Saturday, March 12, 2022

The Main Idea

A few seemingly random ideas, floating around the blogosphere of late, coalesced into a mini-epiphany for me this morning: How We Play Now. Or how I play now, anyway. 

First there was MassivelyOP, asking how good a fit alts are for the genre these days. Then there was Shintar, talking about the appeal, or lack therof in Star Wars: the Old Republic's new combat styles. Redbeard was musing at length about the joys of old-school class quests in World of Warcraft and Yeebo was enjoying the parts of EverQuest II that time seems barely to have touched.

Meanwhile, I was sailing happily through Guild Wars 2's latest expansion, End of Dragons, following the story and ticking off boxes. Story's a big thing in mmorpgs nowadays. Given Final Fantasy XIV's surge it could well become bigger still. Kaylriene's surely not the only one wondering if narrative spines with the heft of movies are where the future lies. Maybe BioWare were right all along.

I did take a brief sidetrip to Norrath to check out EQII's latest dungeon but other than that all the mmorpgs I'd happily been playing this year are back on the virtual shelf. By now my house in Chimeraland must be thick with moss and I can't even remember what I was doing in Lost Ark. I know I was well past the flooded dungeon Wilhelm enjoyed so much but there's still a fair old way to go before I can join in the latest bizarre event, for which you need to be a minimum of Level 50.

Cast adrift behind me as I navigate these choppy seas are the abandoned hulls of countless mmorpgs, some of them rotting hulks, barely breaking the waterline as they sink into oblivion, others calmly adrift, so many Marie Celestes, just waiting for the crew to return. It's a very different picture from the way things looked a decade ago, let alone back at the beginning, when the century was just about to turn.

The Friendly Necromancer, aka Stingite, has just started playing New World. He's not bothered that he's arriving in Aeternum just as everyone has left. Nor should he be. It's a great game for at least fifty levels. After that... well, I wouldn't know. 

As I said in a comment on his post "I got well over a couple of hundred hours out of it before I drifted away. If that was a single-player title I think we'd all agree it was value for money. Why mmorpgs are supposed to provide endless entertainment for the same box price is unclear."

It's a question that was a lot easier to answer back when nearly all mmorpgs came with a monthly subscription. They were supposed to provide endless entertainment because we were endlessly paying for them. Now they're mostly either free or the same single purchase cost as any other video game, that doesn't really wash.

Even if we were content to take our forty or sixty or a hundred hours of value and move on, mmorpg developers can't afford to let us leave satisfied. They need to keep us around so we'll spend money in the cash shop or pay the premium that stands in for an optional sub. Preferably both.

A chunk of cash from the box sale is a nice bonus but as many developers have found to their cost, even a one-off charge can dampen interest to the point where it's deemed to have damaged the game's long-term prospects. If you have to give the game away free, focus moves to keeping players logging in long enough to spend money, which is why we end up with both huge swathes of Free Stuff! just for turning up and insanely long, drawn-out or difficult grinds to get anything worth having.

In-game goals that take forever or have you doing the same thing over and over again are, of course, intrinsic to the genre anyway. Free to Play didn't invent this stuff. Remember one of EverQuest's many snide nicknames - Evercamp

The whole genre has always revolved around extremely time-consuming content, frequently highly repetitive, often not all that entertaining, if looked at objectively. Over time those unappealing yet compulsive concepts have been refined and concentrated until they're about as potent as they can be. They've also largely been shifted away from the begining of the games so as not to frighten away nervous customers.

There's always been a high reported rate of attrition in the early stages of all games but at least, when you were making people pay an up-front fee, there was a fighting chance sunk cost woud keep them around, at least for the time they'd paid for. Investment in a free to play mmorpg is more fragile; no more than the few minutes it took to download.

That's why all F2P mmorpgs start off easy, something that's pretty much the diametric opposite of the introduction subscription games used to offer. If your first experience of a new free mmorpg consisted of falling off the starting platform and not being able to find the way back up, forcing you to re-roll, or having the first questgiver you spoke to punch you to death, chances are you'd uninstall.

