorpgs. I mean really a lot. I started new characters on almost every fresh server in EverQuest throughout the period when demand meant new servers were coming up all the time. I changed realms in DAOC twice in six months. I swapped servers four times in EQII in six years and that's not counting server merges.

All of that churn served to keep the games very fresh indeed. There wasn't much time to worry about things getting stale when the focus was always on managing change. The coming of server clusters and megaservers all but put an end to that. When GW2 began, servers were very much a thing but for what seems like the longest time, GW2 has just been GW2. It's a loss and it adds to the sense of staleness but we wear it.

Such a degree of internal churn makes a nonsense of the linear sequence of "main mmorpgs" my timeline would list but I'll take a shot at one anyway. I'm limiting it to games I played continuously for six months and I'm not looping around to the ones I came back to and played for another six months or longer, which would only be EverQuest and EQII anyway, I think. Also I very much doubt these are in exact chronological order. 

For what it's worth, then, my main sequence mmorpgs have been:


Dark Age of Camelot

EverQuest II



World of Warcraft

Guild Wars 2

Of those seven, GW2 has the longest unbroken run as main game. I've played a lot more EQ and EQII in total, not least because I'm still playing them both now, but there have been plenty of gaps along the way. GW2 I have played very close to every day since it launched back in 2012.

Why? Such a good question. Is "because it's there" a good enough answer? Clearly not. All of those other games, plus many others that were my main game for a few weeks to a few months (Guild Wars, Wizard 101, Lord of the Rings Online, Allods, FFXIV, WoW Classic, Star Wars the Old Republic, Rubies of Eventide...) are also still "there". I could be playing any of them every day but I'm not. I'm playing GW2. Why is that?

I think it's because I have some deep-seated, almost unconscious need for a base. A foundation. A solid platform from which to explore other things. In the very few, very brief periods during my twenty years in this hobby, times when I've not had such a foundation, when there's been no single game I was able to think of as "the game I'm playing", I've felt rootless, adrift. 

It's an uncomfortable sensation, significantly more uncomfortable than playing a game that feels a little bit stale. Guild Wars 2 may not be the most exciting, innovative, amazing game out there but it's my game, the game I'm playing. It's part of my identity. I am a GW2 player.

For now. That's the thing. All of the games on the list above were "my" games at one time. I would have identified then as "a DAOC player" or "a Rift player". 

Some of them make comeback bids now and then. There's an argument to be made that my main game right this minute is actually EQII, not GW2 at all. I'm probably putting in more hours there at the moment, doing my Overseer tasks every day and leveling my Vah Shir to 120. Maybe I should install that app people run that tallies up your exact playtime in every game. That might tell another story altogether.

As I said in yesterday's post, GW2's current status as Main Game benefits hugely from lack of competition. I don't much want to go backwards and replace it with a game I used to play and none of the newer games I've tried have been able to supersede it. It remains at the top of the heap through inertia and by default.

What's likely is that one day a new game will replace Guild Wars 2 and GW2 will take its place on my "other games I'm playing" list. I would bet serious money I won't stop playing it altogether, no matter how wonderful the new game might be. I might, if I'm really lucky and the new game is something special, take a hiatus from GW2 for a few months but you can bet I'll be back.

Again, why? I think it's all down to that identity thing. After twenty years I'm still an EQ player. I'm still an EQII player. I'm still a Vanguard player. But I'm not a WoW player or a Rift player. I'm someone who sometimes plays WoW. I'm someone who used to play Rift.

I'm about as sure as I can be that I am and will always be a GW2 player. I may not always enjoy being one, I may not always choose to be one, but I will always be one. Whether I'm currently playing or not.

Which, right now, since there's nothing better on offer, I am.


  1. How games can wrap into our identities is an interesting thing, and something I've noted on in the past (on older blogs, I don't think TTL yet) -- particularly when it comes it identifying as an xyz-gamer first and foremost or a gamer first and foremost, but one who also plays xyz.

    It would appear almost as if you occupy a sort of hybrid position between the two.

    By which I mean, in past instances of this conversation, it has run the lines of, 'If I stopped playing this game I identify with as part of my identity, I would no longer *be* a gamer'.

