Monday, May 23, 2022

Plus Support

has a post up under the declarative title SWTOR's Endgame Is Alts, Not Gear. I haven't played Star Wars: the Old Republic for a long while but the post immediately started me thinking about the way my own gaming habits have changed. I left a lengthy comment but as I was typing I realized I had more to say, hence this post.

Shintar contends that "SWTOR is and has always been a game about alts." She's referring mainly to the (in)famous "Fourth Pillar" on which Bioware rested all their hopes for the game: story. As Shintar says, the game "launched with eight unique class stories, and you better believe that the devs didn't intend for you to only play one of them!"

In the early years of the mmorpg genre, story was nowhere near as central to the experience as it's become. I have very mixed feelings about the whole concept of narrative storytelling in live service games I don't believe it's a good fit at all for a number of reasons.

For one thing, every long-running game with an ongoing storyline featuring recurring characters risks turning into a bad soap opera. The longer the game lasts, the more convoluted, contrived and contradictory the backstories of the major players become. Every time I read another blogger bemoaning the sorry state of World of Warcraft's storyline I'm reminded of the decades when I followed the soaps and how in the end I had to stop because, while I could remember the past, the characters clearly couldn't.

Even in the rare games where the writers manage to maintain a degree of consistency, there's the Everything Everywhere All At Once issue. Since players react negatively to having any content taken away, even if it's content they'll never use again, every storyline has to remain in the game and playable, leading to a broken reality. 

Most devs just ignore it, which is probably for the best. ArenaNet eventually came out and stated that each map in Guild Wars 2 exists in some kind of temporal stasis, a snapshot of frozen time, a solution I find as inelegant as the problem it purports to resolve. Blizzard have tried a number of fixes, from the deeply unpopular revisionism of the Cataclysm expansion, through heavy-handed use of phasing to the recent introduction of Chromie Time. None of it really helps all that much.

SW:tOR probably made more problems for itself than most by leaning so heavily on the concept of multiple storylines. GW2 had already gone some of the way down the same road with the Personal Story, a narrative that had the odd characteristic of branching inward, starting out like a delta, streams flowing not just from each race but from a number of choices made at character creation, before all the streams joined together into one not-really-all-that-mighty river, sweeping every player over the same final cataract.

Shintar is clearly correct when she suggests Bioware didn't do all that work for nothing. If you go to the trouble of commissioning eight separate narratives to take players from creation to cap you certainly don't do it for redundancy. Had the game been as commercially successful as they hoped, perhaps all those narratives would have continued to expand indefinitely. Then there would have been less need to find alternative ways of keeping the hardcore happy.

Story, though, may be something of a distraction if we're talking about the choice between alts and
endgame. In the years when few mmorpgs even pretended to have anything you could call a narrative arc, many devs still seemed to expect players to create and level multiple characters. If not, why put so much time and effort into designing multiple starting areas and levelling paths? 

In part it has to be because leveling was originally seen almost as much as a goal as it was a means to an end(game). For many years, while I was playing anything up to forty hours a week, I wasn't leveling characters to get to anything or anywhere. I was leveling them because leveling was the game.

At the very beginning, mmorpgs didn't really come with much in the way of pre-designed endgame content, anyway. The levelling process itself took so long that many players would spend their entire time in a given game without ever reaching the level cap, let alone settling down there. It would have been seen as a poor use of resources to create content few players could access.

As the months and years passed and the games carried on, finding things to do for the increasing number of players who'd reached the cap became much more of a priority. That was how we got endgame zones, raiding and gear grinds. I doubt any of it was planned. It certainly didn't seem like it at the time. 

Once the pattern was set, though, it was set in stone. As Shintar says, there is a widespread belief among many mmorpg players that "engaging with an MMO in-depth must mean focusing on a single character, doing some sort of max-level grind, and expecting a steady stream of more of the same so that your single character's progression rarely comes to a halt."

My anecdotal experience is somewhat at variance with that reading. It probably goes without saying to any long-time readers of this blog that getting a single character endgame-ready never formed much of a part of my plans. I've played a lot of mmorpgs over the last near-quarter century but in very few of them have I even reached the level cap, let alone stayed there long enough to gear up.

Back when I was more sociable than I am now, though, I was often a fairly active member of a guild. Over the course of five or six years, I was in half a dozen or more small to medium size guilds on different servers in EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and EverQuest II, as well as a couple of fairly large ones, in which I was less obviously active.

Only in the large guilds did I see a significant number of players focusing their efforts on endgame activities. In the rest, even when there were forty or fifty members playing fairly frequently, most of them were leveling and not just the one character, either. 

