Category Archives: Immersion

Second Skin: The perfect MMO Gear and Impact on Longterm Commitment

The other day, I had a bit of an argument with my significant other concerning folk who like to transform themselves with help of expressive or more unusual attire, often in their private time. The topic wasn’t so much cosplay but people generally wearing clothes that come with a certain message of affiliation or membership, to name more flamboyant members of the goth/black metal scene as one example. This type of expression isn’t limited to the rock’n rollers among us though; it can be found anywhere, even for more conservative interests such as golfing or hiking. Dressing up for the occasion plays an important role in many social activities and for some people it’s an integral part of who they really are.

gothscene

Probably not on their way to the golf course. (www.timeslive.co.za)

At a first glance, this might strike you as a very superficial approach to identity. Why do you need to wear a certain style to feel part of a social group or (in some cases) to communicate associated belief systems? Isn’t our heart the place of true identity? Strictly speaking that is true – it doesn’t make you any more or less of a “punk” whether you’re wearing torn jeans and a mohawk or not. Clothes and looks are deceptive and they should never be a requirement for someone to belong to whatever culture or creed they relate to. I can be committed to a set of beliefs without looking a certain way.

At the same time, clothes can be a powerful catalyst of self-expression, even self-discovery and confidence building. There’s a reason why many actors, especially method actors require authentic clothing that goes with the character they’re not just playing but becoming. Inner and outer transformation go together. There’s also a more common phenomenon of someone cutting their hair after ending a longterm relationship or getting tattooed after a great cesura in their lives. Our body is a reflection of the things that are happening to us. Some people, not all people, simply choose to include that part of themselves more actively.

Loving variety, I hold a torch for people who go for the so-called deviant styles in our society, be it a part-time thing or fulltime commitment. It takes guts to go against social conformity and nobody deserves to be written off on account of green hair or piercings. That’s one of the criteria I try to push as a recruiter too, by recommending clients keep an open mind to more colorful candidates rather than blindly trusting another picture in a grey suit and tie. At the same time, I’m trying not to fall prey to inverted snobbery; I admit I have a soft spot for people who don’t fit the corporate cookie cutter.

The perfect MMO gear

I’m neither the most imaginative nor boring dresser in real life but when it comes to my MMO avatars, I’ve always cared a great deal about customization options and cosmetics. I don’t know if this interest is more prevalent among players that treat their avatars like an alter ego but I am guessing most of us have preferences regarding their MMO character'(s) looks and have things that can throw them in/out of immersion. Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the sub-par customization options of some games and the often lackluster or ill-conceived gear choices. And so I wonder: how have my past avatars’ looks, more specifically gear approach of the MMOs I’ve played the most, affected my playing longevity? Where and when did I truly feel at home gearwise?

World of Warcraft

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I played WoW for over 6 years and would call my experiences with its gear a very mixed bag of hits and misses. WoW made me feel epic spellcaster and disco clown in equal amounts and even the better sets I collected over that time were more hyper-stylized than I would have wanted, glorified leotards with near-zero extra customization options. Transmogrification was added just after I left and to this day Blizzard haven’t added a dye system. I guess this means gear wasn’t an integral part of my character immersion in WoW despite a few definite favorites.

Guild Wars 2

unrealgw2

To this day I’ve never played an MMO with more beautiful, aesthetically pleasing gear than GW2’s, certainly none with a better dye system. While ArenaNet could’ve offered more variety in their initial character selection, there’s not much left today that you cannot do with cosmetic and town gear. And yet, despite loving the different looks of my Elementalist, I cannot exactly claim to have been immersed in my alter ego. This is tricky to explain: to me, GW2’s gear is almost too beautiful, like a painting or wonderful piece of art to admire from afar without wishing to take it home with you. I love looking at my character but she isn’t really me, not the way I think of myself as an adventurer. What can I say, it’s complicated!

LOTRO

humblelotro

I’ve never written a post on LOTRO’s gear. Instead, I’ve praised it frequently as my personal winner of immersion in so many ways – from scale to atmosphere, scenery and sound effects. There’s an authentic quality to online Middle-Earth that’s never been reached in other games. It’s therefore probably no surprise that my favorite MMO gear too, is in fact my Lore-Master’s humble Ferrier’s Robe with its leather straps, stitched pieces of fur and merrily dangling satchels (I imagine they would dangle). Combined with a simple hood and backpack, I never felt better dressed or more ready for adventure than in LOTRO. There is countless lovingly detailed gear in the game like that, with the kind of commitment to practicality that may only be found in ESO right now. I love my character’s looks in LOTRO – more importantly, this could be me tomorrow!

