Toss another game on the play pile

HarbingerZero just posted something about STO that suddenly made me wonder why I let the game pass me by when it launched can’t-be-arsed-to-Google years ago. I know a bunch of other bloggers enjoyed it, and some are still noodling around with it now and then, so — and because I certainly don’t have enough games on my plate already — it’s sort of whispering at me to try it.

I think I’m being lured by the free T-shirt.

It's only a paper world*
It’s only a paper world*

I’ve always liked Star Trek but I don’t think I’m a Trekkie (unlike a few of my friends) (and besides, I thought all serious Trekkies wanted to be called Trekkers. Or am I being way too 1998?). I’m of the ST:TNG and DS9 generation, though I didn’t particularly care for Voyager and whatever the recent revival was (Enterprise?). I could answer a few ST trivia questions but would probably stumble on the more obscure ones, like who was the sexy green alien Kirk got off with in episode 23. No, not the first sexy green alien – that second one from the planet Murgatroyd.

So I’m not sure I’m the right material for this recruitment drive, but I like the package on offer and I also like the idea of leveling with folks who have been through it all before. The oldie/newbie teaming could be fun, provided the oldies don’t mind repeating content, and the newbies can know ahead of time what disastrous choices to avoid.

The drive doesn’t begin until April, which could be a good thing or a bad one. We’re kind of instant-gratification here in Gaming World, on the whole… But it does give me a month to mull things over and wait for my crappy internet to download the game.

– – –

* I’d link to the episode but all the ones I checked either stop short of the free T-shirt moment or mysteriously lose the sound right around the 14 minute mark. So those of you who watched Animaniacs can be smug and know the reference, while the rest of you will have to feel silly and under-pop-cultured.


(Also, and à propos nothing at all, the WordPress “Improved Posting Experience” is basically just like the SWG “New Gaming Experience”. It’s a steaming pile of useful-element-free “clean UI” bullshit. I don’t want to pretend I’m using an iPhone, I want to craft a bloody post.)

Warhammer Online — Dem bones

Glerk! I’ve been attacked by the Mythic viral marketing viral virus thing!

I could tell you that a strangely dusty and creepy camphor-smelling creature delivered them, but actually it was only the UPS guy, and maybe he likes mothballs; who am I to judge? In any case, I shall report faithfully what I found in the shipping carton ancent gem-inlaid sarcophagus. Abject apologies for the poor quality of the photos: my digital camera died a little while back and I had to rely on my phone. Mythic, send me a camera next time too, m’kay? (It never hurts to aim high!)

So what’s the deal here? If you’ve been playing Warhammer Online lately, or keeping up with the news, you’ll know all about it. If you haven’t,  it’s all about Mythic’s Rise of the Tomb Kings event relating to the new Land of the Dead area that’s opening up late this month. Short’n’sweet: you’ll be able to find skullies on various internet gaming sites, each skull bearing a cartouche of hieroglyphs. To translate said glyphs, you need to have worked out the translation from the “rosetta bones” that have been sent out to a bunch of worthy (and less worthy, like myself) bloggers. Getting the translation right may let you claim goodies.

There are links to the bone-recipients and skull sites at the bottom of this post.

First off, dem bones demselves. Click through on all pix for a larger view.


Note the little US flag — for those who don’t know yet, similar but not identical bone-and-hieroglyph puzzles are running in all manner of different countries, so it’s important to note which country a given bone (or set) belongs to.

Yes, I know you can’t see all the letters on there; maybe next time I’ll get a nice tibia and fibula the way Syp did but in the meantime I have a (right?) pelvic bone and one of the vertebrae. Maybe if I close my eyes and wish real hard I’ll suddenly find David Boreanaz telling me we need to go catch bad guys. Mmm…

Ahem. Moving on. The letters on the pelvic bone (E, Y, L) and the vertebra (C, N):




Next up, the map — note the X in the top central part. Something tells me that might be important.


I know, I know, it’s not well-framed. This ain’t Truffaut, it’s Tut-mania. A scarab stopped by and let me know that this is “part of a treasure map. Players can visit the marked locations in the Necropolis of Zandri to get special tome unlocks… and maybe more.”

Now for the diary entries. Pix, then transcript.