Plenty of people never even got a single character to the cap before they drifted away and disappeared for good, sometimes with a goodbye, more often not. Not infrequently, people would play several characters to the mid-levels before settling on one to "work on". 

With the the leveling pace so much slower back then, even people who played most evenings and every weekend took months to get anywhere close to the cap, a target that was in any case always moving, thanks to the annual or even semi-annual expansion cadence that was the norm at the time. 

One of the reasons so many people kept rolling alts was the differential in advancement between low, mid and high level characters. When you found yourself looking at ten, fifteen even twenty hours to earn a single level, the lure of a level you could knock out in an hour or two, as things went back at the beginning of the game, could be too much to resist.

Then there was the appeal of variety. As I mentioned earlier, mmorpgs used to come with multiple starting areas and a wide choice of low and mid-level zones. In some games it was quite possible to level several characters to the higher end of the game without duplicating any content at all. Even when you did retread the same ground, the differences between classes and even races was much more significant than it was later to become.

It's no great exageration to say that playing different classes or races could feel like playing a different game altogether. In Vanguard, for example, there were three very different continents, each of which was probably as large as the full landmass of a latterday mmorpg. Raising a character in the deserts of Qalia felt existentially different to raising one in the forests of Thestra or the jungles of Kojan and even playing a different race on the same continent could make you feel as lost as if you'd never been there before.

Many mmorpgs were like that, then. As Shintar says about SW:tOR, for many players, playing multiple characters wasn't "some kind of side activity that you engage in when you've hit a bit of a lull with the "main" game - it is the game!" Not for everyone, of course; possibly not even for the majority, but for a very substantial minority, those people who either never aspired to reach the endgame or realised it was going to elude them if they tried.

In all the games I've mentioned and plenty more, I have multiple characters, usually a handful, occasionally a dozen or more. In one or two the count passes a score. In newer mmorpgs, ones I've started in the last decade or so, those figures fall away alarmingly. I'm not sure I've played a stable of characters in a single game since GW2 launched in 2012.

I hadn't really thought about that until I read Shintar's post this morning. My first reaction was to blame ennui or over-familiarity. I've been playing these games a long time, now. The appeal of starting over and over again must have palled.

Thinking about it for a little longer, I realized that's not really the case. Yes, there is a little of the "been there, done that" mentality creeping in around the edges these days but it must be evident in the enthusiasm with which I regularly write about new mmorogs I've played that I'm far from done with the genre yet.

A more likely explanation might be the way mmorpg design has changed over the years. For sound commercial reasons, few games these days launch with multiple starting areas or leveling paths. Developers like to keep players together as much as possible to enhance the impression that a lot of people play their game and anyway, leveling itself is out of fashion; it's all about the endgame and how fast you can get there.

Even so, only the most linear design supporting the most meager content lets you see everything on one trip through the levels. In most modern mmorpgs there still some juice to be squeezed from playing different classes or races or from making different choices at various decision points. And yet these days I rarely bother.

The real reason, I believe, lies not with my level of interest nor with game designers' methods but in a change of payment models. It's no co-incidence that I seem to have begun to find rolling multiple characters in the same game less appealing at around the same time the Free to Play revolution kicked in.

The choice used to be between carrying on playing the same character or rolling another in the same game and starting over. Games cost money then and mmorpgs also required a subscription. Re-rolling made sound economic sense, a way of both extracting extra value from an existing purchase and feeling like you were getting something new at the same time.

Once developers began to give their games away for nothing and stopped charging a monthly fee to play them it began to be both practical and attractive not just to start over in the same game but to start over in a new game altogether. That whole "three-monther" thing, which eventually slimmed down into a single month, when players would game-hop almost continually, ostensibly searching for the next forever game, might perhaps be more realistically interpreted as a more intense, more exciting way to re-roll. Instead of rolling a new character we began rolling a new game.

Well, I did. I still do. Having the blog allows me to paint my serial re-rolling as research rather than
self-indulgence but I very much doubt I'd be behaving any differently if I didn't have a blog to post my experiences and opinions of every new tutorial and starting zone. If you're the kind of player who rarely settles down to play a single character in a single game anyway, the kind who always wanted to see all the starting zones and play all the classes and races, it's quite unlikely you'll be able to resist the lure of so many new experiences that cost you nothing at all.

Nothing, of course, other than any final sense of accomplishment, except perhaps for the broadening of your understanding of the hobby itself. After ten years of game-hopping, I feel I know a lot about mmorpgs as a genre but not all that much about any one of them in particular.