Sometimes less is more, especially where immersion is concerned. However awesome gear or not, it’s probably fair to say that it’s not our character’s looks or customization options that decide over the longevity of our commitment. That doesn’t mean they do not add a lot of enjoyment to the games we’re playing though or that there aren’t certain breaking points. Playing Wildstar right now, I am back to hyper-stylized but also practical gear. Mostly, I am happy that the game doesn’t make me run around half-naked.

What was your perfect MMO gear of all time? Do you feel your character’s looks have any bearing on how much you can enjoy a title longterm? I wager more customization is always popular in MMOs, no matter how much we love cosmetics. There are limitations to what I can wear or get away with in real life, so it’s all the more important my online selves enjoy that unlimited freedom of self-expession.

What ever happened to /hail?

hailing

While marveling at SOE’s name giving for their newly announced MMO title, a recent twitter conversation with @Mylin1 made me painfully aware of one simple thing: how much I miss hailing in MMOs and all it stood for.

What ever happened to /hail? In my memory it was the most common greeting in older MMOs, certainly in Ultima Online and it wasn’t just for the role players. /Hail was part of early MMO culture, maybe MUD culture too (feel free to jump in), and it instantly gave every social exchange a more serious, almost solemn coating. It was like a portkey for immersion, a sign that this was a different world you traveled – a world of dragons and magic. In real life you were Sam the history teacher but here you were Lorella Stormcloak, five times Grand Mistress of Arcane Arts.

hail

image @ http://www.aschulze.net/ultima/stories/story027.htm

When and why exactly we lost /hail I do not know. Maybe it was that later MMOs outgrew the classic medieval setting of Ultima Online that set such a perfect stage for the odd Shakespearean prose. Maybe it’s that after WoW’s successes, the genre became too mainstream and “Mr. T-cool” to allow for this kind of geeky eccentricity. I remember still seeing /hail around in vanilla WoW but that’s about the last time I’ve encountered it in the world of online games.

Oh hail, how I miss thee. Like so many other things we’ve lost on the way, you’re a remnant of a bygone age, a symbol of our early beginnings.

Happy weekend holidays everybody and a solemn /hail to all of you! May your road be safe and your loot plentiful.

Day/Night Cycles for a Chance of Sunset

So Wildstar has a day-night cycle as was inquired about by John in yesterday’s topic here. I’m not sure that there’s one for all the zones of the Nexus but given that I’ve experienced it several times over this past beta weekend in Celestion, Whitevale and Thayd even, I don’t see why the mechanic wouldn’t be applied across the board unless we are looking at different planets and solar systems in the future. Or non-solar systems respectively.

While elaborating on day and night cycles is hardly ever a priority on any devspeak’s list, players tend to care a lot about the question of changing light and different times of the day for new MMOs. How many phases are there and for how long? Is it a 24-hour cycle? How dark is the night? Where can I find the timer on my UI?

I am a passionate supporter of this feature for “authenticity’s sake”, wherever there’s a fitting context to be found which is the case for most fantasy MMO settings. Whenever a day/night cycle is missing I am the sadder for it, yes even in open world RPGs that often tend to disregard them. Without changing light even a virtual life feels oddly stagnant. It feels like a missed opportunity too for developers and designers to install different events and time-relevant encounters in the game.

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Rainbow over Oatbarton / mmorpg.com

There is an extraordinary creative power to light, no matter real light or fictional, that we can all recognize be we students of quantum physics or mere observers of all the indirect effects and cosmetic wonders that light bestows on our senses. There is such painterly glory in dynamic light changes to a point where even the more ordinary and literally lack-luster is elevated to a state of brilliance.

Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope’s just a sunrise away
[Fear not this Night – GW2]

The night becomes frightening and mysterious for darkness’ sake, that absence of light. A morning heralds a better day, a day of possibility and things to come. Light is the great revealer of our reality but it is also constant interpretation and therefore it is poetry. There may be nothing new under the sun but neither is there ever the same.