Diary of Doom, Day 2

Diary of Doom, day 7
Diary of Doom, day 7

Day 2

Found a tomb entrance in the cliff face as we skirted the river. The stone doors were ajar so we could squeeze in. All except for Falcone, that is. The fellow’s like an ox, ‘n that big axe of his wouldn’t be much use in a tomb. I told him to stay put ‘n keep an eye on our gear while the rest of us went down.

Stairs ‘n passages met us beyond the doors. Walls scrawled with odd pictures, paint peelin’ with age. Lots of traps too I figure. I says this to Tinari, since he thinks he’s some sort of thief. He said there ain’t a trap invented what he couldn’t beat.

Funny he says that, ’cause that’s right when the door shut behind us ‘n a swarm of beetles started pourin’ into the hall. Mazza screamed like a tarn ‘n we all got to runnin’. Piccione caught his foot in a snare, ‘n yelled for help. DiBiano started to go back for him, but stopped when he saw how many beetles there really were.

Any of us could’ve saved Piccione. But then again, who’s to say those bugs wouldn’t have come out on top? When Piccione started screamin’ it made me glad I didn’t take the risk. I looked back at him, but all I could see was his arm wavin’ madly, the rest of him hidden by that black beetle swarm.

No one was of a mind to stay. Tinari made good, though, ‘n found a hidden passage that got us back to the river. That must’ve been trapped, too, ’cause the ceiling fell in just as the last of us was comin’ out.

We walked back to the doors, which were now closed. Falcone was pickin’ through our gear like a robber. He leapt to his feet when he saw us. The doors had slammed shut just a few moments before, he said, ‘n he reckoned us for goners. Then he noticed Piccione was missin’ ‘n shut up.

Day 7

A sandstorm forced us to seek shelter in a cave. Once inside, it became clear that we’d made a mistake. This is no cave, but is instead a Nehekharan tomb. The memory of the last tomb ‘n Piccione’s screams are still with me. The horror, the horror…


Those of us what are left decided to risk the storm rather than face Mazza’s fate. I’m gettin’ ahead of myself. Mazza’s dead now, ‘n I think I’ll miss him more’n the rest.

We’d been in the tomb an hour, maybe two. The storm outside was getting worse. Mazza started singin’ to raise a smile or two, but all he raised was the dead. All of a sudden, a woman’s voice, smooth as silk but thick with menace, rang out around the tomb. Mazza stopped, dumbstruck, walked towards the voice. Me, Falcone ‘n Bonfiglio tried to stop Mazza. He lashed out, knocking us down. Which, truth to tell, is probably what saved us.

When I got up I saw Mazza starin’ into the eyes of a corpse-woman, ancient and linen wrapped. She smiled ‘n gently touched his cheek. He grinned but the pleasure was all to brief. A burst of sand shot from the lady’s palm ‘n tore its way through Mazza’s head.

The sand on the floor began to writhe, ‘n everywhere we stepped there was hungry scarabs. Even Venezia was awakened by the commotion. We grammed what we could ‘n left Mazza behind.

* * *

Bone-bearing blogs:

A High Latency Life
Bio Break

Epic Slant
Keen & Graev’s
Rainbow MMO
Tome of Knowledge

Sites with Skullies:

Kotaku —  MMORPG —  Massively

I haven’t been tracking the rest-of-the-world event bones, but Greg at TOK posted this link over at MMOZONE for the EU puzzle which should at least provide a starting-point . Good luck!

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

As far as player types go, I’m not a raid person. I’m not a loot lover (with a few exceptions that I’ll get to below). I’m a crafting type with a large side of harvesting ho thrown in for good measure; it could be argued that one begets the other, but then we’d get into the whole chicken and egg and begetting and begat thing and we just don’t have time for that today. It therefore pleases me — as I have mentioned a time or two lately — that EQ2 appears to have not only realised that some people like to craft as a primary (or at least not a distant tertiary) activity, but also decided to provide a metric crapton of stuff for crafters to do. Adventury stuff — well, crafty adventury stuff, or at least stuff that gives crafting xp and other goodies, even though it sometimes requires risking your life in that nasty sunny outside world among the giant spiders and their arachnid ilk.

