Category Archives: Nostalgia

Fun and Games in Wildstar: The Launch Recap

Few hiccups aside during hour one, this past Wildstar headstart weekend marks one of the smoothest MMO launches I have ever been part of. Having settled for the only PVE-RP server on EU side due to (hopefully) better community, everything from claiming my name to creating my character and jumping into a mostly lag-free game was easy and carefree. Adding friends? Grouping right away? No problem either! And even if you can’t afford 10 gold for a guild just yet, Wildstar lets you create custom channels for better communication with your buddies. That is extra points right there for minding the MMO core-virtue that is (or should be) playing with friends.

A few players experienced rather troublesome queues this weekend which was mostly due to Carbine’s somewhat baffling miscalculation for PVP realms. There was….one. However, it took a few hours only until the login screen already informed about further realms being added both on the PVE and PVP side of things. In general Carbine seemed quick on the ball responding to players which is not something that can be said for every developer during a launch weekend.

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Meet Syl and Kirby!

Having played my Dominion Esper up to level 17 now and fresh out of her first group adventure, let’s have a more in-depth look at Wildstar’s week one, shall we?

The Gameplay – Or how it all comes together
The single most important aspect for MMO longevity, the gameplay in Wildstar is the true winner. Everyone who paid attention to Carbine these past few years was ready for a lot of polish and yet, they have taken it up three notches since the beta. Wildstar plays intuitively from level 1, the pacing is just right and takes comprehensive steps in preparing the player for higher difficulty. There are quests, challenges and points of interest in abundance, flowing naturally into one another. Rewards are interesting and varied with bigger, more satisfying upgrades ever so often. The game is responsive when interacting with the environment as well as with various interface commands. Combat has that tangible “oomph” so many MMOs struggle to create, animations are excellent and visual aids have improved loads since the beta.

In summary: Wildstar is playable in the best sense of the word; very very playable.

Questing and combat
There are more quest hubs around than anyone can handle and that’s not such a bad thing. While there are other sources for good EXP, such as PVP, the numerous and carefully laid-out questing opportunities give players a sense of direction and make for a satisfying and reasonably fast leveling experience thus far. Down the road we might worry about the leveling game ending too soon but at least this here MMO has some endgame ready.

The quests are standard fare but vary frequently between kill ten rats, fedex or escort which can be shared with others. For some undefinable reason some of them still require backtracking while many will spare you the walk thanks to NPC voice communication. These tend to be longer questlines tying into an overarching storyline (some class related too) while others are just your old farmer looking for a hand. The public events seem somewhat sparsely peppered over the first few zones and come with disturbing reset timers compared to what you’d be used to from GW2 or Rift.

As for combat, I have always liked the concept of Wildstar’s doubly-active telegraph system and challenges increase significantly there as you level up. One inattentive pull of an elite mob (which are part of every area’s monster mix) can result in a quick and painful death unless you know your moves and WASD buttons. On a slightly different note, I am somewhat missing ticking things like buffs, procs and hots/dots on my character and target frames. I’d like to see more in terms of timing with procs and using synergies but maybe that’s just the impatient newb in me.

Paths
A while back I decided that Wildstar’s Explorer path was probably not for me because jumping puzzles – and rightly so. I love the Scientist challenges for every map which require you to scan various flora and fauna, as well as to learn more about the world (I has “Bookworm” title!). My merry scanbot companion comes with a custom name as well as booster and vanity options, so paths are hardly just a gimmick in Wildstar but seem reasonably flashed out instead and different from one another while not being game-breaking, either. There is replay value here for alts.

Gold and other currencies
There’s a steady flow of cash in this game and as long as you heed the MMO newbie’s cardinal rules of starting out poor, which are a) sell everything -and- b) stay the fuck away from the auction house, you will be just fine in the long run even if buying all class abilities as you unlock them seems impossible at first. Having bought a mount at level 15 already and being close to affording that guild fee too (do check out these amazing guild holomarks!), I am not worried about unlocking all of my skills in time. In a way, it’s not a bad thing having to concentrate on one set of skills and one playstyle first before accessing too many options – we don’t want to exhaust it all by next week, do we?

As for C.R.E.D.D., I’ve inspected the ingame currency converter just a little so far and can’t say I am really interested. With Wildstar being item shop-less (which is rather uncommon under NCSoft’s wing) and me being more than happy to pay for this sub, I can’t see myself messing with C.R.E.D.D. unless there’s another reason (like sparkling ponies).

Housing
Acquiring a house in Wildstar isn’t a real feat, it’s more of a birthright. Your little airborne acre waits patiently for your arrival and the standard housing option costs a mere gold to start with. Decoration items drop from special quests or challenges ever so often but seriously personalizing your home seems to be this game’s true goldsink. All I can say is stay the hell away from those customization tabs for as long as you have more essential things to invest in!

As a homebase for storage and buffs, Wildstar’s housing seems a fair enough deal. I’m just sad they went down the instanced route rather than outdoor. I can’t see myself spending an awful lot of time up there, just the way it never happened in LOTRO or Rift. Ah well.

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Skills / Talents System and UI
The action set builder is one of my biggest qualms right now. Instead of simple drag and drop, assigning or re-ordering different skills on your action bar is fairly tedious and the AMP window is a complete eye-sore for anyone attempting to manage their playstyle stats at a glance. Hovering over tiny dots to check what they do is a big nono and so is a fairly inflexible UI that won’t let you move essentials around without addons. No pass from me here Carbine, this is not 2004! At least the overall look of the UI has improved vastly since the black bar of doom early beta players got to experience.

Cosmetics and Dye System
While we should probably be grateful that Wildstar has both, neither its cosmetic tab nor dye system are making me particularly happy at the moment. Managing your look has been re-delegated to NPC visits and the system is fairly clunky and limited in the sense that single items can only ever be assigned to one outfit and need to remain with the NPC when saved. The dye system allows for up to 3 layers of color per piece but seems slightly buggy still and umm, final because no un-dyeing, so careful with that!