24-hour cycles or multiple mini-days

One of the biggest concerns for MMO players has always been server-time versus artificial days or WoW’s 24-hour cycle versus all games that will allow a full run multiple times during a real-world day. There are many who dislike the classic WoW mechanic for understandable reasons:

I played an MMO where it followed the 24 hour cycle and I was kinda bummed because I’d always play at the same time every day, and it was ALWAYS night time on the server. The world was always dark and I rarely got to ever see daylight.

If the day/night cycles could be offset by a few hours, it would ensure that everyone will experience all the different times of the day since most people tend to play at the same time everyday. [source]

I remember the times in vanilla WoW when I was questing in Westfall and only ever experienced sunset, beautiful sunset, and then moonrise. While Westfall is a zone that has much to gain from the night’s black ink, I was taken aback when I visited during noon time for once several weeks later. So different was the atmosphere, so much more unnerving the shrill yellow all around. For other zones however, the night becomes an obstacle and players weary of hunting and questing for hidden objects that time of the day. They’ll take prolonged coffee breaks or re-schedule their ingame agenda entirely if they can.

sylnub

Light on a stick, I haz it.

I’m not sure personally which cycle I prefer the most. There’s a good argument pro multiple mini-days, at the same time I dislike MMOs that rush their cycles and rush transition phases especially. I am fine with several hours of night if only I get a properly long and developed sunrise phase in return. I am weirded out when there’s a new nighttime every hour, a schedule that exhausted me quickly in Minecraft’s unmodded version. What day is too long and which night long enough? It’s a tricky balance and yet a discussion worth having. Light is ultimately a very important factor to our overall gametime and gameplay experience as well as greater immersion (for us explorers and suckers of the second home). I’ll happily take tricky, prolonged nights over none at all and bear a toxic afternoon sun for a chance of sunset.

Thanks John for inspiring this post today. It was the waning light outside my window that told me it was time to publish and get on my way home.

Those MMO “Intro Scenarios”

So I’ve been playing some new games lately that I can’t talk about just yet but while being stuck at 92% of a patch that clearly hates me, I started musing on an old pet peeve of mine, namely MMO intro scenarios. To be perfectly up-front: they’re annoying.

I’ve never been the patient tutorial kind, not for the many oldschool RPGs I have played nor any other type of games, even though I’ll acknowledge there are genres where tutorials make a lot of sense. I’ve had a quick look at Reus over Xmas and would’ve been pretty lost without one. Then again, I gladly skip the tutorial in Witcher 2 because there’s nothing a key mapping menu can’t tell me if I really need it. For most games, I want tutorials to be optional.

blarghtut

Or MAYBE, I could just play the game first!

Now, MMO tutorials are different in the sense that the large majority of them won’t just run players through a quick session of popups and UI-exposition – no, MMOs after all have narrative ambition! Instead, many feel compelled to invent some type of forgettable intro quest chain to demonstrate basic controls and menus to the player. What’s worse, they’ll have you start in some artificial, not rarely underground type of restricted area (two words: Allods Empire) that you really hate and, if you’re very unlucky, will have to re-visit and linearly follow through on every new character created of the same faction. Oh gawd.

Is it asked too much that I can just jump into a fresh MMO and be blown away by a brand new world? A wide vista opening in front of me, with beautiful starting zone music coming my way? Do I need to spend the first 20 minutes down in some pit, tunnel, whatever, faking interest in NPCs I can’t possibly care about yet, so when the game decides to kick me out I can’t even talk first impressions to friends because ALL I’VE SEEN WAS A TUNNEL?

Last time I checked, this was a genre where I have all the time in the world and where I don’t need to learn everything there is to know in the first few minutes.

I love you vanilla WoW. I love you still for so many things you did right, simply because you didn’t know better.

P.S. Obviously not all MMOs feature the exact intro scenario described above and many, like GW2, Rift or LOTRO, are allowing players to start outdoors. Still, tutorials and instruction pop-ups have become more obtrusive in recent years and I’ve seen way too many tunnel stories lately….and that’s all I’m saying.

Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

The epic quest of kill ten rats has humble beginnings. Once upon a time the explorers of virtual worlds received hardly a hint of where to go or what to do but such are not the times we live in. Those who embarked on this journey before Blizzard’s time will remember that era of glorious uncertainty but early WoW players too, know how considerably the questing experience has changed over the course of a decade. The “kill ten rats” of yore and the “kill ten rats” of today have precious little in common.

