Category Archives: Immersion

BDO Progress Report: I made stuff and Housing is awesome!

There’s something very rewarding about crafting in Black Desert Online and I’m saying that as somebody who never crafts in MMORPGs, like ever. Crafting never made a lot of sense to me in the past; it was either too tiresome to gather materials due to skill gating, too frustrating and punishing in terms of output-RNG (hello FFXI *fizzles*) or simply not effective or required because everything could be bought in the auction house without hassle.

Crafting doesn’t feel irrelevant in Black Desert Online, maybe due to the game’s many trading constraints or just its more complex, crafting-centric gameplay. In hindsight I can say that there is an enjoyable learning curve to the whole contribution-investment and workshop process that let’s you craft pretty much anything in the game for yourself once you understand building progression. There’s none of the usual recipe or schematic hunt involved which I find incredibly liberating. You can gather everything too just by “doing it”, assuming you got the right tools for the job. Then it’s time to explore and learn where the best nodes and resources are located on the map; I know where all the cotton is hiding and I’m not telling!

BDO Progress Report: I made stuff and Housing is awesome!

I made this horse armor for myself and dyed it Azeroth Alliance style!

There is an enjoyable balance struck between the time it takes to gather and process basic mats and achieving the more longterm goal of crafting a serious upgrade or nice piece of furniture. It is not hardcore by any stretch – it is just about right for someone like myself with an average tolerance for downtime shenanigans. And yes there is the auction house too, yet for most basic mats you have to put in the time yourself and manage your alts accordingly. There’s great satisfaction in crafting something bigger and actually useful for yourself!

BDO Progress Report: I made stuff and Housing is awesome!

Moar gear for Syl!

Black Desert Online’s Approach to Housing

Maybe an even greater accomplishment is how Black Desert handles its housing. I will go as far as saying that the game features by far the best and most skillfully realized housing mechanic in MMOs since always, without going down the always sub-par instanced road. Two particular reasons:

  • A perfect compromise between instanced and outdoor housing
  • Easily accessible and affordable housing for everybody!

MMO housing isn’t just a highly enjoyable opportunity to individualize one’s own virtual world experience, it’s an important feature when it comes to player retention. Carving out your own little space, collecting and hanging trophies, these are activities that add glue to our relationship with games and make us want to return. It is pleasant to come home to something we call our own, no matter the illusion.

BDO Progress Report: I made stuff and Housing is awesome!

Loving my flat in Velia.

BDO Progress Report: I made stuff and Housing is awesome!

I have a big door!

Now I agree UO-style outdoor housing was great but let’s face it, comparing today’s titles with Ultima Online is far-fetched to say the least. We’re not dealing with isometric pseudo-3D worlds any longer that house a few thousand players at most. I have experienced server lag and continuous disconnects in Landmark and it wasn’t pretty. I have also been through annoying “land grabs” or faced the usual “inaccessible because ludicrously prized”-MMO housing plenty of times in other games, enough times to know they are neither enjoyable nor fun. And I frankly have no time setting a phone alarm every few days to go and refresh some plot because it disappears if I am playing a game too casually or go on holidays. Come on!

No thanks to all of that! Housing is just too awesome a feature to turn it into a maintenance nightmare or exclude the majority of your playerbase. Now to be fair, Black Desert Online’s housing is far from perfect where interior design is concerned: the furniture placement tool is pretty awful right now and the game needs a lot more options in wallpapers/flooring, general items and lighting especially. Possibilities feel too restricted, similar to my room in FFXIV. Still, BDO beats all competition by a landslide when it comes to its execution of  seamless “phased outdoor housing”. That split-second of loading time aside when entering my door, I cannot tell I am not actually located in the outside world. Heck, I can even open my windows and see the streets outside.

Black Desert Online let’s you have up to 5 residences anywhere on the world map where nodes allow for housing options. The layouts of every house vary a great deal, so exploring options is its own reward. And thanks to the effortless way contribution currency can be invested and withdrawn at any time without repercussions, it is simple enough to pack one’s bags and move to another city or town or farm. I call that awesome housing mechanics in an MMO!

BDO Progress Report: I made stuff and Housing is awesome!

7.5 is a very roomy house in Heidel

BDO Progress Report: I made stuff and Housing is awesome!

So much space to decorate!

In case you’re interested where some of the “best houses” are located in the game, in my humble opinion:

  • Velia 2.3 (2 floors, 3 rooms, 2 doors, 2 fireplaces, very high ceilings!)
  • Heidel 7.5 (2 floors, 4 rooms, big stair, high ceilings)

I am stationed in Velia 2.3 myself at the moment but will probably require a more central flat to stay at very soon. Let me know if you find anything nearly as roomy anywhere close to Calpheon so I can book that U-Haul!