    The person in question would insist that is it for them. No other games would ever or even could ever appeal.

    Which is such an extreme position to my mind, I had trouble relating to it. Not that I thought it was 'wrong' or any such, just rather that it was very far outside of my experience.

    My hypothesis is that, should GW2 close shop tomorrow, or otherwise manage to irredeemably irk you, while there would be that uncomfortable transition period you mentioned, possibly even a lengthy one, that you would continue and find something to occupy the gap.

    There might be a post in here somewhere; but I'll have to give it some thought.

    1. I would definitely find another anchor game if GW2 were to vanish, although that game might well still be "GW2" in some form. These days there's almost an expectation that any vaguely popular mmorpg will live on in the grey afterlife of the emulator and private server scene. There are also plenty of options among games I've played before that would tide me over for a while.

      What I'd hope for, though, would be a strong, new mmorpg that could take center stage for a few years. I'm about as sure as I can be that Pantheon would fit that bill if it ever gets here - it's the one Mrs Bhagpuss is waiting for, too - but I'm not 100% confdent about it ever launching in the first place. Ashes of Creation I'm sure will launch and I have some reason to think it will be a smoothish transition from GW2 but there are aspects to it that make me nervous.

      Luckily, I doubt GW2 will be going anywhere for a fewe years so the issue probably won't come to a head.

  2. I fully get this. Even though I’m not currently playing GW2, I, like you, will always be a GW2 player. Something in the initial offerings sang to our souls and just didn’t let go.

    I suppose where you and I differ is that I am accustomed to periods of nomadic wandering and never setting down roots in a game.

    My MMO-ish “homes” can be counted on one hand - the old MUD I used to play, City of Heroes and Guild Wars sort of (long time play but never really interacted with many people socially in-game), A Tale in the Desert for a short time (mostly forced by the structure of its game to develop social networks) and Guild Wars 2.

    Pretty much all these games were the way they were for a period of a few years, which appealed to me greatly and hence why I stayed, and then at some point they changed in ways that made them less appealing to me, and after some amount of struggle (little to lots), I realized we had to part ways. So far, I’ve never made it back long enough to have them become a second home once more.

    I don’t know how I feel about the recent ArenaNet development. Somewhat hopeful, in that this pair is part of the original heart and soul of what GW2 was about, but also somewhat sad and resigned, in that I feel like I’ve learned you can’t step in the same river twice. The players of GW2 today are not the same players of the GW2 of yesteryear. Nostalgia servers only work for so long. Values and priorities change. What they produce may not be what I like. It may not bring me back, especially if I no longer share the same priorities with the populace.

    If anything, I hope they’ve really learned what they need is excellent communication and back and forth with their players. That will hopefully build back some trust and loyalty with whomever is playing their game at the time. Colin has never been afraid to step up and be the faceman of a company - he was eating some serious humbie pie with Amazon’s Crucible - so maybe we’ll see some improvements on that front. Ha. Like all GW2 players, we’ll believe it when we see it, that’s how abused our trust has been over the past decade.

    1. I would be somewhat suspicious of a company that chose to re-hire big names from their past even if those names were unequivocally recognized as having been responsible for the company's greatest successes. It obviously can work - Steve Jobs would, I guess, be the shining example of that. It does smack of desperation, though, and you have to wonder how the people who stayed through the bad times are going to feel about their former colleagues being parachuted back in above them.

      In the case of GW2 and Colin Johanson, though, it's a lot more dubious than that because Colin is as much associated with the decline and deterioration of the game as he is with its success. Sure, he built the ship but then he didn't show much evidence of knowing how or where to steer it. I just hope NCSoft keep a much tighter rein on ANet from now on. They at least seem to have a clear understanding that games are there to make money and to do that they need not to alienate customers every five minutes.

      The other problem I have with GW2 in general is the fetishistic idolization of Guild Wars lore. I do have some hope that the return of these two might have an ameliorating efect on the worst excesses of that unfortunate trend. There was a lot less of it while they were running things - we had Scarlet, still my favorite GW2 character and my favorite storyline (actually, nothing else comes even close) and Heart of Thorns, neither of which had nothing much to do with Guild Wars' past.

