Challenging the Concept of Challenge

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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.” – Dictionary.com: 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.

The Plan

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Since my last post, I’ve been absent. The largest part of this is that I haven’t played any MMO in a little while now. My wife and I had some extra wedding money left over, so we used it to buy an Xbox 360 (not that she really cares about it, unfortunately). I know, I’m behind the times. The upside to this is that I now have a wide variety of great and affordable games at my disposal.

So, for the last little bit, I’ve been enjoying the likes of Oblivion, Fallout 3, and even the likes of Sonic: Unleashed (nostaliga, what can I say?). I’ve even dove into the Xbox Live Marketplace and picked up a couple of Xbox originals (Fable and GTA: San Andreas) and Uno from the arcade selection, which is surprisingly addictive.

Oblivion is, by far, my favorite. Yet, for all of its RPG-goodness, it’s not quite the same as a good MMO. The problem is, I don’t know if I’m ready to put the Xbox in the #2 place this soon after buying it. My plan, then, is to mix up my playtime for the rest of the summer.

I hate to say it but I really don’t want to go back to LotRO right now. It’s a good game but it doesn’t have that “hook” to keep me interested. After spending the first 23 levels doing much the same (how many monster types did I fight again? Five?) it’s just taken on a feeling of bleh for me.

I even considered returning to WoW. Thankfully, I resisted that urge. I honestly believe that it would be an exercise in exasperation. It’s my old flare. My first MMO love. Yet, we’ve parted ways and I know that if I come back now, I’ll only find everything is still the same. And as slow to progress as ever.

Now I find myself left with a couple of options that I plan to move forward on. First, I’m going to spend more time playing the Chinese version of Aion. They have some really exciting things coming up the fence that have my interested (ie, patch 1.5 but, being honest and all, I’ve experience very little of patch 1.0+ having missed the preview weekends, so I have a lot to check out) and I honestly think that it’ll be the next game to give me that wow-like hook. A second home, so to speak.

The issue at the moment, however, is that with so few English speakers playing and no guild, it can make you feel a little lonesome. I’ve heard there’s lots of English-speaking guilds, however, so I’d imagine that this is only temporary. And it doesn’t detract from the questing at all.

Secondly, I’m going to tinker around in other games. I’m downloading Guild Wars: Nightfall right now to play around with. I tried the first one and liked it but that happened to coincide with when I found WoW and you can imagine what happened then. I’m also considering Final Fantasy 11 for my console but I’ve heard a lot of things that make me hesitant, so I’m not sure if I’ll follow through on that one yet.

Anyways, no. Contrary to popular belief I’m not dead. The wife hasn’t butchered me or made me into little Raegn sausages. She did, however, think it was funny when I told her people think my handle is pronounced Raegan since I’m devoutly anti-political publically. Go figure. It’s all good. I don’t have to be a silent G.

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?

Weather, Change Over Time, and GM Events

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While we’re on the subject of adding complexity to games, let’s talk about a couple of potential systems that could be really neat to see implemented. Maybe we’re talking pipedreams with these articles but, hey, why not? These ideas may not be reasonable in every case but forgive a little self-indulgence from me today.

One of the neatest events I’ve ever played through was the plague shipment in World of Warcraft. For those of you who missed out, before Wrath of the Lich King launched, all of the capital cities received mysterious wooden boxes. Over the course of the next few days, these boxes started releasing a plague that would turn people into zombies that could then infect other people. As time went on, the intensity of the infection increased. While it did turn out to be anti-climactic at the end, it was still very fun to play through “Night of the Living Dead meets Azeroth.” The whole thing was exciting because everyone wanted to know how the event would finish out.

While the plague event was scripted, having similar, more random, sicknesses in the game could really be a lot of fun. Contagion. Should you visit town to do your trade or go to a less populated area to avoid catching the sickness?

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a big detrimental thing to your character either. It could be aesthetic somehow. The fun would lie in your ability to keep free of it yourself or, if you’re the malicious type, spread it. Maybe you’d like to be the medic healing the sick or the apothecary creating and selling antidotes.

Featuring a plague wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea but I do think that it’d make for a very interesting study in propagation, especially if the scope of contagion were extended to NPCs. GMs could turn outbreaks into events by altering the intensity of effects of the disease. Players would have to have an easy way to overcome the illness, lest frustration would overtake some, but I think it could be done, even if it was a non-constant in the game world.

