Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Mixed Messages


In the vague hope of finding something to post about tonight I logged into Steam to see if anything had happened in Lost Ark since last I looked. I thought I might even play a little, do some more levelling there. It is on my To Do list, although I'd have to say it's slipping further down every day.

The first thing I saw was an absolutely massive "Message from the Team".  It's a few days old and it's been reported elsewhere so I don't propose to go into it in the way I did with the Guild Wars 2 Studio Update yesterday. If I'm honest, my main reason for not digging into the detail isn't so much that it's old news as that I didn't understand most of it.

I had a quick scan through the whole thing, then I went back and read it all more carefully. When I'd finished I knew two things: Amazon and Smilegate are giving us a big present and I have absolutely no clue what the hell Lost Ark is supposed to be.

A large chunk of the Message revolves around two things: end game content and "honing". It seems quite a few of us have been slacking and haven't gotten to the endgame as quickly as expected. Instead, we've been "progressing at your own speed and enjoying horizontal content such as exploration, collectibles, quests, and more." 

Don't worry, though. There won't be detention. Apparently it's fine because "Our goal has always been for players to progress at whatever pace they see fit". I have to say that's jolly decent of them. 

I could go on at considerable length about the implications of this. God knows, whoever wrote the Message certainly did. There are reams and reams of apologetic explanations, excuses, justifications and elaborations on how, why and when endgame content should have, will be or has been added to the game. My main problem wasn't with the whys and wherfores so much as the whats.

I don't get what the endgame in this context is. By that, I don't mean I don't understand it intellectually. That's straightforward enough. I mean, as the hippies used to say, I don't grok the endgame, man! 

It's not just Lost Ark, either. There seem to be a bunch of mmorpgs these days where the whole point and purpose of playing seems to be to spend inordinate amounts of time repeating harder and harder versions of the same content so as to get gear that allows you to grind harder and harder versions of the same content. Why would you want to? That's the part I don't get.

Most mmorpgs do it to some extent, although the ones I like better hide it more convincingly. I generally manage to ignore it quite effectively in those games. The more recent trend, which makes it harder to ignore even at a more casual, non-endgame-focused level, involves some variant of the process that Lost Ark calls "honing".

I am not going to pretend to understand what "honing" is beyond the absolute basics. I'm fairly confident, however, that it's one of those systems where you grind or buy materials that you use to try to systematically improve the quality or rating of your gear. All these systems have certain things in common: ever-escalating costs, heavy reliance on RNG and some means of spending real money to avoid the worst of the pain.

As the Message poetically puts it, "We know that for every triumphant yell as a player succeeds a low percentage hone, there are other players frustrated with their attempt failing, leaving them without enough materials to try again." In many games that's exactly the intention. It's why other players' successes are broadcast to the general population, so as to create a sense that other people are succeeding where you failed. That's how you get cash shop sales. 

For various reasons, not least a glut of bots drivng material prices through the roof, Amazon/Smilegate would like to assure players that honing isn't always going to be a completely miserable experience so they're "supplying more progression materials for players to earn through fun in-game events" and "injecting more gold into the mid to end-game" as well as, naturally, "continuing our hard stance against bots."

Which is all very nice, only from my point of view it doesn't really address the central issue, which is who thought "honing" or any of the myriad systems across the genre it replicates were ever likely to be fun in the first place? I know everyone uses them. There's not really any choice if you want to keep progressing through the "vertical" content. The question is, does anyone enjoy it?

Yes. I did. The first time. My initiation into the eternal upgrade path by way of mat grinding and random number generation came courtesy of one of my favorite mmorpgs of all time, City of Steam

That game was revamped several times over a number of years, something I recorded here on this blog as it happened. One of the later iterations, after CoS became a wholly Chinese-operated enterprise, involved a good deal of "honing" or whatever term was in use back then. I didn't even notice it at first. It wasn't until the game was under sentence of execution and I was playing as hard and fast as I could to see as much of the content before the servers went dark that I began to push the gear upgrade boulder up the hill in earnest.

The surprise to me was that I enjoyed it. It helped enormously that it was a very simple system and the materials needed were both generously available through login rewards and obtainable directly from normal gameplay. Even then, I could never get enough but also I never managed to get far enough up the ladder to hit the really steep part of the curve. The game closed down before I even got close.

After that I ran into the same kind of mechanics in Blade and Soul and Black Desert, just to name a couple of games where I made at least a token effort to improve my gear. Once again, I found it amusing enough so long as it cost me nothing and I mostly succeeded. As soon as it began to feel either expensive or annoying, however, my response wasn't to throw money at the problem - it was to stop doing it altogether.

