Category Archives: Alts

Instant Class Switches – The Last Bastion of Character Restriction

Some time ago Tesh voiced his support of Allods’ class change coupons in a minipost. While he called it the small and simple things, it is remarkable how this one feature among convenience features is still essentially taboo in most of today’s MMOs. And why is that?

When World of Warcraft started off in 2004, the answer to most player wishes concerning character freedom was NO. Over the years slowly but surely, the strict regiment of a character of one name, one race, one faction, with one same look and tedious respecs, changed completely. Today, there are hardly any final parameters left for an already created character. For a fee, you can not only change your server or your character’s looks but significant allegiances such as faction or race. With WotLK, Blizzard also introduced death knights, offering players not just a new class but instant level 55 character. For the Warlords of Draenor expansion, one instant level 90 per account has already been announced, in an attempt to draw parts of that retired audience back in.


These guys could all be one character

In the light of such overwhelming flexibility, the question of instant class switches remains unanswered. You would think that in this day and age, where players are not only used to extensive alting and multi-classing in other games (Final Fantasy XI already featured this for the same character in 2002) but adjusting quickly to race -, spec- or faction-related switches, there were no genuine reasons left to prohibit such freedom in WoW or elsewhere.

What does it matter if I choose to go shaman with my priest? Will I not put in my own time to adjust to all the new abilities and have quests and dungeon runs as my harsh teachers? If I ever went back for WoD, boosting my old priest to level 90, I would essentially have to relearn the entire class after all this time. How is that so different? And who doesn’t already have several high-level alts anyway (except for me…), so why not make different classes available on the same character for those who like?

It makes no sense any more. I wonder when they’ll notice.

The more alts, the more burnout

To pick up where I left the trail in my last post: Alts are pure evil.

No really, playing alts is a fascinating subject. Not just on a personal level, but in the greater scheme of things and how they affect MMOs. While I was rather outright about all the issues I perceive with alt-play yesterday, and the general misconception that playing alts is performance therapy, I do understand why people love to play different classes just like I agree it can be beneficial. I can see why trying out a new class is fun and makes for a more informed decision for a main. I do this myself when I start a game. However, personally I’d prefer the approach Final Fantasy XI had there: one character can learn and “equip” any given combination of classes available. That way your main character stays, but learns new things if you so choose.

I understand too, why players enjoy to re-visit content. I think it’s rather problematic if designers promote the feature in absence of actual, new content, but if you’re generally somebody who loves questing, exploring and traveling, leveling up a new class gives you a reason to do so and discover new things on the way. A new class and potentially new race is a new perspective. Shintar is one blogger who frequently let’s us in on her experiences while re-visiting lower content and zones in WoW. They’re fun reads that I enjoy and appreciate from that particular perspective.

Yet, I still wonder: do alts really prolong long-term player enjoyment or do they not rather make for a worse burnout?

Burnout, boredom or nothing to do?

“….but when and why did we get the idea that we must have max-level, max-profession, max-gear alts? That’s not an alt, that’s a second main! Is one main not good enough? Maybe we need more fun and more to do on our mains, rather than spamming alts and then getting sick of repeating quests.”

So, when did we get this idea? I’m not sure I ever played a game where alternative characters mattered more than in World of Warcraft. Some MMOs actually require you to buy a new account, others will restrict the level of benefit and interaction possible between your characters. They don’t want a single player to have that amount of self-sufficiency; to unhinge the intended speed of play or undermine social mechanisms and interaction in favor of more freedom, flexibility and soloability.

I’ve known a few extreme examples of players that considered leveling and gearing up a character the main purpose in WoW. They did so at ridiculous speed until they had all 10 classes (I got it right this time Shintar!) fully equipped at 85. After which there was “nothing more to do” so they quit the game. Or a guildmate who was so eager for the new expansion that he did not only raid Ulduar on his main 3 times a week, but on alts during offnights too. Something we’ve always watched with concern in our raid guild because we anticipated (and experienced) just how fast such players burn and bore out on content that you intend to raid for at least the next 6 months. We did even intentionally cut back on alt-runs at expansion starts for this precise reason.