Which is fine. It's pretty much how I felt about all those games where I played a lot of characters. I always felt I knew a good deal more about EQ or Vanguard as whole than many of the people I played with, even though I would freely acknowledge many of them knew a good deal more than I did about specific aspects. 

Playing a lot of characters gives you a good overview. It gives you perspective. Playing one character exclusively gives you depth of experience and thorough understanding of the detail. The really dedicated players end up acquiring both but most of us have to settle for one or the other.

I've always preferred to contextualize. I like to feel I have some perspective. If that means missing out on the fine detail, I can accept that. For now, that perspective and context applies mostly to the genre rather than to any specific game. The time will come, I hope and trust, when the pendulum will swing again and I'll find myself re-rolling and starting over in the same game just to see more of what I'm already playing.


  1. another blogger bemoaning the sorry state of World of Warcraft's storyline

    /raises hand

    Guilty as charged!!

    But seriously, I realize I'm in the definite minority because a lot of WoW players couldn't give two shakes about story; it seems that for the longest time the WoW devs agreed, since they put so much time into crafting raids while story frequently got the short shrift: a few stereotypical questlines involving a few central players that end in a certain way, pushing you into the raid for resolution. (Nothing interesting to see here! Move along! Have a raid!)

    I also do feel that the implementation of the story is at least as important as the story itself. In the case of SWTOR, there's the class story, the planetary stories, and the zone stories within each planet. There's also a separate overarching storyline for the Republic and Sith Empire as a whole, but that's of tertiary concern when compared to the planetary and class stories. The class story drives you from one planet to the next, and it also has certain stops along the way within the planets, but once you're on a planet itself the planetary story takes center stage. You could ignore the planetary stories entirely and just do the class story, or vice versa. Without the phasing present in WoW, that's easily achievable.

    So while you can ignore the class storylines, it doesn't mean that you ought to. In that respect I prefer to enjoy the whole thing, but I've never leveled 40+ alts either, so I'm not typically tired of seeing the storylines again and again.

    1. I have a pretty vague memory of the stories in SW:tOR from the time I played but I do seem to remember enjoying the planetary story the most. I also remember getting a fair bit of advice on which class story to try next but sadly I never even got to the end of the one I started. I do keep thinking of going back. Maybe if I do I should just start another character and try a different class instead of picking up where I left off.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out, as usual! I'll just point out that SWTOR came out eight months before GW2 - I was always under the impression that the latter tacked its personal story on as a bit of an afterthought in response to all the talk about the importance of narrative that was going on in the genre at the time, considering that it didn't really fit into the rest of the game's manifesto. How times have changed!

    This post also gave me a bit of a sense of deja vu, and in some aspects it does cover similar topics as this one from March. You even used a picture of the same reptile person (?) in a green dress! I feel like a veritable scholar in the writings of Bhagpuss.

    1. I also had a sense of deja vu as I was writing it, although we all cover the same topics so many times that's hardly an unusual sensation. I was thinking I might have written about it a couple of years ago, though, not a couple of months! Skimming that post from March, it's quite disturbing how similar it is, not just in the way it also arose in response to a post of yours or in the subject matter, but even the way I unwittingly re-used some whole phrases, even sentences in today's post, all without once remembering I'd been over the same ground so recently.

      There's no excuse for getting the release order of SW:tOR and GW2 the wrong way round, either. I wasn't 100% certain which came first but I opted not to look it up, which was lazy. I can't remember the discussions at the time around the provenance of the Personal Story. It seems too central to the original game to have been tacked on later. I agree it doesn't really fit the manifesto but it turned out to be one of the most popular parts of the game - indeed it was pretty much the lifebelt a lot of people clung on to when the rest of the content became to confusing to cope with.

      The picture of the iksar necromancer (That's what she is.) was actually not going to be in the post at all but the five shots I was planning on using didn't quite sill the space so I added her at the last moment. I also used the row of characters from GW2 in that post, which are in this post at the top. I'm increasingly aware that I unconsciously re-use pictures. I seem to be very consistent in the way I think, usually making the same choices even though it;s unintentional.

      The key difference in this post form the one on Mains and Alts is the minor epiphany I had while commenting on your post about the pivotal role F2P played in my change of behavior. That certainly never occured to me until today.

  3. I feel like this is not a new thing. Way back when, in certain MUDS, we already had traditions of endgame raids - usually called 'runs' back in the day, where a group of players wandered into a high level zone to take down a boss mob with valued loot.

