Category Archives: Society

[GW2] …And then we didn’t fight anymore

A while ago now I posted an article on matchmaking in MMOs in which I described how, much to my personal chagrin, my longtime partner and I are incompatible when it comes to our questing “mode”. This has always been something I eyed with resignation, since I’m the reason he started playing MMOs in the first place. How nice would it have been to explore and level up together peacefully? Well, in WoW we only ever managed this so often.

I’ve explained and no doubt unnerved a few of my readers with all the ways I believe cooperation in GW2 to be different, with a potential for much better than in MMOs past, recently on this blog. Alas, I have to inform you that I am not quite done yet and won’t be for a while when it comes to analyzing this particularly fascinating topic. Now that we’ve begun to immmerse ourselves in the real Tyria, this will be an aspect to revisit and re-examine, to see where expectations were adequate and where I set my hopes too high. I know that especially longterm things will probably look quite different from right now, now that everybody has just started off and quest and event areas are crowded with new folk. This very real issue applies to all MMOs I’ve ever played.

And then we didn’t fight anymore

Back on topic, one thing I did not dream of was for GW2’s questing experience to not only prove generally more enjoyable for myself, but more enjoyable for myself plus my partner! When the borked overflow mechanics actually allowed us to, we’ve given exploring together several shots over this last weekend. Lo and behold, not only did we not bicker the way we used to but enjoyed killing things together (oh, the romantic moments among gamers!). I could actually run off and gather that “peacebloom” (formerly known as warbloom…) without calling things to a halt. He did not wait impatiently or worse, keep pulling and killing himself while I trailed off somewhere else entirely (and yeah…I do that). There is no such coordination and focus needed to constantly do the one thing at the correct time; there are no roles and hence co-dependencies, so when one of us is off to gather or sell items, the other one simply continues to look after himself. Or in other words: if you die, it’s your own bloody fault, pal!

“Ohh, teh harmony!”

Looting too is no topic anymore: “do we choose group loot or FFA?”, “you still need to loot that corpse over there!” and “how many more do you need??” are non issues. These may seem trivial changes and petty issues to somebody else, but for me our past questing experiences together were constantly disrupted by things like that. Now, loot is something that just “happens” while you’re off exploring – just as leveling up is. As an explorer, I love for the focus to have shifted thus.

More recent, unexpected revelations

Another thing I sure did not expect to happen, is that I actually choose to switch to water spec with my Elementalist quite often to spare allies some healing during bigger and tougher events. I’ve declared quite publicly before how fed up I am with the healer role since WoW – and I still am. Only, in GW2 it’s not a role and more importantly: it’s not a role I’m expected to have. And that is probably precisely why I enjoy to include some healing in my greater rotation again – because I am not expected to! Nobody is taking it for granted and I will sure as hell not get a hard time for not healing anybody. I believe every or most GW2 classes have an area heal like that (for example Engineers have a healing turret) and while CDs are long and it’s nowhere near an all-powerful tool, it gives you a sense of support and versatility. It’s fun!

…See how I am reacting towards this lack of “pressure” or rather entitlement? Now don’t get me wrong – I know if you play a healer in WoW you should want to play a healer and can be expected to heal (demanded to too?), that’s natural. However, having played a holy priest for years myself, I got really fed up with the way my role was treated by many, especially public groups; the way blame was usually appointed and how it was just a given that priests are heal, buff and ress-machines. In GW2 healing is appreciated more for its sparseness instead of being “your job after all”. Or as the ever-insightful Tesh recently commented in my topic on individualism vs. collectivism:

“That which we are forced to do, we do grudgingly, and good memories stand out for their rarity. That which we choose to do, we do gladly, and bad memories stand out for their rarity.”

I have a feeling we’ll see a lot more of that over the coming weeks. I am excited to see what else will reveal itself over time as I level my character in GW2. At this point, technical aspects aside on which I fully agree with Klepsacovic, I got no reason for complaints.

[GW2] Managing expectations. And see you there!

While speakers don’t realize it anymore in everyday language, the German word for “disappointed” has a rather intriguing, literal meaning: it’s to be “un-deceived”. If we feel disappointment, it is generally because we were let down on our expectations – our hopes, dreams, illusions maybe. In any case, there was a deception of some kind involved and quite often it’s a self-created one as much as the other way around.

With GW2 finally at our doorstep and me still shocked that official launch time is set more in favor of EU folks than US (amagad I get to log on to GW2 for breakfast!) for a change, it’s sensible to take a moment and consider personal expectations. I spend a lot of time dissecting and criticizing single features and aspects of MMOs on this blog, so it’s probably hard to believe that I’m also quite the big picture person. I know exactly what I want from GW2 and my personal hopes for this game have already been half fulfilled in the betas. Lucky for me, GW2 offers a lot to explorers and lovers of the shiny!

