Category Archives: Questing

[Wildstar] Unforseen Questing Highlights

In her recent blogpost on questing, Jewel (by the way now co-host of brand new MMO/gaming podcast Podtato together with Izlain!), ponders the way MMO questing has changed and developed over time, from a more forced group-centric activity to an either instanced or collective experience for soloers. It’s evident that our questing and leveling game has become a more solo-friendly affair in recent years, sometimes to the detriment of social dynamics. On the other hand, Bhagpuss speaks level-headed truth in his related comment on soloability being a popular request of many gamers ever since the dawn of the genre –

[…]Consequently we have a powerful received wisdom, promulgated by a very particular interest-group, that states that the be-all and end-all of Massively Multiple Roleplaying Games is social interaction and the true worth of those games is the friendships they foster. I don’t buy that. It doesn’t match my experience and I don’t believe it jibes with the way we’ve seen the genre develop over the last 15 or 20 years.

If solo-play is a playstyle, then soloability furthers playstyle variety and a more inclusive community from there (which of course you can totally not care for). One reason why WoW made it this big was because it embraced a much wider audience than its oldschool, hardcore predecessors. That’s right, the vanilla kids were mocked by vocal then-MMO veterans for being dirty casuals. With my 16hrs per week (net) raiding schedule, I was among the mocked which is all the more ironic seen from 2014.

It doesn’t matter what side you’re on and I certainly concur with the notion that a degree of hardship and purpose in games create cooperation by pushing our primal human buttons (for reference) – however, there are several ways to further group play in MMOs. I will always hold a torch for GW2 not trying to incentivize grouping via setup restrictions or tiresome, traditional grouping formulas. The game tore mental walls down for me when it first came out, walls that can never be reconstructed.

Incentivizing grouping is therefore a most interesting topic and preferably, developers will go for a bonus-approach rather than a malus one. This is what Wildstar is doing right now and I dare say to pretty positive effect: not only is grouping a must to gain coveted guild renown currency (few housing challenges aside that will let you collect very little renown at a time), it is a considerable boost to your experience gain while leveling. There is a clear advantage to coop play in Wildstar without crippling the casual solo player.


You have many questions!

That brings me to another point about Wildstar’s questing game that is quite enjoyable. Yes, I’m managing to have fun while leveling up despite a very straightforward, traditional approach to questing! What ever is the meaning of this?

Wildstar’s questing highlights

Even the most fervent Wildstar advocates will probably agree that questing overall is one of this new MMO’s biggest shortcomings (besides the pretty abysmal UI and menu functionalities). There is not much in terms of innovative mechanics – there’s your standard fedex and kill quests with way too many markers, your escort and timed challenges as well as the odd special mission in which you control vehicles or get to memorize a sequence of XY (for the TBC players: Ogri’la bombing quests and Simon Says are back!). So far, so blah.


If you are opting for WoW-type questing in 2014, then at least do it right! To me, traditional questing is all about the pacing and fine touches; there is potential here for designers who can keep a steady and rewarding progression going, with an engaging storyline leading from place to place in comprehensive manner and some refreshing humor peppered across. Now, Wildstar is 50% tedious kill quests, it ain’t no lie – yet, there’s also great pacing and lots of variety for everything else.

I can live with slaying another twenty Snoglugs if my EXP bar shows satisfying progress or if there’s a serious chance for shinies or some unexpected encounter, which brings me to the important point: there are some increasingly enjoyable and epic moments with a fresh spin in Wildstar’s leveling curriculum! This game is full of surprises and good laughs, so this is where I’d like to give you just two examples (spoiler warning: if you’re sensitive to quest spoilers up to level 35ish, you should probably stop reading now):

Whitevale: The Odd Squirg Hat!
At some point on your journey through the beautiful snowy lands of Whitevale, you will encounter the Squirg, weird alien race of squid-heads having Cthulhu written all over them. The Squirg questline includes a variety of activities from running over them in hovercrafts, to impersonating one and finally attempting to throw squid hats on enemy faction players (for PvP realms) or NPCs. This marks the conclusion of a pretty insane run, rewarding the player with the Odd Squirg Hat item that doesn’t only cover half a Chua’s body but…speaks to the player in literal possession! I don’t know about you – but small stuff like that goes a long way with this here MMO player.



Farside: Low gravity high!
Having left Whitevale with some fuzzy feels (two words: lopp weddings!), the next map of Farside has quickly become one of my favorite MMO zones of all time as far as gameplay and atmosphere go. That’s quite the accolade so early into the game but no less deserved. As if the whole spacesuit and moon gravity simulation-thing (yay for moon jumps!) wasn’t enough, there are meteorites showering the landscape as you travel along until at some point sooner or later, your screen will go black with a message prompt, asking you to save the moon from impending disaster. Off you go, thrown into a chance scenario with random players running a drill into a huge meteor (and killing a mini-boss), so the good NPCs of Farside can enjoy another moon day. Of course there are goodies for the winning team!

Later on, as you explore the north-eastern parts of Farside, you discover Ravenous Ravine which is where the fun really starts. Pitch black part of the map, you will navigate by the light of your torchlight, fending off some of the spookiest deep sea-style creatures in the game thus far. The analogy of low gravity vs. underwater isn’t just fitting and smart, it is by far one of the most atmospheric places I’ve traversed in any MMO. So simple, such a small thing and yet to such great effect. More of that, please?