It's also why story feels so important now. Levelling doesn't matter any more and no-one really cares about gear or skills until the cap. There has to be something to attach yourself to, something to keep you playing until you get to the endgame. Why not "What happens next?"

There's not much that's inherently bad about any of this. It's not like the old ways of playing were flawless fun. What's ironic is the way some of the changes seem to work in direct opposition to the supposed goals.

Let's go back to that question about alts and whether playing multiple characters in the same game works any more. Why did people do it in the first place? I can't speak for players in general but I know why I did: to have new experiences.

In the older mmorpgs, starting a new character usually meant playing through new content. Most games had multiple starting areas, usually based around race. Dwarves generally did not live with Elves nor Orcs with Humans. There would be a new town to visit and a different newbie zone or two at the very least. Sometimes the hunting zones wouldn't converge until you'd been playing a character for days or even weeks.

In those days, classes often tended to be race-locked, too. There's a controversy today concerning gender-locking that derives from a desire to see real-world identity accurately represented in the gameworld but locking race to class is purely a gameplay issue. If you start from the premise, as most high fantasy games do, that in-game races have hardcoded belief systems, meaning you have to roll an evil race to play a Shadowknight but a good race to play a Paladin, any player who wants to find out which class suits them better is going to have to make at least one alt.

Many of us ended up making alt after alt not because we wanted to play those characters at endgame but because we wanted to see the places where they lived and try out the classes they could become. There aren't many old school mmorpgs I've ever played where I haven't left half a dozen characters behind. In some it's double figures and in one or two it's more than a score.

As I played those characters, some of them grew on me while others didn't. I never knew which would click until I tried so I kept trying. There are mmorpgs I ended up playing for twice as long as I expected because an alt caught my attention and carried on well past the point where I was back playing the same game I'd already played as someone else.

Having new things to see, fresh creatures to kill and different stories to follow extended the life of the games and kept me logging in. I was never a player who aimed for the endgame. If I got there at all I usually saw it as the perfect opportunity to roll another character and go back to the beginning - a new start.

All of that would seem on the surface to be an ideal fit with the supposed desires of free to play developers; keep the punters playing and maybe we can sell them stuff. Of course, it's not quite that simple.

One of the more expensive aspects of running a live service mmorpg has to be content creation. Five genuinely different races with five genuinely different starting areas is five times the work for artists, animators and writers. Okay, maybe not five times; there are probably some synergies. It's more work, though, for sure, and work costs money.

As well as the cost of creating all that extra content there's the non-trivial risk of splitting the playerbase. Free to play games rely on looking Busy! and Popular! to new players. When you make your first character and log in to a new mmorpg, you want to be sure you're making the right choice. There are so many to choose from nowadays. You wouldn't want to pick one no-one else plays.

If you have five starting areas, even if they're all equally popular, which they won't be, each of them is going to be eighty per cent emptier than if you funnelled everyone into the same one. Apart from the first few days or, if your game is exceptionally successful, weeks, pretty much anywhere outside The Bubble is going to feel empty enough, without having people starting on different continents.

Once you've made everyone start in the same place, you might as well make them all look the same, too. It certainly saves on animators and it's well-known that most players want to play pretty people who look like idealised versions of themselves. The whole Dungeons and Dragons derived notion of racial advantages and disadvantages got thrown under a bus years ago so racial choices are purely cosmetic. They have to be or they get metagamed and no-one rolls the bad ones.

There's a trend at work here, even if it didn't start with F2P and it's far from universal or consistent. Every developer has some idiosyncratic ideas that don't fit the mold, whether it's Chimeraland with its dozens of wildly varying racial appearances, all entirely irrelvant to gameplay, or New World with its multiple starting areas, where every new player arrives with the identical back story.

The trend is convergence. Whatever variety the games once had it's less now. Sometimes that's managed with the player's convenience in mind, others very much the reverse.

Shintar's post, linked above, discusses the recent change to SW:tOR that allows players to try out different combat styles without having to re-roll as the classes to which they have hitherto been locked. As Shintar acknowledges there are pros and cons, but from an outsider's perspective it does at least look like a well-intentioned addition to the game.