The Music
While one can argue about degrees of cartoony graphics for Wildstar vs. other MMOs, its music leaves no room for debate: this title comes with an amazingly accomplished, varied and memorable high-quality OST that is a true joy to uncover as you are traveling from zone to zone, taking in different vistas that each come with their own theme and mood in return. Jeff Kurtenacker has done a stellar job and as always, I urge you to turn those speakers up and have a good listen before deciding that MMO music is not for you. This one might surprise you yet!

The Overall Feel – A not so final word
Well-rounded and here to stay are the two thoughts at the forefront of my mind when recapping my Wildstar adventures since the headstart. I don’t know precisely what magic Carbine have worked in those two months before release but it’s clearly made an impact and increased my personal enjoyment of the game considerably. I am positively surprised and eager to see more high-level content and hopefully some properly challenging group dungeons.

As preached before, Wildstar holds its own within the landscape of MMOs; however to the WoW veteran’s heart, it echoes many of the standards we have gotten used to by Blizzard. The familiarity of Wildstar’s early game experience fills me with the warmth of a cosy blanket and yet, it is still different enough to keep me going. I will see where I end up further down the road – for now, I am all in for the ride.

What ever happened to /hail?

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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.

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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.

With a Crying and a Laughing Eye: A Look at GOTYs of 2013 and MMOs for 2014

It’s that time of the year and we are all horribly stressed. Everyone demands things from us at work and they only just remembered, there are trips to plan and if you are very unlucky, a ton of last minute Christmas presents to buy for your more-or-less loved ones. I am looking at my Steam wish list and wonder what to gift myself. It’s quiet right now, outside the world of consoles.

Looking back on a year of gaming, 2013 was as MMO-starved as initially expected. Even Wildstar took a pass at a well-timed launch, eager to make Q2 of 2014 even more unmanageable. Only TESO has finally come forth and snatched the magic date of 04.04.2014, fingers crossed! We shall see – such are the words of wise (and burnt) MMO veterans. I gave up on Guild Wars 2 this summer after the Bazaar of the Four(thousand) Achievements event and I am still stuck at the gates of Moria in LOTRO (edro, edro!). Other than that, I’ve had a look at TERA and found it to be very beautiful and just as flawed. I played some FFXIV:ARR too, only to forget about it. Such was my year of MMORPGs.

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In lieu of many new MMO stories to tell, I am excited for a new year packed with MMO launches and Wildstar isn’t even among them. Here go my most-anticipated MMOs of 2014:

1) The Elder Scrolls Online
While the game looks far from perfect depending on what gameplay video you watch on youtube, it shows all the flaws (ugly character models, clunky UI) of Skyrim – game of games. All things considered, I choose to trust those (as I have no choice here in the EU where no beta keys have been released) who have named it a true Skyrim experience and put my money on TESO for 2014. You can laugh and point fingers when the time comes as I’m sure you will. (I would).

2) Everquest Next & Landmark
Still unsure about how Landmark is going to work and play into EQN, I look forward to some of the design progress SOE intends to take up from GW2. Rallying Calls sound hot and the Adventurer Class finds me mildly excited. Not exactly boundless euphoria (the cartoony graphics are still a major turn-off) but I think we can expect a polished package from SOE, with some unique twists as usual. And if not, well it’s all free to play, right?

3) Archage
Another game to be published by Trion, Archage piqued my curiosity although I can’t quite say why. Maybe it’s because the entire character customization and backgrounds look like ArenaNet had some weekends to spare, or because the game is supposedly this awesome sandbox with 120 classes and non-instanced housing. I don’t care for naval combat but I admit sending other players to prison sounds appealing.

4) Skyforge
Nobody knows much about Skyforge, the fact aside that Team Allods and Obsidian Entertainment (Neverwinter Nights 2) have decided to join forces in developing a new MMO. While they didn’t bother releasing any information in English so far and the only existing “trailer” is a lot of repetitive blah in vibrant colors, I have lots of Allods love to give to this project. All that said, that 2014 launch is highly dubious.

MMOs aside, I look forward to The Witcher 3 (SO MUCH!), Dragon Age Inquisition, Child of Light and Tom Clancy’s: The Division. That last one looks like there might be some splendid coop play to be had and I need to compensate for Destiny not launching on PC.

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This better be good!

As for my GOTYs of 2013

Outside the world of MMOs, 2013 has been a fantastic year for indie gaming. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve had the greatest fun with smaller titles this year, taking me completely aback and delivering the sort of experiences many AAA-games can only dream of. I’ve also been late to some parties in 2013 which is why not all of my personal GOTYs were actually released this year. Sue me.

1) Don’t Starve
This quirky, dark-humored and deeply complex rogue-like, with its Burton-esque flair and stellar soundtrack, is undoubtedly one of the craziest bangs for the buck of 2013. DS is a polished gem of hilarious proportions and everyone should get it! Nuff said.

2) Dust: An Elysian Tail
My great love of 2013, Dust is every bit the work of love of its tireless creator. It’s a beautiful game packed with retro and indie homage, intuitive and fun combat, deep story and loveable characters, secrets to hunt down (spoiler!) and a stunning soundtrack, making for an easy 12+ hours of gameplay at a ridiculous price. Not enough good things can be said about Dust: AET, indeed.

3) Bioshock Infinite
While much can be debated on behalf of BI’s story, there can be no doubt that it ranks among the greatest AAA-experiences of 2013. Stunning visuals, complex narrative and intriguing characters have made this rail shooter a must-play in my books (and I don’t shoot that often).

4) The Witcher 2
Rather late than never, I am currently still playing the Witcher 2 and have completely fallen in love with its characters and immersive way of story-telling. People have complained about the frequent cut scenes but you’ll hear no complaints from me. The Witcher 2 features some of the best dialogue I’ve ever seen in an RPG, a carefree way of making choices and beautiful, atmospheric settings (that to be fair, could be more completely accessible). Oh, and dragons!

5) LOTRO (my MMO saving grace!)
Impossibly late to this one, I started playing LOTRO between December 2012 and January 2013 and have been paying subscriptions ever since. Even if I’m complaining about the experience grind before Moria, LOTRO is probably among the Top 3 MMORPGs I have ever played, with hands down the most immersive MMO world I ever had the privilege to travel. Much of this is thanks to things like perfect scale and sound effects which we have yet to see in other games. Also: player music!

