Drfited away – but still playing games!

My blogging career definitely tracks my MMO play activity. If I’m playing any genre but MMOs, I don’t seem to take the time to blog about it. Since I’ve been actively blogging here, I played some League of Legends, a lot of Starcraft 2, Team Fortress 2, and a lot of single player games that I missed while immersed in various MMOs (The Witcher, Mass Effect, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Fallout 3, among others).

I recently started playing LoTRO again (and tried Rift on a free weekend), and my desire to blog also picked up. It’s curious; I’m a very solitary person within most MMOs. For example, I just finished leveling a minstrel (usually a very group-friendly class) to 65, almost entirely solo. Despite my reticent nature in-game, I’m happy to talk about what I’m doing in an MMO when I’m not actually playing it.

Why do I want to talk about MMOs more than single player games or multiplayer games? Is it something about the persistence of an MMO compared to the more transient experience of multiplayer matches? Is there more of a story to an MMO? There’s a pretty good story in most single player RPGs, but I don’t feel compelled to write about those so much. I spent a lot of time playing TF2 and Starcraft 2 and League of Legends with other people, but I don’t feel the need to blog about it. It must be the persistent world that makes me feel like sharing, the non-instanced nature of an MMO. Anyone can log on to Steam and find me for a TF2 game, or friend me on League of Legends and ask if I want to play, or I can join a variety of Vent/TeamSpeak servers and play a match with friends, but all those interactions happen outside the game world first. The MMO is always there, always on, always the same, and somehow that makes me want to write about it. Maybe it’s a way of connecting with my character who’s idle while I’m not able to log in, and maybe it’s a way of connecting with other people who are doing the same thing, yearning for a bit of persistence while we await another opportunity to enter that world and play.

Whatever it is, I’m happy that my on-again off-again relationship with LoTRO has finally reached a major milestone.

That took long enough

Gallatin at 65

It’s kind of crazy how much work still remains in LoTRO. As you can see, I’ve got trade skills to master, I need to figure out Legendary Items and maximize what they offer, I’ve got plenty of skirmishes to run, deeds to finish, traits to earn, and dungeons to explore if I ever decide to start grouping on a regular basis. I’ve reached level cap, but I certainly haven’t come close to maximizing Gallatin’s potential, and I hope to spend some time figuring out how to make him a useful member of a group instead of a solitary War Speech minstrel. He’s also got a big house to decorate!

WAR: The Push to Tier 4

My main hit 28 last night, which means…something…when it comes to participating in Tier 4. Somebody help me out here, I can’t remember exactly what the benefit of level 28 is. Does it make you eligible for the Tier 4 buff bump? Do you get a smaller bump in health and armor if you’re < 28?

Anyway, as I get closer to Tier 4, I’m starting to think that this will be the defining range for my final opinions about Warhammer. As I’ve fought through Tiers 1-3, running lots of scenarios, finding occassional good open RvR, and struggling like many other people to find a critical mass of players in PvE to group with, I’ve wondered if making a decision about WAR’s success or failure based on my Tier 1-3 experiences would be premature. I think, for me, that’s going to be true.

Back in the DAoC days, there were no early battlegrounds. You had to either keep up with the leveling curve to participate in RvR on an equal footing, or you had to accept the fact that you had to level in PvE to catch up. You were at a significant disadvantage trying to RvR at level 40 if the leveling Bell curve was closer to 50.

Mythic changed that eventually, adding battlegrounds for lower players, based on level ranges, but that wasn’t available at the beginning of the game. I think Mythic did a great job fixing the RvR participation problem in WAR, but I suspect by the time I’m well into T4, Tiers 1-3 are going to look a lot like the DAoC lower level battlegrounds. It’s a fun place to do something other than just grind PvE, but it’s not equal to the endgame RvR experience, either.

I think T4 is going to define Warhammer, because it takes some commitment to get there. By the time you start to participate in T4, you’re going to be playing with people who have decided that WAR is the game for them, and they’ll likely be around for a while. It’ll be easier to find a group of people to run around with on your side, and you can bet that your opponents will be skilled and equally dedicated.

I’m not trying to tell everyone that they should play to Tier 4 before they decide whether WAR is a good game or not. If you tried it and didn’t like it, there are a variety of valid reasons for reaching that conclusion. Maybe you hated the empty feeling of PQ’s and struggled to find Open Groups. Maybe you got tired of Scenarios being the best way to advance, or felt like you couldn’t find enough Open RvR action. Maybe there was a server imbalance, and you couldn’t get scenarios to pop even if you wanted to run them a lot. It could be a lack of depth in crafting, too much running between flight points in PvE zones…the list goes on. While I think Mythic made improvements in the Tier 1 to Tier 3 adventure compared to what we experienced in DAoC, I can totally accept that there are gamers who don’t want to invest the time to get to Tier 4.