I don’t believe boredom springs from the same things for everybody. Some players would undoubtedly quit sooner if there were no alts. Others spoil what’s actually there for themselves by altoholism and short-term thinking. I don’t blame anyone for either decision, but I think in terms of content development, it’s poor design that needs people to play multiple chars all over in order to keep things interesting. The crux is probably the entire idea behind expansions and how content is usually delivered in peaks, rather than a more natural flow. I am still waiting for an MMO where the developers approach this issue better.

Another problem with the availability of alts is that they’re too convenient a solution – in a way they prevent players from looking for further content and entertainment after they feel “finished” on their main. How does this notion even go together with a character that’s supposed to be your alter ego in an ongoing story and simulate world? It doesn’t; unless you think of the classic game avatar. So, let’s assume for a moment that there were no alts available in WoW: what would you do with your “excess time'”? Would you rather –

a) Turn off the game and do something else?
b) Look for other ways to play your main?

Would people maybe contribute more to the world and community by sticking to their main because they are forced to? Would it not drive them to become more innovative and creative about what to do next? Would they really just run out of things to do?

Ideally, in a more open-world MMO than WoW, I’d like to see no alts. I would rather see people invest time in interacting more and creating things in the game. Yeah, HA-HA, I know that’s not the way things are currently going in the world of MMOs, but it’s what I’d like anyway. In WoW’s case options are limited but let’s still have a look at potential side-effects. Without alts people would probably –

  • re-visit older zones and content on their mains more often
  • team up more with random strangers because they want/need that class*
  • help out lowbies more
  • invest more time in inter-guild relations
  • rely on each other more for crafting and trade
  • play more PVP, arrange more outdoor conflict
  • have less money and therefore do a lot more of XYZ

That’s just from the top of my head. You can think of more things to do without alts at your disposal. Depending on your perspective as a player and customer, all of the things listed can be either positive or negative. Maybe you don’t want to cooperate or rely on others more, maybe you enjoy having an alt for every trade, maybe you are after making money. I’m not – to me most of that list is positive, whatever actually makes people play together, communicate, cooperate, create. The more interaction you have, the more stories you will tell at the end of the day.

*The one big downside I see is group setup / guild related: in a game ruled by the holy trinity, alts give guilds flexibility to go ahead with a run despite the lack of tanking, healing or dpsing mains. Canceled raids are a sad affair. People can respec or if need be, relog. Without this option, guilds would probably just end up inviting more people as backup players for their roster and that doesn’t really work out so great during times when raiding is most popular. This is strictly from a WoW-centric view though, amending one bad with another. In a way specs and alts are Blizzard’s own saboteurs to the trinity, even if “bring the player not the class” is still a dream. A different MMO without the whole class/role hysteria would be fine without alts: you wouldn’t need them for group balance.

The road less traveled by

I will blow into last week’s horn a little and ask just how many opportunities and stories we’re missing out on because an MMO offers the easy alt road. How different could social dynamics and life on servers be if everyone only ever had one main? What would people come up with instead?

Just like short-cuts turn into delays, too much convenience can turn into boredom. I’m sure developers welcome players that spend big amounts of time on alts, but I’m not sure if it really works out long-term? If it makes for a massive and more terminal boreout later, convincing you to keep paying that subscription will become increasingly difficult. Not just that, but the pressure to deliver expansions fast and keeping things fresh and interesting gets worse and worse on the developer’s side.

Nobody likes the samey grind forever. Candy is yum, but eating too much of the same candy is boring and gives you stomach ache. Already my granny knew that.

The common alt misconception

In a recent comment on a not so different topic, Klepsacovic left the following comment:

What’s so great about alts? It’s nice to have something to tinker with and to learn a bit about how other classes see the game, but when and why did we get the idea that we must have max-level, max-profession, max-gear alts? That’s not an alt, that’s a second main! Is one main not good enough? Maybe we need more fun and more to do on our mains, rather than spamming alts and then getting sick of repeating quests.

