Challenging the Concept of Challenge


Or, the truth about MMO gaming….

Since I started blogging, I’ve read a lot about how players want to be challenged. A good amount of this conversation has circulated around World of Warcraft and the WotLK difficulty drop. I always accepted these statements as understandable truths but lately I’ve been questioning just how true they really may be.

Do we play MMORPGs for the challenge? A lot of you will probably say yes and I’d have to disagree with most of you.

To better explain, let’s look at the definition of Challenge:

“A test of one’s abilities or resources in a demanding but stimulating undertaking: a career that offers a challenge.” – American Heritage

Compare that definition to the current “challenges” of most popular mmos: pressing the right keys at the right times, staying out of the glowing shapes on the ground, try not to let the monster hit you, and put in enough time.

There’s more than that for some players but I think that about sums up the average players “challenge” in an MMO. The usual justification is that “it takes skill to play your class well.” Yeah, maybe, bust most MMOs don’t really require you to play your class “well” to succeed. They require you to fulfill your requirement which, we all know, doesn’t necesarily mean doing anything even near well.

By and large, MMOs follow a more time = more reward formula. Skill and challenge really have nothing to do with that. In the pursuit of equal opportunity, challenge has been lost in translation.

What does challenge mean to me? It means having to pay attention to a fight the whole time or risking death. It means more than auto-attack, 1, 3, 2, 2, 2. It means taking risks and making decisions that could make or break an encounter. In short, it means a much less forgiving game. For some players, dedicated raid/guild leaders and PvPers to name a few, that formula holds up. For the rest, time and repetition are the “challenges” they’re meeting.

But do we really play MMOs for the challenge of them? I sure hope not, otherwise we all went into this thing organizationally deficit, which, taken as a whole, is probably true (getting a group of people together is part of what makes a group leader’s job more of a challenge than most other aspects of play).

MMOs fill a different gap in our gaming lives. They provide a feeling of moving from one place to another, progression, that gives our gaming purpose. They give us a social outlet that gives it meaning and value. They give us a meta-game, a distraction from the day to day, and something to devote or intellectual resources to.

If I want “challenging” gameplay, I’ll turn to a game with difficulty settings. When I’m playing an MMO, I don’t expect any more challenge that knowing what buttons to push when and where not to stand — until that special little player comes along and pushes me outside of my bounds. The truth of why PvE will always top PvP in popularity is that most people in this genre want an MMO for what it is, a slightly dumbed down RPG they can experience with other people. And that’s not so bad.

Edit: I just read a recent article at Ferrel’s site, Epic Slant, that made me want to clarify something. He made the point that, yes, learning new encounters can be difficult. There’s no doubt about that. The reason I still feel that, on the whole, modern MMOs present little is that most people do not go through the effort of learning encounters themselves.  I wish more people would, I wish that I would, because it presents a far more exciting encounter until it’s mastered. There’s a social expectation, however, that counteracts that desire. The expectation is that you’ll either a) know what’s going to happen ahead of time; or b) keep up. That expectation pressures people to follow instead of learn.

WoW bought forth a massive influx of database sites so it’s no longer necessary for people to learn encounters on their own. The learning curve is drastically reduced for the vast majority of gamers because as soon as a guild or two clears through the latest dungeon, a strategy is put online that details everything subsequent groups are likely to encounter. Plus, for a guild with VoIP, only one person really needs to know the encounter well, and they can just tell the rest of the group what to do. Unfortunately, I also think a good chunk of gamers just want the gear upgrade at the end, too. Why bother with the frustration of learning the encounter on your own when the fight is just a means to an end anyways?

Perhaps a better statement is that modern MMO end-game is as challenging as players want it to be… most people just want it easy.


Early Aion Impressions


Over the past couple of days, I’ve been playing about in China’s Aion open beta. I haven’t made it too far in yet but I’ve been able to form some initial impressions I thought might be worth sharing. I won’t be talking to much about grinding because the Americanized version presumably won’t have it.

First, Aion is very reminiscent of World of Warcraft. The stylized and colorful environment the Asmodian’s start off in reminds me a lot of Zangarmarsh, sans the giant fungi.

There’s a wide variety of imaginative mobs to fight. One of the problems I had with LotRO was that it felt limited because you spent so much time fighting the same wolves and wights… even when you changed zones. Like WoW, Aion doesn’t suffer from this. There are no lore limitations and you can tell that the world designers let their artistic sides loose to create some neat wildlife models.

I rolled a Mage to begin and, unsurprisingly, the class starts off almost identically to the WoW mage with a firebolt skill as the primary attack. Shortly after, you gain a frostbolt type attack. Unlike WoW, you also start off with a root on a longish cooldown.