That said, I think those of us who do reach Tier 4 are going to find a pretty wicked game, and gameplay that’s still unique in the MMO genre. I’m looking forward to the Tier 4 push to level 40, to enjoy the game with the rest of the players who enjoy what WAR has to offer. Looking back, I think Tiers 1-3 are going to look like baby steps toward Tier 4, and I think Tier 4 is going to be one hell of a good time 🙂

Making friends – PvP vs. PvE

“The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.” Ulysses S. Grant

Tobold wrote a thoughtful post a couple weeks ago about what he called massively singleplayer online roleplaying games. If you missed it, you can read the post here.

The quote in his post that got me writing here was this:

“The player interaction was exciting, but not always in a pleasurable way, like when I was ganked by another player and podded (killed). But most of the time you don’t interact with players, you interact only with the game itself, like in any singleplayer game.”

This was briefly true for me in Eve, and my DAOC experience started out similarly as well. Something happened in both Eve and DAOC that changed the way I played the game, though, something that never happened in WoW or EQ for me. I was invited to join and encouraged to play with a group of people, and I managed to avoid the “you interact only with the game itself, like in any singleplayer game” part of Tobold’s assessment.

In DAOC, it was a guild that was pretty active in RvR. In Eve, it was Eve University, a corporation dedicated to helping new players learn how to survive and thrive in the Eve universe. Games that have a PvP element seem much more likely to encourage interaction with other players. Most nights, there ended up being some sort of event that brought out folks from the guild or corporation. In DAOC, it was many, many nights on the frontier fighting against Midgard and Albion…and then always seemed to be invading Hibernia. There was no shortage of bonding experiences. In Eve, it’s been quite a few wars against our corporation that have brought people together.

Tobold presented two options for a game like Eve. Either you run the risk of severe gankage, or you play it as a single player game. The option he didn’t include, which is fast becoming the option that preserves the excitment of mmorpg’s for me, is finding a group of friends to depend on and fight with, carving out a safe space in a dangerous world. He ended his post with this: “But experience shows that there are always many more victims than player killers, and in the end such a feature only harms a game.” I’m not sure that has to be true, although it may depend a lot on personal play style. If you can’t find a group of like-minded people to play with, or if you prefer to play solo, I think Tobold’s assessment has merit.

From the time I started playing MUD’s, I was largely a solitary player. I liked to solo. I soloed my druid to high levels in EQ. I have two characters at 60+ in WoW, and a multitude of alts in the 40’s and 50’s. I avoided UO because I felt then like Tobold seems to feel now, that you’re most likely going to be a victim if you choose to play a UO/Eve/DAOC type game as a soloer.

What I didn’t realize until I played DAOC was that it’s much, much easier to make friends in a world where you have to band together with friends to survive. My solo tendencies used to get annoyed with the need to be social in EQ, but DAOC changed my perspective. It wasn’t until I found E-Uni in Eve that I’m realizing my DAOC experience wasn’t unique. I have a sense of freedom in a dangerous world, knowing that help is always available. I have a purpose, defending my friends and my territory, that makes me want to log in each night. That shared sense of purpose doesn’t exist for me in non-PvP games. It’s one of the big reasons I didn’t buy LOTRO after playing the beta. I knew that it would fall into the EQ/WOW category for me…a ton of time leveling, just to have little to do at the end of the game other than some sort of raid grind.

If anyone reading this is thinking about playing Eve, or has tried Eve and has come to the same conclusion as Tobold, I’d encourage you to check out Eve University. Being a part of E-Uni has given me a sense of purpose and belonging in what might have an empty and unfriendly world if I had stayed solo. It’s also teaching me the skills I’ll need out in 0.0 space. But one thing I don’t think I’ll have trouble doing in Eve is making friends. As much as you need enemies in PvP games, what you really need is friends.

Eve Online is a casual mmorpg

I know what you’re thinking. Eve, one of the more technical and complex mmorpg’s, a universe of pirates, spies, intrigue and PvP, a casual game? Well, yeah, in some ways, Eve is one of the more casual mmorpg’s that I’ve played. Stick with me for a bit, and consider the following ideas.

Richard Bartle talks about four types of mmorpg gamers. The Achiever, the Explorer, the Socializer and the Killer. Games like EQ and WoW are heavily weighted toward Achievement, to the point where it’s difficult to participate in the endgame if you don’t play regularly with a dedicated group. The challenges in those games,  and a large majority of development, revolve around dungeons and raids. If you, like me, have commitments outside of your game world that prevent regular playtime and keeping up with the Jones’s of the raiding world, you’re left out of the loop. Playing with a guild at endgame is a serious investment of time.