The revelation that ArenaNet have chosen to lock every new End of Dragons Elite Specialization behind story completion looks, by contrast, very much like a cynical attempt to compel players to spend a lot longer replaying the same content than they might otherwise have done. As Eliot at MOP archly observes, it does make you wonder whether some of these people even play their own game.

It's not hard to see where this is all going. FFXIV, arguably the current market leader in the West, is pretty much there already. With every class and job being available to a single character and every racial appearance just a glamor away, there was never much incentive to roll alts there. Some people, inevitably, did it anyway. but as the Main Story Quest grows to the length of several movie box sets, the number of players who are likely to try seems vanishingly small. 

Which brings me back to where I started, namely my own mini-epiphany. I used to have a clear view of my identity as an mmorpg player; when it came to alts, I wasn't just an altaholic, I was a player who simply did not have either "alts" or "mains". I just had characters, some of which I played more than others.

For a long time that was objectively true. I had lower level characters in some games with more played hours than higher ones. I logged in characters according to mood and whim every bit as much as what I was meant to be working on right then. I would play healers or tanks or crowd control or dps to fit in with other people or just because that's what I wanted to play, forget about whether it fitted anyone else's agenda at all.

It's been a while since almost any of that was true. I just hadn't noticed until now. About the last new mmorpg I played where I followed that pattern has to be Guild Wars 2 and that's a decade old this summer. 

I certainly followed my pattern there at first, buying three accounts and making more than twenty characters. It's been a long time, though, since I can truly say I play more than a handful of them and I can't deny any longer that I clearly have a Main, my original Asura Elementalist. 

Until End of Dragons I had a "Story Main", too; my Asura Druid, who I'd played through both previous expansion storylines and every Living Story episode as well. This time around he stayed on the bench as I took my Ele through the story instead. It seems I really am down to just the one Main.

If I look at all the recent mmorpgs I've played and written about here recently - Lost Ark, Chimeraland, New World, Bless Unleashed - or the mmo-adjacent Valheim and Genshin Impact - I have just one character in all of them. 

Going back a little, I only made single characters in Blade and Soul, Riders of Icarus, SW:tOR, Elder Scrolls Online, Secret World Legends, ArcheAge... Even in mmorpgs where I did roll more than one character, Black Desert for example, it was only because I came back and started over from scratch.

Some of it - a lot of it - comes down to the kinds of content compaction I've been describing but I think I also need to accept that, after more than twenty years of doing this, the allure of starting over in the same game doesn't have the magnetic pull it once did. Time was, I just couldn't stop myself. Now I find it all too easy to say no.

Once again, I'm not sure it's a bad thing. I'm going to have to think about it. It may be that, now I've drawn my own attention to what's been happening, I'll begin behaving differently. Sometimes all it takes is an awareness for perceptions to shift. 

Or maybe I'll just settle into it, get comfortable, learn to enjoy playing the way other people have always played. After all, it looks as though I've been playing that way for a while without even realising. Maybe I like it better and just don't know, yet.

However it pans out, one thing I can say for certain sure is that I will not be playing through the entirety of the End of Dragons story nine more times. Not even if it's the last expansion GW2 ever gets. 

It was good but it wasn't that good. ANet need to get over themselves.


  1. Something that occurred to me while reading this -- the greater variety of games we have now may itself be the biggest barrier to alts. In the past, there were only a few MMOs, most of us only played one (or at least one at a time), and alts were how we got to have a change of pace. Now if you're feeling bored, it's a lot easier to just switch to a different game.

    Of course, I do already have two characters in New World, so maybe some of us are just incurable.

    1. That's an excellent point. I think the F2P revolution itself, which as I've often said played directly into the specific way I, personally, already liked to play, in and of itself would have reduced the number of times I'd be likely to replay the same content in the same game with different characters. I've always enjoyed the low-mid levels the most, partly because they tend to be easier but also because that's when you spend more time learning than you do practicing what you've learned. Obviously, if you can keep starting new games, that part of the process can be sustained more consistently. Once F2P (and extended free trials) removed the cost of trying every new mmorpg, game-hopping became the most enjoyable option.

