Tuesday, February 19, 2019

All Fall Down

Ocho has a post up about his progress through Lord of the Rings Online. He talks about using an in-game artifact called the Stone of the Tortoise to switch off xp gain so he can "not over-level a zone". He goes on to say that "every time I told my plan to others, they mostly digitally shook their heads wondering why I just wasn’t rushing to end game", something that's not his style.

It's not mine either. For as long as I can remember I've been all about the journey and not so very much as all that about the destination. As I was saying yesterday, in twenty years of fairly consistent play I've only had characters at max level in EverQuest on a couple of occasions and even then they barely touched what was considered to be "end game" content at the time.

It does vary from game to game. Many modern MMORPGs make reaching max level so straightforward it would feel positively bloody-minded to hold back. If you played Guild Wars 2 in the slowest imaginable fashion, while still clocking up a respectable number of hours, it would be hard to take as long as a month to hit level 80.

The corollary is that these days almost all MMORPGs really do begin at the end. For a long time that claim, spouted by the hardcore since the dawn of raiding, rang hollow to the great majority of players, for whom simply getting to the cap was hard enough. In recent years, for a number of reasons, not least the much-discussed problems of holding the interest of a captive audience in an ageing game, the practice of most developers has been not only to pile all new content up at the end but to require maximum level even to see it.

On the face of it, then, you can see the logic of wanting to slow down and smell the goblins. Most MMORPGs have far more content available than the mechanics require for your characters to top out. If you want to savor it you need some means of avoiding the inevitable Ding!

Or do you? Increasingly, I wonder about that. I'm all for taking the time to see all the sights and hear all the stories but increasingly, as I hear various bloggers talk about "outleveling the zone" and using various means to slow or switch off their xp gain so they can finish all the quests "at level" I find myself asking... why?

What exactly is the goal here? Ocho states his intentions very clearly:

"...my philosophy was simple: Complete as many quests in a new zone as possible before moving on (skipping fellowship quests), complete any story in the zone, complete Deeds that would help my Rune-keeper’s primary traits (wisdom, loyalty, idealism, confidence, and empathy), keep up with crafting, complete Faction Reputations in the zone..."
At this point I have to confess that I'm not entirely up to speed with LotRO's specific mechanics in this regard. It's possible that some of those activities literally cannot be done once the mobs have greyed out. If so, then holding xp back to keep them green is unavoidable.

In most MMORPGs that isn't always the case. While you often won't get some drops or quest credit from killing grey mobs, equally as often you will. If the game allows it, why fight the systems?

There was a time when I felt uncomfortable about taking credit for one-shotting everything. Those days are over. I can put my finger on the specific moment when my last vestiges of concern dissipated. It was during the pre-expansion run-up for EverQuest II's "Kunark Ascending" a couple of years back.

The Signature Adventurer's and Tradeskill questlines in Kunark Ascending came with a great number of pre-requisites. You needed to have completed several lengthy quest chains and learned a number of languages. A lot of people grumbled about having to do homework.

I hadn't done most of the pre-reqs on my Berserker, the character I intended to play through the expansion first. I set out to tick all the boxes, which led me to zones and quests far below his level.

EQ2 has a self-mentoring system that allows you to set your level to the content you want to do but it works in such a way that a max-level character mentored down is effectively Superman. The difference between that and having outlevelled the zone entirely is negligible. I can't actually remember if I mentored or not but it wouldn't have mattered. My berserker was one-shotting everything and in droves.

Even so, progressing through these lengthy quests still took several hours and what I began to notice as I was doing it was that it was as much fun, if not more, than doing it "at level" would have been. My goal, after all, wasn't to have challenging and interesting battles. It was to complete certain quests in order to qualify to do more quests, elsewhere, later on.

My secondary goal, which developed as I played, was to follow the storyline. I like the way EQ2's quests are written, for the most part, and I found myself as involved in the story as I might be in a novel. I don't think it was co-incidental that I was more immersed in the plot than usual at a time when both the fighting and the travel were being trivialized.

I don't find video games a particularly good carrier for story in general. They can involve a degree of direct involvement absent from other media, it's true, but they also feature orders of magnitude more interruptions and distractions by way of endless combat, puzzles and general running back and forth. It's not at all uncommon for me to have forgotten the plot by the time I finish the fighting.

If story is your main concern, it seems to me that the fewer obstacles the game puts in your way, the better. That's doubly so for anyone who just wants to see all the sights. Therefore the idea that your character has to remain at a level that makes all the content competetive seems counterproductive for anyone with those primary goals.

Similarly, if you're focused on fleshing out your character by maxing factions or reputation, filling out talent trees, earning Mastery points or ticking any of the ten million boxes a standard MMO provides, the shorter the fights, the better, I'd have thought. Indeed, about the only reason I can think of for switching off xp so as to remain in the original level range of the zone would be if you enjoy the combat so much you just can't get enough.

Whether or not to curb your xp while leveling is increasingly becoming a moot point, of course. The prevailing trend seems to be toward auto-adjustment. Either the mobs adjust to match your capabilities or your character adapts to suit the zone, all without you having to do anything - or being able to stop it happening.

My feeling at the moment is that it's fine to go through content "at level", however that's arranged, on the first pass. Every new expansion requires that and it's generally fine. For older content that I've done before, though, and for newer content that I've done recently, anything that makes "the journey" smoother and easier is welcome.

It's not just combat fatigue or plain slackery. There's the improved story-flow, as I've mentioned. Another very welcome by-product of overlevelling content is the extra detail that's revealed through not having to scramble to stay alive. I've seen such a wealth of ornementation and intricacy in dungeons once the inhabitants no longer pose a threat. Things I'd never noticed, let alone had the chance to stop and study.

The mobs themselves also come into focus as the danger of a fast return to bind recedes. All those spiffy animations; the trophy skulls hanging from the shoulderpads; the fancy hats and hairdos. So much effort put into something that's so hard to see when an ogre's trying to rip your head off.

I think my sweet spot comes when the mobs pose no threat but I still get xp. EQ2's mentoring system  supplies that satisfaction perfectly. Even then, eventually there comes a time when there are no more bars to fill, which makes me think fondly of GW2's eternal xp funnel, which ultimately converts xp into a kind of currency.

The worst of all options, in my considered opinion, is having to switch off xp altogether in order to get the game to acknowledge your presence. There's no excuse in 2019 for mechanics that deny quest credit when the mobs go grey, making it genuinely impossible to finish the storylines.

Almost a quarter of a century in, the MMORPG genre is still evolving. Lessons are being learned, if slowly. Let's hope that one day no one will need a Stone of the Tortoise just to find out how the stories end.

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