    I played Realms of Despair, and heard on the grapevine that one of our immortals (sorta volunteer player game developers) went on to be a GM in Everquest. TorilMUD was apparently another MUD with high-level-zone/bosses endgame-like content that apparently inspired other Everquest developers who played it heavily to copy similar structures for their MMO.

    You can bet that once you're at that point in the game, you'll maintain a stable of alts, because most players treat 'em like tools in a toolbox at that point. Which class has better skills for X content? For Y content, use Z class instead, unsoweiter. I started as a warrior and mained a cleric, but eventually neither class was really good at runs, so I had to max a thief and later a mage, if I wanted to take down certain bosses.

    Eventually, I had about 10-15 max levels in active play usually. We were allowed to log on a max of 5 characters simultaneously (used to be no limit for a glorious month when I started, before they instituted the limit.)

    Possibly, what's really new when MMOs came onto the scene is linear storytelling sequences in chapters and episodes. MUD game structure, being mostly a maze of rooms linked in cardinal directions, don't really lend itself to that format. Separate NPC quests are about the limit. That's probably more inspired by singleplayer games.

    I think also that what tends to be more alarming is that many MMO developers trend on the more dedicated side of the spectrum - I suppose they would be, if they wanted to make a career out of it. So there might be a tendency to not realize that not every player reaches their hoped-for 'endgame' as designed.

    And that there are naturally a -lot- more players who don't, and find other endgames that amuse them, be it just the story, fashion wars, socializing, repeatedly leveling, etc. Not recognizing that these alternative style players exist tends to be annoyingly alienating and lose portions of their audience whenever they make a change that is catered for the top level dedicated 'as per intended design' endgame players.

    1. TorilMUD was definitely the template for EQ. Wilhelm has written about it quite a bit and there's a reddit post about it with a lot of background detail (I never knew DIKU in DikuMUD stood for Datalogisk Institut Københavns Universitet, the institution in Copenhagen where the first "easily adaptable MUD codebase" was written, for example. I could get into all of that because Ifind it fascinating but a comment's not the place for it.

      Raiding as we know it today didn't exist in early EQ either. "Raids" there were pretty much like you describe - you'd "raid" a zone, or sometimes even a racial starting area. Raiding Neriak, the Dark Elf starting city was a popular, if inevitably suicidal, event in the first year or two I played. I believe that carried over into WoW, with raids on the Alliance and Horde capitals being a thing. I even saw it once in the Dwarf city as late as WotLK, and that on a PvE server, too. Maybe it still happens for all I know.

      Your last point is crucial, though. I hadn't really thought of it in those terms before but yes, inevitably the teams that end up designing most of the content in mmorpgs are, almost by definition, "dedicated" to the content. Artists and narrative writers don't need to be wedded to the gameplay but content designers are almost sure to be. Otherwise, as you say, why would they choose that line of work. It explains much!

  4. I've got a feeling that part of the change in approach to characters goes hand in hand with how MMOs have moved from being "virtual worlds" to more game-like experiences. In a virtual world your character was your avatar in the world, with which you identified and which people identified as you. When things are more gamified, your character is your tool set for playing the game - and it becomes natural to reach for the right tool for the job. That leads players to having multiple characters with different classes or skill sets, which in turn led to the streamlined levelling experience because ain't nobody got the time to go through the original EQ or DAoC level grind for one of every class. Which paradoxically contributes to the linear levelling experience, because if players are going to blast through the low levels fast it doesn't matter so much if they're repeating the same zones each time, they'll be out of there before they can blink and all the effort goes into the "endgame" where they'll presumably stay.

    Some games do buck that trend even now, though. I understand LotRO recently added a new low level zone to give players an alternate levelling path, and New World is very much about having a single avatar rather than alts (and the nature of the game's crafting, gathering and PvP keeps high level characters active in zones of all levels).

    1. I think that, over the years, its become a lot more commonplace for players to treat their characters as tools in a toolkit, partly because of the way many mmorpgs now treat the account as the primary unit of gameplay but as Jeromai's comments on the MUD days suggest, there have always been players who saw things that way. Personally, one of the key reasons I can never fully engage with FFXIV is the way one character can do absolutely everything. I find that quite demoralizing. Other epeople seem to relish it.

      I also agree that reducing the time it takes to level erodes any sense of connection between the player and the character, the extreme example being the introduction of instant boosts to max level. I don't believe it mitigates entirely against bonding with the character - I have some boosted characters who've gone on to become significant actors in the cast of their given games - but skipping the leveling process does tend to make them seem "thinner" until you spend an equivalent amount of time playing them.


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