In the same vein of “flowing” content, I’d like to see a game with a working weather system. I don’t mean the random bits of rain or snow we see in some games, I mean a true weather system that moves across the world. Darkfall first piqued this interest in me when they claimed one exactly like that. Hell, they even intended to let players track weather patterns. There would be wind that would effect the world and (correct me if I’m wrong) even generate waves on the ocean. You could chase a storm if you wanted to.

How neat would it be to give weather some meaning in games? You could link spells and rituals to certain kinds of weather. Lightning in Moonglade? You’d better get out there to summon your lightning elemental.  How about getting five of your friends together and calling down lightning at your whim, giving your group a nice buff for your efforts.

Along with working weather, I’ve longed to see a game with actual seasons instead of static zones. Why is it that it’s wintery in one zone and summer in the next? It’s done to create that emotional impact and set the context for your adventures but let’s push the envelope here.

Artwise, I think it’d be hard, if not impossible to do in most existing games but it sure would break up the monotony of traveling and leveling alts quite a bit.

Warm weather animals could migrate and spawn in other parts of the world, similar to how they do in Darkfall. Lakes could freeze and snow could pile up. Or maybe the leaves of the Golden Wood could be seen fluttering to the ground before such a winter hits.

Progressive change doesn’t have to be limited to the world either. Though small, one of the features that really intrigued me about WAR (pre-release) was that characters would change over time. Orc’s would get bigger, dwarf’s beards would get longer, and all forms of elf would get more effeminate with each passing level. I’m not sure if this system has been put in yet, I don’t think it has, but maybe if Paul stops by he can let us know. To me, a system like that just seems neat.

Finally, I’d like to see GM run events return to the big MMOs. Maybe it’s that gaming companies no longer trust their GMs to take things into their own hands like that (or maybe it’s their investors…) but this is something that is sorely missed in today’s most popular pay-to-play games. Thankfully, Mortal Online is taking a step in this direction by allowing their GMs to control certain boss mobs against players.

GM events could be a lot of fun and really connect the community with the developing company. I don’t think that everything needs to come be a big numbered patch. These games are about content but I don’t always need 50 class tweaks along with every new batch of quests. All that does is slow down the content flow. To be quite honest, I’d be far happier with WoW there was more emphasis on producing content (and not just raids) and less on balancing X Class with Y Class. Something tells me that Blizzard would get far too much crying to ever do that though. Isn’t it funny how the vocal minority influences the majority experience?

Maybe these ideas aren’t the most realistic but they do stem from a common theme: change and more unpredictability. Let’s face it, these games get routine after a while. You learn the game, do your thing, and wait for that next patch to hit keep the air fresh. That works but unpredictability breeds excitement, even though it also breeds discontent in some.

I’m a fan of ideas that break the norm. Features that, even if small, show that the developers are trying to push their game and make the play experience their own. I don’t want a carbon copy of WoW, LotRO, or EQ2. I want the familiar yet the new. I want the comfortable yet the challenging. I want to feel like my game is a self-enclosed world and that, truly, the only limits are my own. That is the key reason behind why I, and I suspect many others, have looked into games like Darkfall and Vanguard.

My pipedreams may not be realistic or ever likely of getting done in the games that I play. They’d be hard to implement in a surmountable way for players that just don’t care. Still, would you prefer the same old, same old, or elements of change to keep you on your toes?

I’d always take the path of the new and leave the quarterly patches to come as they may.

The Problem With Side-Jobs

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Vanguards Crafting Pane

Vanguard's Crafting Pane

I’ve played MMOs for a little while now and I’m not quite satisfied with crafting and other hobbies. Take fishing for example, nearly every game that features it has dumbed down this potentially fun hobby to nothing more than click, wait, and click again. I don’t know about you but I don’t find that exciting.

The same thing goes for crafting. Nearly every AAA MMO out there has a very basic and very rote creation system. You found a cool new recipe? Great, clickity, clickity, clack and it’s all your yours – no brain power required! Why is it so bland? Is ease of design so much more important that actually engaging your players?