Powerful expectations

For a while now I’ve had the feeling that player expectation towards upcoming titles has increased in significance compared to the olden days. Expectations have a tremendous power over individual perception and reception; more than that, they also have the potential to spread side-effects, for better or worse.

When The Secret World launched its free 1-month anniversary weekend two weeks ago, I ended up having a look at Funcom’s latest progeny quite unintentionally. I suspected that TSW would not appeal to me personally, for reasons of theme already, but I like a first-hand look at any game especially when there’s nothing to lose. Alas, rather quickly TSW confirmed my misgivings; I would never get even close to a well-rounded and fair overall judgement after such short a playtime, suffice to say though that I can only marvel at Funcom for their chosen business model, considering TSW serves a niche inside a niche and all past AoC baggage. I also didn’t like combat one bit and then there’s the looks of the game….and while you can disagree with me on style, no MMO launched in 2012 and coming with a key, sub and item shop is allowed to look like a Sims game! Complete and utter no-go in my world (I got a new rig for a reason!). If SWTOR got a beating for looking dated, it’s only fair that TSW should get one too!

That wasn’t the big insight I took from TSW though. Much rather, there was something very interesting going on in terms of player reception in this particular case – a case of a more niche and quite low profile MMO launch. Just to give one example of many similar echoes I’ve come across during the free TSW weekend, here’s an excerpt of a recent twitter conversation with two of my fellow bloggers, Belghast and Heather:

Tip: read from bottom to top ;)

What I’m not implying with this is that either of them isn’t genuinely enjoying TSW, by now probably for many reasons. Assuming they are still playing, they most certainly have found enough reasons to retain them. However, these are two examples of what I suspect is quite a substantial group of players who ended up taking to a new MMO they had not followed much at all pre-launch, and who did not only find enjoyment despite that but maybe even because of it? Naturally, expectations (or the lack thereof) will not decide over the longterm choice to stay or leave a game, yet it’s intriguing they would have the power to influence initial impression so heavily. We all know how pivotal a time launch and also individual “entry stage” are for new MMOs.

Now, “pleasantly surprised” or “better than expected” aren’t exactly labels new MMOs usually thrive for but I still need to ask myself what is the conclusion of all this? And what does this potentially mean for game developers and publishers? That maybe it’s beneficial to hold back on too much exposure and heavy marketing pre-launch? That a low profile is preferable in some cases? Should developers start and spread their own false or obscure rumors about their game just so it reaches intangible cult status, luring a potentially bigger audience out of sheer curiosity? No really, I’m quite serious!

If we consider the last few weeks of the GW2 waiting rush, it’s probably safe to say that there is such a thing as too much exposure and for some players I am told, there’s such a thing as detrimental hype – to a point where omni-present talk of the same game becomes so overbearing it may even turn somebody off from buying the game at all. I don’t know how frequently that occurs, and personally I wouldn’t want to attribute a vocal minority of forum trolls that much power over my own game choices, but if a potential customer refrains from buying GW2 because of overbearing hype that can’t be in ANet’s interest. That’s not to say that they have any direct responsibility or means to change anything. It does shed some light on the power of expectations though.

I will also officially bet on this here blog that GW2 is never going to get the soft and benign player treatment for its no-doubt yet undiscovered flaws and failures, the way more low profile MMOs like TSW usually do. GW2 will be hacked into pieces mercilessly and with every conceivable double standard, simply for having been praised and expected so long and publicly beforehand. No doubt there are already some people lying in wait for that moment of grand punishment…like the resented, vengeful twin waiting for his one-minute monologue. I won’t comment on that but yeah, it does show us another shade of potential effects of expectations…

Finding one’s own enjoyment

I mentioned feeling lucky before because GW2 could be an entirely different game, not catering to any of my very personal selling points. There is a beautiful world to explore in the fashion I endorse, there are undeniably wonderful graphics and music, quest and combat mechanics I consider fresh at the very least, plenty of cosmetic items….safe bets all of them. I look forward to enjoy this at my own pace and hopefully with the freedom to group up with any of my friends. Most of the aspects that are currently criticized or eyed with worry don’t interest me that much: I don’t worry about the guild system, dungeon loot, “endgame” or even PvP should it turn out to be lacking. I’m also not one to fret over bugs or imbalances so early – there’s time. Furthermore I consider the current bashing of the community very over the top; WoW was never a good place to go for forums nor general chat. That didn’t mean there weren’t cool people to be found on servers. Community is always also what you are contributing.

I’m going to play GW2 for my own reasons that may seem trivial to somebody else. Much of that enjoyment will be up to myself too which is what managing expectations is all about. I look forward to meet up with some of my old WoW mates so much it’s silly and for that already I thank GW2, for that long awaited opportunity!

