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.

Early Impressions: Returning to WAR

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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?

Called to Arms

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A brief post today, apologies for that. I’m reactivating my WAR subscription for the free 10 days to see if things have changed at all. As I recall, my main issue was with activity and not being able to find any oRvR during off peak hours. I’m not really expecting that to be much different but I figured “why not.”

I’ve been playing LotRO mostly but, to be honest, I think I’m feeling a little burnt out on MMOs in general. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have any problem with LotRO. I find enough to do and it offers a lot of great stuff. I’m just not feeling a great urge to log in and quest. When I’ve considered going back to WoW, I can’t bring myself to log in because I know that it’s just the same old thing as always now that I’m at the level cap. I suppose I can go to Icecrown and finish that zone out but, in the end, I know that the result will be the same. On top of that, LotRO offers more of the new and shiny.

So, tonight I’m trying WAR out again. I’m not incredibly hopeful but I had a lot of fun in the game last time, so maybe I can rekindle some of that. Wish me luck!

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 Achievement Trap

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Now HEREs a guy whos achieved something

Now HERE's a guy who's achieved something

I have to tell you something that may come as a surprise given my enthusiasm about Warhammer Online’s Tome. I don’t like achievements. I have no enthusiasm for them, on any game or platform, and I grew tired of even WAR’s pretty darn quick. Oh, the secrets we keep.

It’s been on my mind lately as I listen to my usual round up of podcasts. Achievements this and achievements that and OMFG I want the violet proto-drake. I don’t get it.

In my minds eye, I see achievements as something to be rewarded when you truly do something noteworthy. It should be something that makes you stand out and that make other people take notice.

In this regard, WAR was on the right track. Mythic gave you a wide array of achievements to work towards and gave you a good selection of rewards along the way. Anything from little lore blurb, to a title, to a trophy you can display on your armor. Things that were nice to get but weren’t so flush-worthy that people got up in arms freaking out about them. Still, they let you brag if you wanted to, using a handy panel right in your character window.

On other games though, they border on pointless. I’m going to pick on WoW because it’s the big kid on the playground. Why would I want to spend countless hours scouring the world to get some “achievement” 3 million people have already gotten before me? How much of an achievement is that really? Look at how many achievements you get without even trying. WAR is guilty of that too but in their scheme of things you’re also being rewarded with content, backstory, and context. WoW? They give you some arbitrary point value you can’t use for anything.

I know I’ll hear it if I don’t bring it up. You can get nifty things like titles from doing some of WoW’s achievements. And I give it to them for ramping these kinds of rewards up for some of their more recent holiday celebrations. The fact of the matter though is that achievement rewards are few and far between. There’s no incentive. Oh wait, that proto-drake. Let me tell you why I don’t like him, you’re literally chasing the freaking dragon. The irony there kills me. And do you know why he’s pink? It’s old blood from all of the players he’s chewed up while trying to get him. Those poor fools that thought they could miss one achievement. Hah, they thought they were hardcore. Go play Darkfall, noobs.

Are we really at the point where completionism equals fun? Where we’re driven by pixels so much that we strive for a 10 second placard and no real gain? I know that I’m not but the amount of excitement surrounding this stuff leaves me in wonder. Some achievements may be a ball to go after and if you have fun with it, more power to you. You get more out your $15 a month than me. When there’s a reason to achievement hunt, maybe I’ll go for it. Until then, I’ll gape with failed understanding of these hunters. Just because something works on the XBOX doesn’t mean that it’ll work in WoW.

Unless you’re talking about the next expansion, Halo meets Azeroth: Death to Night Elves. Then, it’s full of win. I gotcha back, Syp. Down with those spikey eared she-devils and their colorful dance parties.

Creating Your Own Fun

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Too much pipeweed

Too much pipeweed

The next few paragraphs talk about a fun experience I had last night, skip over them if you want the core point =)

Last night, I had more fun in an MMO than I’ve had in a long time. The funny thing was, I was doing something that I usually don’t do: roleplay. I’ve dabbled in it a little n the past but it’s something I’d generally do in passing tiny bits at a time. Nothing in-depth or consistent, at all. So, when I got invited to an RP gathering on LotRO last night, I put it off for about 45 minutes to “finish a couple of quests”.

That was true, I was questing, but part of me was hesitant to put off leveling to take part in something that I’d possibly not enjoy or even find a little awkward. Still, the person asking me to join them (I figured there’d be about five people, give or take. It was a small guild gathering, after all) was very outgoing and I didn’t want to be stand-offish. After all, one of my resolutions with LotRO was to enjoy the journey as much as my destination.

When I got to my friend’s kin house (guild house), I was surprised to see several guilds represented by over twenty people in the room. Tables abounded with food and a keg stood on the far wall. A couple of people were playing a duet on a harp and lute in the middle of the room while several others danced. There was a lot of idle in-character conversation and, like a real party, it wasn’t all about the troubles of the world. It was less “the shadow looms in the East, doom is at our door” and more “It’s been a long time, welcome to the party! Can I offer you some ale or some food?” In the back, a lone person stood smoking by the fire; another browsed through the kin’s bookshelves.

I wound up staying for almost an hour. It was genuinely fun because the players made it so. Game mechanics helped (music, ale that makes you “merry”, various pipeweed) but more than anything, I think it was because the people were into it. Even as a mostly dormant roleplayer, I was drawn in. I found myself wanting to explain my shabby leather armor (I’m a tank but can’t wear heavy armor yet) and still bulging midsection. It was contagious.