BDO Travel Log: At first I was like “Oh, little Ents”…and then I ran!

So I decided to get some map progress in Black Desert Online last night and hit the road equipped with naught but my trusted horse, some carrots and a lantern for when that scary time comes along at 22.00. I had not yet discovered the south-eastern parts of BDO and parts of the south-western border were still clouded in mistery. Aware of the general direction, I soon toggled off the UI for better screenshot measure and feels. The feels got real real fast.

ohmanbdo01

The adventure is real.

I am starting to think there’s not a patch on that huge world map that doesn’t hold some sort of secret, a hauntingly beautiful vista, a quirky new race, or a fake wall to crawl under and reveal a deep cavern beyond. These actually exist; they’re not obvious to see but there are fake walls with cracks leading to Tomb Raider style treasure hunting, so always look for the telltale signs.

Speaking of other IPs, it seems someone at Pearl Abyss is madly in love with the Lord of the Rings. It’s not just hinted at in the main story but screams at you from so many details in the world. Naturally the elves live in Lothlorien too in BDO but before I get ahead of myself: I also found the Ent Forest.

At first I was like “ohh little Ents”, when all the shrubbery around me came alive to get a bite off my horse –

littleents

Harmless Mini-Ents

…Charming! Escaping the hungry underbrush I ventured deeper into the forest and lo and behold, “bigger Ents!” –

biggerents

Still harmless medium Ent

…that was all fine and dandy before a deafening sound just behind me pierced the air like a hundred dying trees, followed by a large “THUMP” in my general direction. “Oh shit, a REAL Ent!” –

monsterent

Time to gooooooo!

I couldn’t even photograph the whole sucker. It cast a high shadow among the tallest trees and yes, there were several tree herders in this forest. Time to run and see the elves before Papa Bear kidnapped me to the Entmoot!

Ever the aestheticians, the elves lived up beautiful trees with spiral staircases going ever up and up. There was a lift too for the lazy which I promptly accepted. The highest platform on the chief tree was only accessible by ladder and from high above the view was stunning right before sunset. There is housing here to be rented too, albeit not a very roomy option.

The adventure could have stopped here. Surely it should – it would be greedy to ask for more. However I had barely turned my back on elfland, when a giant Cyclops started chasing me in massive leaps across the map. Apparently this corner of the world is all about big things intent on killing you. On the bright side, escaping the cyclops is how I found Crio Village, home of the Otters. I am not going to spoil it too much –

I didn’t even know this was a thing! The game keeps doing that, it keeps surprising me around every other corner. The world of Black Desert Online feels very real at first, almost “too real” running danger of getting boring – but no so. Who needs heavily themed patchwork-zones in an MMO when you can have a seamless world that despite its pretty realism is packed with reward and whimsy? Or as Bhagpuss puts it: this land is vast and wild and filled with wonders. If you seek them out, you will find them.

highadv

The world is as beautiful as you see it

Happy Friday everybody! Enjoy these early steps of MMO exploration, they’re precious!

Black Desert Online as a PvEr? Round Two: YES you should play!

Two weeks ago I asked the pressing question of whether Black Desert Online is actually a game for PvErs out there, including information we had on how PvP flagging works in the game and how it affects the later gameplay experience. I did make it clear in my post that when talking about PvE, I am referring to that established definition of “player versus environment” the way we’ve come to use it thanks to MMOs such as WoW, Rift, GW2 and many others. That means player versus quests, player versus dungeons, player versus raids and all associated and preconceived progression. Black Desert Online has little of that, plenty of quests and dailies aside; what it does have however is an incredible sandbox appeal, so much that it very well may be the game many jaded MMO veterenas, on both sides of the spectrum, have been craving.

Now here’s the important bit of news that requires this update: as it turns out, some of the previous information regarding PvP was in fact wrong. It’s frustrating how hard it is to find much corroborated information for the NA/EU installments of the game but basically, PvP is a little different for us at the present time, as was finally confirmed to me ingame by guild mates who are way past level 50:

  • PvP on NA/EU servers starts at level 45 (not 50)
  • While becoming eligible is still non-consensual, this does in fact not extend to any lowlevel alts (also goes for the Russian version of BDO)

In lieu of any contrary news or things planned for the game, this in itself is pretty huge if we understand how BDO works. The game is all about your different characters working together, sharing whatever progress you make but having separate energy pools to invest in various undertakings, such as resource gathering or crafting. The great news about this: you don’t have to level past 45 to access any of Black Desert’s huge non-combat content. If you opt to be a crafter, gatherer, trader, breeder, house decorator, farmer or candlestick maker – you can do it! Most of the quests related to these activities yield no life/skill EXP, only kill quests do; 50 hours in, I am still only level 21 because I started crafting and thus my character has basically been stagnant while I keep progressing in other ways.