Mort (the spousal unit) and I had started a harvesting quest we encountered because, well, it’s a harvesting quest! Oh, and it paid 17g a pop, which for us poorer types is a lot for just bending down and picking stuff up, though in all fairness to the quest it ended up being a bigger pain in the harvester’s backside than just bending down and picking stuff up. If you need 30 of X and 30 of Y and they come from node Z that drops A 80% of the time, it’s going to take a LONG time to get X and Y. Make the poor harvester do that in two distinct areas rather than just one, and you’ll soon separate the hoes from the men, especially if the harvesting hoes in question aren’t quite the right adventuring level to survive the beasties protecting the nodes. We’ve become expert at gauging how finely one can cut aggro ranges, and just how close to a node you have to be to be able to extract all its resourcey goodness.

As it turns out, we were right to persist. At some point I discovered what that long series of quests actually gave as a final reward, aside from just cold hard cash, and that motivated us as normal items rarely tend to do. A harvesting cloak!!1oneone!! A cloak with bonuses on that make you get mo’ betta stuff! Oh, and the featherfall effect on it ain’t bad for people who happen to be scared of heights.


Stylin' and profilin'
Stylin' and profilin'

But wait, there’s more!

As the picture above shows, we’re also now riding two extremely stylish (and yes, quite clearly cloned) and useful equines who, presumably by virtue of their resource-scenting horns (?), also provide a harvesting bonus — a very respectable +48 — and of course the expected speed increase you get from any mount. Numbers alone mean nothing without context, so for the harvesting-stat geeks among you, I should note that one’s harvesting skill is limited by the highest level a character has, crafting or adventuring: Fairuza is a max-level provisioner at 80, so her base maximum harvesting skill is 5 x 80 = 400. The cloak and the mount therefore provide a not-quite-20% bonus, which I reckon is none too shabby.

And, of course, has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that my rares mojo has vanished! That or the blasted unicorn is eating them while I’m not looking. Or, as is usually the case, one gets a huge bonus to something and suddenly one expects the entire world — or in this case, rares catalog of EQ2 — to fall in one’s lap. It’ll pass, I know; in the meantime, I feel cheated every time I go out harvesting and don’t come back with a packful of rares.

Speaking of which, another good move EQ2 made was to increase the incidence of said rares. They used to be… well, really really rare; that or I was just really really unlucky. A few years back, coming home with a half dozen divers rares after a day’s worth of harvesting was a great day; now, with the newer, higher drops, if I don’t get my half dozen within a couple of hours (in the lower tiers, at any rate) I start to get sullen and sulky and stamp my cute wood elf foot till the RNG gives in. Yes, it means rares aren’t as rare and more people are decked out in them or using them for decoration –but that kind of MMOflation seems to be inevitable without beyond-draconian curbing measures, so if it’s going to happen anyway we may as well enjoy the process. (I’ve never understood the whole “I play MMOs like a penitent would wear a hair shirt — if it doesn’t hurt and itch and isn’t crawling with lice, I don’t want anything to do with it!” How, exactly, is that fun? Sure, there’s excessive item- and rarity-mania *cough* WoW *cough* but there’s a whole spectrum between hair shirts/self-flagellation and cartoony consumption excess. Anyway, moving on.)

The unicorns themselves are a buyable reward from the far-ranging Far Seas Trading Company, whose Supply Division one encounters in the latest expansion. Just getting to where they are willing to talk to outsider plebs like us takes a few quests and quite some doing, and of course rewards a fair bit of crafting xp along the way — and once that’s done, we can take part in the crafterish equivalent of daily raids. Woohooo!

Wait, stop, whoa. Daily raids? Having to log in and do something repetitive over and over and over again for a crappy little incremental — did I mention overpriced? — upgrade that will let me compete only so I can repeat the whole process for the next crappy little incremental upgrade? Say it ain’t so!

Fortunately, it ain’t so. There are daily crafting instances (daily in the sense that a character can only do one instance per day), but they aren’t obligatory and there are other ways of obtaining some of the goodies that come from them. Part of the rewards include faction with the Far Seas Supply Division, which is required in order to be able to buy some of the cool stuff they sell — like unicorns; but faction can be obtained through bog-standard writs, too. The instances also grant tokens, which are part of the payment required for said cool stuff, but those can be obtained (albeit at a much slower rate) through weekly repeatable quests. What the instances have that other methods don’t is loot — bien sur — of a type to make crafters drool: jewellery, recipe books, more tokens, the odd rare resource and so on. However, none of that is obligatory. I don’t have to do any of those instances to be a decent crafter; the only reason I might have to do them is for the recipe books that, as far as I know, can’t be obtained any other way.