Kill ten rats: a history of epic questing

Year #1
Player X overhears NPC talking of a special breed of rats with silver pelts that may exist “somewhere”. Player finds said rats by accident one day. Player kills rats, loots five pelts in 30 minutes. Player feels special. Wahey.

Year #2
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts and deliver them. Player finds said rats one day, thanks to friendly advice in zone chat. Player kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #3
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Player finds said rats after some searching, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #4
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. Player finds said rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #5
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! Player can’t miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #6
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! Player can’t possibly miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #7
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC.

Year #8
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

Year #9+
After reading the achievement tab, player X finds NPC with an exclamation mark, also indicated on the mini-map. NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and epic pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

..Such explorers we are. Paradoxically, the shorter, the safer, the more navigated and convenient our questing has become over the years, the more MMOs have felt the need to reward us for it. That makes no sense whatsoever but it’s not a coincidence either. More on that later.

Why I hate Achievements

A fair warning: I don’t like achievements. I get why some players like, nay love achievements but I really don’t. More importantly, I don’t think they have any business in this genre.

The unconditionally worst thing that has ever happened to MMOs are achievements. Hate is a strong word and applies for my case of die-hard explorerdom although it need not be yours. Nothing feels more counter-intuitive, more obtrusive or immersion-breaking to me than the flashy achievement fonts and in-your-face achievement tabs that greet me in most of today’s MMOs – yes, even at the bloody login screen of once-great Guild Wars 2. Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis. When did all this happen?

While that’s achievements on the surface, repercussions reach much further. Several times on this blog have I raised the question of why virtual worlds need to save time, why players need to be told what to do and where to go by which path when developers have spent years creating vast open worlds of beauty. What’s it all for – just a pretty, expensive paint around a game telling me what’s an achievement?

Who would wish to complete a world? Completionism, pre-defined paths and goals, extrinsic motivators – none of these go with my personal sense of exploration. Every time unwanted and un-asked for achievements pop up in an MMO, my chosen modus operandi is disturbed or hindered. Every time that happens, that delicate illusion of virtual world is shattered. Worse, there’s no opt-in (why?).

The greatest RPG I’ve ever played was a game I didn’t complete. Where things happened at random, sometimes or never again. Where going south was as good as going north and an endless sense of mystery added depth and immensity to the world.

Even if you can’t design endless worlds, you can create size through mystery. Exploration feeds off mystery – and mystery is neither excellent nor should it be fully solvable.

Mystery resists.  Mystery refuses.  It will not yield.  Not to me.

Mystery resists closure.  It resists completion and clean getaways.  It, instead, insists.  I’m not done with you yet.  Get back over here.

Mystery is not merely the unknown.  It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know.  It is unknowability itself.  It is futile and essential.

Why do we diminish our own experience?  Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? [T. Thompson]

No really, go read the whole thing.

When the journey is no longer the reward…we need more rewards?

Whether you agree with my passionate sentiments or not, what most design critics can agree on is the relationship between journey/effort and goal/reward in games; the required balance in order to make either feel significant. Long and hard journeys with never a memento to show for feel unfulfilled, just as easy and plentiful loot won’t be remembered by anybody. More than that though, whenever players think back on their greatest achievements in MMOs, they don’t usually name purple swords and special titles but rather the road that led there, the obstacles that had to be overcome in the company of comrades. Naturally, loot matters too and we’ll keep those special items forever – yet loot like an epilogue, is only the last part of that story.

The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is a representation of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….)

So, if the journey becomes ever shorter, ever more straight-forward and without mystery, what will a game attempt in order to compensate for lack of win? Will it pile on the rewards, the titles, the achievements – desperate to convince us we achieved something anyway?

I don’t need to be told I achieved something in shrill and flashing colors. I should be able to feel it and to judge it was a worthy cause. That’s when you may reward me with items, sometimes, so I may carry them with me to tell the world about my adventures.

And whither there? I cannot say. For now, let’s leave it a mystery!