And if  I should ever in fact require one higher level character, I can always use my “main” for that sort of adventure and switch to my alts for the rest. Right now, they are located in different towns and already assisting me a great deal. This is a big point about BDO, to conquer the world for yourself, decide where to make temporary or longterm homes and how to make best use of your different characters.

The game has no level cap either which to me proves it’s not about a set progression or reaching certain levels to unlock content. You can truly make your own adventure and if you ever need to venture anywhere with a level 45+ toon, wear the ghillie suit from the store and you’ll be next to invisible to other players (or just switch server channel if there’s any PvP, problem solved). For the amount of content BDO offers while not requiring any subscription, I am more than happy to put up with that.

2016-03-06_11690535

The cities are madness

Yes, you should play in this sandbox!

After a considerable learning curve, I finally start feeling like I am “getting” into the flow of things (and there’s more and more guides for everything else). Now to be clear, I am still scratching the surface of BDO but I’ve finally managed to establish some resource nodes, I am training workers who bring back goods of my choosing every hour, I am gathering EVERYTHING I want to, I am crafting to the most satisfying animations and I am riding from place to place for hours because there ain’t any shortcuts. I tamed a wild horse two days ago and felt spectacular. Oh and fishing, just because my alt does that on her own when I go /afk. All of this is going on without obnoxious gold seller messages or botters due to the way PA handle the economy and regulate your ability to binge-craft, farm, fish as well as trade and sell goods.

The world of Black Desert is mind-blowingly beautiful in a Witcher 3 kind of way. More importantly, in this MMO the world truly is the player – you are not, you are just a lowly peasant that gets to do things in it. I could tell you about Calpheon city (Eri has done) and how ridiculously gorgeous, lively and huge it is, easily the most beautiful and largest city ever in MMORPGdom. The scale, the authenticity of how its crafted, the busy streets, they will break your heart. And yet none of it is the highlight of the game; there are so many regions, so many towns and hubs and little things, with individual economies and resources for you to engage with, I could go on for hours! Don’t get me started on the different funky fantasy races you encounter as you go along, I should probably dedicate a next post just to them

2016-03-07_43642909b

Cooking, brewing, drying, grinding, shaking, thinning…

I also got a new home in Velia now and am completely over the moon by the way Pearl Abyss have solved player housing. The fact that you own different, physically existing houses all over the world that let you phase in to perfection, is nothing short of a stellar job. Fancy a small hut by the river? A three-story apartment building with a cellar? A windmill with a fireplace? You can have it – you can have them all to do all sorts of useful things. Or you can just decorate to your heart’s content, open the windows and watch the view outside. In the Korean version of the game, there’s even big-style automated farming via NPCs and personal shop vendors. Every time I cross one of my own workers during my travels, it puts a wide smile on my face because they too actually “exist”.

bdo madness

I don’t know what I’ll be doing in two weeks time or three months from now. All I know is that I’ll still be playing Black Desert Online and doing 19347262094 things that have absolutely nothing to do with combat (and that require no cooperation other than from your own alts if that matters to you). I may build a cart for my horse and start trading for reals. Maybe I’ll get into making my own furniture or clothes. Or I’ll learn how to sail, build a boat and sail away forever, to make a new camp somewhere else.

Did I mention Black Desert Online has tents and campfires to pitch in the deep black of night? Yep.

If you’re at all into any of the things I have described above, just do yourself a favor and play this. (I have one 7 day guest pass for the first person who’d like one)

All the best Things have Campfires

The other night when staring into our fireplace at home, a feature I’ve come to appreciate a great deal since moving house in 2015, it dawned on me how many of the best things I’ve enjoyed over the years included campfire scenes. That is books and games more specifically, my favorite, most formative titles then and now came with special campfire moments that I remember always –

Heroes(Elm)

The Dragonlance companions, by Larry Elmore

ct camping

The heroes camping in Chrono Trigger, the Green Dream

w3fire

The Witcher 3, first chapter

ffxiv_17012016_211928

Recently, myself hanging in Eorzea

Campfires are obviously the romantic locality of choice to gather your heroes in fantasy tales or listen to the minstrel play; fire is a most enigmatic and evocative force that will also transport to the screen, be it in live action or otherwise. Video games come very close these days in emulating the real thing and the atmosphere it inspires. Fire stirs us on a deeper level.