Did you just touch me??

And there’s more, a lot more in Farside until you’ve lost your mind completely in one big acid trip with rainbows and vending machines attacking you, while your still-sane party members can’t see the mobs you’re fighting.

…I don’t know about you but to me, these are traditional quests worth having. My next 15 levels in Wildstar have a lot to live up to all of a sudden – fingers crossed!

So that Elder Scrolls Online NDA was lifted, if not my Spirits

I want to say ‘finally’ but last Friday’s NDA lift for ESO was so shamefully overdue that I almost didn’t care to post about it. The game is due in April and already selling a much debated collector’s edition, so how nice to finally give the fanbase a voice two months before launch. We will try not to interpret the long hesitation. Personally, I believe Zenimax have caused this launch more harm by keeping ESO under NDA for as long as they have. Not only wasn’t the press particularly gentle once the press NDA got lifted (see RPS or Ten Ton Hammer for reference), the title would’ve benefited from the buzz created by more balanced and positive blogger reviews. After all, there are still many players excited for ESO.

I used to be one of them but alas, that enthusiasm was shaken in its foundations after participating in two of the more recent beta stress test weekends in January and February 2014. To be fair, I didn’t have the bar set very high for ESO: I expected it to feel more dated and traditional than the other upcoming AAAs this year, less polished and overall pandering to the Skyrim demography. Yet in retrospective, the Skyrim comparison is doing things far too big a favor.

My quick and dirty ESO review

While I don’t wish to rain on anyone’s parade, this much anticipated game has dropped on the 2014 priority list much to my chagrin. I don’t intend on buying at launch, in fact I am not sure I’m gonna buy at all for as long as there is also a monthly subscription. Subscriptions aren’t a financing issue for me but like everyone else, I draw comparisons and try to justify the expense. ESO, for me, is not in the right shape to ask for a sub. But let’s have a more detailed look, shall we?

The Good (at first glance):

The settings of ESO are very pretty. Having visited every faction’s starting zone, I liked them all equally as far as overall zone design, weather effects and light cycles go. The world feels more realistic than in many other MMOs, if that’s a criteria for anybody. I love the mature and authentic look of ESO.


The diversity of character customization is a forte of the franchise and ESO is no exception. While some basic faces across all races feel too templatey still, you won’t be missing options inside the rugged, old, scarred or unattractive spectrum; like every ES title before it, ESO makes it hard (but not impossible) to create your staple beauty. Really big props go to armor design which doesn’t discriminate gender and keeps things in the realm of the practical.


She looks alright.

The crafting system appears to be complex and rewarding. While I’ve only meddled with it briefly, I could see crafters getting their share of attention and I didn’t expect anything less from this MMO. I liked the crafting hubs too and many of the small details for tools and ingredients.

The Bad (or why I was so appalled):

ESO gotta have the most sloppy and inaccurate combat I have experienced since [add random console hack’n slay title here]. What was already a boring exercise of throwing lackluster magic balls as a caster, went downhill fast once I experienced the completely unresponsive dual-wielding mess of melee mode. Combat is missing feedback, aiming is off and animations are frankly awful. I don’t want to look like a WoW undead when moving around hitting stuff. There is nothing of Skyrim’s more impactful combat and precisely aimed shots to be found!

While we’re talking animations, they are mostly horrible. I made a particularly awful acquaintance out in the wild with an eagle circling my head, its flight animation as graceful as a tour bus trying to squeeze into a beetle’s parking space. It’s great that ESO has birds flying around, you just don’t want to look at them too closely.


The wonderful cave intro.

As beautiful as the world is, as dead does it feel traveling from place to place. The NPCs do precious little which is a stark contrast to MMOs like FFXIV for example, that comes with complex scripts for NPC behavior and events. Towns feel empty and there’s no life bustling inside unless it’s created by a bunch of coincidental players. This was very disturbing for me, especially since the more dynamic mechanics in Skyrim would constantly throw you into unpredictable situations and have quests and NPCs involve you actively. This is something that GW2 managed to do while being an MMO, so ESO gets no pass from me here.

Questing is a traditional and straight-forward fetch and delivery, featuring the transparent quest window and occasional dialogue choices that franchise fans will know too well. Friends of the tunnel experience in MMOs will be glad to hear that ESO makes you play through the same dark pit for 15 minutes on every new character. As far as the NPCs and (much praised?) voice acting go, I was under-whelmed and sometimes appalled at the sound and look of some of them, their shrill voices and bland, badly written humor harassing me during several multi-step quest chains. The early “John Cleese” appearance has already been criticized by others but I reached my personal high point with this remarkable fellow here:


(It only looks as if Eiman has to go really badly…this is his usual facial expression.)

A difficult closure

At this point, I don’t know when I will be ready to give ESO another go. My admittedly short beta testings were a painfully disappointing experience and while they might not be completely fair or balanced, they are lacking in ways that cannot be made up by playing the game longer or praying for the unlikely wonders of another two months of final polishing. My issues with the game are of no subtle nature – they are fundamental. Which makes me think that ESO just might not be the MMO for me after all. That is something I have to accept and which makes my return to the wonderfully dynamic and physical world of Skyrim all the more likely. I used to dream of adventures in ESO but that arrow to the knee was quick. Ah well!