Since I’m still virtually at the start, it’s hard to say whether or not these comparisons will pan out over time. However, the echoes of warcraft I’ve picked up on only serve to make a better game. Aion may well have taken another cue from WoW by taking what works and building upon it. WoW was a great game in a lot of ways, so I don’t really mind if Aion draws on it.

Second, unlike many bloggers, I’m not drooling over the graphics. Character models are great, they’re on par with LotRO and far surpass WoW, but that’s about it. Environmentally, the game may be a half-step ahead of World of Warcraft but that still leaves it behind a lot of its competitors.

What it lacks in textural detail, it makes up for in style. I don’t think you need ultra-high graphics to make a beautiful game. What you need is artistic design and Aion drives that point home. The environments I’ve played through have been so well realized, that I only took a glancing notice of the “flattened grass” terrain I was running on. Adding to this, if I turn AA off, I can set the graphics to their highest settings and still get 30+ FPS in most places while on my laptop. To put that in perspective, I’m running at 2.1GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, 3GB DDR2 RAM, and an nVidia 8600GTM 512MB. In short, even an older rig can play this game well and still have it look good.

I have to say too, water in this game is beautiful. It doesn’t suffer from texture quality issues. One of the early quests has you running through a small lake picking flowers. When you come to the lake for the first time, you see that a giant tree grows in the center, glowing with a blue ambiance which lights up the water below. Combined with the reflections of the local greenery and roaming wildlife, it’s like you’re running around through a neon sign.

Third, PvE doesn’t seem to be as lacking as I had worried. Now, it IS the same old thing; however, the game has enough flair to make it interesting rather than mundane. So far. Quest givers tend to talk to you a little bit and give you a good amount of context. Occassionally, you’ll even get a little cutscene that will show you the area you’re heading into or a target mob. Though I couldn’t put my finger right on it, questing in Aion reminded me a lot of playing an older Final Fantasy game. The asian character models may have had a little to do with that though 😉

Going in, Aion seems like it could be a PvE game. If you had no idea that RvR was going to be a part of it, I think a new player could certainly enter in and get the same PvE satisfaction from levelling that first handful of times that they could get with WoW.

Finally, money has a defined importance. Again, I see this as a good thing. I hated how money was virtually worthless in WAR. In Aion, you’re shelling out for a lot of stuff, even going as far as to charge a stipend to bind yourself to a local obelisk (like setting your recall location). However, money doesn’t seem hard to come by. It cost me 100K (k=kinah, their “gold”) to bind. At that point (level 4) I had done enough quests and sold enough to have 1300k already and the potential to receive another 730k from a quest I’d just received. Vendoring mob trash has thus far been a great money maker.

There is one other note I’d like to bring up, in the Chinese version, there is grinding. I know, shocking. It’s not bad though, mostly. Actually, I found it quicker to xp by killing quickly respawning mobs than to complete quests. Most likely, we won’t have such grinding in the American Aion however, so I won’t talk much more about it in the future.

It’s been fun so far. I’ve moved from “bitten and shy” to “cautiously optimistic.” I’ll be honest, there’s a lot that I’m liking so far but I know from experience that a lot can change once you get twenty or thirty levels in. I’m trying to skip the honeymoon here and see the horse for it’s big teeth.

Whatd’ya say, Mr. Ed, shall we log back in?

Dungeons and Dragons Online Goes Free to Play

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Here’s something interesting, Dungeons and Dragons Online is turning to a F2P/P2P model. It looks like you can choose to play for free or pay the subscription for some extra perks and a monthly stipend of Turbine Points to use in their RMT store. Check it out here.

More and more, it looks like the industry is moving towards RMT. I’m against unregulated RMT but a bit ambiguous towards the Free Realms/DDO version.

We’ll have to see where this ends up…

Aion Beta: Once Bitten, Twice Shy?


I caught the itch.

You know the one I’m talking about. That little tingle at the back your neck that says you have to find out more about something. The twinge of longing to take the plunge and try something firsthand. Yeah, I got it, for Aion.

Since I worked all weekend, I missed my chance at the beta but after reading all of the reports I couldn’t help myself and went out and picked up a beta pass from the local Gamestop. As of right now, I’m eagerly waiting for the next beta period. It’s the day before my wedding, so I’ll have the apartment to myself in the evening to give it a good go.

It has a lot of neat things about it, like an NPC faction, flight, and a beautiful lush world. What really convinced me to give it a shot though was that it’s already an established game. And a very successful one at that. From what I’ve read, there’s nearly 100 servers live in the Eastern hemisphere. Nearly a hundred. That’s impressive.