I cannot pass campfires in MMOs without standing still and gazing into the flames. Wherever it is I am headed, I will take a solemn moment and join whatever company has gathered, be it players or NPCs. There’s an irresistible draw for me that’s hard to explain; as if I was touching something timeless and with it, a realization that the fire before me is all fires. There lies a gateway within the flames to all the other moments that there were in so many tales of beauty and peril, a gateway to all the memories of happiness stored away inside of me. Fire is the thread.

Fire is escapism.

What makes me happy in MMOs [#Blaugust 15]

Gracie has a topic up on ingame happiness for this rainy Blaugust Saturday (rainy for me anyway) and I decided to follow her example. On our blogs we often talk about our gripes with games or how MMOs have changed for the worse over time, yet clearly there must be things that still make us very happy or we wouldn’t be playing them.

I still feel that MMORPGs are the greatest genre there is. I didn’t expect too much of 2015 game-wise but in many ways, it was a much better year for MMOs than many of us anticipated. There were the GW2 and FFXIV expansions for one thing, Wildstar is going f2p any time now and introducing some new features and I’m also hearing good things about Project Gorgon from various bloggers. For now, I am rather content. As for the specific things that make me happy in MMOs, these are just the first ten that popped into my head:

  • Random kindnesses by strangers while soloing out in the field or running dungeons. Meeting players that will help you out when they don’t have to or go the extra mile just for you, without any notion of wasting their own time.
  • Laughs in guild chat and getting to know new people across the world with whom I can have so much in common.
  • Spotting the little things; fireflies roaming in dark corners when all other lights have gone out. The first sunrays creeping over the distant horizons. Windmills creaking.
  • Getting my character to a stage where I feel competent and look crazy good in my gear.
  • Unexpected NPC interactions that make the world come alive for a moment. Companion pets doing the wrong thing at the exact right moment.
  • Heavy rain soaking my clothes. My cloak fluttering in the wind.
  • The sound of snow under my boots as I cross a white snowy field. The way it sounds different from a cobblestone street or a wooden bridge.
  • My own little space, a room in a guild house or a fully decorated plot that is as unique as the next person’s.
  • Getting that mob down against all odds. Not giving up when all seems lost and somehow prevailing.
  • Idling in the city and seeing everyone around me starting to dance because somebody must have started.

There’s so many great things about MMOs: their scale, their simulation, their longevity, their interactivity and social aspects. Most of all however, my magical moments lie in the unexpected. That’s when the game seemingly transcends the boundaries of its script and I feel as if the world was truly unique and live, just for me. MMOs leave room for that sort of thing when most games do not – they leave room for many individual experiences influenced by countless random factors. So I guess you could say I am most happy in MMOs when the game actually stops feeling like a game.

The third TGEN Tribunal and Why we love companion pets (#Blaugust 4)

This fine July a few TGENerates got together to talk about expansions of the year, mobile games and companion pets in MMOs. The third TGEN Tribunal roundtable was hosted by Braxwolf and if you enjoy merry and casual banter by MMO players for MMO players, you should check out his site for the latest episode. We had a lot of fun doing this show which I think really carries over in the recording.

tgentribunal

Why are companion pets so popular?

A topic that was suggested by me and definitely took some interesting turns during our discussion, is the eternal fascination of companion pets in MMOs. Whenever an MMO like Wildstar doesn’t have them, there’s an outcry on message boards until they’re finally implemented. Now FFXIV is great for collecting pets but sadly makes it very hard for players to have their companions along most of the time because you’re either in queue for something, in party with your chocobo or another person (who is also a chocobo….no wait) or inside instanced story content. All of which means that your companion pets remain benched. This is quite the vexation for many players, a thing which made me ponder why some of us (more than others) get so attached to our ingame critters.

Roger and Liore both suggested on the podcast that it’s a question of collector’s drive and that is certainly a big part of why players collect pets. Achievements, bragging rights or straightforward completionism are reason enough to collect anything in MMOs. Still, I believe companion pets have the potential to be a bit more than that – or why would some players really miss not having them around if they were just another number on a checklist? Companion pets, NPCs or not, are company. They are your personal NPCs, they tirelessly follow you around pulling a funny stunt every now and then (the good ones, anyway). In some MMOs pets will even interact with others, they can be stabled, fed or groomed. This introduces a lot of extra tamagotchi-style engagement.

rpffxiv

Together on adventure! (screenshot by @SomeDamnPanda)

As someone who solos quite a bit in MMOs these days, I like having my “entourage” with me while I am out grinding in the field and I don’t actually collect pets that I don’t find funny or unique in some way. It may be a small cosmetic thing but having one or two pets/mounts/summons follow me around, makes me feel more immersed in the world somehow. I keep pets in real life too and just having them around the house and being able to watch them going about their business fulfills some deeper, human need for connection inside me. For the most part, they remain a mystery to me but it’s good sharing my environment with animals. It just feels natural. And since we all know that many features and mechanics in MMOs directly appeal to our real life makeup, why not companion pets?