This is particularly interesting: for one thing, it did remind me of a similar comment I had left on BBB where I stated that the gravitation towards alt-play in WoW was a bad sign for the game, not a good one. I’m no fan of alts for many reasons. But this recent comment brought another interesting notion to the table, one quite contrary to the popular belief that playing alts prolongs the fun of playing the same game for long. You hear it often in that context: playing alts makes people tire less fast of WoW because it provides them with the chance to review content from a different angle. Or maybe not.

Why alts are no friends of mine /open parentheses

I’ve never been into the alt business for several reasons. Firstly, I am a rather strict “alter ego” player that plays MMOs for virtues such as story, world, simulation, community and immersion. It always felt like diving headlong into a book or strange universe to me, one that I travel and explore as myself – my adventures, my continuous story. And for that simple reason, my toons would resemble my true self and there was only ever the one me. That’s a matter of preference and perspective – I don’t expect others to join me on this. Let’s just say that playing multiple characters in an MMORPG feels like I am sat in front of the start screen of some classic console game where I’m supposed to pick a random character to go with.

My second reason is that I cannot play a “second or third rate character”. Unless you have an endless supply of time and a more casual guild, alts inevitably end up being your inferior toons. A little less shiny than your main, a little less experienced, a little less travelworn, a little less access to things. A little less of everything. I hate that; I hate sub-par, I don’t do sub-par versions of myself. If I was to heal some random 5man on an alt, I would constantly end up comparing it to healing the run on my priest – it would seem absolutely pointless to me or even a little selfish (“sorry group, had my priest been here we’d be so much faster”). To make matters worse, I’d have to repeat a ton of content, let alone stupid daily and rep grinds that my perfectionism would force me to go through. Myeah, I think not.

Last but not least, one big reason is playtime. I already dedicated a lot of time to WoW as it was – raiding, guild leading, forum and webpage work, PVPing, collecting silly baubles and exploring the world, you name it. There were dailies and token runs and whatnot, I could barely keep up doing those regularly. So, if I ever truly felt I was “finished” with Syl for the day, I really did not want to relog and start over on some alt. I’d rather dedicate time to my other hobbies. The balance hasn’t always been there between WoW and other things I enjoy, but I used to draw the line at playing on weekends or playing alts.

To honour truth here: I levelled a shaman once into the early 70ies and played her on a few 5man and 10man runs. My total playtime at the end of WotLK was 12 days or something and it felt pretty much pointless, besides showing me that elemental is OP levelling up and that I pity the melee for constantly running after tank aggro. I think I did it mostly to have the chance to join guild alt-runs (:peer pressure:), but I never got there. Every time I logged to the shaman, I felt like forcing myself: this wasn’t an alt of Syl, this was a nuisance, a disturbing sidekick. And yes, I had a lot less gold than most of my alt playing mates, but here’s the thing: I like asking other people to help me craft something. 

Besides this experience I never had any alt worth mentioning. Oh, I created toons aplenty and transferred them to Elwynn Forest where they became happy mules ever after. I can escort you from northern Kalimdor to Stormwind on foot with my eyes closed.. However, most available time must be dedicated to “maximize” my main. And if not, I log off (or alternatively, idle and chitchat while running through Dalaran in circles which is jolly good fun). I also believe that you are never “done” on your main, anyway. If I really had “excess time” besides my main focuses, PvP was always the next stop. Here I felt I was doing something meaningful towards my experience as a player and healer.

Personal parentheses closed.

The common alt misconception

Preferences aside, the longer I played and met various “altoholics”, the more I detected issues. Not with everyone mind, but quite a few people. The most prominent notion around is that alts make you a better player. Just like that. I remember a particularly mind-numbing conversation with a former maintank of our guild who wasn’t only one of our most fickle and unstable members, but such a screwup in various situations that we used him as melee whenever possible to “minimize the damage” (sorry DPS, it’s true) to the raid. So there I was, finding myself playing arena matches with the guy, probably by the machinations of some sadistic deity or something. We were short on a member and one of my team mates just grabbed the next best replacement before even asking me.