      I thought of a few other reasons why my playing preferences might have changed as well but the post was already long enough. I might come back to it some time to look at other aspects of how changes to genre expectations have subtly affected how we expect mmorpgs to work. Or I'll probably just keep playing new ones and write about that, because, once again, that's so much easier than actually analysing stuff!

  2. Thanks for the shout-out! I've always felt that there was a strong distinction between my main and my alts, and I can understand people not wanting to bother with the latter, but the FFXIV approach of one character just being everything doesn't really appeal to me at all. There's an RP aspect to playing different characters for me... but I agree that a game has to make it worthwhile to explore these different options.

    1. Thanks for writing such great posts! The question of whether I always had Mains but just refused to admit it because it didn't fit my self-image is one that I've been forced to examine thanks to the new understanding I've gained. It's hard to be objective but I think a good test, going back to those highly social days, might be what character name friends and guildmates chose to use when they spoke to me. In EQ, for example, at one stage I was mostly known by the name of my Cleric and later, on a different server, by the name of my Beastlord.

      I had literally dozens of other characters, many in the same guilds and chat channels, but those were still the two people picked. Even now, I wouldn't call either of those my "Mains" but I could definitely rank all my characters in a heirarchy and those two would be in the highest rank. It's more, I think, that I had characters I took wholly seriously, characters I took fairly seriously and characters I didn't take seriously at all. That's probably still true. I just have a lot fewer in each category and often only one in the top category for a given game, which makes that one my de facto Main.

  3. I've found that I'm playing fewer characters as the years go along. I find I prefer to just play my favorites, the ones I have spent the most time with. The others who were either experiments / spec learning characters / alternate leveling options have mostly been deleted. I've kept the ones who were a part of a group, but the group has faded on the off chance the group might restart. (It's not like I'm pushing up on character limits after culling a group of seldom played alts.)

    Part of the reason I've cut back to just my long-term favorites is that my most-played MMOs have had long stretches where I just didn't enjoy how the story was going or where the game was headed. It is hard for me to get involved with leveling a new character when I see a large 'speedbump' of content I just don't like. Another part is simply real life issues taking away a portion of the energy and enthusiasm I had to play all parts of an MMO. Instead of wanting to continue to explore a game I am invested in, I'd rather do familiar things with comfortable characters.

    I'm also finding that I have a harder time investing in different MMOs. There are so many that I would like to just see the casual content, but pushing myself to get by the starter friction is hard. I keep dabbling because it is so much fun when you are excited and consumed by a new (or new to you) game. I don't know. Maybe I can't find that early sense of wonder any more, but I sure would like to.

    1. I hear a lot about how hard (or even impossible) it is to recapture or rediscover that sense of wonder many of has when we first started playing these kinds of games and there certainly is a lot of searching after lost youth or innocence going on there. None of us is going to get back to being twenty years younger just by playing a new video game, that's for sure.

      On the other hand, though, I think it's still eminently possible to experience the same rush, the same thrill that we had back then... it just needs the games themselves to have that indefinable magic. Valheim this time last year seemed to revitalize a whole load of somewhat jaded mmo vets, even though it wasn't actually an mmo. Genshin Impact did it to a lesser degree - and also isn't an mmo. Even New World looked like it might come close, until it fell apart.

      I think there's a thread here I might pull on. Wilhelm often talks about the way mmo devs overreach, trying to stuff every feature into every game, and I wonder if there's a generic problem with the form because of that. It's telling that the most impactful "mmo" experiences of recent times have either been in games that aren't actually mmos at all or in the early stages of real mmos that were then unable to convert the compulsive low-level experience into an endgame that would justify the "games as a service" model.

      Anyway, that's a tangent to be followed up another time - or not. I would guess that your experience mirrors that of a lot of long-time mmo players. It gets harder to sustain the same level of involvement across the board and we all end up cherrypicking the parts we feel comfortable with or enjoy the most. That said, I'm not entirely sure I ever did anything else!


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