Sunday, March 27, 2022

Short Stories

For the first time in several weeks, I did actually play some Lost Ark last night. Played as opposed to just logged in to collect free gifts, that is.

"Playing" Lost Ark is a somewhat nebulous concept, something that's been a warm topic of late around this part of the blogosphere. I've commented repeatedly that I really don't understand what sort of a game Lost Ark is meant to be but now I'm starting to get the impression not many other people do, either. 

If I'm ever going to find out, I guess I'll have to rely on other people's reports. My own experience is too limited to make even an educated guess. Steam tells me I've racked up twenty-seven hours so far but that's only taken me as far as Level 34. By the measure of most mmorpgs, I might as well still be in the starting zone.

The problem is, most everything I read other bloggers saying about the game just confuses me even more. Apparently everyone finds the levelling tedious, no-one rates the storyline and the side-quests barely even qualify as filler. The only thing that carries people through all of that is the prospect of some kind of golden sunlit uplands at endgame and the fact that the combat is fun.

There was a time when people seemed to be praising Lost Ark for the wide range of non-combat activities and the breadth of horizontal progression it offered but none of that gets much of a mention any more. All the talk is of how long it might take to get to that fabled endgame and whether it will be worth all the time and effort when they do.

Mailvaltar, Naithin and Wilhelm have all posted about some or all of the issues above. Most of the other people who were talking about the game don't mention it at all. 

Naithin has a very interesting and revealing graph comparing the progress of Lost Ark and New World as represented by Steam's concurrency data. It's not a pretty picture if you're an Amazon Games exec. No wonder vice president Mike Frazzini is stepping down

Of all the bloggers I read who've written about the game, the only one who actually knows what the endgame is like from personal experience is Naithin. Even as an advocate for the game, he doesn't make it sound very much fun. 

Mailvaltar, who posted about his own uncertainty about the game, popped into Naithin's comment thread looking for reassurance. I don't think he got much. Naithin described Chaos Dungeons as "braindead" and said that, although they're available for groups, "you essentially have to solo" if you're trying to get the most out of them. Even the better Guardian raids and Abyss dungeons, which he did think were fun for groups, Naithin caveated by saying "you will typically only have one guardian raid and one set of abyss dungeons relevant to where you are and that’s it."

Wilhelm, meanwhile, gave us another very funny Carbot Animation ragging on the relentless questing that precedes any of the endgame content. It got a recognition laugh out of me even though it doesn't really reflect my own experience all that closely.

The thing is, the questing everyone else hates is probably the thing I like best about Lost Ark. I don't hammer the "G" key to get through the text as fast as possible. I think I can say with almost no exaggeration at all that I've listened to every word of spoken dialog and read every word of written quest text I've seen. Maybe that's why it's taken me twenty-seven hours to get to level thirty-four.

I quite like the questing in Lost Ark. I find it intriguingly abstract. It's as though someone decided to break traditional mmorpg questing down to its basic building blocks and then line them up in the most linear way possible. 

Every side quest has a plot but it's a plot that's stated, executed and concluded in a matter of moments. A guard will want to give flowers to a girl  he likes. He'll tell you he likes a girl and he'd like to give her flowers. He'll ask you to get the flowers and give them to the girl. 

The flowers will be ten seconds away from where you met him. You'll click the flowers and pick them up then you'll trot over to the girl. She'll be ten seconds from the guard in another direction. You'll give her the flowers. She'll tell you she likes the guard or doesn't like the guard. The quest will either end or point you to another NPC, where the cycle will begin over again.

Most of the side quests are like that. I think it works quite well. I definitely prefer it to the long drawn-out versions with more travelling over greater distances that are the norm in so many mmorpgs. I also find, over time, it builds up quite a convincing picture of the way these people live. I suspect I may be bringing some of thiin myself, rather than finding it already there but I also wonder whether there's not some kind of sophisticated, intentional, accretive storytelling going on. I like to think there is. 

The main quest differs mostly in that some characters make much longer, much more dramatic speeches and all the main and supporting characters constantly use you, the player-character, as an unpaid messenger service. I find that strangely enjoyable but other people seem to find it at best ridiculous, if not downright insulting.