There are a couple of reservations I have, however, and fairly big ones at that. On it’s surface, it looks like a WoW clone. I’m not talking about the UI, although it’s also similar (who cares?), I’m referring towards the gameplay. I’ve watched through a bunch of videos on Youtube and nearly all of them give off a definite WoW vibe. Honestly though, I can deal with that. WoW is successful for a reason.

My biggest worry is that reports of lackluster PvE are about everywhere. Check out AionSource. They have a lot of reviews and great posts up and it’s almost a universal thing. In almost all of those threads, people are popping up and saying that the quest types (kill, collect, etc) are MMO staples and that people are being too critical. Plus, it’s a PvP game.

You know what? I’ve heard that line before when WAR was being hyped up. PvP’ers that claim PvE isn’t important to their game are, frankly, narrow minded drones. PvE is what makes any MMO that requires you to do it to progress. Even a game like WAR that allows you to level completely through RvR suffers immensely from the lack of quality PvE. A game must have more than one primary activity, even if that activity is dynamic, because people will not always be PvPing. I’d argue that an MMORPG that doesn’t give you a wide range of choices isn’t much of an MMO.

But, I’m going on a diatribe here. For all the good Aion has going for it, my early WAR excitement has left me more hesitant to really get excited. I don’t like the idea that the hardest challenge you’ll face in any dungeon (they’re all tank and spank, word has it) is how to absorb a bosses hits. It’s lazy design.

Still, I’m reserving any judgments until I can play it myself. The fact is, PvE quests are relatively standard but the little things (clever bits of scripting, story, animations, locations) can totally change the experience and, as of yet, I’ve heard nothing about that. Just that quests are rote and dungeons are T/S. For now, I’m cautiously optimistic but, like many, I’m looking forward to tearing into something new. If there’s so much overseas success, there must be something to love about it.

Early Impressions: Returning to WAR


My new Choppa, Gutrag

My new Choppa, "Gutrag"

Well, I’ve been playing WAR for about two hours this morning. I’ve had a good time after somewhat of a slow start. Pre-launch my ideal class was a Choppa, so that’s what I decided to go with. It’s a pleasant change from my Sorcerer who just seemed all too weak compared to his strength at level 20. I’m plowing through mobs, which is great for soloing. I have to be careful though because if I get too offensive, my durability drops to the floor. I could see this class being great for soloing.

The downside to this morning is that I’ve encountered a grand total of five other players. I’m not taking that fact to heart however, as it’s early. I’ll be a little more downtrodden if this keeps up into the day when I log back on. The one fact that does bother me a bit is that I’ve yet to have one scenario pop. Again, I know it’s the morning, but for two hours… not one? I’ll reserve judgment until later into this 10-day experiment.

Unlike my last try, I’m approaching this experience a little differently. I’m not trying to get invested in PvE. Last time, I was hoping that WAR would meet all of my gaming desires and was let down. It’s an RvR game, first and foremost, and questing is just a side-activity. So, I’m ignoring most of the quest text and am going to do my best to power through levels as quick as I can to get where the action is.

WAR is a great game, as I’ve always thought. I still see tons of potential for it — if Mythic continues to develop it.

As it stands now, I see three key things that could stand to be changed.

First, speed up the rate of leveling via PvE. Keep oRvR on the top, by far, but I propose that the leveling curve be dropped. 10k exp needed to level to 6? That just seems over the top to me. Why does there need to be such a barrier when the real action begins at the end anyways. One of the most universal complaints about the game is the PvE grind. It just goes on for too long for a game that purports to be about RvR.

PvE should open doors to RvR, not function as something you dread doing by tier 3 or sooner. It needs to be an alternative, not a form of punishment for going against the “main” focus of the game. Make it less rewarding than RvR but less gruesome than it is now. Funnel people towards tier three.

Second, based upon these initial observations (opinions, which are subject to change) more server consolidations need to happen. Pheonix Throne was at medium/medium last night at peak hours. Hell, two out of all of those servers were at medium/medium at max. Every other one was at low/low. To a new player, that just looks bad.

Here’s how I see it. Server consolidations look bad to the masses, yes, but good gameplay can make up for that. Counter the consolidations with advertising and PR. If the game experience makes up for a “shortage” in servers, it’s all the better. If there’s a lack of action at any time throughout the day, it leaves a portion of the playerbase out in the cold and likely to cancel their subscriptions. WAR is great when there’s people, without them it’s lackluster PvE. It’s punishment and who would want to take part in that?

Finally, and this may seem odd given my past stance, I’d say that cross-server scenarios need to be made available. There’s a lot of dispute about this. People say that it destroys server community. I’d probably agree to an extent; however, what’s worse, falling subscription numbers or battling against anonymous people.

The downside to this could be counteracted in two ways: make it optional (give players the choice of “this server” or “cross-server”) or make it need restricted. For example, if there’s a lack of single server scenario activity, the game will “unlock” the cross-server option.