Looking back, I almost feel a little sad parting with 2013 now but nothing that a great new MMO can’t fix. Beware 2014, such weight already lieth on thy shoulders! Do we dare to unleash our expectations – or should we play it safe, for now?

P.S. I’ve played ‘Brothers – A Tale of Two Sons’ few days after writing this article and it is officially added to my GOTYs of 2013!

Defining Good Value and Price Limits for your Games

The other night when listening to the latest GameOn episode #30 with Chris (he’s back!), Adam aka Ferrel and Liore (who has permanently joined the podcast!), the hosts made an interesting comment that got me thinking about the long way we have come in terms of general affordability of games and our willingness to pay for them. As for what piqued my interest, this is how the conversation went down [00:16:40 onward]:

Chris: …’cuz there is no game out there that is going to live up to a ten thousand dollar investment, or even one thousand. I would seriously doubt that.
Adam: I don’t even wanna spend sixty dollars on a game.
Chris: Yeah right? Right. With these days, I go to this website [name] because sixty dollars is too much. Pretty much any brand new game I get, if it’s over forty-eight dollars, I’ll wait a little while.

I remember the times when I paid an average 120 bucks for my console RPGs. While PC games were always cheaper, as kids we would usually pay around at least 100$ for console modules, in the late 80ies and early 90ies. Naturally, it took months to save up for new games and both our anticipation and appreciation was accordingly high. Those were different times altogether as far as single game value went. There’s no such thing as scarcity to make you aware of what things are worth – or could be.

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Today, I would of course concur with Chris and Adam. 60 dollars for a game is something to think over. I don’t actually recall when I paid that much for a new title ever since moving on to PC gaming and videogames becoming generally more mainstream and thus cheaper, and it’s not even that I avoided them on purpose. The most expensive games I’ve bought (digitally) were possibly Skyrim and Bioshock Infinite right after launch although “expensive” is a very relative term; I don’t consider 40-65$ for a full-package title with 20+ (in Skyrim’s case more like 80+) hours worth of game time expensive. Also, my budget for games is a different matter than it was twenty years ago.

This is of course where our notion of good value (or biggest bang for the buck) comes in and generally, it’s fair to say that with a growing supply our expectations of videogames have drastically increased. As Liore also mentions later on the podcast, the expectation of things like Steam sales further influences player purchases. Now, when are we still willing to pay more than the usual 5-20$ on Steam for single games and how do we determine that value? And how do we determine the absolute limit of an acceptable price? Is there any?

Personally, I detect a variety of factors influencing my investment decisions for games: reputation / trust in an existing brand, genre expectations, overall preview impressions, word of mouth, total game time, extras – they all play a part. As far as hard limits go, I wouldn’t pay several thousand dollars for any game (alpha/beta access for that matter) upfront; even if I had that type of small change, there is no one game with enough value that could justify such a price to me, certainly no non-MMO. After playing WoW for 6 years, I must have paid around 1000$ in installments and subscriptions. All that said, the prospect of playing a game like Skyrim with Omni and Occulus Rift hardware is highly appealing. If this is the future of gaming, wouldn’t I be willing to pay for that? I know I would.

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How do we determine that sketchy variable that is value when purchasing new games and how much weight is given to qualitative (for ex. gameplay innovation) vs. quantitative factors (for ex. overall play time) respecitvely? Can a rewarding and fun one-hour indie platformer offer the same or more value than the average Mario game on console? If not, how do we break down value proportionally to arrive at a “justified price”?

Is there any time when you still want to buy a video game right after launch, no matter the higher price? [random question]

Judging from many heated pricing debates on forums and message boards that I’ve seen, there is clearly no consensus among gamers about these matters. It is very interesting to hear anyone talking about 60$ being “too much for any game” though, considering I just had a dinner last night that cost more. In the end, games are experiences to me and even in 2014, I will still be very willing to pay good money for well, the good ones.

Remembering FFXI and: Why I’m not playing FFXIV A Realm Reborn. Yet.

Square-Enix have officially halted digital sales for FFXIV:ARR due to an “overwhelming demand” and unlike for Guild Wars 2 one year ago, nobody can say they’re surprised. The blogosphere is abuzz with FFXIV impressions and even those who wouldn’t touch Final Fantasy with a stick in the past, are willing to have a look at A Realm Reborn which is quite remarkable to say the least. I always hoped that this title would be given a second chance; to see it appeal to the western market way more than its predecessor, which launched in a time pre-WoW, is pretty amazing. The fact that I have to be careful about how I criticize the game in my usual circles these days, is funny.

FFXI was my very serious introduction to the genre back in 2002. My love for this franchise is no secret and is frequently highlighted during Battle Bards podcast episodes. I will defend Chocobos to death if I have to and tell the world why Square deserve all current fandom for being consistent, faithful and shamelessly magical on so many levels. There are not many franchises out there that have not only seen as many years, but bested cross-platform and cross-genre hurdles the way the Final Fantasy series have. FFXI is one of the most successful subscription MMOs to date.

So really, nobody wanted ARR to be awesome and great more than me. I signed up for the beta the moment I was able to. I spent time on the character customization, questing and exploring the starting areas, playing different classes. Yet all things considered, I’m sad to say that FFXIV isn’t on my list of current MMOs. I was even tempted to write that final “why I’m not playing…”-post the way I usually do, but then decided against it. Despite the fact that I was majorly disappointed by the beta and that ARR has had a rather horrendous launch, I’m willing to give it another go in a couple of weeks or months, when SE have had time to address the biggest issues. Why is that? Because of FFXI memories and my hopes to see some of that return one day.

My very personal ARR (beta) impressions

Before jumping into retrospective, let me explain briefly why my ARR beta impressions can only be summarized as “an exercise in datedness”. Maybe I’m applying higher standards to this relaunch – in any case I have zero tolerance for its particular shortcomings. From the very beginning, SE’s communication in terms of beta dates, feedbacking / NDA and actual DOWNLOAD LINK were beyond abysmal. Polish in this regard, be it customer info or smooth account and payment management, were never this company’s forte. FFXI veterans shiver in fear thinking back on Play Online account management. Still….because it is 11 years later and because this is a relaunch, I expected better. This is poor guys. Poor!