On the bright side, they can be done solo, provided the crafter in question has the time. There are 4 different instances but they’re all basically the same format: 12 each of 9 different items (3 items for each of the three crafting “trees”), so a total of 108. Any crafter can make any item required by the instance, though things will be much smoother within one’s own tree. Mort and I have been doing them almost every day, and with two of us the instances take 60-90 minutes each. Since we both actively enjoy crafting, it’s not onerous at all.

I was going to wax lyrical about the various instance-places and stories and rewards, but I’m trying to keep my word counts down. In the meantime, have a random Mini-Me type picture. More next time!


Heroes? We don’t need no stinkin’ heroes!

badgesInspired by a section in Wolfshead’s (second) mauling of quest-based *cough* WoW *cough* MMOs. I’m so glad there are tons of other bloggers out there who remind me of stuff I keep meaning to write about but never get round to, mainly because I have the memory of a woman twice my age and don’t usually take the precaution of writing ideas down. (And even when I do I’m an avid scrap-of-paper user, which means they’re almost instantly lost in the morass that is my desk.)

So, yes, heroes. This may well sound heretical to many players, but I’ve never quite bought the idea that characters in MMOs are ALL heroes. For one thing, can any continent really support 13,473 heroes per square mile? For another, killing 10 rats is not, no matter what the used cart salesman quest giver says, heroic. And finally, call me old-fashioned lit. student and all, but where I studied, heroes aren’t the norm. They’re different, they’re special, and even in Ancient Greece you could (carefully) swing a cat and not hit one. (Though all bets are off regarding Gods.) The whole point of heroes is that they stand out from the crowd. Except maybe in Superhero MMOs, but that’s fairly evidently a whole ‘nother kettle of fish anyway.

I’m absolutely not denying that we all — no matter how prosaic — like our dose of heroism, some more than others. I know I do — but I also know my ego doesn’t require me to be Mange the Magnificent every second of the gaming day.*

Which leads to the important distinction, to my mind: heroism is what matters, not being a 24/7 hero. I loved 24/7 hero stories when I was younger, but even then I tended to prefer — in terms of fulfilment after reading/seeing — stories where mostly normal people were driven to be heroic, because of circumstance, necessity, whatever. (Can you say “The Hobbit”?) I’m much more impressed when normal people have to make choices and act in ways that are difficult and/or costly for them than when they’re 2D cardboard cutouts of hero goodness. Heroism has a *cost* — if nothing else, it’s bloody tiring and usually quite painful. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be heroism.

I’m obviously not alone in making this distinction — even superheroes have become more and more apt to question what they do and why they do it, whether they have a right to be doing it in the first place, or to be flawed and/or unwilling and/or anti-Heroes right from the start. Some authors, like Philip K Dick, spent most of their writing career exploring how Joe Average might, willingly or (usually) not, end up doing heroic things. Some movies and books have quite happily moved beyond the 2D Hero while still being attractive to the “masses;” the Dark Knight is an obvious example, even though I’ll grant you that it had to be written (or at least inspired by) someone much more talented than your average Hollywood hack.**

And yet our fantasy games, especially our MMOs, continue to want to spoon-feed us the illusion that we can ALL be marvellous, super-super-24/7 capital-H Heroes, even if all we’re doing is carrying out Foozle-extinction. The problem with that is that a constant diet of heroism ends up stale and rather meaningless. I’d rather do the occasional heroic thing — save a prince, slay a wyrm — and feel really special for having done so; in MMO terms, I guess this would be the occasional epic quest line, and by occasional, I mean at most once or twice a month. The rest of the time, I wouldn’t at all mind being Jane Q Average who helps the local grocer out with his rat problem, and who has a strange fetish for rat tails.

I’ve heard lots of arguments in favour of all-hero-all-the-time, such as:

— Heroism is essential to appeal to younger players, who aren’t so good at understanding moral nuances. Indeed not, but if we never teach them, they’ll never know what “nuance” means either. Let’s stop patronising kids and go back to throwing them in the deep end (metaphorically!); it works.

— Constant heroism appeals to the Everyman desire to be a hero all the time. I’m going to call BS on that one. Sure, lots of people like 24/7 heroism; lots of people like soap operas too, but that doesn’t mean they’re a) the ONLY people and b) incapable of enjoying something different in their diet.