      In fact, when I think back to Colin's tenure, you could say that a defining feature was a refusal to indulge in fan service. The absolute opposite has been the case since he left and it hasn't made for a huge commercial success so maybe we can expect some genuine GW2 content from now on. On the other hand, we may already be in the "don't piss off the customers we already have" phase of the game's life, in which case it's going to be fan service for people who played Guild Wars fifteen years ago all the way.

  3. I completely understand everything you say in this post; the reason I was surprised was that I had this memory of you saying in another blog post or comment that you really disliked the idea of making a single game part of your identity; that you preferred being a free agent who could explore lots of different MMOs at any time without being tied down by a single "home". Then again, I wouldn't even know where to start looking for that quote, so it may well be that I misremembered it or that it was actually someone else who said that. :)

    1. That certainly sounds like something I would have said although if I did I have no more idea than you when or where I said it! As a regular reader, though, you're probably all too familiar with that Emerson quote I drag out, the one about "foolish consistency". I think I'm actually fairly consistent over time but in the day-to-day there can be some wild swings and contradictions. Plus, of course, everything is mood based.

      Still, in the end, I think what people do tends to carry more weight than what they say and the evidence would clearly support the idea that I have a handful of games that exert some sort of gravitational pull on me, around which I orbit but from which I can never escape. I also seem to be all about the metaphors this week!

  4. Well said. My list would probably be:

    Ultima Online
    Star Wars Galaxies
    Everquest II
    EVE Online
    The Secret World

    Yeah...I guess that's pretty much it. Funny that it's also seven titles, isn't it?

    Like you I've played a lot more, obviously, but these are the ones I identified and still identify with, maybe with the exception of SWTOR, about which, in hindsight, I have no idea why I actually played it for so long.

    Game identity is very much a thing, and I, too, don't like the feeling of not having one, so I totally get why you still play GW2 even if it is a bit stale at this point.
    I hope Lost Ark will be able to fill that void in my case.

    1. The Secret World is an interesting case. I probably would have done my requisite six months there for it to qualify as a core title had it not been for a couple of things. Firstly, it launched directly before GW2 and secondly, although it was originally Mrs Bhagpuss's idea to play TSW, she didn't like the gloomdark when she got there so she wasn't willing to stay long. Had it launched a year earlier, while she was still deep into EQII and I was antsy for something new, I might well have gone there on my own and stayed until the GW2 beta weekends.

      I could make a similar case for FFXIV:ARR, had it arrived at a different time. As it was, we bought it and played the first 30 days that came with the box and I don't, think either of us played much, if any GW2 while that lasted. When the free time was up we did have an actual discussion over which game to go on playing and it wasn't a clear-cut decision. If that conversation had gone another way it could easily be FFXIV on the list above instead of GW2.

      Timing is everything.

  5. Related to this discussion: there's an interesting article over at 'Into the Spine' called "Virtue in Mundanity", where the author describes how they are _looking_ for regular, mundane, routine things to do in their game of choice.

    That's certainly how I feel about BDO, 5 and a quarter years in: it's a game I play for the routine, for the little everyday things. I think your bread metaphor is getting towards something like that as well: we _don't_ always play for the new-new, often we play for the familiar, for the routine. I fondly remember the dailies in Lothlorien, when I played LOTRO, and the Tokyo-daily-path, when I played Secret World: things I could log in, relax, and immerse myself in.

    This is partly why I say I play MMOs for their worlds, not their gameplay - for somewhere to hang out and do routine/rote things (with the option of going full active-play, should I want to).

    1. Wow! Your comment is almost literally a precis of the post I was going to write, the one about the difference between the kind of gaming I want when I've been working and the kind I want when I have time on my hands! And I had a paragraph I couldn't fit into this post about GW2 dailies and the way they structure both of our time. We do talk about "doing our dailies" as if we were talking about regular household chores.

      I might get around to doing that post eventually but maybe I'll just refer back to your comment when I need to make the point. Pretty much everything I was going to say is in there!


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