Holding on to your Escapism

Hello, my name is Syl and I am a screenshot junkie. I admit, I have a weakness for shiny fairytale worlds. Sometimes, I wish I lived there.

tera1

There have been times in my life when I have. Half of my childhood (literally) was spent lying on my bed, listening to audio cassettes (fifty-two, for which I will always thank my late grandfather) full of international folklore, mythology and fairytales, while reading the colorfully illustrated booklets. All day long I watched Jack climb the beanstalk, Sindbad fly giant birds and Odysseus fool the cyclops with sheep skins. When George killed the dragon, I was there with him. The secret backdoor in my wardrobe has been wide open all my life. Escaping to fantasy land always came easily to me. It’s what has kept me sane. I don’t want to imagine my life without stories growing up.

There’s nothing wrong with escapism. The key points of consideration, though, are what you’re escaping from, and where you’re escaping to. [source]

When less informed people talk about game-related escapism (for that still seems to be less established than the literary form), they only ever focus on the escape; the negative distancing, the social estrangement. Hardly ever do they understand that when we do, when we need to, we escape to a better place – maybe to the only, currently right place in our life. That it’s only there where we find shelter, safety and peace of mind. For a little while. And that it may save us from something. That it gives us hope.

The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed. [source]

gw2x

I will never apologize for my escapism. I don’t know where I’d be without it. I will never be ashamed of what’s kept me alive. Things could have gone badly – instead, I found universal meaning, truth and understanding that reaches beyond the struggles of our everyday lives.

We read to know we are not alone. [C.S. Lewis]

Moving on to the interactive stories of video games was the natural progression of my childhood thirst for fairy tales. Discovering JRPGs around age 10 was a revelation. Later, MMOs finally allowed us to enter the worlds we’ve been day-dreaming about in Lord of the Rings or the Forgotten Realms in full capacity, as ourselves.

The rest is history. I love this genre – I love it for its immersive otherworldly-ness, its places of order and beauty where, for a little while, I can rest in peace and recharge my batteries. In a way, this is self-medicating. Bhagpuss commented elsewhere that ‘the reason games are “fun” is because they allow us to forget for a small time that we are all going to die one day and probably sooner than we would like to think’ and that may be a part of it too, the older we get. I do not fall down the rabbit hole as deeply as I used to nowadays, yet there are still moments in my daily life when I feel completely drained and in almost physical need to switch off and just play games for a while. There have been times when I neglected this part of myself for real life demands and that didn’t go well. I need to keep in touch with my wardrobe; it restores my sanity like nothing else does.

lotro1

I wish that more people understood this because so many of us deal with the world in similar fashion. In the words of my old philosophy teacher: “the greatest gift we can give our children is to give them stories”. So keep yours close (and check out my new screenshots gallery!) and a happy Monday to all you MMO escapists out there. Hold on to that escapism for as long as you need it.

EQNext’s Sandbox: A look at Landmark and the Adventurer Class (Gamescom)

This year’s Gamescom has come and gone and with it, more juicy info on Everquest Next was let off by David Georgeson during SOE’s presentation. What caught my eye in particular, were some very new and interesting tidbits concerning EQN Landmark and a so far unrevealed class concept, called the Adventurer Class. Okay Sony, this is how you get my attention.

(For those who still aren’t quite sure what EQNext Landmark is: Landmark is essentially the Minecraft mode for new Norrath. Players will not only get creative/constructive but social tools to realize and share their own idea of a virtual fantasy world. Landmark is to be released this winter 2013 and is free-to-play.)

Massively have an article up on that specific part in SOE’s GC presentation, which starts around 14minutes into the embedded video on the bottom there. Here’s a summary of the most exciting takeaways, even if not all of it is completely novel:

  • Players can create their own, completely customized MMO world having the entire design repertoire of EQN at their disposal. Whether they create a more high/low fantasy, sci-fi or pirate themed setting, is up to them. You can basically go wild with the tools you are given.
  • Players will start off playing the Adventurer class in Landmark. This is a new class which introduces players to overall character mechanics in EQN. Not just that, by playing Landmark the Adventurer class will then be unlocked for players to play in EQN. Which means, multi-classing becomes available from level 1 for those with an Adventurer toon. In addition, players can transfer their Landmark character to EQN, if they so desire. (Unfortunately Georgeson doesn’t give further details on “what type” of class the Adventurer will be within EQN.)
  • “Landmark” is the name for the random starting locations in the world. They’re represented by giant monuments and meant to serve as hubs for players to find each other – and as the game progresses, to create and set up open-air player markets. There will also be teleport stones called Wizard Spirals.
  • Players can plant flags in unclaimed territory inside Landmark, claiming a spot to shape further and utilize for themselves (early American settlers will know that one).