(And I really want that red panda in FFXIV. *sigh*)

MMO Heartbreak

This Tuesday Bhagpuss over at Inventory Full revisited the topic of MMO fatigue or rather I would call it disenchantment, that phenomenon all of us who have played in virtual worlds for a while, know so well and keep wrestling with. It is a well-argued post beautifully written and full of heartbreak by one of my favourite (and most prolific) writers of the blogosphere. If you do not follow Bhag yet, now’s the time to amend that. His words rang wistfully in my ears for the rest of the day. To highlight just a few of them:

 I used to abandon plans just because I saw someone having a tough time. They wouldn’t even need to be asking for help. I knew things and I wanted to share. I had a Chipped Bone Rod and I knew how to use it and what’s more I knew where to take you so you could buy one too. I knew how to get to the sewers under Qeynos and I knew how to get out the other side. I knew barbarians couldn’t see in the dark, while my half-elf had infravision, and even though I’d only just met you I trusted you to give me back my Greater Lightstone at the end of the tunnel to Blackburrow because otherwise what were you going to do? Stay in Everfrost the rest of your life?

That was when we were all living a shared imaginary life in a shared imaginary world. Before we all started playing games. How long did that last, really? That it took years to wind down to an ending is maybe the most amazing thing of all.

And we miss it so much. Perhaps that’s why we chase every new game almost before it appears, hoping we’ll catch the unicorn by the tail and swing back astride before it vanishes around the corner, yet again. All we get are a few strands of silver that quickly lose their shine or, worse, a thumping kick, a humiliating stumble, a painful fall.
[Read the full article here]

The waning star of the magical MMO experience, we have all felt its decline. The more veteran the player, the keener that sting becomes over time. We wonder whether it’s us or the games or everyone, we lament how all things change and people move on, yes the good ones too. I’m with Bhagpuss in acknowledging such a thing as unique collective experiences in time that cannot be reproduced. There is a singular nostalgia reserved for members of the first hour. I do however hold the conviction that there will always be new and great games for somebody.

Each time I think of WoW, I’m so so glad I was there for vanilla. And yeah, TBC was good too and WotLK was great in places; but we were there when the days were young, with all paths wondrous and new and everyone in the same boat of “whoa”. If you missed vanilla, I’m sorry, what can I tell you – you missed the 60ies, friend. [source]

rainb

Still finding rainbows.

Once we have moved past the age of wonder, we may become more self-complacent or demanding or cynical. Yet, magic is still to be had in MMOs for the travel-worn; it is in fleeting moments, in unexpected kindnesses and starry night skies where fireflies roam. Bhagpuss laments the transition of the MMO “world experience” to just MMO gaming, and I am right there with him, but then what is life really if not a never-ending quest for moments of happiness and joy amongst the struggles and demands? We grow up in MMOs the same way we grow up in real life; at some point without notice or warning, our toys stop holding a life of their own. The magic’s gone and we can’t quite say why and when we outgrew them. No toy, no matter how new, can fully bring us back.

But as I grew older, it became harder and harder to access that expansive imaginary space that made my toys fun. I remember looking at them and feeling sort of frustrated and confused that things weren’t the same.

I played out all the same story lines that had been fun before, but the meaning had disappeared. Horse’s Big Space Adventure transformed into holding a plastic horse in the air, hoping it would somehow be enjoyable for me. Prehistoric Crazy-Bus Death Ride was just smashing a toy bus full of dinosaurs into the wall while feeling sort of bored and unfulfilled.  I could no longer connect to my toys in a way that allowed me to participate in the experience. [Hyperbole and a Half]

Today it may be smaller things that charm me in MMOs, rather than dramatic social experiences. My mind is less overwhelmed by novelty but more appreciative of details. And I don’t race to a promise of endgame because I’d really rather not die just yet. Maybe all that means is that my mind has matured and I am closer to a world simulation after all, rather than just playing a game.