I’ve been too busy the last few weeks to get in a lot of Eve playtime, but when I do log in, I can hop into my frigate, join a fleet with other people in my corporation and go hunting. It doesn’t matter if I have the best ships, the best modules or a year’s worth of skill points trained. In fact, my corporation, a haven for players new to the game, champions the ability of even the newest pilots to make valuable contributions to fleet operations. It’s the equivalent of a level 5 player in WoW coming along on a raid…except the new Eve player can actually contribute something useful to their fleet.

Eve content isn’t solely gated by the amount of time you’ve put into the game. Even if you only play a couple times a week, it’s absolutely possible to train skills that will always make you a welcome addition to a fleet, whether it’s fighting other players or running deadspace missions or helping out on mining operations. Despite the fact that I’ve been busy with work and real life for the past month, I feel like I can log in and play alongside pilots who are online a lot more than me and make a solid contribution. If it had been WoW, and I missed a month while my guild was working on getting keyed for the next set of instances, I’d have a more difficult time catching up.

Eve still has Achievers like WoW or EQ. Eve’s a deadly serious game in a lot of ways, and I wouldn’t argue with someone who wanted to characterize it as a lot more hardcore than WoW in some respects. It’s unforgiving in certain situations, and there’s certainly a steep learning curve if you want to know everything about the game. However, I can’t think of another mmo that lets people who are a week or two into the game play alongside veterans of a couple years and allows them to make valuable contributions. It’s tough to imagine another mmo that lets players log in sporadically but still be useful in raids, at least not before said player has invested a lot of time in leveling and equipping their character.

So, yeah, I know you can nail me a million different ways about how serious Eve can get. I won’t argue with that. But Eve still offers a way to integrate newbies and veterans that I haven’t seen another mmorpg successfully accomplish, and I think it’s pretty cool.

Beyond The Grind

Tobold wrote a post about LOTRO being grindy after level 40. I’m going to disagree with some of his points about mmorpg’s and grinding, but before I do, I have to say that Tobold is one of my favorite bloggers and I read his posts with great interest. He’s a thoughtful and interesting writer.

That said, let me start disagreeing with something 🙂

Tobold said “The principal problem is that no MMORPG dares to tell players the truth, that there is a limited amount of content, and once you leveled up to the level cap and did all the quests, the game is basically over.” He talks about how developers address this by including grindable content which rewards players with faction or items.

True enough, I see this kind of endgame in primarily PvE games, the EQ/EQ2/WoW genre. There are other significant games that choose another route for the endgame, though, and this is where I disagree with Tobold.

WoW polished and refined the EQ experience to perfection, but Blizzard purposefully avoided two post-EQ mmorpg developments that may have made Azeroth feel a little more like a home instead of an amusement park.

The first development they skipped was meaningful faction versus faction fighting on a large scale. Blizzard gave us mini-game PvP, a boardwalk-like environment that only mattered while you were in there. It had no bearing on the game outside of the instance. It was also primarily a selfish pursuit, chasing after gear and titles that had little to know bearing on your faction as a whole. Mythic already addressed the PvE/Raid only endgame of EQ with DAOC, where the game was just starting at level 50. They’re including a similar model in WAR, with PvP/RvR action available much earlier than it was in DAOC. Eve Online also nicely avoids the “game over” moment if PvE endgame raiding leaves you nonplussed. Eve’s battles for sovereignty over 0.0 systems clearly has a huge impact on the gameworld and give players plenty of dynamic game options.

The second option that Blizzard passed on was player housing. I’ve played a couple games with housing options (SWG most notably, with your home right in the gameworld, and DAOC, which had an instanced housing option), and it made a big difference in my attachment to the world. WoW seems so transitory. Azeroth is clearly a place for you to visit, but you can’t really make an impact on the world, or create a home.

I think when the shine comes off WoW, which may already be occurring, the lack of controllable territory through PvP and the lack of housing options is going to contribute to the ease with which subscribers can shrug off the game. I know it was difficult for me to leave both DAOC and SWG. In DAOC, I didn’t want to leave my friends behind. It was sad to think of them going on and fighting for the glory of the realm without being at their side. In SWG, I still long for the days in Smuggler’s Cove on Corellia, my house amidst the houses of friends and guildmates, the trappings of my adventures decorating my home.

