Saturday, January 18, 2020

Throw Me In The Deep End, Watch Me Drown

Returning to MMORPGs you haven't played for a while is hard. It's become something of a truism to say that. Harder yet, verging on impossible, to begin from scratch in a game that's been around for a decade or more. Only this week, UltrViolet of Endgame Viable, talking first about the EverQuest titles then expanding to include the genre as a whole, said
"You simply can’t join in today unless you have the 20 years of institutional knowledge that comes from starting at the beginning. Actually that’s true of almost every MMORPG except World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2: If you take a year or two off of any MMORPG, you might as well plan on never coming back, because you can’t."
And it can be true, especially if you take the increasingly common boost options that jump your character somewhere close to the current cap. Indeed, in a reply to comments on his thread by myself and Wilhelm, UltrViolet clarifies his position, specifically on EverQuest II:
"I’ve always struggled with EverQuest II. I do okay with the lower levels, but there’s such an exponential increase in complexity as you gain levels that whenever I try to skip ahead with one of my free level boosted characters I just can’t make heads or tails out of it."
This is the crux of it, I think. Few, if any, MMORPGs become any less accessible than they ever were through the simple passing of the years, provided you approach them as though they had launched last week. Granted, changing aesthetic and gameplay standards may have rendered some games unattractive to the point of repulsion for many but that just makes them games you wouldn't want to play, not games whose complexities are beyond reach.

I was thinking about this today because I spent the morning playing DCUO. I had no plans to go back to Metropolis but a couple of news items popped about the game's ninth anniversary and I heard there were free gifts to be had.

This happened at the same time last year (Go figure! Anniversaries, eh?) when I logged in to buy myself a dog. On a sidenote, this is why I love blogging. Had I not written about it in two posts last January I'd have had no recollection of how I came to own Krypto or even that I did, although I'd have pretty soon worked it out the moment I logged in and saw him romping exuberantly around my Base. He's not exactly easy to miss.

What's more, the fact I was once in an all-female League called DC Bombshells would have completely slipped my mind. Female characters, that is. I probably didn't need to clarify that part. Given how unusual, even radical, a move that must have been for me, you might think I'd remember it. And I do - now I've read my blog.

Getting back to the point, one of the reasons I was keen to update (a 6GB patch) and log in was the lure of yet another max-level boost. I already have one boosted character in DCUO - possibly two - but you can never have too many. Also, I'd read that you don't have to use the boost right away; just logging in before the end of the month clips it to your account to be used whenever you feel the need.

DCUO's patcher is smooth and fast but six gigs still takes a little while. I passed the time by clicking through the link about the anniversary, which took me to the forums. There I found this thread which, I think, exemplifies the reasons it can be so difficult to restart an MMORPG by jumping in at the highest levels.

Captain1 Dynamo, the thread's author, takes several thousand words to explain, in mindnumbing detail, exactly why clicking on a boost that changes the number next to your character's name does nothing to prepare you for playing at that exalted level. He's absolutely right and not just about DCUO. It applies to most MMORPGs and for the same reason: endgame play is rarely intuitive.

Everwake was ranting about levels earlier in the week, complaining that they don't mean much any more. And he's right, too. Partly. As I said in a comment there, levels do still matter - just try going up against endgame content without them, if the game even allows you to try - but other things now matter as much or even more.

MMORPGs seem to have become games about understanding sytems and mechanics. The genre long ago abandoned "easy to learn, hard to master" if indeed it ever embraced it. It's true that newer entrants to the field have streamlined gameplay to a degree, particularly some of the F2P imports that few in this part of the blogosphere seem to play or write about, but not by all that much.

Looking at the newer MMORPGs I've played in recent years I certainly wouldn't describe ArcheAge, Black Desert, Blade and Soul or even Revelation Online as any easier to pick up and play than World of Warcraft Classic. If they seem easier it's  only because we, as veterans of the genre, have done a lot of the learning already.