MMO Masterclass: Storytelling in FFXIV – A Realm Reborn

Tamrielo from Aggrochat has recently been looking at storytelling in FFXIV in his two-part post, where he’s analyzing the different content seasons and story archs in the game, how they have improved over time and immersed him as a player. If you’ve been playing a Realm Reborn for any decent amount of time since FFXIV’s relaunch, you know that there’s no way around the main storyline in Eorzea. In fact, there is probably no MMO out there right now that is more dedicated to its storytelling than this one. The narrative is front and center and accomplishes the remarkable feat of including its audience. After Yoshida took over the reigns for ARR, the player character was brought back into the narrative fold.

Naturally, many MMOs turn the player into a nearly omnipotent hero of the story and much has been criticized in regards to that particular trope. However, FFXIV does it in such an unconditional, dedicated and traditional way, that it’s kind of a big deal. Telling stories has always been the forte of the FF franchise and finally, there is a classic MMORPG that not only manages to rise from the ashes but combine the linearity of JRPG storytelling with an MMO environment. As much as I tried to care about the politics of Azeroth or Tyria in the past, no other MMO has managed to include me, make me care about NPCs and the greater course of events, the way FFXIV has done.

The Great Final Fantasy Formula

Ever since the early beginnings of the FF franchise, Squaresoft’s much beloved JRPG titles followed a very clear and narrow path: the player gets to control a powerful hero, more often than not a person of unknown origins or obscure past. The hero is not the player, since the player has no real agency over the character’s story and there are next to no choices. An equally important ingredient to this formula is “the party” which is one of the most central aspects of all FF games; your very own gang of specialists, distinctly defined by their class and different abilities that will mostly align with a holy trinity concept, despite the fact that FF is all about round-based combat. Down the line, you and your gang will probably find out that you are all related or were raised in the same orphanage. You are never truly alone in a FF game.

Cloud and the gang

Cloud and the gang

Add to this very straightforward setup a linear storyline with next to no branching; the point is not to write your own story or find your own path but rather, to immerse yourself in a tale told by an invisible puppet master. The tool you’re given to accomplish your goals is a customizable, complex round-based combat system with random encounters. Your driving force is a world struck by tragedy or impending doom that only you and your A-Team can save (most likely by help of some sparkly crystal or other). Along the way, you will face one or two ambivalent villain figures as well as lots of wacky side-kick characters.

Now imagine all of this being crafted with an outstanding sense of aesthetics on a graphical and musical level, and the result will always be the same: your next FF title. In the past, Squaresoft have consistently pushed narrative RPG standards for at least 15 years, during a most pivotal time for gaming and not just with the FF franchise either. A Realm Reborn, although set in an online world where choices and interactions with other players are possible, follows most of this old textbook to a fault.

Intricate Politics and Overwhelming Stakes

A great many heroic tale comes with a doomsday prophecy: it will be the end of the world as you know it, or alternatively the end of the world full stop, unless significant obstacles are overcome and evil is vanquished. While this can be a tiring setup in RPGs and MMOs, it is still popular enough in getting audiences engaged. I don’t really mind this trope personally, what I really care about is execution. Am I presented with an uninspiring tale of clear good vs. evil or a much more complicated world where loyalties and intentions change constantly?

Squaresoft JRPGs have often introduced such nuances, despite their linear plot. Over the course of a playthrough, you’d learn about the background stories of your adversaries. You would have to rely on characters of questionable allegiance, you’d see mercenaries turn altruistic or allies turn traitor. Faced with warring factions unwilling to unite for a greater cause, you’d find yourself drowning in petty schemes and side-politics. Even villains may be worth saving in the end.

MMORPGs have a hard time delivering such complexities, given that they try to achieve a certain degree of open world freedom and accommodate various playstyles. A Realm Reborn doesn’t compromise much on that front; players who want access to dungeons or endgame, will need to engage in the story. But since the story is the driving force behind the entire game, rather than an afterthought, things feel different.

refugees

Unwelcome refugees in wealthy Ul’dah.

Now I’m with Liore in that there’s still some “goofy MMO writing” and delivery going on at times, the cutscenes sure can get tedious while your character is silently nodding along. But I’m impressed at the different issues the story has touched on thus far – from immigration poverty and class warfare to interracial politics (and racism) and even environmentalism. That’s just to name a few themes. Down the line, you realize how you’re being pulled into twisted intrigues and machinations by multiple players on a chess board Game of Thrones-style, while SE take full opportunity to send players all over the world (including so-called old zones and dungeons) to chase their story’s tail, simultaneously serving the social engineering of the game. For an MMORPG, that is one noteworthy use of narrative.