The only redeeming factor is that you might be able to get a decent reward for your monotony– but only in some games. I’ve never felt compelled to craft or fish in WoW because you’re forced to go through hours upon hours of grind to get a reward of any value (ie, the WoW formula). Unless you count that vendor’s smiling face when he gives me 5 silver for that level 40 grey I just sold him. No, it was always just gathering for me. Gathering seems much closer to the mark in WoW, progressive reward for progressive skill that actually nets you a tangible benefit. Crafting won’t get you gear that you can use for the first 79 levels, yet gathering will get you money to gear up. Sound like something’s missing to you too?

LotRO was far different. When I made my first character there, I rolled loremaster who could wear light armor. I signed up for the Explorer job (gatherer/tailor) and was surprised to find that I could make a whole set after just a little collecting, even while still in the starting zone. And from most reports I’d heard, crafting gear was comparable to instance gear during the leveling process. Unfortunately, I hear that the value of crafting gear dropped notably with the Mines of Moria expansion. Even though their system was similar to WoW’s, you were able to derive a tangible benefit almost immediately.

I think that companies like Blizard and Turbine could take a lesson from SOE here. FreeRealms got it right by making their jobs minigame based. For many of the tasks required to advance your job, you have to complete another small game first.

The introductory cooking quest comes to mind. You have to prepare items for a stew and then tend it once they’re all added. Fantastic! That is how I’d envisioned side-jobs in MMOs when I first started, a fun process to create something, beyond the basic collecting of materials.

Another game of SOE’s that came closer to that ideal is Vanguard. Their crafting system, while closer to our current “traditional” style, followed a process flow as well. Interestingly enough, complications could also occur, which you could alter the quality of your final product. It was a much more intensive system to be sure, yet, being a crafter there was worthy of it’s own level and notoriety. In short, the system’s complexity made it that much more special to take up.

I’m not suggesting game companies adopt either system exclusively. I do think that introducing a system that blends the two would be a wonderful thing. As it stands right now, most side-jobs are in place to turn off your brain and refresh from the quest grind. But, why should that be so? Aren’t there other options that developers could consider to allay people’s combat boredom? Adding in more complexity to crafting, especially in WoW and LotRO, would make it more important to be a crafter, harder to advance, yet, more fun at the same time.

I don’t think players really want to turn their brains off when they play. That’s what the TV is for. Ironically enough, many players report crafting and fishing while watching TV. How very engaging a system must be to require only a minutia of thought from its players. That, in and of itself, makes it impossible to be a skilled crafter.

I’m of the belief that every person should not be able to achieve every goal in a game. People should have to dedicate to be able to become a top crafter, fisherman, raider, or what have you. I think most of us tend to look at MMOs as virtual worlds, that’s certainly how the genre started, and under this viewpoint, there should be a bell curve of crafter’s and hobbyists. There should be payoff and goal. Most of all, the process of specialty creation should not be brain dead.

I’ve felt this way for a while but reading Arbitrary’s post on new hobbies for LotRO really got these feelings stirred up again. Funnily enough, the embers began churning based on my old love of Super Nintendo fishing games. I’ve always wondered why fishing in MMOs was so darn bland. Is it really that hard to throw in a vestige of challenge? No fight from the fish, no snags, and click-to-use invisible baits? The developers really went over the top to make that one fun.

Even though fishing in particular pales below the importance of trade skills in a game, I was sorely disappointed when I saw just how lazily modern games addressed what could have been a very fun mini-game in itself. Vanguard’s system is better but the melding of Dance Dance Revolution with Bassmasters Deluxe never really clicked with me.

Any new hobby LotRO brings in (and Turbine has said they’re considering a few) needs to have a little more complexity to it. If you’re going to let me be a woodcarver, let me have more than a loading bar. Hell, go crazy and let me actually carve that decoration for my hobbit hole. If I’m going to hunt, let me aim my weapon. Brewmaster? How neat would it be to go through a minigame to make your own beer, maybe even allowing random ingredient combinations to produce unique new flavors? Right there are three hobbies I’d take up in a minute.

There’s a lot of potential in MMO gaming that’s just unrealized. If it’s true that players have the most fun when they’re learning then adding more depth could only be a good thing.  You’ll get less high level crafters and hobbyists but, honestly, those were probably the people that should never have gotten to such a high level anyways. And, bingo, now they have a new goal for their playtime. Achievements shouldn’t be reached by “turning off” your brain and having to watch TV because you’re bored with can only indicate flawed design.

You know, there was a time when the gaming community railed against loading screens. Who would have thought that simply reducing those screens to progress bars would have solved all of the frustration?