Again, I think 24/7 heroism in MMOs is a weird legacy of pen-and-paper RPGs, whose books and boxes boldly proclaimed “YOU can be the hero of all your adventures!” I remember enough of those books, boxes and adventures, however, to remember that they didn’t actually promise we’d all be 24/7 heroes — all they said was, we’d have a chance to be heroic, slay lots of monsters, maybe save some royal asses, and probably make a ton of cash we couldn’t easily carry, encumbrance rules being what they were.

Log into any MMO and spend 10 minutes in the local social hub and you’ll see exactly why and how we’re not 24/7 heroes, no matter what games try to claim. We chat, we trade, we yell at each other, we emote at each other… we do NOT stand around flexing our muscles and thinking how heroic we all are, all the time. We don’t LIVE the 24/7 hero life in our MMOs; most of us don’t want to, or wouldn’t care one way or another as long as we get to add more tails to our collection.

What would happen if games started toning down the All Hero All The Time routine and, instead, added a few things that have been sorely lacking from MMOs forever, and rather lacking in many single-player games of late too? Things like:  Choices (beyond Yes/No I’ll do your quest). Consequences. Unexpected Outcomes (do everything right and STILL fail? — okay, maybe not, that would get the devs stoned, and not in a good way). Please, oh please, let’s start finding a way to make games with DECISIONS — and not just the decision of what talent point to put where, or whether the +12 MegaHero belt is better than the +16 SuperPow belt.

Once again I’m asking for the moon and, not being one of those stoned devs, I don’t even know how I’d make it happen. I do know, however, that we’re an extremely resourceful species and where there’s a will, in MMOs like anything else, there’s usually a way. Changing how we perceive MMOs and examining what we really want out of MMOs (now that we’ve been playing them for over a decade) is a first step. I may not be a developer, but I can certainly help define these things, which hopefully one day will make their jobs easier.


* Strange tangential link the route to which I shouldn’t really have to explain. Not relvant, just amusing.

** I’m not nearly as well-informed as many Batman and comic buffs, but I’ve always held that “The Dark Knight Returns” (and “Watchmen”) was seminal in re-visualising Batman — and subsequently other heroes — as much more human, fallible, and therefore truly heroic than they previously were.

Progression, brass rings, and horizontality

Muckbeast recently reworked his original article on Quest-Based Advancement in MMOs, this time on Bright Hub, and I’ve been pondering the questions it raises since the first “edition.” I have a whole lot of opinions on advancement in MMOs in general and quest-heavy advancement in particular, but many of them are either shared by so many it’s almost pointless to express them, or too formless for proper articulation. Nonetheless, before the whole discussion slides back under the swampy murk of the Blog of Eternal Stench (hey, that’s not a bad name), I thought I’d have a stab at a little articulation.

One thing in particular that has bothered me for a long time is the current most common (in my experience, anyway) model of MMO content-progression: upward, ever upward. Given that this principle is embedded in the D&D-type pen-and-paper RPGs that form the basic inspiration for many MMOs — the primordial ooze, to tickle that metaphor a little more — it’s nt entirely surprising, but it isn’t necessarily the best thing for the long-term health of games. (For one thing, content-progression in PnP games tended to be a great deal slower, given the nature of offline gaming.)


I’m not entirely certain of this, but it seems to me that WoW formalised the next logical step in that design principle: “end-game content.” As many of you know, it’s a concept I dislike, for many reasons, one of them being that the brass-ring model ends up with slogans (and design to match) such as “The game begins at 60!” No, wait, it’s 70. I mean, 80. And there’s the rub. If the end-game is the primary thing a game’s design encourages players to strive for, then sooner or later you’re going to have to move that brass ring upward. And again, and again after that; and even some of the most dedicated WoW players are starting to opine that raising the level cap isn’t really much of an expansion, since all it offers is more of what went previously, just with bigger numbers. (You also run into issues like gear obsolescence which, in a game like WoW where obtaining gear is a primary reason for experiencing some of the content, then makes a whole bunch of content obsolete too.) This relates to quest-heavy advancement because that particular model is probably the most efficient way to ensure that players experience the content you’re creating, that they experience it in a certain way (that is then easier to control and plan for), and that they get the kinds of rewards you’d expect, which should encourage them to try the “central” content — which in WoW and other games is raiding, instance dungeons, and so on.