Achievement (Hate), Exploration and Mystery

The epic quest of kill ten rats has humble beginnings. Once upon a time the explorers of virtual worlds received hardly a hint of where to go or what to do but such are not the times we live in. Those who embarked on this journey before Blizzard’s time will remember that era of glorious uncertainty but early WoW players too, know how considerably the questing experience has changed over the course of a decade. The “kill ten rats” of yore and the “kill ten rats” of today have precious little in common.

Kill ten rats: a history of epic questing

Year #1
Player X overhears NPC talking of a special breed of rats with silver pelts that may exist “somewhere”. Player finds said rats by accident one day. Player kills rats, loots five pelts in 30 minutes. Player feels special. Wahey.

Year #2
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts and deliver them. Player finds said rats one day, thanks to friendly advice in zone chat. Player kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #3
NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Player finds said rats after some searching, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #4
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. Player finds said rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #5
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! Player can’t miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #6
NPC with an exclamation mark asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! Player can’t possibly miss rats, kills rats, gets money in return from NPC.

Year #7
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn northwest of the inn. Also, there is a yellow marker on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC.

Year #8
NPC with an exclamation mark, now also indicated on the mini-map, asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and silver pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

Year #9+
After reading the achievement tab, player X finds NPC with an exclamation mark, also indicated on the mini-map. NPC asks player X to find rats with silver pelts at the barn north/northwest/south/southwest of the inn. Also, there are many yellow markers on the world and mini-map. And the rats sparkle! And the fastest route is now also indicated in red on the world map! And the player has epic flying mount of ludicrous speed. Player can’t possibly for the life of him miss rats, kills rats, gets money and epic pelt cloak in return from NPC. After delivery, player X receives special kill-ten-rats achievement!

..Such explorers we are. Paradoxically, the shorter, the safer, the more navigated and convenient our questing has become over the years, the more MMOs have felt the need to reward us for it. That makes no sense whatsoever but it’s not a coincidence either. More on that later.

Why I hate Achievements

A fair warning: I don’t like achievements. I get why some players like, nay love achievements but I really don’t. More importantly, I don’t think they have any business in this genre.

The unconditionally worst thing that has ever happened to MMOs are achievements. Hate is a strong word and applies for my case of die-hard explorerdom although it need not be yours. Nothing feels more counter-intuitive, more obtrusive or immersion-breaking to me than the flashy achievement fonts and in-your-face achievement tabs that greet me in most of today’s MMOs – yes, even at the bloody login screen of once-great Guild Wars 2. Sic transit gloria mundi virtualis. When did all this happen?

While that’s achievements on the surface, repercussions reach much further. Several times on this blog have I raised the question of why virtual worlds need to save time, why players need to be told what to do and where to go by which path when developers have spent years creating vast open worlds of beauty. What’s it all for – just a pretty, expensive paint around a game telling me what’s an achievement?

Who would wish to complete a world? Completionism, pre-defined paths and goals, extrinsic motivators – none of these go with my personal sense of exploration. Every time unwanted and un-asked for achievements pop up in an MMO, my chosen modus operandi is disturbed or hindered. Every time that happens, that delicate illusion of virtual world is shattered. Worse, there’s no opt-in (why?).

The greatest RPG I’ve ever played was a game I didn’t complete. Where things happened at random, sometimes or never again. Where going south was as good as going north and an endless sense of mystery added depth and immensity to the world.

Even if you can’t design endless worlds, you can create size through mystery. Exploration feeds off mystery – and mystery is neither excellent nor should it be fully solvable.

Mystery resists.  Mystery refuses.  It will not yield.  Not to me.

Mystery resists closure.  It resists completion and clean getaways.  It, instead, insists.  I’m not done with you yet.  Get back over here.

Mystery is not merely the unknown.  It is the impossibility of knowing and yet the continual attempt to know.  It is unknowability itself.  It is futile and essential.

Why do we diminish our own experience?  Are we afraid of not connecting, of confirming our solitude? [T. Thompson]

No really, go read the whole thing.

When the journey is no longer the reward…we need more rewards?

Whether you agree with my passionate sentiments or not, what most design critics can agree on is the relationship between journey/effort and goal/reward in games; the required balance in order to make either feel significant. Long and hard journeys with never a memento to show for feel unfulfilled, just as easy and plentiful loot won’t be remembered by anybody. More than that though, whenever players think back on their greatest achievements in MMOs, they don’t usually name purple swords and special titles but rather the road that led there, the obstacles that had to be overcome in the company of comrades. Naturally, loot matters too and we’ll keep those special items forever – yet loot like an epilogue, is only the last part of that story.

The journey is the reward. Knowing that we did it, that we’ve accomplished something. The shiny purple sword is a representation of that experienced, gratifying victory. It means nothing if we got it for a bargain on the flea market. (Okay maybe if there was an achievement for that….)

So, if the journey becomes ever shorter, ever more straight-forward and without mystery, what will a game attempt in order to compensate for lack of win? Will it pile on the rewards, the titles, the achievements – desperate to convince us we achieved something anyway?