After discovering the download link for ARR in some forum thread (…), successfully installing and finishing a somewhat strangely organized character customization where all the female voices sounded like pornstars before climax, my Lalafell Conjurer was thrown into Gridania. Instantly I was critted for 500k of wearisome tiny speech-bubble exposition. I get it…this is the uhhh “tutorial phase” for all the complete MMO newcomers out there (so many of them!). So, after clicking away what seemed like an eternity in Lalafell years, I did my best to navigate the horribly designed starting area with help of the equally horrible town map. Oh and teleport thingies….which didn’t seem to have names on the map – yet the beautifully long dropdown menu for picking destinations required me to know. Trial & error, said I!

What’s with all the double confirmations, by the way? Do I really want to – really really? Is this game developed by Microsoft Windows? …

All of this wouldn’t have been so horrible if ARR didn’t send you all around town for the most lazily designed and unimaginative fetch&delivery quests since kill ten rats. First I wasn’t sure if they were kidding when asking me to pick up 6 sparkling vegetables lying around right before my nose. Then it turned out this quest wasn’t the exception. That’s when cold desperation took hold of me.

There was also a “do this emote”-quest for variety. It was my absolute highlight.

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Outside town the world was a beautiful as ever. Yeah, they know how to do that stuff. Pulling mobs was weird in a group, what really irritated me however was how combat was still slow and formulaic. Also, SE have apparently not caught up with the whole shared tapping and nodes concept that makes newer MMOs so enjoyable. Sigh.

…There’s more and Jewel did a good job rounding things up elsewhere, so I’ll stop here. I know some of these issues were fixed since beta, the biggest offenders however remain and have me worried for the game’s future. To clarify, it’s great so many players are enjoying the current state of ARR, and if you happen to enjoy the more traditional or oldschool approach to all things MMO mechanics, more power to you! Still, I feel let down by the lack of polish and creativity in many areas, considering how a re-launch of an already once-failed title will have much to prove in the long run.

Remembering FFXI

This is where the ranting ends because there is much to love about the FF Online franchise. When I think back on my days in FFXI, many things stand out in my memory – things that made it worth my time and that may similarly change my opinion of ARR. To list just a few highlights:

  • FFXI was one of the first MMOs to introduce multi-guilding via linkshells. I loved the idea, I still think it’s a good one.
  • There was the insanely well-designed and flexible class system, with added hero classes. I was a Red Mage / Bard and up to date no cooler implementation for an MMO bard class exists to my knowledge.
  • As bad as auction houses were, as great was the simplicity of individual player shops via public inventory bag.
  • SE have always understood the importance of player housing.
  • Beautiful character, animations, spell effects and gear design. A beautiful world to play in, full of nostalgia and the most wonderful music.
  • Party combos actually mattered

My main reason for stopping FFXI was mostly twofold: the money and exp grind was insane for the average player – and FFXI was a game of merciless forced grouping after lvl 16ish with no soloability and setup flexibility whatsoever. I could’ve lived with much of its other imperfections and overall punishment but these main factors proved too detrimental to my longterm enjoyment and acceptance.

Needless to say, much got fixed and balanced as the game progressed. However, by that time there was another MMO called World of Warcraft demanding all of my attention. Which is where my worries for FFXIV come in: what’s gonna happen to subscriber numbers early 2014, when all novelty has worn off and the game will have to put up with some serious competition? It’s easy to love things when they are new. Which is why I do have my hopes up that ARR will see some much required fixing and polishing during the coming months, as more players engage with it and leave vital feedback. One can only hope for Eorzea because right now, things just aren’t “good enough” – yet.

Battle Bards Podcast Episode #1 – Going live!

In July 2011 I started my ongoing soundtrack seriEpicLuteTall200x300es to have an outlet for my love of fantastic videogame tunes and also, to reach out to other gamers of similar inclination in the blogosphere (and few and far they are in between – or so it always seemed). If the world of RPGs and MMOs is a niche, collecting MMO soundtrack is probably a sub-niche.

Imagine my enthusiasm then when I heard about a fully dedicated MMO music podcast by Syp from Biobreak (and Massively)! When offered to co-host this show together with two more venerable MMO bloggers and soundtrack geeks, how could I possibly say no?
Even better: the podcast comes with the name Battle Bards! How awesome is that?

I’m so very excited about this project and proud to finally present its first episode which is dedicated to MMO main themes! At the same time, I am happy to be able to reveal the wonderful Battle Bards banner which was graciously created by our very talented and close blogging neighbour Tesh (who also regularly shares soundtrack goodies on his blog). Thanks again, Tesh!

The podcast will air on a fortnightly basis and we absolutely encourage everyone, not just declared OST lovers but hopefully soon-to-be-converts, to tune in and leave us your feedback (I am working on that mic!)! Each show will feature up to 8 different tunes from various MMOs (of which audio snippets are always included) and while we’re definitely geeking out together, we are including some interesting background information on the chosen tracks and composers. I have to admit, I’m in this for my own selfish reasons – it’s such a big opportunity to discover new pearls and learn new things!

Without further ado, all you need to know about the Battle Bards podcast below.

Introducing the Battle Bards team!

 

I would like to thank Syp, our very experienced podcast mod, for organizing this wonderful opportunity and also putting our first show together! Speaking of which – you can find our current and all future episodes on the Battle Bards homepage or on iTunes. To jump directly into “Episode #1: Main Themes”, use the embedded player below or direct download via this link. Happy listening!

[GW2] Neither Progressive nor Casual enough. Or: Growing (Pains) with your Genre

It is interesting times for us MMO players. MoP has finally launched, putting an end to an excruciatingly long expansion wait time for many avid WoW players. At the same time there is GW2 now, that new MMO somewhere “between the themepark and the sandbox”. One month into its release there are finally solid gameplay experiences, allowing for more meaningful and informed discussions on more longterm and complex aspects of the game. Of course the big topic that was going to come up eventually is “endgame” and “casual vs. hardcore” and other vague definitions that are MMO blogger favorites.