Joining a band of brothers of sorts, the player soon establishes a steady home-base to return to in between missions and before long, gets attached to the NPCs that share the story with him. It’s safe to say that not many an eye was left dry at the conclusion of ARR before the expansion.

The Heavensward Trailer and The Adventurer

The official launch trailer for Heavensward is another example of storytelling done right. Instead of the usual showcase of random locations and encounters without obvious connection, the trailer takes over from the moment your character finished his/her main story. The Adventurer, an unnamed character who represents the player in FFXIV is back, while the ending of the Seventh Astral Era as well as some future events flicker over the screen. The trailer concludes with the player arriving in Ishgard, which is where your journey in Heavensward begins. Talk about trailers bridging content.

In Conclusion

While I am praising FFXIV’s storytelling here, that doesn’t mean its delivery isn’t without issues. As mentioned above, the cutscenes and loading screens can get too long and it’s a bit of a tragedy that SE didn’t invest in more voice acting for Heavensward. For your daily grind, uninspired fetch&delivery quests are a dime a dozen. When it comes to the main storyline however, ARR has achieved greatness by virtue of omitting branches and player agency. This might present a bit of a downer for some players but in my personal experience, most consequences in MMOs come down to an illusion of choice rather than the real thing anyway.

If there is one advice I would dare give to game developers in charge of big franchises, it would be to play to their strengths and also, not to fix what ain’t broken (okay, that was two pieces of advice). You can mix up some things and you should definitely improve on your weaknesses, ARR is a prime example of that – however, it is a mistake to abandon franchise-defining elements and to throw your greatest virtues overboard for the sake of innovation. Too often have we seen over-hyped sequels crash and burn because they strayed too far from the established path, rather than to widen it just a little. FFXIV has conserved its JRPG traditions and legacy masterfully and for the most part, with little compromise. Storytelling is this developer’s strong suit and they have had the good sense to embrace that.

Ironically, other developers never overcome their struggle with the fourth pillar in MMOs: how to include the player while not making him the center of attention? How to manage that balance of player agency and choices versus narrative chaos and insignificance? Square-Enix’ answer to that would be, not to go there at all. Better to have a solid, engaging and linear story the way it’s told in a book or movie, than to fail epically with the best of intentions. I can’t help but agree with them on that one. The proof is in the pudding.

The Bird is the Word! Exploring the Realm Reborn Anew

Over at Party Business, an MMO blog I only recently discovered and that you should check out, Kunzay talked about getting his Chocobo and what he’s generally up to in FFXIV. Having only just completed the Chocobo step of the main storyline myself, I can say that I haven’t been this satisfied unlocking a mount in an MMO for a good while –

Sylberry all psyched on her new Chocobo!

Sylberry all psyched on her new Chocobo!

It’s true that FFXIV makes you work for almost everything: unlocking mounts, dyes, cosmetics and more. Nothing comes for free, except for that very generous bagspace – someone at Square Enix must really hate bags in MMOs. That’s okay though because thus far, all of the perks are reasonably attainable for the normal player and usually tied to the main storyline, anyway. It gives me satisfaction to unlock new features as I go and I’m already knee-deep in the multi-classing system which has always been this franchise’s big forte.

I don’t know what endgame will hold and I’m in no rush to get there; endgame is made for achievers, not explorers such as myself. This is the good time right now, this is my time in a new MMO when there’s still a vast, strange world to explore and so much to see and smell and listen to. For me and my kin, MMOs tend to get smaller and smaller the closer we move towards endgame, not bigger. I do not wish to complete this part of the journey.

The world is beautiful (new gallery!) and the story is well-told. It puts a wide smile on my face whenever I meet old friends or hear familiar tunes, like the time when I embarked on my first airship journey and parts of Liberi Fatali from FF8 played in the background. I even love learning the lore of the three different cities and main factions, granted the quest text and speech bubbles get a bit too much at times. You can tell that storytelling and world building are SE’s bread and butter – if they can’t do this type of stuff, who can?

On Immersion in A Realm Reborn

I’ve been debating if FFXIV:ARR suffers from its loading screens between zones as opposed to more persistent worlds such as Azeroth or Tyria; I’ve come to the conclusion that this is not really the case except for the loading times inside cities that get somewhat tedious. Eorzea for one, shares the virtue of a very life-like and authentic topography with LOTRO, whose wilderness and nature are second to none in MMOs. Even majorly important and too often overlooked aspects of immersion, such as scale and sound effects, come close in FFXIV where a forest sounds like a forest and thanks for that. Ul’dah or Limsa Lominsa aren’t quite Bree, yet they don’t feel as anachronistic and oversized as Divinity’s Reach and offer the more interesting and fun “NPC life” by far. Furthermore, SE employ a neat little trick to make outdoor zones feel more connected: even when you approach zone gates, you can in fact see the adjoining zone. It’s a very effective illusion and example of how small things can make a big difference to how big the world feels to the player.