What I’m not saying is that this is a conspiracy, or even wilful laziness. Most of the time we design based on what we know, and it can take a while for some of the flaws of a given design to become apparent — one of those, to my mind, is that the upward-only progression model demands more and more upward content to keep your players happy, which means you’re so busy designing circuses that you forget about the uses of bread. In other words, horizontal progression. I’m quite sure Blizzard never intended to create a treadmill quite as intense as WoW’s is now — they just wanted to make a great game and, if possible, make pots of cash; and it was a great game, think of it what you will, though in my opinion it’s not aging as well as it might. Which is not, one should add, an issue WoW is alone in facing.

Most combat-based MMOs have a certain amount of horizontal progression: crafting (to some extent), reputation building, exploration (little xp-handouts for finding new places)… I’m sure there are many more possible ways of building horizontal content players would enjoy, but MMOs are like anything else and are created with finite resources, even WoW, and there’s only so much you can do with a given amount of money, time and manpower. Besides, it’s probably “easier” in many ways to keep designing upward-progression, because at least the rails are clear, for both designers and players.

Changing the way “progression” is defined and designed in MMOs is going to take time, if it can happen at all. Many MMO players are perfectly happy with the “brass ring” progression, with its associated quest-driven advancement — and if they’re not, it’s usually expressed only as a certain kind of unease (often called “burnout”) where what they’re doing isn’t quite as fulfiling as they expect, but they don’t really know what would be. We’ve become accustomed to a certain kind of playstyle and it’s very likely that if that brass ring stops being dangled, or isn’t quite as LOOK-AT-ME! shiny, we won’t feel as though we’re “achieving” anything.

There’s a lot of talk along the lines of “going back to basics” (or the “good old days”) and doing things like “making travel more meaningful,” but the problem with that is that there’s often no proposed alternative, just a string of grievances, and when there are alternatives they don’t always end up providing a better or more immersive playing experience. I don’t think the speed of travel, for instance, really has anything to do with a game’s basic enjoyment, but it does mesh with a whole load of other elements — finding groups, getting to “interesting” places, meeting up with friends, etc — that do have a great deal of impact on enjoyment. Teleporting isn’t a problem in itself, if it supports other elements of the game’s design; similarly, slow travel isn’t necessarily a problem either, if the game doesn’t require you to cross continents at a snail’s pace just so you can meet up with a friend when both of you only have a half hour to play. It’s about time games and players accept that the 8-hour marathon sessions aren’t the norm now, and probably never really were — we fit games into whatever time we can claw back from work, kids, grocery shopping and figuring out how the hell we’re going to pay the next utilities bill.

Similarly, if we dial back on quest-heavy advancement (the benefits of which Mr Muckbeast has already gone into), we absolutely must provide some sort of alternative, though the range of options is wider than we tend to think. Raph Koster’s had a lot to say on the subject over the years, including the fact that just sitting and chatting is absolutely a valid way to spend time in games, provided those games work towards encouraging said activity. Or, in the case of quest-driven advancement, provided the game’s basic progression design doesn’t actively discourage said activity.

And that’s the main problem, in my view. Quests are absolutely wonderful things, when they’re not the ONLY thing, or when their presence doesn’t overwhelm other avenues of play and/or progression.

Sure, we can all choose to do different things in games, no matter how the game presents itself to us. I’m not disputing that, and I’d rather not end up debating that in the comments since it should be self-evident. Players certainly can make an effort to break free of playstyles that aren’t as fulfilling as they could be, though it’s not as easy to break habits as we tend to think, even playing habits. The fact is, however, that most players will play the game mostly as it was designed to be played — that’s just basic game and design theory coupled with human nature. We don’t try to play Scrabble on a Monopoly board, though the attempt might be fun once or twice. Design affects use.

{Inspector Columbo} And one more thing — it’s all very well to say it’s the journey that matters (and I agree, it really does matter), but a journey implies a destination. Which isn’t to say we should all be achievement-obsessed, God knows I’m not, but we cannot just ignore the fact that people like to arrive somewhere just as much as they enjoy getting there. Of course, the destination doesn’t have to be max level; one thing games could usefully learn (or relearn) how to do is to include meaningful side-destinations and sub-destinations — not just “Oh look, I hit x0 level, ding, yay, yawn.” A journey with no purpose doesn’t hold players long; it’s too Zen for most people, and I’m not sure my leisure time should be all about the pursuit of Zen in any case, much though I love its basic principles. Gaming should be about FUN, first and foremost; how games are designed, and how we condition ourselves to play them, are a large part of how we perceive fun or the lack of it.