I don’t need to be told I achieved something in shrill and flashing colors. I should be able to feel it and to judge it was a worthy cause. That’s when you may reward me with items, sometimes, so I may carry them with me to tell the world about my adventures.

And whither there? I cannot say. For now, let’s leave it a mystery!

EQNext’s Rallying Calls – A Reason to rally?

Personally I’d like to know […] what type of spin SOE intend to put on traditional questing. Frankly, I don’t think anyone can do much better than ArenaNet in this department. ~ Syl

One of the great achievements of Guild Wars 2 will always be the introduction of more dynamic, or shall we say more complex and genuine public events than ever before in MMO history. Some have tried to downplay this achievement for various reasons, but as far as I am concerned ArenaNet have completely altered the state of traditional MMO questing and set a very high bar for AAA-MMORPGs to come in the exploration department.

The fact that fetch & delivery have all but gone in this game, with travel and exploration actually focused on the environment with random events triggered all around you whether you be there or not, have spoiled me completely for older games such as LOTRO where the fedex-grind is still alive and well (ftr: I like LOTRO but questing is tedious). Fans of traditional questing have argued that a mixture of public events and traditional questing would’ve created a better outcome for GW2 – I’m not sure I concur. Guess I’m just too loaded with kill-ten-rats-angst to delve further into this subject.

Now, just to remember briefly why GW2’s dynamic events are mostly amazing:

  • Randomly popping up, free-for-all, location-bound scenarios with individual loot; it’s true that they’re actually on a timer but the average player such as myself doesn’t really track this and probably won’t for a while to come (unless you’re after specifics).
  • Multi-stage events with various outcome; the wiki calls this the “cascading effect” which basically means some events will trigger more events (sometimes) and with various outcome depending on if/how the group succeeded.
  • Multiple targets / solution finding; most quests allow for different playstyles in order to be solved – be it slaying monsters, gathering items or setting roofs on fire. Unlike for Wildstar, paths exist in GW2 without being a determining and lasting choice.


TERA didn't get the memo!

TERA didn’t get the memo!

Still, events in GW2 aren’t perfect. There’s certainly room to improve, especially where mechanics and impact are concerned:

  • Repetition & lasting impact; many events reset too swiftly with the environment going back to base one. Sometimes you see structures re-assemble right after your quest marker popped up. While MMO worlds must restore much of their status quo for obvious reasons (and we all hate phasing), there could be longer and more lasting public events overall, shaping the face of the land and story.
  • Scaling; this never really worked well in GW2. Encounters become a trivial zerg in larger groups, difficulty doesn’t scale as dynamically as it should. That said, this is a very tricky task to master as group size often changes constantly.

EQNext’s Rallying Calls

During the big Las Vegas reveal, SOE introduced their “holy grails” for EQNext, one of which are Rallying Calls (RC). Yet another word for public events, there seems to be a lot of added depth and complexity to RCs which may greatly improve the dynamic events we know so well from GW2 – in theory, anyway. I am all for permanent change in MMOs, public events and collective server efforts; what WoW veteran doesn’t think back fondly on the Gates of Ahn’Qiraj? In this context, I admit the promises of SOE sound exciting –

….Long-term, multi-chapter public scenarios (3 months or more) which continuously change and shape the environment? Multiple problem solving? Different / random order of events on different servers? – I like it!

We can do with a lot more randomness, secrets and continuous change in this genre. It’s the spice that adds excitement and authenticity to our virtual worlds which all too often boil down to a static and broken record, no matter their pretty paint. Now, if SOE are going to pay as much attention to things like environmental / weather and sound effects as they do for events and permanent change, this upcoming title might truly evolve questing and exploration to the point of new-found MMO immersion.

This is where I say a prayer there shan’t be added “traditional quests” in this game (“…please don’t let there be a quest log, please don’t let there be a quest log!”) – or are there any traditionalists out there longing to see the fedex routine return to EQNext? If so, I’m all ears!

Off the Chest: Unlearning Convenience, One-time Events and what would you do in a Sandbox?


It’s one of those days where I have too many thoughts on different blogging topics which don’t warrant a blogpost of their own but still, in my mind, ask for more dedicated commentary. I tend to leave longer replies on my fellow bloggers articles for this reason and often that’s good enough; yet for a while now, I’ve been thinking about a format or style of post that allows rambling on various topics that have come up, vexed me and yet didn’t quite make it into a single post – usually because I feel somewhat late to the party or then I simply cannot bring myself to present you with anything less than a WoT. It’s true.

Be that as it may, I herewith introduce “off the chest” as my on-and-off, multiple-subject (and likely ranty..ier) commentary, where articles are shorter wrap-ups or openers to bigger subjects and where I get to be wonderfully incoherent. Summary posts can be quite enjoyable, so maybe these can deliver some information or entertainment to somebody sometime (or else they’ve just been of highly cathartic value for myself)! Without further ado, three topics I needed to get off my chest for a while now, in no particular order.