 

claim

All miiiine!

There is more and it’s definitely worth watching the entire video, if you’re interested in this sort of gameplay and EQNext’s sandbox. Ever since John Smedley made that bold claim, players have been on the lookout for proof and indication that EQNext is indeed not going to be just another themepark/buffet/whatever. And so far, we’ve no reason to believe it isn’t going to be; a lot of what have been actual EQN reveals this August 2013 point at an MMO using Guild Wars 2’s notebook and adding more scribbles.

Not that this is bad by any means – I love what GW2 has done for the genre, and I like to see EQN improve on that (especially where events and NPCs/questing are concerned). I’ve also sorta given up on my wishes for a sandbox MMO that actually does what the definition inspires for me – by now, it’s as wishy-washy a term as any other. That’s why SOE’s two-lane approach might actually be the better thing and it seems clear that anyone yearning for that more sandboxy, radical open-world gameplay might be looking at Landmark as their game/world of choice. While SOE keep adding reasons for Landmark players to also want to play (and pay for goods in) EQN, I wonder if they’ve not created some strong competition for their new MMO from within. That’s assuming Landmark will indeed prove to be a fully fledged, independent MMORP world – without the standard “G”.

We’ve yet to hear how SOE plan to earn their money with EQN but unless they intend to monetize both titles equally, they will want the main force of their player base to play EQN eventually, rather than just Landmark. So what does that truly mean for the quality, independence and allowed scope of the latter? I guess we have to wait and see.

EQNext’s Rallying Calls – A Reason to rally?

Personally I’d like to know […] what type of spin SOE intend to put on traditional questing. Frankly, I don’t think anyone can do much better than ArenaNet in this department. ~ Syl

One of the great achievements of Guild Wars 2 will always be the introduction of more dynamic, or shall we say more complex and genuine public events than ever before in MMO history. Some have tried to downplay this achievement for various reasons, but as far as I am concerned ArenaNet have completely altered the state of traditional MMO questing and set a very high bar for AAA-MMORPGs to come in the exploration department.

The fact that fetch & delivery have all but gone in this game, with travel and exploration actually focused on the environment with random events triggered all around you whether you be there or not, have spoiled me completely for older games such as LOTRO where the fedex-grind is still alive and well (ftr: I like LOTRO but questing is tedious). Fans of traditional questing have argued that a mixture of public events and traditional questing would’ve created a better outcome for GW2 – I’m not sure I concur. Guess I’m just too loaded with kill-ten-rats-angst to delve further into this subject.

Now, just to remember briefly why GW2’s dynamic events are mostly amazing:

  • Randomly popping up, free-for-all, location-bound scenarios with individual loot; it’s true that they’re actually on a timer but the average player such as myself doesn’t really track this and probably won’t for a while to come (unless you’re after specifics).
  • Multi-stage events with various outcome; the wiki calls this the “cascading effect” which basically means some events will trigger more events (sometimes) and with various outcome depending on if/how the group succeeded.
  • Multiple targets / solution finding; most quests allow for different playstyles in order to be solved – be it slaying monsters, gathering items or setting roofs on fire. Unlike for Wildstar, paths exist in GW2 without being a determining and lasting choice.

 

TERA didn't get the memo!

TERA didn’t get the memo!

Still, events in GW2 aren’t perfect. There’s certainly room to improve, especially where mechanics and impact are concerned:

  • Repetition & lasting impact; many events reset too swiftly with the environment going back to base one. Sometimes you see structures re-assemble right after your quest marker popped up. While MMO worlds must restore much of their status quo for obvious reasons (and we all hate phasing), there could be longer and more lasting public events overall, shaping the face of the land and story.
  • Scaling; this never really worked well in GW2. Encounters become a trivial zerg in larger groups, difficulty doesn’t scale as dynamically as it should. That said, this is a very tricky task to master as group size often changes constantly.

 
EQNext’s Rallying Calls

During the big Las Vegas reveal, SOE introduced their “holy grails” for EQNext, one of which are Rallying Calls (RC). Yet another word for public events, there seems to be a lot of added depth and complexity to RCs which may greatly improve the dynamic events we know so well from GW2 – in theory, anyway. I am all for permanent change in MMOs, public events and collective server efforts; what WoW veteran doesn’t think back fondly on the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj? In this context, I admit the promises of SOE sound exciting –

….Long-term, multi-chapter public scenarios (3 months or more) which continuously change and shape the environment? Multiple problem solving? Different / random order of events on different servers? – I like it!