How long will it all last us? I don’t know and frankly don’t care. GW2 doesn’t have to fascinate me for 5 years straight, I am no longer that gamer. Neither did I ever consider this the big, all-changing MMO revolution but as The Cynical Brit rightfully points out towards the end of his final beta conclusion, “a next evolutionary step”. A very important step at that – one that may impact on much to come. I care for this genre, I care for GW2 to be a solid success which I’m confident it will be. Mid-or longterm? I will probably get bored for lack of things to do and fluctuate more again between several games. So what? Even if I only got the famous 3 months of amagad-shiny-awesome-noob-time out of all this (which I doubt), it will be a hell lot more fun than I’ve had in a long time!

…With that I am off to the long awaited weekend and my Saturday morning launch. I wish you all the grandest GW2 head-start weekend and that you can enjoy this new MMO simply for what it is, unaffected and untouched by the backlash of other people’s expectations. I’ll see you and all your Asura Engineers on the other side! ^^

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.

Apocalypse now: The future of social gaming

It’s national day today where I live, which means fireworks, bonfires and barbecuing – if only it wasn’t around 35 degrees Celsius outside, so I guess we won’t get much of that until way late into the night. Exactly 721 years ago, according to legend, did the three founding factions (today cantons) of this country get together and swear a sacred oath to stick together and join forces against their ever-warring neighbours. A confederation was born that has maintained much of its sovereignty up to this day, and has since served as direct rolemodel to other nations, the United States of America among them. Or in much less solemn words – 721 years ago a couple of swashbucklers shared beers on a meadow and decided it was time to kick some ass together and cooperate. Time for a new era, time for change. How romantic.

The blogosphere has been abuzz with topics of change lately (again), and much doomsaying has gone around about the future of pretty much anything: the MMO genre, online gaming, social games and cooperation. Some wonder if this MMO era is finally over, while many others ask what GW2 and MoP can still do for the genre? It’s a complex question, one that at its core encompasses a much greater issue and development currently touching the entire online and gaming market. If Facebook games are in decline that doesn’t mean MMOs are doomed, but it means that everyone is currently affected from the same intangible shift, maybe towards a next generation of social games, online games, multiplayer games. Somewhere there is a common denominator beyond just overfed customers, classic concepts beaten to death and cows milked into oblivion.

In this context I feel compelled to promote one article that stands apart and that I’ve just come across (also because just retweeting it isn’t enough). Tadgh Kelly, probably known for writing on Gamasutra or WGA, recently went to elaborate on the downfall of Zynga but didn’t stop there; in what’s one of the most well-argued and insightful articles I’ve read on the subject, he analyzes the future of social gaming, what motivates players to cooperate and the next generation of social games that may be at our doorstep. He takes a look at the past and beyond that considers other media who have gone through a similar process and progress. It’s must-read material if you’re in any way interested in social mechanics and online, multiplayer games and crosses paths with many MMO-relevant issues. Really, you don’t wanna miss that one!

To tease you with just a few paragraphs –

“Social games do not bring people together. Most players in fact play them in a largely single-player fashion, making contact purely for reasons of necessity like trading, earning Energy and so on. Many have tried large multiplayer designs, and failed because the players were just not there.
“Players play to achieve, to do, to build, to create, to explore, to destroy and to win. They need the game to provide them with a fascinating system which enables them to do all of those things, and usually for the game to also provide an absorbing fiction. This is as true for The Sims as for Skyrim. […]….You build to have something better to win with.”  
“Aside from being free to play, the answer is advancement. Social contact in the context of games provides real value to players when it substantively helps them to win without tying that up in synchronous loops. In other words, to be worth it the contact needs to get me where I’m going, but without obliging me to turn up to do likewise.                             […] So play Journey. Play Realm of the Mad God. Get into a multiplayer server on Minecraft. Notice how they are about cooperation toward advancement? Notice the lack of obligation? Study that.”
“For G2 to be about true value, the game graph also has to be valuable. Connecting interested strangers produces much more game interaction than limiting it to just friends (such as Monstermind, which doubled its engagement rate in a day by connecting strangers). Players don’t really care about whether they are playing with their friends. They care about playing with others who can help them, and if that happens to be a friend then so much the better.”
“If Yahoo was “Search, Generation One” then Google was “Search, Generation Two”. The first generation was the one which became cluttered with all manner of complicated ambitions, poor performance and a whole load of “conventional wisdom” which often proved contradictory. Generation Two, on other hand, realised what mattered and delivered just that. A similar shift is what will make “Social Games, Generation Two” real.”

Of course, Tadgh doesn’t just drop the big, vague words such as “depth” to contemplate for the reader, but tackles what exactly constituted depth in the past, where contradictions lie and how future games may outgrow the formula – and really need to throw some of the classic tropes overboard. Needless to add how much of this resonates with me personally, namely that we shouldn’t cling to old formulas especially when they make no sense, or why I believe that more open, free-for-all and automated forms of cooperation are the way to go for future MMOs. Not because they’re meaningless but because they create opportunities for more without detriment to more casual cooperation.