Unlearning Convenience

One of the fascinating things about the mixed MMO community in Guild Wars 2 is that you can tell who the ex-WoW players are after a while, judging by the degree of convenience they are used to or rather, the degree of discontent they voice in that particular area. After an era of WoW and not GW, I absolutely am a spoiled MMO brat: for example, I expect a lot of menu choices and customizability for things like name tags or combat info (ally healthbars anyone?), I want the market place search to be refined so it’s actually functional (armor class search?) and I expect a quick disconnect/relog from WvW not to throw me back into a queue of doom with no way to rejoin my team mates. Stuff like that, missing polish like that, is just horribly frustrating and it gets more frustrating the longer ANet take to fix it. These may be small(er) issues and not top prio in a launch week or even month – but come on, address this shit already!

How long is the average MMO player of today willing to ignore disfunctionalities or little bugs after a fresh MMO launch? How long is your personal tolerance span? Rather than Halloween content I would’ve welcomed some long overdue fixes, some of them as old as open beta! And I haven’t even yet mentioned the camera / first-person view, botting or culling problems. These are not “aspects of GW2 that are just different”, these are issues that need fixing ASAP in any MMO! /GnaRghL

One-time Events

Speaking of Halloween, GW2’s one-time only Halloween event of this Sunday past has sparked quite some debate and of course both negative and positive reactions. This is an incredibly interesting subject because it shows us just how ready today’s MMO audience really is for the often hyped “unique content” and “meaningful impact”. Or to quote a passage in my last post’s comment section:

I think we do not need to content ourselves with impact only ever existing in offline/single-player games. like you said, GW2 makes some good attempts – but they could be much better even. I think MMOs need to lose the idea that everything is always available and repeatable for everybody. much of the generic feeling comes from everything that players do happening over and over, respawning, resetting….why? why not make some events more unique? what if somebody misses them – so what? you could add small content patches for this on a fortnightly base, like I suggested a while ago in an article on expansions. give players a real sense of story progression, unique experiences and impact. let them change things permanently!” (Syl)

That’s the thing: you can’t have it both ways. You can experience triggered quests that are available all the time, or more random events to which you are sometimes too late or early. You can finish quests with zero to marginal impact on the world and people around you – or you can witness really memorable events. Once in a while. And you can most certainly miss those. There is a flipside to that coin of memorable and special MMO moments that gravitate towards simulation and open world a lot more than towards gamification.

I actually missed this Sunday’s Halloween event in GW2 as I was on holidays in France; and yes, I am a little sad about that. On a less personal note however, I am very happy ArenaNet made this decision. Maybe next time I’ll be around for it. Either way, now the community has something to talk about and tell each other! Missing the Mad King’s appearance in Lion’s Arch or having to re-watch it on youtube is a price I will gladly pay for MMO worlds to become less generic, feel less repetitive and predictable! But that’s me and my idea of games worth playing. And living in, really.

So, what would you do in a Sandbox?

It’s become a trend of late to invoke the mystical spirit of the sandbox wherever MMO players feel the blues and are simply unhappy with their choices in current games on the market. I get that dissatisfaction and I’m in fact more than up for future MMOs to revert to a more open world state of play, with less orchestrated content. Still, I wonder how many players have truly ever experienced a sandbox game, stuck with a sandbox game? And what is it exactly you wish for, from your next sandbox MMO. Do you know? I’m not so sure we all mean the same things when we talk about sandbox elements (worth having).

Pure sandbox games ask a lot of a player base, both in terms of time and commitment The feeling of freedom or impact doesn’t come for free. So, if by any chance you belong to let’s say a player demographic depending on a) linear progression, b) endgame, c) set achievements or d) in fact any kind of pre-conceived content….I have bad news for you: you won’t like a sandbox! You won’t thrive there. If you already felt that GW2 was “finished” after four weeks, if you lament endgame and progression and ask questions like “what to do next?” in an MMO, the sandbox is not for you. While we’re at it: there’s no “rushing through” or “winning” a sandbox. There’s a lot more in terms of self-defined progress, achievement and goals than in a themepark or playground or whathaveyou MMO. 

Can you deal with that? If so, I hope you’re also up for outdoor PvP and griefers. The big, shining beacons of sandboxy gameplay currently out there, such as EvE Online or Darkfall, are basically MMOs that revolve around the simple principle of “building clans and defending clan bases” and then “warring against other clans and clan bases” (terminology may vary). This is by the by, what the sappy memories of vocal UO and DAoC veterans are made of: strife. Territorial (or resource) warfare with all its little neat side-effects. That’s also why community building was so important in these games to begin with. Sure, you could do many other things too, but erm…..territorial warfare impacting on you! 

So, just in case any of the above gives you headaches but you still yearn for the sandbox…well, I keep my fingers crossed the next such MMO comes with big enough safe sectors! Or alternatively, still deviates enough from its predecessors to accommodate you. A real sandbox is about building your own little castle just as much as it is about destroying your neighbour’s. And it most certainly isn’t going to present you with linear progression and endgame. Don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

My oh my, what a wonderful day!

[GW2] Timing is everything. And a good thing too.