My favorites too – but rather than starting at the beginning and rolling up my usual three-parts argument, I’ll jump into medias res and continue with comments I already left on other blogs dealing with the subject. Before I do that though, let there be no doubt that a) I consider conclusions on all sides to be vastly based on individual player expectations and b) I believe GW2 delivers on ANet’s promises. We haven’t all read the same previews and no doubt readers always project their own wishes into teaser articles; some were therefore completely focused on WvW, others on the continuation of GW’s story, others again were looking forward to a new approach to combat, group play or cooperation. Depending to which camp you belonged pre-launch, your one-month recap on GW2 is going to look very different.

But now let’s look at that endgame / progression “issue” GW2 supposedly has.

Why “endgame” is overrated

Syncaine is vastly disappointed in WvW so far and he’s not alone. And while he regards the “journey between lvl 1-80” in GW2 as quite great, the “endgame” after that is obviously absent and the game “therefore becomes pointless”. Needles to say, this is a very linear and progression-oriented way of looking at things in an MMO that does precisely not build up towards endgame and where leveling is more or less meaningless. The big problem I always perceived is ANet not being consequent enough about that lack of progression: while it’s a viable concept in theory, why oh why could they not just omit levels altogether and opt for a skillbased system? Why not make the world truly flat by abandoning zone levels and rather install different modes of mob difficulty overall? Right now, there’s an upsetting contradiction in the “open world feeling” they tried to create and it’s undermining a good intention.

Where I disagree with Syncaine mostly is not lack of endgame in GW2, but calling classic progression a “necessary feature” of MMOs by virtue of WoW:

“I think you’re going about the completely wrong way to prove why MMOs
supposedly need it [progression] by making comparisons to WoW of all games, which to
this day still has the biggest mass of casual gamers subscribed. Despite
WoW having endgame progression, the majority of wow players are in fact
not progression gamers. Hardcore raiders/pvpers are a very small part
of wow and always have been even if bloggers don’t realize it (most
bloggers are raiders or pvpers or have been). It’s players who are
alting, solo questing, collecting and crafting and looking forward to
pet battles, with the odd PuG run in the mix. Wow’s critical mass are
‘dwellers’ in love with Azeroth.” (Syl)

WoW is not successful in numbers because of “endgame”. Ironically, it was Syncaine’s neighbour Tobold, who recently pointed this out too: “I believe that people who read forums and blogs have a very wrong idea
how Blizzard is making money with World of Warcraft. The bread and
butter of Blizzard is not the people who rush through content, the
high-end raiding guilds, the elitist jerk theorycrafters, or the
bloggers and forum posters. Blizzard is making most of their money from
people like my wife, who was subscribed to WoW all the way through
Cataclysm, and was busy leveling alts.”

As much as raiders like to believe it, Azeroth was not built on their shoulders. WoW is absolutely fine without hardcores and progression-minded players and will be for a long time to come. By the same definition GW2 should be just fine too – but it’s still not going to be as popular as WoW for several reasons unrelated to progression (of which some but not all are included further down).

Neither progressive nor casual enough

One who is probably closer to GW2’s intended target audience, or at least at peace with the way things are in Tyria, is Bhagpuss – finally pointing out the effect of this mixed beast that is GW2 right now and some of the complexities in trying to identify the game as casual or hardcore by traditional standards. I commented as much in his latest article –

“GW2 is not the casual game some make it out to be – it has some very
hardcore features that make even fans of the grindiest grind dizzy. It
has money scarcity and difficult dungeons that are a hell to pug. This
is not casual at all.

On the other hand, GW2 can be played without
the usual partying up hubbub, obviously it’s all 5man and there is no
classic endgame or progression. So here, it’s the progression kids
complaining.
GW2 is in between the themepark and the sandbox, and
it is in between the casual and the hardcore. Casual players will find a
lot more accessibility and overall blingbling and variety of easy fun
in WoW. And hardcore kids don’t get the same chances on progressive
content and server pride than in WoW, either” (Syl)

With that in mind, what is GW2? And whom does it appeal to? I can only speculate by what I’m hearing from positive bloggers, close buddies and my own experiences. I think GW2 is casual when it comes to social dynamics but not in the sense of difficulty. It’s obviously aimed at a playerbase that is looking for changes in certain areas of the traditional MMO routine, but not in others – maybe it appeals most to fantasy MMO veterans who have made the switch from hardcore to more casual, but not trivial. I don’t think GW2 is for genre newcomers, any more than it is for raiders. Then there is the PvP focus which again appeals only to a very specific bracket. From that particular point of view, GW2 expands the variety of AAA+ MMOs you can currently choose from – and combined with its already 2mio sales success, that surely is a positive thing both for players and the market.

Mistaking genre for (inflexible) audience

I always considered the definition wars of “gamer vs. player” or what makes and breaks the “real MMO definition” completely futile. The genre is not what it was 8 years ago, and 8 years ago it was
not what it was 15 years ago when UO launched. I remember it like it was yesterday, when a not inconsiderable amount of vocal UO/EQ/DAoC veterans or so-called “MMO olschoolers”, were avidly mocking that new MMO on the block, World of Warcraft: that easily accessible, casual MMO full of loot,
easy gold and no proper punishments!

Ironically, 8 years later some of
the WoW “newschoolers” have become the “new oldschoolers”, now singing a very similar tune about GW2 because they cannot reconcile this new game with their personal idea of what MMOs are. The mocked have become the mocking and so the
cycle turneth
. Nothing new under the sun.

“Come such a long, long way.”

I loved UO for opening up the world of MMOs to me (and letting you pwn noobs while being morphed into a chicken). UO was great and
also horrible in places. Then came WoW and I loved Azeroth for a very long
time. It was also horrible in places. WoW was no MMO revolution, it was
evolution. I’m completely in love with the things that GW2 does differently today – and no doubt one year from now I will talk about the horrible things
in it, too. All that makes me is an MMO player passionate about this genre –
yesterday, today and tomorrow. And I am not done yet by a long shot.