Conversely, people who aren't me insist the game's saving grace is that the combat is good. I still don't get why. I find the combat every bit as dull as people keep implying I ought to find the questing. 

When there isn't much fighting to do, though, I can occasionally almost convince myself I like Lost Ark. Last night I played for over an hour, levelled from 32 to 34, did a lot of the kind of quests I just described, barely fought anything at all and I would rate it as one of the most enjoyable sessions I've had in the game. Jogging from NPC to NPC, hearing what they have to say, occasionally picking up an object and putting it down somewhere else is a very pleasant, relaxing way to unwind after a long work day.

It probably helps that my preferred genres outside of mmorpgs these days are point and click adventures and visual novels. I'll be honest. Lost Ark would make a poor showing against even a mediocre entry from either of those categories. I'm certainly not saying the stories are page-turners. The mechanics, though, are extremely similar and the stories aren't terrible. They're bland and conventional but as I suggested earlier, thre is a cumulative effect that weighs on the mind after a while. And some of them are quite funny.

If, that is, you read the text. Obviously, if all people are doing is hitting the G for "Get on with it!" key as fast as possible, any literary merit the quests might have is going to be moot.

If you factor in the off the hook levels of weirdness as evidenced in my recent post about cat cosplay, it really is extremely hard to work out just who Lost Ark is for. It seems as if all the parts are working in opposition rather than harmony and as Naithin's graph so ably demonstrates, the modern mmo player is hardly known for patience or longsightedness.

It's going to be interesting to see whether Lost Ark does indeed drift down over the course of several months to finish up bumping along the bottom of Steam's concurrency charts the way New World has. If that is indeed what happens, I think there will be as many questions to be asked about the attitudes and expectations of the people who choose to jump on these gaming bandwagons as there are of those who make them.

If Lost Ark and New World end up being judged failures, what exactly are we calling a hit these days?


  1. What are some visual novels you would recommend? I really enjoyed a few of them, but stalled out after Stein's Gate. It is supposed to be one of the best, and I found that the incredible randomness of actions that affect story outcomes completely ruined it for me. To see the whole game, you would have to have a spreadsheet listing the completely random and largely inane actions you need to take at key points the the story.

    1. I'm really not in any position to recommend anything in the genre since I've only just begun to pay it any attention. I couldn't even say for certain I know what the term means - I use it very loosely to describe games that have a lot of narrative and no combat but it seems to have a much more specific meaning when I see it used by other people.

      The kind of games I've played and enjoyed that are the sort of things I'm thinking about when I use the term would be games like Doki Doki Literature Club, Lake or The Longest Road on Earth, all of which I've written about here and should be in the tag cloud. I suspect, though, that none of those actually count as "visual novels" in the usual menaing of the term. I think that would generally be things more like the two demos I wrote about here. As you can see from that post, the one I liked was the one that didn't follow what I take to be the more traditional visual novel mechanics.

      Maybe someone who knows a lot more about this sort of thing than I do might like to pop into the comments with some recommendations?

  2. The horizontal progression aspects of the game are still very much there, although my engagement with them has certainly gone *way* down in light of Elden Ring also taking a lot of time.

    It'd be interesting to know what, in a parallel world where either Elden Ring wasn't delayed or was delayed for a lot longer, how I'd be engaging with Lost Ark right now. As noted at the top of my post, the shine had started to wane for me before my friends got caught up and we were able to do meaningful content together again.

    My suspicion is that... probably not much would be different. It'd just be a different game (or likely, set of games) in place of ER. I've never been much of a one for completionism, so I suspect I would've found a reason not to engage with the various collections and horizontal aspects of the game for much longer than I did anyway.

    In terms of the rest of it, the modern MMO player is certainly a different beast from days gone! Once upon a time, a three month stint in an MMO would've been considered short. The barest touching of the surface. Still just a tourist.

    Going on the concurrency numbers as a proxy for MAU (which as noted in my post, may not actually be entirely fair) it would seem that a month, or heck, weeks or even days is all it takes these days. Anecdotally that would seem to fit with what I've witnessed in MMO guilds (incl. for Lost Ark) of late as well.