Much has been said about the dynamic shnynamic events in GW2, to a point where I have indefinitely banned the term to the same corner as “hardcore” and “casual” for MMO debates. There’s been quite some praise of course, yet as usual the whining has been the loudest on the message boards I frequent. Personally I think most of the negative critics are missing the point here completely, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

It’s true: the nature of dynamic events in MMOs is that you can be too late or too early, just being “on time” making for the perfect gameplay experience. It’s true too that it feels somewhat disconnected storywise to blunder into an ongoing event without much context. Alas, that’s an issue MMO players have to cope with – unless you prefer not having these types of more random mass-events at all, or only get phased variations thereof. Phasing wouldn’t work the same way for many reasons. Phasing really isn’t an answer to most common MMO questing/adventuring issues, to be honest.

More importantly though, I love that I can be either too early, too late or just on time for events in GW2 – the fact that stuff is happening out there whether I am a part of it or not. The fact that the world doesn’t only spring to life as I push the button since I am so horribly important. Strange things are afoot in Tyria. The world feels alive and yes, “dynamic” because of it. Even if I miss an event or only observe other players running it from afar, I enjoy that. I can try revisit that place later or join anyway and investigate. And when I actually do arrive on time and things start to magically unfold around me….well, there’s absolutely nothing that compares to that feeling in MMOs!

A year ago I read a splendid Skyrim review that captured precisely what makes that world feel so wonderfully open and alive. Unfortunately I cannot for the life of me remember the site. Anyhow, a game journalist talked about his most epic gameplay moment there, when he experienced the perfect dragon encounter somewhere on the road, after pursuing a wild horse that had raced off in terror. There were all kinds of hints like that one, foreboding the incoming dragon attack, NPCs running his way screaming just as the first huge shadow fell over his party and the dragon’s metallic shriek rang through the valley. Skyrim’s magic lies in moment such as this: when everything clicks and it feels as if the world was truly alive all around you, and you are just an erring traveler chancing on whatever lies around the next bend of the road. It’s a magical thing if videogames put us into that removed, immersed state of mind for a moment. It’s a rare and beautiful thing – a memorable thing. It’s the perfect simulation. Real life doesn’t happen according to your agenda all the time, either.

That sensation can never come a dime a dozen though and it shouldn’t. I don’t want to be on time for all the dynamic events in GW2. I want to be early and too late, so that when I am on time at last the scenery will take my breath away. Syp calls experiences like that “just an awesome moment“. To me they lie at the heart of the MMO experience. It’s why we need more randomness in games, more opportunities to be failed or missed, so that we may succeed and when we do, succeed with flying colors. If the minstrel tells us stories before a burning camp fire at night, they will recall most memorable moments and wondrous, rare encounters. And those are worth waiting for and certainly worth having.

And then, suddenly…

[GW2] Pacing and experience points

As more and more feedback on this past GW2 beta weekend is surfacing on blogs and official forums, it gets apparent how different players experienced certain aspects of the game, such as the events, personal story, pacing and leveling process. What becomes all too clear too is that while there are still issues in these departments, many players struggle more with their own mindset, habits and internal “MMO programming” than the game itself. They ask for the kind of guided ride and road to success that is characteristic of WoW’s questing model where it’s hard to go wrong and the game will always tell you where to go next.

GW2 isn’t that kind of MMO. It’s nowhere near a sandbox, but it does return some agency to the player and asks him to find his own adventure. There are different paths to success and while the heart quests are in fact ordered by level, you can easily wander off and lose yourself in other activities. Off the beaten track, players will find surprise and wonder that are easily missed on the highway. To some this presents an overwhelming sense of freedom and disorientation at first. I would claim that this is only temporary – but it’s strong enough a feedback that many bloggers have recently asked the question of whether the playerbase can handle different? Tremayne has gone as far as stating that if it does not, that would be a grave setback for the evolvement of the entire genre. I happen to agree with him.

Azuriel argues that part of at least his own feelings of disconnect spring less from the novelty factor and more from ANet’s failure to accomplish a more open and free playstyle fully: why design a guided personal storyline that is not in sync with the new questing philosophy? And why indeed stick to a leveling system at all, instead of skill-based progression? I have asked this last question before and personally I would have preferred not having any levels in GW2. It seems to run contrary to the game’s overall concept.

Be that as it may, I would like to take the opportunity to point out a few ways of gaining experience points in GW2 while you’re engaged in PVE. I’ve read comments of players claiming that you need to PvP or engage professions in order to keep up a good “speed” or that they were forced to constantly repeat the same events; well, I cannot confirm any of that. There are possibly pacing disparities between some of the maps (apparently Queensdale has such issues), but there are still many more ways to gain experience if you make use of them. This won’t be big news to seasoned MMO veterans, but may be useful to those asking for guidance.

Ways to gain experience points while questing in GW2

The following pointers are based on my own beta experiences. I am the errant traveler / explorer type who likes not to focus on getting the job done as fast as possible. Coincidentally, I never had pacing issues this beta or the issue of not knowing where to go next – mostly because there was nowhere I needed to be. I did plenty of heart quests and events but also general exploration. I did not PvP once nor look into crafting. Here’s what I recommend instead –

1) Zones consist of more than hearts
While the heart quests give you a general sense of direction and offer useful rewards, they’re only an excuse to be at the right place where many events can happen. I found the heart quests rather boring and trivial compared to the rest. If you’re hunting EXP, keep in mind that zones offer many more points of interest than just hearts. Do the trait point challenges, check out special sites and also discover all the waypoints – they yield EXP!