In any case, it’s interesting times. While I agree the traditional AAA+ MMO is a dying breed already for financial reasons, I am not too worried about the future of (massive) multiplayer online gaming; it will continue to prosper, there will be variety and there will always be cooperation among players in some shape or form. The quality of community and cooperation has never been about server sizes and subscription numbers, either. There’s plenty more ahead, maybe in a different way, but I will always find games to play and enjoy myself with together with others. And that is all that counts.

Round-up: All the Ways that WoW changed us

It’s been an incredibly interesting blogging week for me, ever since Monday’s post on how WoW changed my preferences as an MMO player. The topic resonated with many readers who left their very personal takes on the transformations they perceive in themselves, the changes of playstyle, attitude and expectations towards future games. WoW has been the dominant player on the MMO market for at least 7 years and its impact on all of us cannot be denied, one way or another.

Commentaries didn’t stop there though; many of you went and took the topic further, contemplating on all the effects WoW had on a social and emotional level, what it left you and maybe even helped you with in your lives. This aspect was also reviewed frequently in other bloggers’ responses which I found especially fascinating reads. Indeed, there would be much more to say for me too, from how WoW taught me things about myself, about people management or online friendships, down to affecting the way I speak and vastly improving my second language skills ever since starting to play.

So, for those who have missed some of the great, personal responses that have been published over the last few days, or those just starting to read about this topic, here’s what the blogosphere had to say about how WoW (and other MMOs) changed them on a personal level, as players and people:

…and Liore commented in humorously crisp manner how WoW has basically turned her into this “huge elitist casual player”.

It’s likely I missed somebody but these were the contributions I’ve come across. It’s certainly never a finished conversation – MMOs will continue to influence us and WoW’s legacy will echo through many of the games yet to come. Whether we feel that we’ve changed for the better or worse as gamers, what all these reads have truly illustrated for me is how big a passion we all share and what positive potential lies in online gaming and communities in general. Personal player testimonies like for example that of Wapsipinicon put all the hearsay, stereotypes and bad press about MMOs out there to shame. So, thanks to all who gave this interesting topic a much wider scope, commenters and contributing bloggers alike.

A warm and sunny weekend to all of you out there – inside and outside your virtual spaces!

[Allods] Would you like to….divorce me?

So I picked Allods Online up again the other night because that’s what we do, me and Allods have this steamy on-and-off latenight relationship. The game has changed much since last I played it – there’s been the Game of Gods expansion this February 2012 and the look of the game has improved in every aspect. Allods has always had great characters and customization, but now there are more choices and oh my god the bard class! That’s right, you can now play a BARD in Allods! I haven’t had much time to level one yet but apparently the class mechanics are somewhat similar to the bard class in Rift.

Personally, it makes me happy to see that Allods is still alive and kicking and that Astrum Nival were able to launch a full expansion stuffed with shiny new content. The game has always been described as shameless WoW clone, mostly due to its similar cartoony graphics, and no matter for how long dedicated Allods players and fans have been working on dispelling that notion, the comparison stuck to this much younger Russian MMO like duct tape from hell.

Let’s look at this just briefly. Yes, Allods looks like WoW at first glance. Yes, it also pretty much adopted the questing system and the talent tree isn’t all that different. The zones are a little empty here and there despite looking nice. Combat works different from WoW in certain aspects, for example there are pre-charged attacks and no auto-attack. Experience gain used to be fairly slow but over the years the developers improved the system several times to make both combat and progression feel smoother. Also, Allods is a free-to-play which means RMT is part of the deal and a very stylish item shop is an integrated part of the game – which doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy this game without spending money. I do.

Other than that? Allods is awesome. The overall graphics are much sparklier than WoW’s. The polish, music and performance have always been top notch, especially for an FTP. Races like the Arisen or Gibberlings are legendary. There is quirkiness, humor and atmosphere in the world. There’s also the rather refreshing Russian flair which shows in some of the NPCs or cities. In short: Allods doesn’t feel one bit like WoW and from what I know about endgame, it is a different game entirely (there be lots of war ship PvP up in astral spheres!). If you’ve got any spare time to dabble at some free games, don’t skip Allods.

Amazing armor! …Wait what, divorce papers?

One thing I’ve not mentioned yet is Allods’ armor and how that too has taken a massive step up since I played it last. Now, if you’ve got any love for the eye candy, customization and gear in MMOs, you will love this game. If anyone’s going to emulate WoW’s graphics, they should at least do better than WoW in the armor department – and Astrum Nival have. You want wicked armor? Allods has it! I browsed tons of high-level gear and tier sets and was dazzled by a flamboyant carnival of colors, fabrics and quite possibly the greatest cloaks ever! If you’re going to pose in your shiny epics, it better look like this:

Too sexy for my shirt!