So far, my experiences have been largely positive. I can’t wait to tear into some RvR action. If this experiment goes well, I may make WAR my “subscription game.” Oh, I did mention I actually severed the tie between World of Warcraft and my bank account, right? Yep. Officially cancelled. In the past two months, I’ve spent maybe an hour on the game and, as I mentioned last time we talked, I really had no urge to log on. Not enough happening. So, here we are WAR, we this time make for a new romance?

Changing Out of My Pajamas

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Ahhhh, it’s good to be back from vacation. I have to tell you something though (don’t be mad), I fibbed a little bit. I wound up gaming. I know, I’m horrible person. Woe is me and a pox on my cattle!

I logged onto LotRO this weekend to try to finish up the Lone Lands with my Guardian. I did fairly well, I think, and had quite a bit of fun.

One thing that really bothered me, and always has really, about playing my class is that I always look like I’m wearing darnable pajamas. I’m not kidding. My dwarf looked like a fat kid in a chainlink sweatshirt. And a brown one at that.

I went into LotRO with the WoW mindset on armor. I thought “Hey! Heavy armor! Awesome! It’ll be like plate, solid hunks of metal, maybe even a few spikes thrown in for ‘flair’! Where do I sign up?” The reality into the early 20s is far different however.

For the longest time, I dealt with it, even after I had the ability to use the outfit system. I guess I was naïve because I always thought that you had to have your “outfit” items in your inventory to have the display on your character. So I stayed away from it. Lo’ and behold, I find out that all you have to do is have the item in your inventory at one time. And you can display it forever, if you want.

Yes! That little change right there opened up a lot of doors for me. I started looking at quest rewards in a new way. No longer would I choose things for what I thought would vendor for the most. No, now I was out for style.

These days, you can find me rolling around in a full steel set. Somehow, it still looks like I’m wearing pajamas but at least I’m no longer brown. I look like I’m wearing metal. Cold, hard, belly-hugging, muffin-top making, steel. I don’t know why the early metal armors of insist upon being so drear but I’m glad I’m out of that particular forest.

Structure vs. Freedom

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Last time we spoke about kinships, I talked about my uncertainty on whether I should stay with The Council. I liked the guild quite a bit. Their philosophy matched up with mine well; build the player to build the guild (you’ll have to forgive me, I’ll probably use guild and kin interchangeably). It was great, when I joined – before student teaching. Four months later, I had returned to turmoil, uncertainty, and a kin lacking its leader. The idea of “take our their leader and the rest will be lost” was absolutely true.

So, I left the kin mid-last week and joined another called The Council of the Secret Fire. I’d grouped with several of their members before and they’d always been very friendly. Something… was missing, though. It’s hard to put my finger on. Maybe it was the lack of goal. They were a “jack of all trades, master of none” guild. Even though they were friendly, the whole thing felt without purpose. I chalked it up to making the guild-hop too soon. I spent some time kin-free.

Yet, as always, I soon felt like something was missing. After doing some research, I came across another that had been in place across several games for over four years. You may have heard of them if you played WAR close to release, they’re called Shadow Company. Unlike CotSF, they’re highly organized and structured. Militaristically so as, unsurprisingly enough, the guild leader is a former military officer. I was hesitant to apply at first. I mean, was the trade off for organization a virtual boot camp?

Still, I put in an application in good faith. Thankfully, it’s paid off well. The militaristic aspect is for RP purposes but it’s also established enough to keep things well structured. There are activities planned for nearly every day, master crafters of every variety, and active players at every hour of the day. Events and meetings are not mandated but encouraged and there’s an understanding that RL comes before the game 100% of the time.

The whole thing got me thinking though, what’s a better way to go: high structure or player freedom? There’s an appeal to each and both types serve different kinds of players. Yet, each type must borrow characteristics of the other in order to succeed. What is the formula to success and progression?

Personally, I’m a believer in structure. Players work and interact best when there’s a defined hierarchy and rule system. Likewise, I believe players contribute to the community more when such a system is in place. It’s easy to be complacent and silently solo all the time when there’s no incentive to interact. When you give players the potential to advance their guild rank, they try more.

On the other hand, maintaining a lot of structure takes more work, causes more stress, and can result in a more constrained environment. High freedom solves this but can also lead to less getting done due to the more hap-hazard design. Such a guild may find themselves as players sharing a guild tag and little more.

I had a hard time finding a structured guild that was open to non-raiders. I think by the nature of the game, LotRO lends itself towards open kins. They come in every variety, to be sure, but let’s pose the scenario: a guild wants to have a good community, come together on occasion, and be able to provide for members that like to tackle new dungeons. How should they go about it in a casual game?

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