2) Joining / Assisting in ongoing events
All events can be joined at any time and rewards will be dished out according to participation effort. You do not need to wait for an event to re-start, although you are free to repeat them (hearts are not repeatable). Likewise, you can join other players in killing mobs and get EXP for that – grouping is not required.

3) Following through a chain of events
Heart areas have the tendency to literally “be at the heart” of different events being triggered all around them, at various stages of progress. Spend time in these areas and check them out. Often events will continue with a next step or then suddenly the quest NPCs are attacked and offer a next chapter. This can easily occupy you for 20 minutes or more and lead all the way to killing a big baddie with fifty more players.

4) Returning to / repeating events
You may repeat events for EXP. Besides that, it makes sense to return sometime because there’s always a chance for more to happen or to experience scenarios you had missed the first time around. When I visited Hoelbrak and took this picture, I had no idea that other players had previously fought to restore that statue (thanks Rakuno for pointing this out!). For me that means I will be back to see that part of the event myself.

5) Resurrecting allies
Over the course of events many NPCs will die, as much as players. Ressing folk on the way yields plenty of good EXP, in fact more than if you had just killed a mob instead. It is also recommended to res NPC guards and defenders because they will support you in freeing areas or beating bosses.

6) General exploration
Like for most MMOs, wandering around and discovering all parts of a map yields good EXP (and achievements). Don’t forget about cities here and their numerous waypoints. Hunter made a great overview of all the jumping puzzle sites he discovered this beta – did you happen to find any yourself?

7) Gathering / crafting
I did not personally look into crafting yet, but while you’re out there doing events you might as well use nodes or gather herbs on the way. This is not the competitive nightmare it is in other MMOs and is basically easy additional EXP.

8) Personal story
While the personal storyline has some issues at this stage, for myself mainly in terms of difficulty / balance, following through as far as you can yields both EXP and rewards. It is possible to come back later and finish off with more ease or to share your personal scenarios with party members. They will be able to assist you in funny ways. If you are clearly too low to beat the next chapter, the quest tip will say so.

…And that’s pretty much it. Keep variety in your activities and “grinding mobs or events” should be the least of your concerns. Wander off – albeit not into higher level areas. If you still feel bored where you are, take a portal or waypoint to a different map; new hearts, events and trait points await! And lots of EXP for the weary.

[GW2] An altered questing experience

Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Maybe the most profound impression this last beta weekend has left me with, is the questing experience in Guild Wars 2. I am reluctant to even call it “questing”, so overused is this term ever since World of Warcraft and so heavy with negative meaning. What I’ve experienced instead in GW2 is adventuring in the truest sense: being a traveler on an unknown road, inquisitive and curious, ready for chance meetings and whatever the world may present me with. Now, we’ve known for a while about ANet’s different approach to quests – the free for all, public and dynamic events. But knowing this or having read about it somewhere does nothing to prepare you for how it really feels to travel the roads of Tyria. You have to do it yourself. You have to be there and spend a couple of hours before the message sinks in with all its gravity.

It was maybe 8 hours into this second beta, when I had seen a big part of the Norn starting area and began to extend my reach, visiting other places like Queensdale (Humans) or the Plains of Ashford (Charr), exploring maps in greater detail. I was around level 18 and had just helped a traveling salesman to get safely to market, when it hit me: there is no quest log.

Ye gods….I have no quest log!

I can’t express properly just how liberating it felt to realize this, that there was no “homework” for my character. No predefined road. In GW2 it is not the quests that drive you from A to B, to discover certain areas or the next quest hub. Instead, you simply wander around and by blundering onto a site (often it finds you), you are presented with an ongoing situation or are asked for help. That is when an event marker or summary will appear on your screen – but it will disappear again as soon as you leave this region or if you fulfilled your mission. This means your screen is empty when leaving events behind and you also don’t just accumulate more and more jobs. The only ongoing, railway type of questline is your personal story and that one waits for you in patient and unobtrusive fashion. The only time I did consult my zone map was in order to avoid too high level content or to check whether I hadn’t accidentally missed a corner.

This difference in approach, that quests and events are tied to locations rather than to your character, makes a huge impact on the enjoyment of exploration. One may justifiably call this a great paradigm shift from the classic, WoW-shaped questing system of MMOs. Rather than already knowing where to go and what you’ll have to do there, you have to figure it out on site. Add to this that events will usually let you assist in several different ways and have several stages or chapters, depending on when you got there.

Things don’t stop there though: the questing experience becomes even less linear once you realize that you really want to go everywhere – that it makes sense to go everywhere. With the level down-ranking in place (your HP constantly changes depending on where you are) and flat leveling curve, it does not matter where you go to do events, gain experience or karma points, as long as you steer clear of higher level content which is rather quick on the ball punishing transgressions. In fact you do want to visit alternative places especially to earn extra skill points. The bottom line is that there are no strict “starting areas” anymore. All the maps are yours and the world feels bigger than ever. Feel that there’s not enough to do on “your map”? Well then, move your butt somewhere else! Pacing is not the same concern when you have so many areas to choose from.