Like to see more? Fear not, I finally added an Allods gallery. I need to highlight my favorite piece here though because….whoa – this gotta be like the greatest, badass look ever:

He’s got a raven!

I named this guy the Scarecrow and if you’re still wondering what he’s got on his back, that’s a wooden box (I bet full of torture tools). And there’s a black raven perching on his shoulder! Amagad! *worship*

…….

Thus hunting down irritated high-level players for screenshots, I came across a chapel the other night and found this:

I’ve certainly heard about MMO marriage before, wedding bands and ceremonies and whatnot, but divorce papers? Now that’s new. I started digging a bit and it turns out Allods Online has possibly the most intricate and complex marriage and divorce system of them all. And unlike so many other games where the union of two players is merely symbolic, marrying in Allods comes with a list of special, spouse-related spells and abilities to give the relationship more meaning. Getting married isn’t quick and neither is getting rid of a spouse – so hedge therefore, who join forever!

For those of you who prefer a TL;DR version of the above link, I’m going to highlight the few most remarkable points about Allods’ marriage system:

  • You are eligible to marry a person of the same faction, minimum level 15. There is no restriction for enlisting same-sex relationships.
  • Every faction has dedicated wedding manager NPCs who will offer a quest to the person properly equipped with a wedding ring. Both players will have to take vows and actively consent to the union….and pay a tax.
  • Once legally declared married, you will receive special wedding gifts along with several “spousal spells”. These are unlocked for both characters and draw on a resource called heart affection.
  • The spousal abilities can be leveled while both players draw on the same pool of heart affection. Just to give one example of such an ability: “Enheartening: Your spouse’s health is increased by a certain percentage if you are within 50 yards from each other.” (aww)
  • In case of a divorce, players lose access to their spousal abilities. Both partners will have to be present for a particularly sad quest and have one minute each to consent to the divorce prompt.
  • Astrum Nival have announced an upcoming shop item, a bottle of champagne, that will be required in special cases of a forced divorce where one spouse has been offline for a very long time.

One must wonder what exactly that champagne bottle is for! I think we can agree they do take their weddings seriously in Allods (is there any MMO that comes close?). And a system that comes with bonuses like this may well appeal to a wider audience than just a roleplay corner. To me personally it’s a fascinating approach and illustrates the many depths of MMO dynamics that still haven’t been explored fully, by a wider range of titles.

The problem of loot rolls and merit

Adhering to the rule of “it’s best to write while thought is still fresh”, this post is a follow-up on Syp’s poll on protocol which comes with many layers of telling subtext. To continue where I personally left off in my comments there, here’s my general opinion on the matter of rolling for boss loot in that particular situation:

“3rd one for me although I don’t disagree with your choice either. if you feel okay to roll, you’ve every right to, as you said you WERE there too for the kill. but personally, I would feel obligated to let the other clerics have first pick, out of courtesy and empathy for sticking all the way through such a (seemingly) sucky run / group. which they might have had a fair share in of course, but yeah….I don’t see boss loot as an isolated thing; often the last boss in a dungeon really is also the best one for loot and the whole reason why people run it for 30 minutes or however long. I’d feel like a freeloader because I was only there for 5mins. but that’s me and I wouldn’t berate someone in my party for choosing differently (although if they outrolled me like that I would grind my teeth).”

“On further consideration, I think you made a legit choice within a system that is inherently flawed. the fact that raid guilds replace the whole rolls system with DKP, which pays a lot more tribute to meritocracy, is proof of that people don’t get rewarded for just showing up* but spending time. one could apply this to the much shorter dungeon runs too but for obvious reasons of time and missing authority, one cannot establish such ground rules for pugs.” [*as in showing up just for one boss]

I hold to that, although I think it needs some clarification. I will repeat too that I think Syp was 100% in his right to make that choice which is in accord with the system that Trion installed in the game. I would however argue that it’s not a very good system which is proven by situations such as this one – and that there’s still such a thing as individual choice.

So why is the system so bad?

It honestly shocked me a little to find so many comments along the lines of “if you killed the boss it means you deserved to roll for loot, period” – particularly because I think “deserving” has the least to do with anything. Does the system justify the roll? Yes. Does merit justify the roll? Absolutely not.

I think every last MMO player knows that dungeons consist of a great deal more than just bosses (unless they’re called Trial of the Grand Crusader); why else are there dungeons in the first place instead of loot piñatas lined up for us to plow through? Of course the entire journey through a dungeon, the trash packs, the little traps and annoyances along the way that make up 80-90% of the duration, are how players earn the rite of passage to bosses and loot. And therefore too, bosses and boss loot are not isolated events but rather the result and reward for beating the whole dungeon. Sure, for beating boss mechanics too – but if you’ve ever been to harder dungeons or heroics, you know that everything that comes before and in between bosses is often just as tough or even tougher than many of them. And it’s certainly more numerous.