The whole thing got me thinking about what it is that keeps so many people into the genre. Even though many claim that games like WoW and LotRO are Massively-Single-Player RPGs, I think that misses the point a bit. Whether or not you’re soloing, you have the opportunity, at almost every turn, to interact with other players. We get to see good people and bad, as they come into and out of our gaming lives. Be it direct or not, they have an impact upon us and our impressions of the game. I know, a game may perhaps be more fairly judged on its own merit but an undeniable part of any MMO is the community. They’re a part of the world, like in real life, whether we all would care to separate them from it or not.

But, I think that’s great. In any large community, you’ll get people that are morons but you’re also going to get a lot of genuinely good people as well. I have a lot of fond memories of PuGing through instances on WoW. I met many people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise. Together, with faces always changing, we shared laughs and overcame many challenges of the game.

I tend to believe that as players we make our own fun. If you’re with like-minded people, even things that seem boring can be brought to life. How many small events with your guild have you had turn out to be more fun than you expected? Was running across the map naked that much fun or was it because of the people you did it with? On that same token, how many instance runs/raids have been a blast because you clicked with the people you were there with?

That’s one of the reasons a strong community is important. I read Beau’s blog pretty frequently (it’s pretty good, you should check it out) and I heard him mention once that he likes the lesser played games because the community is smaller and more well knit. For all of the reasons a big game might succeed, sometimes the closeness of the players gets lost in translation. That’s one of the reasons why players railed against cross server scenarios in WAR. Community is important.

And on that same token, so is community enhancement. And encouragement. Players should be encouraged to come together and interact without forcing them to do so in order to progress. Since we can create our own fun, I think it’d help the new offering of games to maintain that MMO feel some people think is missing without impeding those who would prefer to solo. WAR could benefit most from this, I think. They have a great universe flush with possibility. But right now, there’s not much incentive to be around other players outside of the pursuit of RvR. Luckily, RvR brings about interaction and fun all its own.

So, to sum up my thoughts, last night showed me again that we can find fun in the creativity and humor of other players. Bringing that interaction to life through game elements, dungeons, and the like, is what MMOs are all about. In the end, I don’t think it’s the gear that drives the player who get the most enjoyment out of gaming. I think it’s doing something fun made funner by doing it with other people. Massively Single Player? Maybe in Counter-Strike but not in any MMO I’ve ever played.

Changing Games

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I got into the MMO game (no pun intended) a little over two years ago with World of Warcraft. I was one of those people who scoffed at the idea of paying a monthly fee to play a game. I’d tried Guild Wars but couldn’t really get “hooked”. When a friend finally convinced me to try the 10-day trial of WoW, I was immediately taken.

Since then, it’s been my main game. Along with that, I’ve gone through the typical burn out followed by a sometimes-begrudging return. Call me cliché. WAR pulled me away for the longest and even allowed me to justify playing two MMOs at once. Hell, it gave me voice. Times have changed though; I no longer have the time to fully enjoy a game like WoW. I can progress, sure. But the more I try to invest my limited time into the game, the more I am reminded of how limited my game experience truly is.

So, I dabbled in greener pastures. Vanguard, while very fun, presents the same issues as WoW for me, albeit with a greater sense of adventure and exploration. Now, I’m trying out LotRO again, giving it the fair shot it was previously denied, and am enjoying it. No matter where I go though, there’s always something missing.

What’s missing is that feeling of accomplishment, of time and effort, and of simply being “home”. They say we can never regain that initial sense of awe and wonder we felt when we played our first MMO. It’s the syndrome of the Rose Colored Glasses; our nostalgia will outweigh our experience. So, be it WoW or any other game, many of us find it difficult to pull up roots, start somewhere new, and stick with it.

Is it possible for a game to satisfy us the way many have aspired to? I don’t think so. No game will ever be like the first we truly enjoyed. That’s not to say we won’t have lots of fun in new games. But, our desire to constantly seek out the new and exciting, that which blesses the gaming industry with a ravenous audience ready to consume their new titles, is perhaps our greatest curse. A cyclical feeling of wanting, be it small or large, that drives us to farther shores.

Much of our nostalgia can be attributed to years of our younger youth. The outlook of the teenager is far different from that of the near-30 or even the mid-20. They say people completely change over every seven years. For those who have been in the gaming scene for some time, we are no longer who we were when we discovered our hobby. How does that color our perceptions? For better or worse, time has passed and so to our youthful sense of naiveté.

Though this post may seem somewhat melancholy, it really shouldn’t be. If you think back, many of our experiences seem more wondrous through the lens of time. For our hobby in particular, it provides a stream emotion. Think about it, our sense of wanting, our nostalgia, drives us to look forward and to hope. Each new title represents a new opportunity. This is why we pay so much attention, read the latest gaming news, keep up to date with the blogs, and keep our ears to the street. It’s hope, it’s chance, it’s postivity, it’s passion, and it’s all from hope.

I read a quote about fishing the other day, (on a gaming blog, I forgot which), that summed up its appeal nicely. Fishing is a past time that elicits repeated bursts of hope. Isn’t that similar to what we see in so many forward looking posts,  commenters, and editorial sites? I like that. It’s not that we’re unsatisfied. It’s that we enjoy hoping. That, all by itself, is part of the essence of humanity.

So don’t stop. On that same token, don’t forget to stop. Keep hoping and looking ahead. But remember to have fun in whatever game you choose to play. Look at the good, recognize that which needs improvement.

This realization is brought to you by the newly casual. I just turned up the graphics and admired the roses.

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