Monday, March 21, 2022

The Turtle Is The Mirror To The Soul... Or Something.

Roger from Contains Moderate Peril dropped into the comments on the recent post concerning the upcoming changes to Lord of the Rings Online's free to play offer, something about which he'd already posted. Among other things, Roger mentioned he hoped I'd carry through with my notion of leveling up a new character in LotRO since, as he put it, "It is always interesting to read someone’s new experience of something that you personally are quite au fait with.".

It's true. It refers back to something I said in a slightly different context recently, when I was writing about the function of the review process: "Reading reviews after the fact feels far more appropriate to me than reading them in advance." Shintar observed in the comments that one of the reasons for going to other people's opinions after the fact is "to gain a better understanding of the material and [your] feelings about it."

It can be particularly revealing when the person describing their experiences is coming to the game fresh. One of the inevitabilities of a long-term relationship is familiarity and there are few places where the heavy hand of experience feels more crushing than in the perpetual present of an mmorpg. 

I've been reading Belghast's series of posts on Guild Wars 2 with mixed emotions. It's always nice to see someone so enthusiastic about a game you, yourself enjoy and when it's someone you know you also feel happy for them for having such a good time. On the other hand, it can point up some of the things in "your" game that you may not be as comfortable with as the person who's seeing them anew. 

When it comes to Belghast's newfound interest in GW2 there's another level of complexity in that, by his own account, it's a game he's always struggled to enjoy in the past. He even resigned from the closed beta because he felt it wasn't a game for him.

Now he's having a much better time for all kinds of reasons, many of which he explains in detail in his recent posts. Clearly, Bel has had an epiphany that's allowed him to see and play the game in a way he previously hadn't been able to do but as I read his explanations and analyses of why that might be, I'm painfully aware of an uncomfortable subtext: one of the reasons GW2 may be working for players for whom it hasn't worked in the past is that it's no longer the game it was.

Replying to Bel's most recent post on the game, in which he outlines a number of shortcomings he sees in the way GW2 introduces new players to its systems and prepares them for the content they're going to be asked to consume, I expressed my long-held opinion that the game lost its way within a matter of weeks after launch. Making this argument in the past, I used to go on to say "and it never recovered" but patently that's no longer a reasonable interpretation, if ever it was.  

The problem from my perspective is that it recovered all too well. GW2 set out to be the alternative to what at the time was the norm for the genre: World of Warcraft clones. Unfortunately for ANet, that turned out to be an idea very much ahead of its time. As I said in my comment on Bel's post "...they’ve spent the rest of the nine and a half years since simultaneously refitting their game to make it as much like WoW as possible while also dragging their feet and trying to act as though they’re doing anything but."

The interim result, because of course it's an open-ended project, is a exactly what Bel describes: an mmorpg whose "design ethics feel like the deck is stacked against anyone who is not extremely motivated to learn the game" and one which can only be recommended "...with a long list of caveats."

These are not just the inevitable complexities of an mmorpg that's been in active development for almost a decade. Every similar title that's enjoyed even marginal success over a similar timescale presents newcomers with a patina of accessibilty layered over a palimpsest of obscurity. In the case of Guild Wars 2 it's not so much evidence of organic evolution over time as the awkward compromise arising from an attritional battle between opposing ideologies.

As vicious shorthand, I like to say the only real difference now between GW2 and WoW is what ArenaNet calls the quests they claim their game doesn't have. As Bel worked out pretty quickly, they call them "Achievements" but quests is what they are.

It's not quite that easy. There's a bit more for Azerothian incomers to learn before they fit in than a few local phrases. Bel's right to point out that GW2 remains a tricky switch for players coming to it from WoW or FFXIV expecting a seamless transition. Significant differences between the games remain but the gap is closing all the time. I suspect one of the reasons Bel didn't bounce on his latest attempt is because this time the game has moved a good way onto his ground to meet him. 

Reading his detailed dissections of what is and isn't working for him is instructive for me as a longtime player. A veteran, even. Some of the things he approves are the very things that make me cross. Others I find equally delightful. 

While my immediate reactions have been predictable, at a remove his commentary has made me ask myself some awkward questions. I really like End of Dragons, for example. Do I like it mostly because it's more like the version of GW2 I used to like or is it because it's less like the version I don't like? Certainly, some of the things Bel's going through in the Living Story remind me painfully of what I don't miss about the era when those chapters were current.

I always claim to strongly prefer the original conception of the game, a much more freeform, almost abstract experience with no questing and no extrinsic framework other than the Personal Story, which taks place in instances, gatekeeps nothing and can easily be ignored. If that's so, why did I welcome the introduction of Mastery tracks with Heart of Thorns, along with the increased focus on overtly questlike content with the Elite Specialization weapons and similar Collections?

Even more worryingly, I berate the introduction of mounts to the game at every opportunity and yet I've been spending an inordinate amount of time on both my griffin and my springer these past few weeks, indulging in an mmorpg mini-game that goes back all the way to the earliest days of EverQuest, namely seeing how far up things I can climb.

How far have things gone, though? And is it too far already? Looking at the increasing proliferation of siege turtles it's almost impossible not to make the emotional leap and decide the Wowification of GW2 is complete. Nothing says WoW as loudly or clearly as a horde of gigantic multiple-seater mounts getting in everyone's way.

Does it make the game more or less fun to play, though? And if the answer is "less", then why am I playing so much right now? Do I not know what I like? These are the kinds of questions you find yourself asking when you begin to see the game you know so well through the eyes of someone who barely knows it at all. 

As Shintar says in her post on the new character experience in Star Wars: the Old Republic following that game's latest revamp, you can't un-know everything about a game after ten years of playing.That kind of insight, though, can come vicariously. Whether the knowledge and understanding it brings is welcome or not, that's another matter entirely. 

If I do end up going back for annother run at LotRO, a game with which, like Bel and GW2, I have so far never truly managed to click, I'll be very happy to give my impressions and interpretations of the experience here. If it happens, I just hope Roger doesn't end up regretting what he wished for. Seeing ourselves as other see us can be a sobering experience.


  1. While we don't agree on all elements of what a review is for -- there is certainly something fascinating about the usecase for reviews wherein its an after the fact we go to them. I found myself doing this recently for Matt Reeve's 'The Batman' where I had the vague sense that I'd enjoyed what I'd just seen, mostly, but wasn't very clear yet on why beyond a very surface level manner.

    In any case, going back to LoTRO and/or seeing your thoughts if *you* head back to LoTRO would certainly be interesting. I picked up the lifetime subscription to LoTRO way back when it first came out.

    I think I got my money's worth, but I've barely even touched any of the expansions despite going through the base game many times over now.

    I don't think I'd ever experienced an MMO before LoTRO that so successfully created that solid sense of 'place', straight lifted up from one media and then allowed for us to inhabit it.

    The human zones felt a great deal like home. Bree exactly as I imagined it. I didn't play very many Hobbit characters, but the Shire was also rendered incredibly faithfully to my imagination.

    Whatever else they got wrong, they got those elements, I think, incredibly right.

    1. Bree was the one that really impressed me when I first played. It was one of the locatioons from the books that I had the clearest mental picture of and LotRO's version seemed instantly recognizeable. The Shire was great but I'd seen Hobbit/Halfling towns and villages done well in other games Bree was probably the most convincing human market town I'd seen at that point.

      Sense of place is very much the game's strong suit, which is the main reason I would like to get further than the areas in the original game. Of course, there's the problem of Moria to contend with. I am not keen on having to quest my way through an entire expansion's worth of underground Dwarven city to get to the other side.


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