All those games and many others puzzle me greatly. They all appear to have lots and lots of really enjoyable content, mostly the "horizontal" stuff, aka everything in the game that's actually fun to do for its own sake. More often than not, that's the part of the game everyone gets to enjoy for free.

The part of the game that's supposed to be the most appealing, the mythical "endgame", that gets tucked behind a virtual paywall by way of "gameplay" so frustrating and unnerving people are more than willing to pay to avoid having to do it at all - or at least to make it less likely to blow up in their faces when they do.

I'm really not at all surprised Lost Ark players have been slacking off, doing all that pesky exploring and collecting and questing. Can you blame them?

What does surprise me is the nature of some the presents we're getting to commemorate the Western launch of the game. It's almost all fun fluff stuff and I find it really hard to equate with what sounds like an incredibly hardcore endgame. There are pets and mounts, a big globe thingy, appearance change tickets and songs to play on your jukebox "when Jukebox content is released in the future."

Most surprising of all is the "New Animal Skin Collection Chest". From the image provided, reproduced at the top of this post, it seems we're going to be able to dress our characters in a variety of furry onesies. I can't wait!

Actually, I couldn't wait. I logged in to get mine right away, only it wasn't there. Too soon. Apparently we get the whole  "Thank You" pack "the week of March 21, after our weekly update and maintenance". It's the 23rd today but I guess we haven't been updated and maintained just yet.

I did still get a present for logging in, an entirely unexpected one. I'd already written off the current event, the Arkesia Grand Prix, which runs until April 14 because I'd read that you need a character with a minimum level of fifty to take part. And that's true but what I hadn't appreciated is that you also get a hefty chest full of the event currency just for logging in. 

If there's any kind of level restriction attached to that then my character exceeds it. I opened my chest and found three thousand Arkesia Coins inside. Of course, I had no idea if that was a fortune or a pittance. 

The tooltip suggested I find the Event Exchange Merchant if I wanted to spend them but nothing told me where that person might be. Fortunately, Lost Ark being very popular right now, I had no trouble looking it up. I found my answer here but there's a much more comprehensive guide to the whole affair here.

Having looked at what I can afford, it seems three thousand coins is a decent chunk of pocket change. There's nothing I couldn't buy, although a lot of the items are consumables you'd probably want to buy in bulk. I can get the hat, which is what matters!

None of which actually makes me want to play the game. Log in and get free stuff, sure, I'll keep doing that. Try it on, strut around town posing, take selfies, write posts about it? Yep, all of those. Other than that, I'm not sure I see the point. But then, I never did.

I'm still going to get a boat but only because I said I would. As for honing and the endgame, whatever it is, I think I'll carry on with the horizontal progression if that's okay with you, Amazon and Smilegate. I mean, you did say you were fine with us progressing at whatever pace we see fit, right? 

I just think maybe you didn't realize just how lazy some people can be.


  1. Regarding 'There seem to be a bunch of mmorpgs these days where the whole point and purpose of playing seems to be to spend inordinate amounts of time repeating harder and harder versions of the same content so as to get gear that allows you to grind harder and harder versions of the same content.'

    My friends and me do this, we play mythic+ in wow, which does not even offer gear upgrades after the first few weeks. The reason we do it is because it is small group content that requires skill and is challenging + pve. We never found this in any other game. If we did we would happily swap, but challenging small group pve content is not that easy to find.

    1. I completely get the appeal of small group content that requires skill and feels appropriately challenging. I'm not big on that kind of thing these days but I spent half a decade in the noughties enjoying exactly that kind of content in various mmorpgs. The thing I remember most about that period, though, was each session beginning with a discussion about where we felt like going that evening and what we felt like doing. There was much less of a rigid framework and it felt like we had a free choice. Obviously those choices were finite but it always felt as though there were considerably more challenges available than we were ever going to have time to meet. These days it's my impression that most mmorpg endgames consist of a comparatively small and relatively linear set of options and that's the part I don't get. Maybe that's not the case - after all, I have chosen to opt out of that part of most games almost completely - but it seems to me as an observer that the options at endgame have narrowed considerably from what they once were and my feeling is that it's because doing it that way that makes it easier and more commercially rewarding for the companies making the games, not because players wanted it to be that way.

  2. Oof. That gift pack really tickles my collect-the-things urge. I started thinking I should reinstall the game and pick those things up 'just in case I go back'. Which I'll never do because I know the game isn't for me. (That's fine and I have no negative thoughts or words towards anyone enjoying Lost Ark.) It's just an amusing reflection on how much getting freebies can motivate me to login to something I'd otherwise not bother with.

    1. Ditto. I log into games fairly regularly to pick up free stuff I'll never use. Oh well, at least it's a cheap hobby!


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