As for the mid and endgames, every MMORPG, from the most hands-off, plays-itself mobile game to the extremely hands-on Star Citizen, comes drenched in convoluted progression mechanics that require considerable time and effort to unravel. Warframe, cited by many as an exemplar of accessibilty, confused me to the point where I gave up trying - and I was barely out of the tutorial.

DCUO is no exception. Even though I've been playing the thing on and off since launch - actually beta, I think - I've still never really understood many of even the more basic gameplay elements. There's a reason my bags are always full of exobits and Nth Metal - I've never had any idea what to do with them!

Until today. This morning I logged in to be greeted by a brace of overwhelming welcomes - firstly from Krypto, comically pleased to see me, and then the game itself, lobbing windows at me right and left. Being bounced at by a super-dog was new but the windows were very familiar. DCUO has always liked to start a session with a lot of "you should be doing this" advice, both in the form of pop-ups and voiced harangues from Oracle and the other super-nannies.

The suggestions on what's happening and where the action is are always welcome and it's nice to be pointed towards any free gifts that might be coming my way but for the first time I can remember, today I got some sound, simple, straightforward help with upgrading my gear. The reason it worked so well was that rather than explaining what I needed to do the UI did it for me.

I did still have to click things but arrows and visual prompts showed me what to click. For the first time I found myself using the heaps of stuff moldering at the bottom of my backpack to make my character more powerful. A paper-doll I don't recall ever seeing before appeared with my available Augments laid out clearly and the game led me through the process of choosing and improving them.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it was idiot-proof. On first try I wasted a bunch of exobites upgrading the wrong sort of Augment for my power set but really, if a player doesn't know whether the character they made relies more on powers or weapons then they have no-one to blame but themselves.

I got that sorted before I wasted too many resources. Then I got rid of all the detritus clogging up my bags. It was glorious - for a moment or two. Then I went on a claiming spree to grab all the freebies going and that filled up all the space I'd just emptied.

Luckily most of it was Chroma options, some kind of new color range for armor, which vanished into my Style tab on a right-click. There were a couple of Base items including a Daily Planet Vending Machine. I got those placed right quick. That left a few things I didn't know what to do with so I auto-sorted my bags and pretended they weren't there.

With that done, I thought about following up some of the prompts I'd been getting. Hawkgirl wanted to see me on Thanagar. I've never been there. Didn't know we could, even. It sounded like a plan.

The usual problem I have at this stage is finding the portal. It often tells me to go to The Watchtower but when I get there it's half an hour of searching, every time. The place is the most confusing hub zone I've ever seen.

But wait! Once again, someone's been tinkering. I opened my map and clicked on the Warp option, which allows you to instatravel to certain places. I don't recall it ever let me go anywhere much other than The Wachtower and my Base. Now it has a list of choices including the open area for the current episode, in this case Thanagar.

I was there in seconds. Instead of spending half a session flying down endless metal corridors looking for a mission terminal and a teleport pad I took a quick briefing with Hawkgirl, spoke to some Green Lantern or other and a couple of Thanagarian officers to load up my mission journal. Then off I went to kill stuff.

Looping back at last to the opening theme, this is where I suggest that coming back to an MMORPG isn't as hard as all that. So long as you stay safely within the parameters the game sets, that is. In the end, it's all about the killing, isn't it? How hard is it to run around, find the baddies and shoot them in the head? Or in my character's case, kick them in the head, then beat them to death with a stick.

I've never been any good at combat in DCUO but I like it well enough in short bursts. I'm very well aware that the game becomes extremely demanding quite fast above a certain level but so long as I take care to stay within the limits of solo and open-world group play I can manage well enough.

It may even be that not being very good at a particular MMORPG makes returning easier. If all you really want to do is splash about in the shallow end then it really doesn't need to be any more difficult ten years in than it was at launch. Especially if someone takes the trouble to put out some flotation aids.

If you want to go down the deep end with the big boys and girls, though, well you're just going to have to learn to swim, aren't you?

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