As a last tangent: one of the other downsides of the enormous amount of quests required by a quest-heavy system (which, as Muckbeast points out, leads players to ignore the trees for the forest), especially one in an item-heavy system, is that players will end up cherry-picking quests based not on how good they are (which is hardly noticed these days anyway) but rather on whether the rewards are “worth it” — in other words, whether the quest provides an item the player might actually want. After all, there are a gajillion other quests out there to do, more than any single player could possibly need in order to reach max level, which — along with items — is the ultimate goal. I can see that leading to a quality-loss cycle where quest designers know nobody reads the damned things anyway, so they don’t craft them as lovingly as they used to and instead spend more time wondering what kind of reward-carrot they can slot into it to make players choose to accept it. That’s a shame.

Catching up on my reading — and groups

Having added a gazillion new feeds to my reader in the last 6 weeks or so, I’ve finally got around to reading some of the older articles these newly-discovered (by me, anyway) blogs contain from before I susbcribed.

One of them is this extremely interesting post on Of Course I’ll Play It! regarding instances, class roles, and why most WoW players haven’t the first clue what to do in groups, let alone in instances, even when they reach (or especially at) the level cap, whatever it may be this year.

Since I’m relatively vocal about it, you may already know that I have an almost negative level of interest in instances, for a variety of reasons going from the sublimely ridiculous (I feel a little claustrophobic in dungeons, even with my spanktastic new-ish 28″ screen) to the rather more prosaic (I am often called away from the keyboard, and that’s not something I like to impose on a group, instance or otherwise, that depends on me being there — I have a low tolerance for the single-sitting time-commitment that’s usually required — and I’m just not all that interested in shiny new loots to replace the previous 5 level’s shiny new loots). On the other hand, even though I don’t group very often — not counting the duos with the spousal unit — I *am* very interested in the systems and mechanics that underly how we create groups, why we might want to or not want to, and what we actually do when we’re in them (or not in them as the case may be).

So, to make a long story a little less long, one of the solutions the above-linked post proposes is to introduce players to grouping (and instances) right from the get-go, which is exactly how WAR introduces players to RvR and their role in it. This is such an obviously good idea that even I, old curmudgeon that I am, had to kick myself at its beautiful simplicity. Don’t force players to do anything; if you make something easy enough, chances are they will flock to it like lemmings to the cliffside. (I’m sure there are plenty of downside examples to that too, if it’s not done intentionally, but that’s by the by.)

It’s easy to queue up for a scenario — it wasn’t always quite that easy, but Mythic were quick to pick up on and respond to player criticism of the early incarnations of the system — and you don’t have to sit around with your thumb up your avatar’s backside for an hour while a “perfect” group is put together, or wait for said perfect group to actually form up and start doing stuff once they’re all found. And you can do that with all manner of other content — a scenario is really only a very short instance with some very evident goals where the “mobs” are other players.

It’s a great idea. Take me, for instance: as I said I don’t group a whole lot, but I could very well imagine myself grouping a LOT more in a game where a larger proportion of the quests (or content, call it what you will) involved short, casual, easily-joined groups. Instead of one long and involved instance for every 2 or 3 zones or level brackets or whatever, make it a dozen much shorter ones. Pepper the local quest lines with them — not all of them, because sometimes even an easy system just can’t do what you need (witness the non-popping scenarios on WAR’s lower-population servers), but enough of them to make a change from the usual kill 10 rats activity. Make some of them PvE, some of them PvP, hell, make some of them puzzles to solve (though that wouldn’t be much good for player repetition I guess) or crafting contests or cook-offs or whatever the hell else the designers can come up with.

The point is, if you build it (to be easy to approach and to fit with the flow of a player’s activities when online), they will come — even if “they” are old crotchety mostly-soloers like me. By “easy” I don’t mean easy to complete, but just because something takes 5 hours per run and needs 20 runs for success doesn’t make it hard — it might just mean that said content requires exactly the right actions performed at exactly the right time by exactly the right classes; that’s not hard, that’s Mastermind. What I mean is, “easy” to get organised for, easy to get to, and easy in terms of time. We’re mostly all busy adults with a crapload of stuff on our RL plates — I for one just cannot give 5 consecutive charged hours to doing something in a game anymore. Nor would I want to if I had the time; I prefer a variety of activities over that kind of time-span, and I’m not the only one.

Now that is the kind of group-system I can get behind. One of you real-as-opposed-to-armchair devs out there build it already!