Perhaps the absence of housing and meaningful PvP was the choice Blizzard had to make in order to make a stellar PvE experience from 1-60. If so, it was a wise choice. There’s not been a better PvE game, in my opinion. But that doesn’t mean that all games have to end like EQ/EQ2/WoW, and now perhaps LOTRO. There are definitely engaging mmorpg options that don’t revolve around the endless and pointless gear upgrade cycle of the PvE gameworlds. The game doesn’t have to be over when you hit the level cap.

Ain’t talking ’bout love

Raph Koster made some notes on a talk given by Clay Shirky at the Supernova conference, and one of the sentences jumped out at me. The context of Raph’s notes were talking about open source software solutions, but I’m going to steal a sentence and transition to mmorpg’s.

“You will make more accurate predictions about software and services, if you ask not what is the business model, but whether the people who like it take care of each other.”

I can’t make this post without hyperlinks to other conversations, so buckle up and stick with me here. Kendricke’s had enough of the eternal debate over endgame raiding because it’s possible that game design cannot present a solution. Kendricke says:

“Ironically enough, the argument itself can’t die because the source of it’s angst is rooted in the very problem it complains loudest about – that most basic of human natures: competition.”

Raph’s talking about cooperation bringing people together on projets. Kendricke’s saying the eternal endgame loot debate is about competition. Is there a middle ground here? Is it possible that an endgame properly designed to encourage server-wide cooperation (or team-wide or realm-wide cooperation) would provide a more satisfying endgame experience?

If you read my post yesterday, you can probably guess my answer. At the end of the day, WoW seemed primarily a selfish pursuit, and a pursuit that by nature is designed to leave you unsatisfied. Sure, you might get a great set piece after hours of dungeon raiding, but there are always more set pieces, always more upgrades. Chasing the dragon is certainly exciting but eventually that constant pursuit of loot starts to feel empty. There’s got to be something else going on at the end of an mmorpg for people to continue to feel connected.

Before comments start coming in saying that WoW (or EQ or EQ2) certainly do depend on a large amount of cooperation for successful raids, I’ll concede that point. There’s no way you can succeed at any of those endgames without talented players working in tandem to solve complex dungeons. That said, the need for cooperation doesn’t extend much past getting good loot for yourself, or for your guild. There’s no larger sense of the effect those raids have on the entire community. Little persists beyond those raids except what you equip.

DAOC RvR and Eve Online in 0.0 space provide the need for broader cooperation. The effects of RvR or 0.0 wars do in fact persist and affect the community in a variety of ways. DAOC had Darkness Falls open for the realm that controlled the most territory. You got increased loot and experience for fighting near a keep that your guild controlled, and there were power bonuses if your realm controlled a majority of relics. Eve corporations in charge of 0.0 systems get access to deadspace complexes, rich mining opportunities and control key travel choke points. Your success or failure while fighting with your realmmates or corpmates has an effect that transcends just loot.

For me, I gained more satisfaction fighting for territory in DAOC than I did raiding in EQ or WoW. The rush of a realm succeeding was just so much greater than an individual raid succeeding. It seemed to matter more. That’s where Raph’s notes spoke to me. Don’t ask what model the endgame uses. Ask if the endgame model encourages the players, all the players in a realm or an alliance, to take care of each other. That doesn’t mean you can’t fight, can’t compete, can’t raid…but if there’s a larger goal, I think the raiding, fighting and competing maintains more significance then WoW manages. I think that cooperation and the broader significance of your actions builds more community and perhaps keeps people invested longer.

Let’s not get crazy, though. Ain’t talking ’bout love, or singing Kumbaya together over Teamspeak. I just want my raids or endgame efforts to have a broader effect then my next set piece.

Raid Thrash

Some of the blogs I read regularly have been arguing about endgame raiding and the massive amounts of time it can take to gear up from those encounters. Anyone who’s mucked around with PVE endgames in WoW, EQ or EQ2 can certainly relate to the highly skewed ratio of time spent vs. loot rewards.

Darren over at Common Sense Gamer shares my frustration with endgame raiding. I personally don’t enjoy spending endless hours in dungeons with 25 to 40 other people working on the precision necessary to execute a successful raid. And even if I did enjoy it, I don’t have that much time to dedicate to that type of playing. Plenty of other people do apparently enjoy it and have time for it, though. Darren isn’t one of those people, however. He admits to some bitterness because he’s “never getting those hours back”. I sympathize, but his solutions for that feeling of wasted time doesn’t work for me.

“There must exist more than a possibility that you’ll receive something out of raid…and I mean every player, not just those who happened to have the most DKP”.