All these innovations have added a great deal to my enjoyment of this beta weekend and made for the kind of immersive gameplay experience I haven’t had since Skyrim. ANet has achieved a splendid thing and I look forward to them improving the system further where balance and rewards, impact and cooperation are concerned. I will not complain about these issues though; at this point in time I am simply too happy with the overall concept realized in this upcoming and visually stunning MMO.

Talking about stunning…

To say that the world of Guild Wars 2 is breathtakingly beautiful, even on a PC as dated as my own, falls horribly short. The visuals and art style are far beyond anything I had personally hoped for and the wonderful soundtrack of Jeremy Soule (which could be more frequent in places) adds further depth and atmosphere. I’ve stood under a pine tree showering me with snow; I felt the sea spray on my face.

My most remarkable moment of the entire beta was in Godlost Swamp though: standing in the middle of a shallow lake, an eagle flew by me and then circled around me maybe four times. Then, he actually plunged into the water, caught a fish (I assume..) and soared up into the sky. I LIVE FOR THIS SHIT!

And because it was all so wonderful, I decided to create a small screenshot gallery (not mobile friendly) with some of the most beautiful shots I’ve taken this weekend. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do! And I hope the third beta weekend won’t be too long!

Placeholders for real things – shortcuts to nowhere

Dear player: it’s time to remove the keys you enjoy so much, because let’s face it, they serve no purpose anymore besides a symbolic one.  Games are not about symbolism, memories and emotions, this is SRS business. And it saves space on your bars.

We’ve removed the shiny gear and baubles you used to acquire by battling adversaries. It’s not practical. Instead, your rewards are tokens for everything. The tokens all look the same and they aren’t even real tokens, but numbers on a list – we know that’s not very exciting. But it makes loot distribution more even. Less waiting for you.

We removed the requirements for that instance, by the way. No more attunement to proceed. Plus, you can solo the chain if you’ve no patience for a group.

Please note that because of all this, we don’t have enough content since yesterday. However, we really don’t like to see you waste space or time on anything, so we’ll help you save on these things. We don’t know what you’ll do with all the excess, but we are sure you’ll think of something. We want you to be happy right now, not tomorrow.

Cutting out the real thing

So many things have become a currency in MMOs, a substitute; a token, an achievement, a note in the database. Why carry keys when the system can just record an achievement. Why have actual treasure to loot when you can take flexible tokens to shops later. Why carry spell ingredients in your bags, why travel somewhere to enter the instance gate, why visit an NPC in the barracks to join a battlegroud. Why indeed?

MMO players play in virtual worlds. And yet, apparently they need to save time. Apparently they need to save space. For what nobody knows exactly. Weren’t many of those things that get called “timesinks” what actually made for our world, our experiences?

The glory of short-cuts

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.” [Robert Frost]

Sliding doors; an intriguing concept. Playing the mind game of “what if” – what if you had taken that other road, where would you be now and who? We’ll never know and most of the time, there won’t be second chances. But I believe that while short-cuts can be handy, they rarely make for the better story. In fact, let’s try an experiment. Or two.

Which one of the two pictures does appeal to you more? Which one sparks your imagination? Where would you rather take a hike?

Your way to treasure: Through that dark wood, down the steep hill. Wait for a boat at the river. Head for the city, convince the guard to let you in. Get some flint and tinder in the shops. Camp close to the distant mountain range. Only a little further from there.

Your way to treasure:
Just follow the road, you can’t miss it.

Same day, different stories

#Day 1a) in an imagined person’s diary –

“I got up this morning and made some pancakes. When I spilled the milk, I discovered my watch lying under the table. I would have looked for that forever… I got the letter you wrote in the morning mail. The pages smelled of you. On the way to work, I bought a newspaper at the kiosk. There was a little boy who kept smiling at me through his huge tooth gap. When I left, he waved at me winking slily. How odd. Because I was musing over that boy, I missed the bus and so I walked to work. On the way I ran into my friend Val. We had a laugh over this new show we’re both watching and he invited me to dinner in the evening. When I arrived at work, the meeting hadn’t started yet. We were still waiting on the secretary which is why I had some time to get another coffee.”

#Day 1b) same imagined person’s diary –

“I got up this morning and ate a pop-tart. Checking my iPhone, I saw your Email, thanks for that. On the way to work, I listened to the news on shout-cast. I noticed there was a traffic jam on the bus lane, good thing I have my car to get to work. When I arrived, the meeting was about to start. The secretary had not arrived yet, but we decided to get going anyway and just include her over voice conference. That’s when I realized my watch was gone.”

On life; real and virtual

Short-cuts are faster, more efficient. Maybe they get us straight to where we want or at least, to where we think we want to be. But they also rob us of opportunities; of the opportunity for life to step in and trigger a chain of events or add something unexpected. Many good things in life, surprises and chance encounters happen while we’re not on plan, not on time. They happen while we’re waiting. They happen on the side of a winding road. They happen because we got distracted and our eyes weren’t fixed on one point in the distance. Maybe “timesinks” are where life really happens.

If we remove all the “unnecessary detours” in games that people consider a nuisance, what exactly are we “saving and optimizing ” that time for? When you arrive faster at treasure and glory, where do you go from there? And just how much have you missed on that shorter journey?