We can do with a lot more randomness, secrets and continuous change in this genre. It’s the spice that adds excitement and authenticity to our virtual worlds which all too often boil down to a static and broken record, no matter their pretty paint. Now, if SOE are going to pay as much attention to things like environmental / weather and sound effects as they do for events and permanent change, this upcoming title might truly evolve questing and exploration to the point of new-found MMO immersion.

This is where I say a prayer there shan’t be added “traditional quests” in this game (“…please don’t let there be a quest log, please don’t let there be a quest log!”) – or are there any traditionalists out there longing to see the fedex routine return to EQNext? If so, I’m all ears!

QOTD: Virtual Worlds

The “G” in MMORPG is the one letter we could do without. I’m not here to play games. I’m here to see worlds. (Bhagpuss)

I don’t do quote-of-the-day posts often, in fact this is maybe the second time ever on MMO Gypsy. That’s weird considering how much I love words and quotes but the reason is probably that QOTDs don’t create discussion. They do however spread words worth spreading and that is one hell of a quote-worthy statement right there. Happy Monday, all ye MMO world travelers!

Three Indie games, three ways of handling story

Last week I wrote on storytelling in MMORPGs and why I think there should be less telling going on in this genre in particular. Judging from the passionate discussions this topic sparked in my comment section as much as on other blogs (such as over at Nils, Bhagpuss, Rowan, Tesh,  Soresu or Eri), it’s  become apparent that many of us feel strongly about this subject and how MMOs should deal with it. It’s probably a fair guess too that most of us actually want stories, so the games we play need to allow and in some cases (such as lore) prepare for them. Interestingly enough, the debates also showed a wide consensus insofar as that many of today’s MMORPGs (which feature heavy exposition) fail in this regard and don’t sufficiently challenge player imagination. I find this rather noteworthy.

On the weekend I’ve played through another indie game, called Proteus. I hadn’t heard about this title previously and went into the whole experience, a term which certainly applies here, unbiased and without expectations. It so happens that Proteus is another antithesis to how story is delivered in many of today’s games, making a perfect addition to a follow-up I’ve been meaning to write on indie games which handle story a little differently. If you find yourself generally curious about different narrative approaches in videogames and are looking to delve further into this subject, I can highly recommend playing these and I will attempt to summarize for you in which way each game tackles story and includes the player in the narrative process (if at all).

Before I get to this though, it’s important to briefly cover my bases as far as definitions go. There is always some wiggling room for interpretation in terminology, but generally when I refer to lore, story or story-telling, my meaning is this:

  • Lore: lore is the unspoken framework of the world. It’s its past and history and is (or should be ) all around you. In the real world lore shows itself via culture, language, architecture, art etc. The same applies to plausible virtual worlds. There is much more to lore than reading books or hearing a story told by elders.
  • Story/Narrative: while a story can be “told” (or narrated), the most engaging stories are the ones that are not explained but developed, discovered, unearthed and experienced step by step. Story happens inside the recipient’s mind and can be achieved in many different ways, to different effect. In games, the player should be part of an experience rather than just a reader.
  • Story-telling: the most direct way to communicate story is via spelling it out for someone, in written or spoken text. This applies to random stories as much as lore and is rarely the best way (and certainly the least engaging or immersive way) to include the player (=/ players are not “audience”).

 
With that out of the way, let’s continue with the way each of the games below handles story. I vow to keep this on a conceptual level and to steer clear of big, bad spoilers as much as possible.

A) “Journey”

journey

Journey is a game of no words, featuring incidental but non-verbal player interaction. While the player is set on an unknown (but essentially linear) path through a visually stunning, limited open world of soft pastels, the only rough guidance comes in the form of paintings on ancient ruin walls, occasional riddles/triggers or NPC presence. Gameplay mechanics are limited to few commands. The player is an errant wanderer, the goal is unclear.

How story is created in Journey: Journey is all about lore. While linear in essence, the game offers more or less opportunities to marvel at details found in the environment and speculate on what appear to be remnants of ancient civilization. Between “zones”, the player’s journey is recapped in form of animated mural artwork. There is a beautiful conclusion (or interpretation) to Journey although it is as much a beginning as an end.