Communicating With the Underling

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I’m thinking of leaving my kinship on LotRO. While I was away, there was apparantly some stirup that threw off the whole essence of the guild. Yet, I have no idea what it is.

After a month of being gone, I thought I’d log into the forums and give everyone a little update. On the main page I was greeted with a brief yet ominous letter from one of the officers. In as shadowed a way as possible, the letter stated that the guild was undergoing restructuring to, well, remove structure and build community and that they would understand anyone who chose to leave. Oh, and that they appreciated the support from the remain members.

To me, that little message spelled out “exodus.” For some reason, people were bailing from the guild, or so it must be from the sound of things. This struck me as odd because, honestly, it was one of the best I’d found in any game. It was highly structured, yet I saw this as a positive; the system was designed to support people in all walks of play. Weekly, messages were posted about how the guild had reached a new membership threshold and that we were becoming more selective in who we would allow in (we made sure applicants ideals matched our own before). In short, up until the posting of the letter, everything about the guild was sparkling. Or so it seemed.

Needless to say, when I saw the note, I wanted to know what the hell had happened. I checked the forums and found a single thread with another member asking the same questions I was. Two weeks after it’s posting there was still no response other than people echoing the OP’s concerns.

I stepped away with a “well, that’s not good…” notion floating through my mind. With so much going on IRL, though, it slipped away like so many fragmented ideas have of late.

When I logged in last night, I found myself looking at a “New Mail” icon on my screen. The officer who had posted on the website had sent out a guild wide message saying that the last few weeks had been filled with turmoil but giving virtually no indication as to what that was supposed to mean. I asked the nearly 20 other members online at the time and was more than a little surprised that not a single person knew what had happened. As a matter of fact, most people had been left wondering too.

That wound up leaving me with was a very drear impression. I knew something was going on, something big and dark,  but no idea what I was tied up in. That didn’t lead to a very good “feeling” within the guild. Chat was quiet and what did occur was brief. Everyone knew there was something but no one knew what.

That really sucks. This kinship has been great in everything leading up to this. I mean, they were big enough that no matter what you wanted to do or when you wanted to do it, the chances were that you’d have other members by your side to do it with. They had a philosophy of “build up the individual to build up the whole” even if you weren’t a raider. Hell, they would even gear you out with the best in slot crafting gear every 10 levels. How many guilds can say that?

And yet, here it stands, for all its structure and great community, crumbling before those who witness.

What I hope guild leaders understand is that, for many people, guild choice is a very personal and meaningful decision. Most people that actively search for a guild settle because they find a philosophical match with their beliefs on why a game should be played. Once they’re in they invest themselves and try to find a spot within the community. When things like this happen, it hurts morale. This “thing” that people have come to care about, even if in a small way (if you didn’t care about it to some  degree, the chances are that you wouldn’t have bothered trying in the first place) is suddenly changed in some vital way.

At some level, it almost feels disrespectful to not address the issue at its face. Maybe it’s presumptious or rude of me to say that but, after all, a guild provides a reciprocal relationship. Giveth as you taketh away… or something like that. Yet, it’s almost like if you weren’t there for whatever dramatic event occurred, then you’re out of the loop and are now cast outside the circle. That’s not community.

I know that I’m the exception. Having to leave the game for extended periods of time carries with it this work hazard. But when 20 people are online and not one can name what this big pressing issue even IS, I think we can phone Houston about the problem. There are guild meetings but is that enough? For the day to day maybe, but in this case, I don’t think so.

Has anything like this ever happened to you? Right now, it’s like there’s a black cloud over kinship chat. It’s quiet, it’s brief, and no one wants to mention the storm brewing overhead. I signed up for the guild because the community philosophy matched my own, so I’m hesitant to admit that it may be failing. Yet, like so many others, I don’t even know if it is failing, and that fact seems contrary to the “community building” the leadership is trying to push right now. I mean, if we’re facing a darker night, shouldn’t we band together? That’s what they’re asking for but against what? It’s hard to band together when you don’t know what it is that you’re even facing.

Should I head to brighter shores? Or hold down the fort and hope someone offers a breadcrumb clue on the issues at hand? If you’re a guild leader, I’m interested to know how you would approach a big issue like this. I’m full of questions today but perhaps someone has some insight.

You know, it’s times like this I have to ask, WWAD: What Would Arbitrary Do?

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