Add to this, that in many dungeons the final boss is also the boss with the best loot – not necessarily because he is the hardest, but because it took friggin’ AGES to get there! I’d like to name good old WoW Scholomance, just to name one example: even in its 5man version, Scholomance was absolutely huge and a group could easily spend ~2 hours in there (certainly a PuG). The very last boss in Scholo was Gandling who, in comparison to the onerous 2 hours before him, wasn’t all that hard – but he dropped the important dungeon set one headpieces that everyone wanted.

Now, had you joined my party right before Gandling (which is the boss I had to farm the most in vanilla WoW due to loot luck from hell) and then outrolled me on the drop, you can bet I would’ve been absolutely devastated and furious. Did you have “a right to”? As long as no other rules were established – I guess. Equally, I would’ve had every right to grind my teeth though. Just because you can do something or have the right to do it, doesn’t mean it’s particularly thoughtful or “deserving”. If people always got what they deserved…well, what a beautiful world that would be.

To make a long story short, my main critique addresses the reasoning that such rolls are deserved – which I believe Syp asked about, partly also because he did have second thoughts. There’s a reason why the moment raidguilds start out, many replace the need/greed-roll system with their own version of DKP (or something similar) and it’s not just because raiding is a generally more time-consuming undertaking than PuGs: while DKP harmonizes loot spread for a guild for example, it also comes with the notion of being meritocratic – players get rewards due to the time they spend raiding overall, not just for showing up for one single boss. DKP is nothing but the attempt to make a currency out of merit and while it isn’t perfect on all accounts, it’s worlds better than random rolls.

To use WoW again as example: just because you killed Arthas once with your new guild doesn’t mean you have any right to his loot – I’m fairly certain that a vast majority of the guilds out there would agree with me. And why? Because the time you spent on getting him down is nowhere close to what other guild members spent. That’s what DKP is about, it doesn’t matter that the raid instance is bigger (the loot is therefore better too) – it’s the same basic question of time/effort spent vs. reward earned.

For obvious reasons you cannot use a meritocratic system like DKP in a PuG. There’s the issue of time, lack of organization and authority and erm…..in the end how big a deal is a dungeon drop, anyway? I realize many players probably don’t care so much either way (which is fine). I think I have made my point though. The rolls-system is flawed and while that isn’t your fault, you still have a choice. It scares me a little when we stop questioning our own choices just because we’re living in a system that tells us what is okay and what isn’t. No system is perfect.

But then…

…. I am not quite finished! There’s in fact another valid question I could bring up in favor of rolling: why should Syp be penalized by entering a party that has already advanced as far into the dungeon (which he had no way of knowing)? In some MMOs this even means being saved to the instance with no chance of re-running it the same day. Why shouldn’t he roll on the item when he actually joined to help and made killing the boss possible in the first place? What if he spent 30 minutes in a queue and this is his only chance at a group for the day?

Now that would be, in my humble opinion, a much better justification. If you choose to go with this reasoning, I would not only say he had every right to roll – but he actually deserved to. If PuGs are a deal of “you give some, you gain some”, this strikes me as better “payment” or contribution on his part than pushing a couple of spells for five minutes. If we take all circumstances into account, his contribution consisted of more than merely five minutes.

Bottom line: I don’t think this would change my own choice of action, but it’s a more acceptable reasoning to me personally. Considering it took writing a blog post (plus checking spelling!), I don’t like anyone’s chances to garner equal sympathy or argumentative effort from a random PuG-member though. What it shows me is one (more) reason why I never liked PuGs much in WoW or Rift and why I prefer reward systems à la GW2 these days. You might not have time to agree on complex loot rules in a PuG, but the game can most certainly come up with a better designed, in-built system for you.

The unsavoury Case of Tera’s regional Morals

With more and more armor and boob complaints on the female character models in Guild Wars 2 popping up, it struck me how quiet the blogosphere has been in regards to Tera – and what has been going on there in terms of character representation and “censorship” over the last couple of months. I wonder: is it a sign of the more western oriented blogosphere’s disinterest in this MMO, or have players just given up on discussing delicate issues where Asian games are concerned? Well, here’s some background:

Act I) In April 2012, Tera’s publisher announces the removal of ingame blood splatter effects for the EU version to meet the legislated 12+rating requisites of the EU market. The blood effects remain in the Asian and US versions of the game as Tera is rated mature in the USA anyway. Of course, European fans are in uproar after this, petitioning the publisher to remove this evil censorship from hell. Frogster reacts by promising a “gore slider” for a later patch.