    Josh Strife made a recent video commenting on the fact that it appears MMO developers of late seem to have forgotten the fact that they need to make an actually good game first and worry about the rest afterward. I think he's right by and large, but also that it doesn't tell the whole story.

    MMO Players just aren't as patient as they once were. I'd say that's in part due to the reach out into mainstream they have, but even just speaking for myself I know my attitudes towards MMOs have changed vastly over the years too. The fact a game 'is' an MMO isn't on its own enough any more. Once upon a time, that's all I took to be happy for quite a while!

    1. I agree with you about three months being considered a short run in a MMO in days gone past, which always puzzled me. Any offline game that keeps me entertained for three solid months (or even a month) is a damn fine game. I have always considered anything approaching a quarter of a year a solid hunk of entertainment.

      However, I am not sure MMO players are less patient, or if they are it's because more people are playing these games than ever. There has always been a divide between peaple that are willing to read every scrap of quest text and soak in the ambience, and people that judge a quest entirely by what they actually do during the quest. For example, I thought the prose in many quests in LoTRO was well above average and helped establish the setting. However, even back in 2007 (or whenever it came out) I knew a lot of players that thought all the quests were terrible because they nearly always came down to kill or gather, and they were already sick of those mechanics from WoW.

      In any case, all the chatter about Lost Ark has me intrigued, but I am still hip deep in my latest 2005 era obsession. It looks like it is very much on track to follow the trajectory that most MMOs seem to follow. I hope they can turn it around and stabilize into a success on the same level as ESO or FFIXV, but from what I have been reading it doesn't seem likely.

    2. There are very clearly still a whiole lot of people who play one mmorpg for years and years. My blog roll has plenty of examples of blogers doing exactly that. I note, though, that most of them seem to be playing either WoW or FFXIV. There seems to be a very definite split between the established games like ESO, SW:tOR, LotRO, the EQ titles and so on, all of which have been around for years and the newer titles to which people seem to flock and then abandon.

      I think GW2 is a rare example of an mmorpg that actually prospers by being so porous that players drop in and out of it all the time, coming and going depending on what's happening in the game. Most other mmorpgs seem to rely on building a critical mass of players that will stick with the game and then catering directly to their needs. The issue with new entrants seems not to be attracting initial interest but building that critical mass of people who choose to stick around once the novelty wears off. It's been sort of that way for a long time but it does seem to be more of an extreme phenomenon now, with certain games getting huge attention and then bleeding out very quickly.

      It's going to be very interesting to see what the life expectancy of these high profile mmorpgs turns out to be. Until now, as a genre, longevity has been extremely high. Even apparently unsuccessful and unfashionable mmorpgs last for many years, presumably because they still make money. Whether Amazon will be willing to run their "failed" mmos on indefinitely just because they make a small profit is another matter. That might not be good enough for a business the size of Amazon.

  3. That furry suit still looks weird as hell, and it's one of the few times that I wish that the NPCs would actually react to your toon and what that toon is wearing. Just seeing the NPCs go "WTF is THIS??!!!" would be worth it.

    1. It really shows in the last two screenshots, where the character is in exactly the same pose but in one she looks like a gunfighter and the other a Disney mascot gone feral. As Mailvaltar said, it completely breaks all sense of immersion. I quite like it but I can see why it might be the final straw for some.

  4. Indeed, nothing I've read or seen so far seems very reassuring.
    I can't be far away from unlocking those things Naithin mentioned though, so at the very least I'll give those a chance to win me over.

    By the way, I agree with you that the story isn't half bad. I do read most of it too - well, I guess "skim" is the more appropriate word - and the only thing that really bothers me is how rarely we get to actually defeat a villain for good. Either they escape without a proper explanation for why we would let them do that, or someone else puts them down after we did all the work.

    1. I speed-read most of the side quests but surprisngly often I stop to enjoy the nuance. There's some amusing stuff in there. The main quest is pretty much dead average for an imported mmorpg, to the extent that I sometimes wonder if the whole lot are written by the same person. They really are remarkably similar. I can't see any reason to claim Lost Ark's main storyline is significantly worse than any of the others, though. I suspect the reason behind that is unfamiliarity with the prevailing standards.


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