I don’t agree with Darren on this. It’s addressed by Kendricke and others in the comments, and the problem with raids dropping loot for everyone has to do with scarcity, or rather the lack of scarcity if raid-level stuff starts dropping more often. It’s the old mudflation issue, and it’s a serious design issue. You just absolutely cannot drop more high-level loot into the game at a rapid rate without ruining it. Raph Koster has a nice summary of mudflation on his website, both the symptoms of it and traditional ways of trying to address it.

So, what do you do? Do you abandon the endgame and raiding to the percentage of the population who have the time and inclination to pursue the treadmills? In the case of WoW, yeah, that’s exactly what I’ve done. And that’s ok with me. WoW was perhaps my favorite PvE environment, and I actually enjoy leveling up more than I enjoy the endgame in WoW. There’s just no place for me in the endgame, and it’s time to move on.

I don’t want to end without offering an alternative, but before I even start I have to admit that my alternative caters to my personal taste. I haven’t seen a game yet that offers a solution for everyone…raiders, solo players, casual players, PvP/PvE players, crafters, explorers…so part of my solution to the problem is picking and playing the right game for your tastes. Is it possible that there may be changes to raiding that would suddenly make it more rewarding for Darren? Not if it means equal loot for everyone, no. I don’ t think that can happen without ruining the game.

To be fair, I don’t want this to sound like I’m bashing Darren. He offered up some ideas, and then he asked for reader ideas. I want to grab one more Darren quote from the Raid Be Gone blog post and then offer my suggestions for endgames in mmorpg’s.

“Most MMO offerings today have very predictable character progressions through their worlds. You quest, craft, pvp up to max level and after that, you raid. After you raid, well, you raid some more.”

See, I think that’s out of order. I’d rather see something like “quest, craft, raid (or dungeon crawl with smaller groups), and after that, you PvP”.

To avoid an endgame that ends up like EQ, EQ2 or WoW means eliminating raiding as the only last step on the pyramid. PvP doesn’t have to be the only other option, but it’s the only other one that I can think of that has been successfully implemented in a modern mmorpg. I’m thinking specifically of Eve Online and Dark Age of Camelot. DAOC also had endgame raiding, and great gear clearly helps in PvP situations, but you certainly didn’t have to raid every dungeon and have elite gear to be helpful in RvR. Now, we could get way off track by talking about the Trials of Atlantis and Master Levels, and how that affected the endgame and the need to compete gear-wise, and whether that was a design mistake or not, but I don’t want to lose the point of Darren’s posts.

I’m no Eve Online veteran, but one thing I have realized is that you can have an important role in PvP situations literally just weeks into the game. Fly frigates, train tackling skills and follow your Fleet Commander’s orders, and you can make a contribution to a corporation that’s been flying for years. Both DAOC and Eve allow players fairly new to PvP to make casual yet significant contributions, which isn’t as possible in PvE endgame raiding.

There’s something about the unpredictability of competing against human opponents that’s more satisfying to me than raiding PvE endgame dungeons. Yeah, but WoW had PvP, some of you might be thinking? It wasn’t persistent. Shoving PvP into instances, or having no controllable territory in world PvP, made WoW PvP a mini-game, not a part of the endgame. In my opinion, of course. I’ve got no problems with people who love the fun of WoW PvP, it just didn’t seem…important to me.

So, I think I’m left with massive endgame raiding as one of the options that should be available to players at the endgame of a successful mmorpg. Meaningful PvP is another. I’d like to see gear that perhaps levels up with solo or casual players that could someday equal raid-level gear. Like, your gear earns XP when you’re soloing, or a percentage of that XP if you’re grouped with another player, a smaller percentage if you’re grouped with two players, etc. DAOC had something like this in the Trials of Atlantis, where certain gear would gain stats if you killed enough snakes, bugs, critters and so on. We’re just not going to see that kind of stuff in WoW.

Face it, WoW is basically the Diablo of mmorpg’s, with just endless dungeon running and gear upgrading at the endgame. It’s beautiful and slick and scalable and polished, but the endgame options are just limited. If you don’t enjoy raiding, it’s time to move on. Hopefully other developers will notice this and give us more options at the level caps.

I’m really hoping Mythic manages to make WAR as compelling at the endgame as DAOC was…and also makes leveling more fun then it was in in DAOC. I think a lot of people missed the beauty and balance of DAOC RvR because the level grind was kind of rough. Not EQ rough, but certainly not as easy as WoW. Anyone at Mythic want to process my beta app so I can get in and offer advice? Please? Pretty please? With orc bits on top?

See, this is why I started a blog. Can you imagine me punishing everyone who reads Darren’s blog with a reply this long in the comments? Jesus.