Act II) Accompanying the necessary adaption of Tera for the European market, the appearance and armor of the controversial Elin race gets changed to meet “western standards”. These changes are exclusive for the NA and EU market and unlike to the blood censorship case, they are no direct reaction to legal concerns. To cite Frogster’s explanation:

“[It was] not to comply with a demand from any official board, but because those characters in particular could have attracted to the game a population of unsavoury users, and it is part of our responsibility to protect our younger audiences from them,” he explained. 

“All partners involved in the project decided to ask Bluehole Studios for a solution, so they created new textures and designs for Elin wear. We are sure you all agree that this effort for child protection was the right thing to do. We all did, here, at Frogster.”[source]

The rationale behind this official statement is so cringe-worthy that unsurprisingly, the critique following it was as numerous and diverse as can be, burying completely what might be a good and valid concern at the core. But before I get to the different facets of this issue, judge for yourself just how effective the Elin changes are between the NA/EU and Korean version: Youtube documentary

While the more obvious sexual innuendo was toned down where open cleavage (particularly odd as they have no noticeable breasts), belly buttons and mini-panties are concerned, the adapted Elin armor still features many pieces that western society (and I am sure Asian society too) considers sexually alluring: high boots over naked legs, short dresses or skirts showing underwear and our favorite high-heels. While I certainly agree with some of the commenters that the censored armor DOES look better (for various reasons), there are still pieces that make it hard to grasp the systematic behind the armor changes.
Furthermore, taking Frogster by their own words, if you truly mean to remove sexual appeal of game characters, you should also consider secondary attributes such as stance, movement or voice. 

…But that’s not really the point, of course. It is just a half-assed solution of a hard-pressed publisher fearing financial backlash. Whether you agree that the Elin are children/infantilized characters or not, whether you agree or disagree if sexualization is a concern in video games – what bugged me the most about this whole charade is the way it got handled.

Layers of cringe

I’m not going to address the main problematic of this topic which has been discussed to death elsewhere, because I am frankly not up for the usual, derailing discourse we already know so well from female characterization topics. I think nobody wants to explain why “it’s not just a game” or why it’s not just “a matter of artistic integrity”, especially not for a topic as delicate as this one. There are of course thematic differences; we are not talking about social privilege and marginalization (although there are in fact no male Elin) or the differences between sexy/attractive and sexualized characters. What so many like to cloud in heavy semantics is that Tera’s Elin raise the question of sexualized children in the media and pedophilia on the internet. There’s not much room for abstraction and layers in opinion here. The topic is a very legal concern in most countries.

Ironically enough, Frogster acknowledge this themselves: they say that Tera does not wish to “attract unsavoury users” and that it’s a matter of child protection. But oddly, children need only be protected in the western world. The threat is very real, but erm regional!
If the topic at hand wasn’t such a dark one, I’d go ahahahahah at this point. Not just because of the pretentious, baloney explanation but the underlying message that pedophiles only exist in Europe or the USA! Unintentional quintessence maybe, big ouch nonetheless.

So let’s get this straight: Because pedophilia only exists in the USA/Europe and those children should be protected from potential online harassment, the armor of the Elin race in Tera got changed. Slightly. Everyone else in the world is just fine! Also, everyone knows that western society is just overly sensitive (and prude).

That’s me translating Frogster’s statement for you. I wish every publisher did take their self-appointed social responsibility this seriously!

Reception, Perception

As mentioned before, there were plenty of negative reactions to the Elin changes; some justified in my eyes, others not so much. Misguided fandom gets particularly bizarre when design features such as bare midriffs or high-heels suddenly become the epitome of one’s personal freedom and how DARE YOU take my panties away from the Elin!!! Miraculously players surface as spokesmen of artistic freedom who never before cared much about what the Elin wore prior to the changes. But then, the internet has always been an overly tolerant home to stupid. I wish there were spaces where one could discuss such matters in peace, with calm rationale but yeah nevermind.

Personally, I don’t care much for the hairsplitting that is being done for the Elin’s obvious childlike appearance and their “alien-ness” (you know – they look, walk and sound like kids but they are not!). If you play the escapism card, then vote for characters that do not copy real-world stereotypes. If I glue a tail and furry ears on a child and say it’s not a child it still looks like a child. If I go on and dress that alien in sexy outfits, it still looks like a child with furry ears and tail in a sexy outfit. Do I think MMOs are flooded with pedophiles? – No. That doesn’t change that it still looks like a child with furry ears and tail in a sexy outfit.

I think it’s important to highlight a few things in general and in regards to this article:
– This is not a question of whether you believe the Elin in Tera are (like) children
– This is not a question of whether you believe the Elin armor is/was sexy or not
– This is not a question of whether you believe sexy children are part of artistic integrity / escapism
– This is not a question of whether you believe pedophiles in MMOs to be an issue
– This is not a question of whether you believe that video games have moral obligations
– This is not a question of whether you believe all censorship is from hell

…..these are questions too, some of them very good ones, leading deep into the realm of social and cultural values and morals. Topics for another time and place.