Eorzea’s day-night cycle is somewhat frequent which allows players to enjoy the changing light conditions which, along with the weather effects, are pretty spectacular in FFXIV. When it’s not foggy, cloudy or sunny, there are at least three different stages of rain I’ve experienced so far, from a misty drizzle to a soaking curtain and windy gush (leaving your clothes all glossy wet). What I will say is that the transition phases I love so much aren’t celebrated the way they deserve: dawn and dusk happen far too quickly for my taste but this is hardly a make or break criteria.

Will the rain ever stop?

Nasty weather in FFXIV

If I have one big gripe where immersion is concerned, then it’s the invisible walls in FFXIV that seem so random. There’s rocks you can jump onto, hills you can climb and edges you can jump down from and then, there’s those where you can’t for no discernible reason. There are caves you can stand in front of and gaze inside but never enter for that invisible hand keeps pushing you away. Now to clarify, this issue isn’t nearly as big as in games such as Witcher 2 which boil down to “generously railroaded wilderness”; for the most part FFXIV is perfectly traversable. However, that just makes the random, invisible walls stand out all the more.

Last but far from least, the music deserves a special mention: I don’t know why I came to Masayoshi Soken’s work so late (maybe because the entire soundtrack is such a royal pain to acquire) but the music for A Realm Reborn is nothing short of delightful, an incredible companion to my adventures in the field. Nevermind the heavy-handed and complex multi-phase pieces for the primal battles which players seem to upload more than anything else to youtube – it’s the city and town tunes where it’s at, the zone music and battle themes. Right now, the FFXIV soundtrack makes up 50% of the reasons why I am playing and having such a great time, so really check it out sometime and let me leave you with three of my favorite tunes for the day!

QOTD: Completionism, No Thanks!

I am blessed as a player of MMOs in that I have not one tiny jot of the Completionist gene. If I’m not enjoying something I can easily stop, leave and never come back. I don’t feel any nagging pressure to finish anything in a video game. If it isn’t entertaining me it can go die in a ditch. [Bhagpuss]

I want to say amen to a sentiment expressed by Bhagpuss yesterday about his relationship with completionism in MMOs. As a fellow explorer and potterer, I have given up such past ambitions after realizing three things about my own completionism-monster back in vanilla WoW:

  • the (rat-) race never ends
  • it’s not actually enjoyable (duh)
  • this is not what I’m here for

I am not much into progressive content nowadays and yet, I am a fairly progression-minded player in the sense that repetitive tasks with foreseeable outcome bore me a great deal. There is a degree of repetition to all the games we’re playing but completionism in today’s MMOs is often defined by collectivism for collectivism’s sake (lots and lots of achievements of no further consequence) and the type of grind that solely exists as timesink and where the balance between journey and reward is broken. There’s no purpose or meaning in 100 of the same daily quests, no challenge and satisfaction in performing the same motions over and over in so many similar bossfights. The underlying narrative to many of our activities has become strangely reductive (as in stripped of all decorum) and circular:

Why do you farm 100 tokens? – To gain an achievement.
What does the achievement say? – That I should farm 100 tokens.

But this is not the time to get back into it all: the different playstyles and player focuses, intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivators, longterm vs. instant gratification, journey vs. reward, themeparks vs. sandbox worlds, the value of randomness, meaningful choices, incentives of cooperative vs. solo content and so many more topics that I’ve written articles about over the years. Instead, I am leaving you with three links, old and new, that discuss this subject in different ways:

  • On MMO Gypsy: Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

    About the ways questing and exploration have changed in MMOs over the years, why more and more rewards cannot make up for journey and how dominant achievements/achiever mindset have contributed to the current status quo.

  • Tevis Thompson’s Blog: We are Explorers

    The inspiring article for my own post and possibly the greatest and most important read on the subject of mystery and exploration in games I have ever read. Deals with the subject of how the illusion of scale and immersion in virtuality are juxtaposed to completionist mindset.

  • Recently on Eurogamer.net: The man who made a game to change the world

    About Richard Bartle’s dream of virtual worlds as a safe haven, MUDs/MMOs changing society and the ways current games have failed to live up to that potential (thanks Spinks for the link via twitter!).

The true traveler doesn’t know where he’s going. Happy exploring!