Begone, Phat Lewts!

pile20of20gold31If gold selling and buying are a symptom, and the grind required to get money and/or items in game is the disease, then what would happen if we removed — or severely restricted — or changed, somehow — what is considered a “good” reward in MMOs?

Again, WoW casts a huge shadow over MMOland in this respect, but it didn’t create the shadow. Kill monster, get xp, look through its pockets for loot (even if it’s a pocketless rust monster) is several decades old and started out on paper. You could probably argue that go forth, rescue the damsel, get your proper reward (hur, hur) is pretty much the same thing. It is, and it isn’t.

Right now, in a game like WoW, you have two basic choices. You can go out and get your own phat lewtz which, if I understand it rightly, means some kind of insanely repetitive long-ass grindfest, regardless of whether you’re grinding faction or grinding an instance or grinding 18,000 foozles to get the Super Sword of Foozle Smashing — whatever its shape, it’s a grind. (Grind: any action you have to repeat so many times that that activity becomes unpleasant and tedious, and goes past the point of even remotely being “fun.”) Or, in some cases, you can buy said phat lewts off the Auction House. And aside from that, there are the various rewards you can get in-game, like mounts, that cost a quintillion gold AND an insanely ridiculous faction grindfest, so that’s twice the grind bang for your in-game buck.

That sucking sound you hear is soul and fun leaving the game. I don’t really care when or why it became all about Monty and his Haul (and if you don’t know that term, you’re too young to be reading my blog. Begone, and return only when you have played at least 5 years of bad, but ridiculously fun, beginner D&D campaigns!); fact is, it’s all about the grind. For money, for rep, for Slackassery-Tokens so you can get your Slackassery special items — whatever; it doesn’t matter what the label on the tin says, inside it’s all grind-produced spam.

I’m going to ignore the point that the grind design method and the subscription payment method go together like crack and pipe — they mostly do, but I’m concerned more with what constitutes “reward” in games than with what constitutes “gaming fun,” though I’m sure the two are probably pretty closely related and may end up dovetailing in the end. What I’m trying to ponder right now, though, is the idea that items and coins — or some recogniseable facsimile — are the only things people will recognise as rewards in MMOs (or for that matter just about any game out there right now).

Sure, money is a reward-type we all understand, and it probably makes the MMO worlds go round just as it does this one. But is it the only thing that will work, or is it the only thing we use because it’s the only thing we know? (There are pretty good barter economies out in the real world, and capitalism isn’t the only working model out there. Granted, most “working” models are much smaller-scale, but they’re there.)

This is where my own basic assumptions are holding me back, because for all that I’d like to see an alternative to money/items as rewards, everything I come up with seems to end up being a thinly-veiled variation. Hey, pay me in chickens! (Chickens becomes the new currency, so chickens = gold. No innovation there, just more feathers, and Banks would be called Coops.)

Don’t pay me in titles or other intangibles — I thought about that, and I know some people find it great, but for a fluff-lover I’m oddly cold about things like titles. They’re about as useful as those fake moles women would paste on a few centuries ago — pretty (maybe) but also pretty useless. Titles don’t give me much of a feel-good buzz; if all I ever got was titles, I’d get rather bored rather quickly. And this is my problem — stuff tends to give me a feelgood buzz, so I’m just as bad as any other Purples-chaser and the only difference is that I’m chasing deco- and fluff-items as opposed to gear. Okay, how about… Brownie Points? But isn’t that just a thinly-veiled version of reputation? Or reputation and/or currency, whether you can clink it in your hot little hands or not?

I have a suspicion that we apes need currency, however it’s represented, because we like to interact and trade and get stuff for giving stuff. Whether the currency is gold, chickens or some kind of non-coin brownie-points system — it’s still currency even if it clucks. And phat lewt is still phat lewt whether it’s the Ultimate Pants of Killing Doom or the Coolest Pirate Hat that Does Nothing EVAR. Maybe I’m just showing my middle-aged lassitude and wanting to change up my life of empty materialism. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with endless materialism in games, since we have a drive to acquire, provided the path to acquisition is relatively entertaining (which it isn’t, but grind-design is another issue).

Still, I’m feeling oddly unfulfilled by my MMOney and phat lewts. Maybe I should jet off to the MMO equivalent of the Seychelles and “find myself” for a few weeks till my acquisitive drive returns.