As
Chris elaborated on so beautifully, we can make peace with the fact that our first games will never return (including all related effects) or we cannot. It took me a while too, in fact it took me the greater parts of my blogging journey up to now. Along the line though I realized that I would hate missing out on all the good this genre still has to offer, just because my eyes are looking back rather than forward. If the MMO genre is truly in decline, then at the very least let it not be due to my own blindness and negative expectations. “Home is behind, the world ahead, and there are many paths to tread!” (source).

I love to dwell in fantastic worlds. If there’s one universally defining aspect for this genre at all, it’s that MMO worlds are created to be lived in, rather than be played through. GW2 has some gamey aspects for certain but its clear lack of endgame and progression, its attempts at a “flat” gameplay experience maybe more alike to Skyrim, emphasize this very oldschool virtue. Or as commented at Azuriel’s –

“It’s bizarrely inconsistent how the same critics calling GW2 a ‘game’
rather than MMO, are also those lamenting the lack of endgame. One
popular aspect of MMOs is that they make you want to ‘live there’ rather
than ‘play through’. and by that definition GW2 IS more MMO than all
the more progressive MMOs out there which are constantly under pressure
to deliver new content just so their progression- and linearity ridden
playerbase stays hooked. In a way I am glad GW2 is such a disappointment
to all these players right away, making it very clear already at low
level that things wont change from here. That way you don’t ‘waste’ so
much time before moving on or back to WoW.” (Syl)

I’ve written about a related topic before – the vicious cycle of linear content and developers raising a playerbase of hungry cookie monsters in need to feed at ever-increasing speed. All individual challenges and inconsistencies in GW2 aside, which it has at this current early state, I am grateful to ANet for treating their player base more like grown-ups, given little guidance from the very beginning. Don’t know what to do / where to go from here? Well, figure it out yourself!

If you find nothing, maybe it’s because there is nothing. Or maybe it’s because you couldn’t find it. I leave that up to you and whether MMOs really need to ensure a linear path and constant progression rather than just a rich world with cooperative opportunities. Summa summarum, I am incredibly happy GW2 is an MMO that I only ever log on to because I truly want to – and where all paths lie before me with no obvious concept where to go next. That, among several more things, is worth having. For me. For now.

Individualism vs. Collectivism. Or: Glorified MMO misconceptions

http://www.wetcanvas.com/Community/images/23-Feb-2010/56079-230_Girl_on_a_Swing.jpgIf there is one quality in particular that I believe to be imperative for social relationships and bonds, that is the aspect of free will. Free will may be all that separates partnership from a prison, friendship from tyranny and loving care from obligation. In this life, I choose who I want to be with and for how long, and I don’t want any of my more meaningful relationships to ever be about necessity. “Yes, I do like you, maybe I even love you – but I don’t need you. My life won’t unravel if you leave and I won’t die without you.” I’d like to think that the best relationships I’ve ever established are grounded like this and I look at them as something that makes my life better – makes it a little more than it already is. And that more is very much worth having.

Of course none of that sounds particularly romantic; as kids we believe in grand gestures of undying love, we dream of losing ourselves in someone else entirely, we need and long to be needed or “completed”. Then we grow up and come to realize, one way or another, that need is no healthy base for relationships and that giving up oneself means to truly be deserted. “I need you” sounds romantic – but that is all it usually is. Way down that fickle road of need wait co-dependence, disrespect, manipulation and maybe even abuse. I want the important relationships in my life to be about free will, not need and not necessity. That is one luxury I am grateful for.

The same conclusions can be applied to online relationships: a while ago I wrote an article on the invisibility feature in MMOs and why it’s not only wrong but detrimental to community building, to prevent players from going invisible when they choose. Quality interaction and cooperation in MMOs are no different from the real world in that they need to be based on free will. Not on pressure, dictation or necessity. The line between where enforced cooperation ends and genuine friendships blossom, can be a very fine and blurry one – as the great majority of all MMO players have come to experience at some point in their gaming careers. Likewise however, most of us have learned just how quick and absolute long established bonds and even vows of brotherhood and friendship will be forgotten, when guilds end or players leave the game until further notice. And so we ask ourselves how much of it was genuinely committed, friendly motivated interaction and how much was simply a glorified common venture, serving the mutual and temporary purpose of individuals?

Yet, should we even make such distinctions for MMO relationships? …Human interaction in general?

Collectivism vs. Individualism

The simplest definition of collectivism and individualism is that they’re socially, culturally, historically and what not else-ly influenced values, at opposing ends of the spectrum of human collaboration and cooperation. Personally, I disagree with that in so far that both collectivism and individualism actually have an essential thing common: in isolation they’re both equally bad.

Pure, ideological collectivism comes at the cost of identity; things like personal fulfillment, expression or even free choice are second to the “greater good”. Historical and everyday attempts at collectivism keep failing because in the end the rule of a few privileged people over the rest of the herd seems unavoidable. As long as our species is driven by greed, personal gain and power lust, anyway. So, for simplicities sake let’s say collectivism has its noble ends in theory, but fails horribly at performance.

Extreme individualism is where things are going in our wealthy, western world; every man for himself, grab as much as you can. There is much room for greed and destructive exploitation, again of the few privileged – only this time it’s sanctified under a credo of freedom and pursuit of one’s own happiness. Meanwhile, the big, sparkly cities of man have become conglomerates of small islands, people living anonymously side by side, often feeling quite alone.
Individualism is very much a sign of material wealth though – it is a luxury. Human beings tend to stick together and pursue common goals when they’re all equally fucked. You know, when disaster strikes, sharing and compromise suddenly sound like a good idea!

…Where am I going with this? We need to be critical of social labels and so-called values, on all ends of the spectrum. The ideal society is probably one that can balance both polarities and in MMOs too, a balance must be struck between how social interaction and cooperation are “engineered”. Well, past games have only shown us a glimpse of the beginning!

WoW & Before: When necessity breeds cooperation

The glorified days of WoW, and yes I have done it myself, are the days when players could not advance particularly well without grouping up with others – be it strangers or friends. That’s when encounters were hard (unbalanced, restrictive) and soloing was only one, much smaller part of the game than today. It’s also where MMO veterans usually draw their fondest memories from: when quests and encounters were so damn hard that you and your buddies relied on each other’s every move, when punishment was quick on the ball and victory was so much the greater for it. Oh yes, I remember that too….and romanticism has its part therein.