Wonderful. I spent the next 60 minutes listening to his blabber during queues, about how playing his priest and warlock had given him profound insights towards our raids and how he was definitely the best of our MTs in both PvP and PvE for this reason. He was also rather adamant about being able to give raiding priests and warlocks tips now because he had teh multiple perspective. He also finally understood all the “spell abbreviations they like to use”, like PoH and GS….Things between us went downhill from there.

The guy was just a hilarious example of the underlying issue. He was a shitty player with no degree of self-awareness and understanding of his own class – and therefore he stayed a shitty player despite his alts. Quantity is not were the insights lie. And WoW is not rocket science, no matter what some guys on Elitist Jerks would have us believe. Good players are good players, no matter what toon they play and vice versa. In fact, some of the best players I ever met were passionate about their main and the other half was excellent no matter what class they played. Because they set their mind to it, because they had a quick grasp or just a lot of ambition. They approached their alts in the same way they approached their main. The sucky players sucked no matter what character they played, some shades of difference granted.

So, to sum it up for kicks: You don’t go and play your priest and hunter because they will help you suck less on your warrior. It doesn’t quite work that way.  First and foremost, you play alts because you have time to play alts. You play alts because you enjoy playing alts. And that’s all there is to it. If you truly want to improve on your main, play your main. In any possible situation: practise on your main. First stop to improve your flexibility: PVP. If you’re set on improving, surely you’re willing to go through the drudgery?

Playing alts can give you insights into other classes. It does not make you a better player. There is no direct causality between these two things. 

Now, I can see why somebody who generally likes to “know everything” (aka walking encyclopaedia) or someone who loves to re-visit content would enjoy alts, or why a raidleader would consider it beneficial. It is. A change of focus is always beneficial if you actually know what you’re looking for. I’d never claim that playing alts has no positive potential, but it’s the player that makes it work or not. And it is not necessary in order to be a great player. There is also such a thing as “knowing too much” or thinking you know something when you do not quite yet. From years of personal experience and teaming up with great leaders, I have found this to be true: you don’t have to know everything about other classes in order to lead a charge well. That’s just airy nonsense some leaders like to intimidate you with or to boost their own ego. There is something called “functional knowledge” and that’s what I used when coordinating raid healing. I knew the things I needed to know about the other classes. I knew what was in any way relevant to our role, job and position in raids, about co-healers’ classes, about the tanks, about the DPS. And I knew these things from actually talking to those who had raided on their mains for years, from observation, from learning from them and working together. Plus being an attentive and active person on forum discussions and on healer specific sites.

So, this is my recommendation for all ye coordinators: do not be tempted to know everything about others to the point where you start doing all the thinking for them. They can be expected to know the things that concern playing their class properly. You should not have to know all the ins and outs for others or you will start babysitting every last thing much sooner than you know. Especially if you are a bit of a perfectionist or control freak, which is almost a given in leadership, save yourself by some intended ignorance.

Bottom line: do it all if you enjoy it, knock yourself out – but don’t think you “have to”.

Further issues with playing alts

Manalicious recently posted an article on how playing alts affected her raiding in negative ways. As mentioned before, I have very little personal experience with situations like these, but I can still relate. The few times I ran 5mans on the shaman, I was overly aware of the healer in my back, more than your average DPS would be. As a consequence, I was helping out with healing when I felt the healer struggling, too often than I probably should have. If you’re switching class frequently, it can be demanding to ask your mindset and routines to fully switch over every time. Maybe it is even impossible to perform on the same level as somebody who plays the same class for longer periods of time and has therefore a lot more “automatisms” in place.

But to get back to the beginning of this article: one big issue with playing alts is player burnout. I’m not at all convinced that alts really achieve long-term, what their short-term effect is being sold for – keeping people entertained longer and giving them more things to do. It seems to me that especially long-term, alts have the potential to lessen your enjoyment in the game and not just that, they have the potential to affect the entire world, the social mechanics on servers and their internal progress, negatively. This is the essence of the initial quote I posted and something I want to look into in a follow-up article tomorrow:  

More alts, more player burnout?Let’s find out.