What drove me to this article was the way Tera’s publisher handled a serious issue. Their statement was clumsy, their reasoning flawed with double standards. If you go and acknowledge the issue of pedophilia as a game publisher, you don’t present it as a “cultural difference”. If it’s about your morality, then that morality should be absolute (why design the Elin that way in the first place?). But hey, I get it – it’s hard to wiggle your way out of this one: that you’re in deep shit for trying to market an Asian style MMO with a sexy, childlike race on top of the usual upskirt action. Convincing the silly west to embrace the naked ladies is one thing, but when it comes to children they’re not up for joking around. Much. We could of course now engage in a discussion on why the Elin raise no same debate in Asian countries – or whether a fantasy MMO really needs to feature a blatantly sexualized race of kids with bunny ears?

You dwell on that.

Monday musings on phony media, SWTOR, birdchat and wishing it was Friday already

Last year’s media controversy regarding the mass murders in Norway, has resurfaced once more among bloggers. I commented on the ludicrous claims in July 2011 and how angry it makes me every time newspapers and TV channels pull the video gamer card when such exceptional human tragedies occur somewhere on the world. Redbeard, Tobold and Gordon have each voiced their concerns in the past week and I briefly wondered about the timing. Around here, the news have gone very quiet for some months now, as is the way of the world. We are shocked, we cry out wringing our hands, we pay our condolences – and then we move on with our lives. The court of Oslo has a task at its hands now nobody would envy. How do you punish such evil a deed?

I managed to install the free trial of SWTOR this weekend, thoroughly uninterested as I am in both TERA and Diablo III – and a jolly club we are. I’d rather not rant too much, but it turned out to be the longest download in the history of mankind, after lots of initial sign-up troubles (sorry we don’ like your email address, try yet again!). Anyway three hours of gameplay in, I feel SWTOR has done nothing to win me over and everything to confirm my bias. So I’ll stick to the good which is the shared quest scenarios, the audio conversations and choice options…..and of course the Chiss! What a great race, they definitely did something right there. In a way it’s a pity SWTOR came out this late – I would probably have enjoyed it more 7 years ago when it still would’ve been nice looking and innovative.

In other news, I finally succumbed to joining the birds club. I officially have a twitter account, ya rly. I had to open a work related twitter recently for a company I’m freelancing for and actually liked how easy it let’s you stay on top of updates and releases. I don’t expect to chat there much and I am still a cautious client, but I do see the advantages of link exchange – and of course being able to follow my favorite developers, writers and bloggers with more ease. So for now, I will have a look at this. The proof is in the pudding.

How I wish it wasn’t Monday! I have a job interview this afternoon and another on Wednesday, so I’m feeling somewhat nervous for no good reason. I deeply dislike the drill – which is ironical as my future job will include interviewing applicants. But then it’s a big difference what side of the table you are sat on. Seems a fitting analogy for our entire existence on this planet: it all comes down to what side you are on and what clothes you are wearing. If they ask me about my weakness again, I’m going to tell them that I’m a bad liar. Gotta love the room for interpretation.

This Guild Wars 2 beta weekend cannot come soon enough. All responsibilities have been canceled and the fridge will be stuffed with pizza and Coke Zero (the greatest gift since the electric toothbrush). Oh the glory of playing MMOs! Happy soon-to-be Friday, everybody!

Are Rift players the better people?

There’s the Carneval of the Ascended world event currently going on in Rift and having re-subbed a couple of weeks ago, I did of course jump into the whole affair while trying to remember how to play my old character. Out of a whim one night (and desperation), I decided to use general chat to get some guidance, not expecting much in terms of help on boring noob questions.

I was shocked to be proven so utterly wrong. Not only did I receive a perfect answer within the minute, I received several more tells from different people. My rusty thank-you muscles were sore afterwards. Surely that was first time luck though, some rare cosmic constellation working in mysterious ways! I had to try again.

And so I did, several more times over the coming weeks. Nothing changed. I was never ignored and never met with uncivil tongue though I must have offered plenty of temptation. Moreover, sometimes players would send me tells after 5 minutes, making sure I had actually received an answer to my problem, while a quicker player was still briefing me on more than I originally dared ask for –

What is it with these friendly, helpful Rift players???

Sadly, I am a complete stranger to this level of support. I gave up in WoW years ago and other MMOs that will even feature beginner channels (such as AoC), were just as big a disappointment. I can only begin to speculate why Rift’s community is so different – is it the cosier size? The numerous WoW quitters? The fresh air in Telara?

….Or do I just happen to find myself on a freak server? Whatever it is, I am duly impressed. Maybe the stars do have something to do with it after all, though; Kleps just ran into an outrageous bunch of Robin Hoods recently, in WoW of all places. If that’s not supernatural, I don’t know what is!