Back in vanilla WoW, we didn’t just group up because of some notion of social altruism, curiosity or friendliness; at first, we grouped up because we needed each other in rather existential ways. We grouped up in order to survive or to progress faster, to access better loot or more content. There’s a common purpose of many individuals come together and each of them wants something – and that isn’t even a bad thing. What it certainly is not though, is some chapter in a romantic novel on social bonding and making friends for life. In fact, the classic MMO standard is the most incentivized realization of cooperation I can think of:

    • Group up or be punished in any conceivable way
    • Group up because target XY will only become available by doing so
    • Group up with players X and Y because of their role / class
    • Group up or…..be damned

Lots of “…or ELSE!” going on there! Grouping up is completely engineered by game design, by things like overall content difficulty, pacing or setup requirements. Does that mean I didn’t make friends on the way? I did, but I don’t think that was the game’s achievement. Lasting relationships are optional; they’re what players create and follow at a later stage. Grouping requirements in MMOs do not automatically exceed the purpose of simply killing stuff together. First and foremost grouping up is a self-serving, necessary act. The way most guilds and guild mates go (QED), cooperation is in fact not an awful lot more than that and maybe that’s just something to accept.

What all the oldschool MMOs (an no, I don’t count in WoW these days, but there is still the strict group setup) did in terms of cooperation, is pragmatic, social engineering at its best. Add to this, that within groups and potentially between groups, there would always be a certain degree of competition: for role spots, for spawns, for loot. Generally lots of “against each other” going on, rather than “together”.

In many ways enforced grouping like that shares aspects of social collectivism: people cooperate because they’re forced to – because they’re all equally bad off on their own. That’s no glorious and ideal state of social interaction though; it’s primal and primitive – and maybe that’s why many players take so naturally to this classic model at first. Food for thought?

GW2: Just the next evolutionary step

Much has been said about GW2’s grouping mechanics lately and if you’ve read my take, you know what I think about both the public events and cooperation in general. I also stated frequently that I find social criticism on features like FFA ressing in GW2 quite ridiculous; whether ressing comes with an EXP reward or not is a tiny, trivial thing compared to the way MMOs traditionally base their entire gameplay on incentivized cooperation.

So, what does GW2 do differently? I don’t claim it’s the big revolution, but it’s a step in the right direction – away from basic need to more balanced and well-rounded concepts of cooperation maybe. Of course you need to address the issue of engineered cooperation as an MMO developer; either that, or you better create very restricted content and unforgiving requirements (ye, those are popular). If you don’t, if you grant players a certain degree of self-sufficiency, freedom and independence, you gotta think of ways to motivate them not to solo all the time.

From my personal point of view and based on my beta experiences, I consider GW2’s grouping mechanics more open, free and more positively incentivized; instead of threatening players with what they’ll have less of, the game suggests that there is nothing to lose and often a little extra to gain from joining an ongoing group, helping another player or sharing an event (aka bonus vs. malus system). There is no loot or role competition and without formulaic grouping procedures, interaction happens more naturally and spontaneously. Rather than thinking of your small circle as questing partners, the entire server is your questing partner!

That is very much also the philosophy ANet have revealed for their multi-guild system. I personally don’t shed a tear over seeing classic appointment gaming go. I like the idea of cooperating effortlessly and without the pressure of agendas. These days, I group up for the purpose of meeting friends and then doing something together, rather than having a target-focused night of grind ahead (or failing to even have that because of teh holy trinity). “Monday is Onyxia, Thursday is Black Wing Lair” – it’s okay when playing together is all about encounters, progression and loot. Raid guilds especially are born out of the necessity to achieve all that; they’re not first and foremost about a wish to be social, although that can be added. That’s fine if it suits your playstyle.

It is just a little ironic when GW2 gets criticized for its more open, flexible approach when socially speaking, it’s years ahead of the classic MMO formula of necessity-born cooperation and glorified, artificial communities with a lifespan relative to endgame content.

Individual Collectivism

I don’t know about you, but I feel that grouping up despite being self-sufficient is a better, more transparent way of doing things. It is certainly a dang lot more enjoyable to me these days, to play without the tiring bonds of obligation in order to progress. I enjoy the random and voluntary encounters in GW2 and that my choice to interact or not is about a potential for ‘more’, rather than the ever-threatening ‘less’. Maybe we could speak of a collective individualism for GW2; a balance between being your own person but also joining up (loosely) for the sake of increased enjoyment and reaching some loftier goals. What’s wrong with giving players a real choice? And why should this choice not also come with some bonuses and rewards, like for everything else in MMOs?

There’s no doubt in my mind about the improved quality of relationships formed this way, either. No, I do not want to need you, sorry! I’d like to think that as human beings we can reach a higher state of mind than this: that cooperation DOES still happen without existential commitment or the promise of punishment. I don’t expect my online relationships to mirror the real world, but then again – why should we be stuck at this stage? I still have a little more confidence in online communities than that. Shockingly!

P.S. This post is a contribution to Stubborn’s ongoing examination of a greater topic.

[GW2] Sylvari: Not so new, not that bad

I haven’t made a secret of my disinterest in GW2’s Sylvari on this blog and it seems overall I am in good company. I never liked the nightelves much in WoW either – the ethereal and detached thing they got going on, praying to Elune and generally living in pink forests. It’s not even that I dislike elves or any variation thereof per default; there are some awesome, badass elves and drows in fantasy literature, from complex and grim fighters to more merry and flamboyant characters. Much rather, it’s an issue of how elves are represented in many MMOs as these peace-loving, self-indulgent hippies who care more about their flower garden than the rest of the world. That is a general concern for all so-called friendly and pacifist MMO races: how am I supposed to choose any of them for a competent errr….fighter? Like it or not, you’re killing stuff in MMOs and lots of it. You are also quite meddlesome.