Do I feel like a part of Journey’s story? – Yes. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – Yes.

B) “Dear Esther”

esther

Without intending to make a quality statement, Dear Esther is a title I would call more book than game. It’s visualized story-telling in which the player gets to travel strange landscapes of the mind or memory, with narrated monologues by someone else (or maybe not). The player’s path is therefore limited and gameplay in the traditional sense is virtually non-existent. The vistas you travel are tied to the information given as the story moves along.

How story is created in Dear Esther: despite being narrated, Dear Esther presents the player with more questions than answers. The story is hard to follow, text consists of non-expository, ambiguous and often unclear snippets which need to be puzzled together and leave much room for interpretation. While Dear Esther is all about the narration, it leaves much guesswork to the player. The conclusion is a riddle in itself, leaving the player wondering how much of a part he truly had in what’s been told.

Do I feel like a part of Dear Esther’s story? – I’m still figuring this one out. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – Not really.

C) “Proteus”

proteus

Proteus is both a game of very limited gameplay as well as minimalistic graphics, putting emphasis on music and sound effects. Cast away on a strange small island, the player gets to move around freely in an attempt to map and explore the natural habitat, including few mysterious ruins scattered across the place. Acknowledgement of player existence is given through sound effects and some NPC reactions. Other than that, there is nothing to be “learned”, no particular path to be taken nor any other action possible in order to “move things forward”. Proteus is literally about (patiently) experiencing the flow of time and its impact on the environment.

How story is created in Proteus: as there’s neither narration nor lore worth mentioning, Proteus is an extreme example of leaving gaps in story. The experience is literally about being there and biding one’s time. While player action or presence seems insignificant, there is still change happening in the world which can be detected and interpreted. Ultimately, Proteus delivers a conclusion similar to Journey’s although much more timidly so. Story in this game is whatever you choose to tell yourself.

Do I feel like a part of Proteus’ story? – No. Do I feel as if I am driving the narrative? – No.

My personal conclusion

Of the three games, Proteus proved to be my greatest challenge. It’s bewildering to “play” a game which hardly acknowledges your presence and generally offers no way of participation. The same could be said for Dear Esther, yet there purpose gets clear from the beginning and the game still offers the player a weak sense of driving chapters forward, if not the actual story. Proteus on the other hand comes with a sense of open world and seems to follow its own timer; while the world changes around you, there’s a feeling of helplessness or lack of understanding that I personally found unnerving. To me it felt like shouting into a well with no echo. I had a very hard time engaging myself where there was so little to engage yourself with (and the island is too small to explore for a long time). I cannot say that I found any story worth telling despite there being a final “conclusion”.

No doubt there are players who would disagree with me on Proteus and whose experiences differs greatly. Maybe players who also dig the musical aspect of the game which I found annoying after a while. This is the interesting part though: the way we experience games tells much about ourselves. Proteus strained my patience and frustrated my impulses for activity. It showed that just wandering a world influenced by time is not enough for me and won’t satisfy my wish for story in games. To be fair, the game is stripped of almost everything. At the very least it could do with some more lore but that’s my opinion.

That experience also confirmed I need some traditional gameplay and means of interaction to enjoy myself; in Proteus, the concept of the “player” is reduced to a point where I found it difficult to feel emotion or attachment (can there be such a thing if the “self” is removed?). This is not just due to the lack of visible avatar (which is the case in Dear Esther too); the game makes a point of how unimportant you are as an entity. You might as well be a hovering, maneuverable camera taking wildlife shots. No thanks – but it sure was an experience.

Journey remains my favorite for overall accomplishment and story – although I would pay for more games coming forward and expanding on Dear Esther’s concept. Journey achieves a stunning balance between player inclusion and leaving gaps, showing story rather than telling it. It features enough gameplay to retain a sense of driving things forward while the player remains a wonderer, wanderer and puzzler within a much greater tale. It’s the game I therefore also found the most immersive and the only one I have replayed. Unfortunately Journey remains PS3-only (worth borrowing the console if you don’t own it!). Both Dear Esther and Proteus can be acquired on Steam.

I recommend all of them if you’re looking to blow your narrative mind sometime and also to test the limits of your very personal notions of what constitutes game. You never know what you may discover.