So, already from that point of view the Sylvari aren’t very appealing. As an aside, I didn’t particularly like their starting area either – it is pink and lush Teldrassil all over, just with a lot more shine.
What I will say in their defense though, after having played one for maybe 30 minutes this past beta weekend, is that ANet achieved a little more than just copying the MMO elf archetype. For one thing, there is the whole plant people concept; Sylvari ARE plants (sorta) which creates all kinds of interesting implications that have been discussed elsewhere. And although I wonder why they still need to hide all their “sensitive parts” in the character creation, the race design and customization achieves to transmit a genuinely unique and alien feel for this race. Their hair is straw, leaves or gnarly twigs, the shape of their limbs and body texture consequently fulfill the botanic premise.

What sets them apart from your staple elves too is that they aren’t ancient but in fact the youngest of all Tyrian races (I believe 25 years old). This “freshness” is even reflected in their looks, the way they move or stand still and their facial expression; it’s as if they beheld everything around them for the very first time. The Sylvari are noobs.

Alas, none of that will entice me to play one, but I feel ANet deserves that much: they’ve put some thought into their last race (which got completely re-designed very late into development) and the thematic coherence in design. Not that the plant people idea was actually so new either – in fact I’d bet my little finger that there was at least one lead designer among ANet’s “Sylvari camp” who happens to have enjoyed a very old RPG by Capcom!

Enter Spar – The plant creature

Once upon a time there was a very classic JRPG on Super NES called Breath of Fire. I remember this with fond nostalgia because its sequel, Breath of Fire 2 was the very first RPG I ever bought with my own money and played through. That was endless painful hours of grinding levels, excruciating random encounters and praying for a save-point….and oh, did I love it! It was also a time when I didn’t have English classes yet in school and so I ended up playing the game with a dictionary in my lap. Yes, here in Europe we actually often had to deal with imports (or else stare at ugly PAL bars on our TV screens). Breath of Fire 2 opened the world of RPGs to me – the rest is history.

It so happens that one of the most awesome characters you can recruit for your party in BoF2 is Spar, the plant creature. You meet him (/her) the first time at a traveling circus where he is actually up for display. Later on, he sends you on a quest to wake the Wise Tree (figures) from an unending nightmare, which is when you recruit him. Spar is generally indifferent and devoid of emotions. He has grown from a sapling and looks forward to becoming a tree himself one day. He’s a weak fighter, his best abilities revolving around support and use of environment; his Nature spell will actually grow a flower bed or sprout cactuses depending on where you are. Then, there are his shamanistic alter egos: the onion sprout, the leafy drake…..and a girl wearing a mushroom cap.

….Sound familiar enough? Well, Spar also looks like this:

http://media.giantbomb.com/uploads/1/18585/958874-bof2_spar_super.jpg

If this is not the direct Sylvari inspiration, I don’t know what is (I c wut u did thar, ANet)!

The MMO Tribute and Weekend Blog Updates

I’ve spent the past few days skimming through an immense archive of MMO screenshots, from early beginnings in Final Fantasy Online (I don’t have anything older stored anymore) on to four folders full of WoW to different titles I’ve played whenever I was jaded with the game and those I’ve played after. Needless to say, it put me in a painfully pensive and nostalgic mood, reliving some of the time I’ve spent in virtual worlds, looking at pictures of old friends who are no more and remembering some of the epic fun and silliness we shared. There is nothing that sets such an MMO picture album apart from real-life photographs; I’ve been to Vana’diel and Azeroth, to Hyboria and Telara, I have lived there and all the memories are memories of real things, real experiences and emotions. It’s been a hell of a journey and I don’t regret one damn minute. When I close my eyes I can be anywhere I want to and that has always been my escape.

Pewter recently examined what makes “the soul” of an MMO which is not an easy mission. It’s a question that can only be answered individually, what it is that draws each of us to virtual places and what we seek there. I once attempted to name that magic that makes games compelling to us, that draws us in so completely and utterly like only the best of them achieve. Where does the soul of an MMO lie? To me it’s many things come together, as it is no doubt for everybody (if not necessarily the same ones): it’s atmosphere and setting, a sense of world and scale, it’s in randomness and freedom, balance and cooperation. Longterm, the social component has the power to change everything. I am also a sucker for shiny art and beautiful music, but then you knew that already.

However you like to call this soul of adventure, I’ve found it there preserved in my screenshots, a decade of fun and wonders documented – a decade of me made up of different pieces. And it hit me that for each of those worlds I’ve visited, I left something of myself behind. That is the painful nostalgia, that’s what it means to truly immerse yourself in an MMO – it doesn’t come for free. We are all paying a tribute.
And maybe that’s why as the years pass, the longing increases and the older we get newer games make us feel less and less. For every world we’ve traveled, we leave a part of ourselves behind…until there’s nothing left to give. “When I was young I was a fool…”

The gallery is up and new blog is shiny!

My gallery is finished now and I’m very happy with it. It was initially only meant for my recent GW2 beta pictures but I’ve always wanted an online documentary that shows all the places Syl has been to and to go drown in nostalgia whenever I feel like it.
Unfortunately I haven’t found too many screenshots of the older games – I’m especially missing my Age of Conan folder that I seem to have lost. I realized too, that I haven’t taken nearly enough good screenshots in Allods, but then I’ll be back – I am always back to Allods.

Since I’ve spent so many hours picking pictures, I’ve finally also tackled another big to-do on my list, which was re-designing the entire blog to make it feel more personal to me and expressing the MMO / gamer thematic. The assorted screenshots were a big help and I absolutely love the new look and header image! This might get me to stick to blogger for a while longer, absolute pain in the ass that it is sometime.

Speaking of which, naturally the overhaul made me lose my blogroll again – this is the third time in a row now and I’m sick and tired of it. I finally found a way to store the links for good (doh), however I had to reproduce all of my blogroll pages manually (from memory) again and I am still missing at least 10 blogs on it. There’s only so much I can remember out of 55 links. So, in case you’re one of my blogroll users or find yourself missing all of a sudden – it’s quite possibly not intentional and I hope to restore the last few over the coming days. Letting me know is also much appreciated.

A good weekend to all of you out there paying the MMO tribute – and yes, one day I will tackle the even bigger headache that is switching my blog over to wordpress!