Category Archives: Story/Narrative

Musings on time and travel

Time is an interesting thing. Such fixed a measure, the same amount of time can pass in a heartbeat or seem like an ordeal that will never end. When there’s a busy day of work ahead, the same time that usually has you listening to the monotonous clicking of the clock for hours will fly by like a sudden breeze. On the other hand, a week full on activities and new impressions will feel much longer a span; when you do absolutely nothing for days on end, the blessed holidays will be over in one dull series of waking up and closing your eyes. Time is paradoxical like that.

When I journeyed to southern Ireland a good two weeks ago, I was reminded of that interesting quality of time – the way our individual perception of it can change and its (at least) dual nature. My partner and I don’t fly, as in we don’t use airplanes. I have flown a few times before as a teenager, but never again after college. As for him, he wouldn’t get close a “flying prison” if his life depended on it. As a consequence, we travel by car, train, bus, bike and on foot which suits me fine really because I never particularly enjoyed 10’000 meters above ground and as a child my parents never took us anywhere by airplane either. So, while there are personal and environmental reasons for both of us, I simply like traveling the long road. I like to know where I’m going – I like to experience it, feel it, smell it. The journey is at least half of why I even bother going anywhere and I find an almost meditative repose for myself in being on the road. It’s when I’m usually at my most creative too.

The whole journey took us around 26 hours (one way) including several breaks and two ferries. We were appointed to meet two friends there who live close to us and made the journey by plane, therefore embarking a day later. What was a very long drive for us, multiple coffee breaks and an eventually rather stiff neck, was one people’s magazine and two rounds of soda for them in an air-conditioned seat. And yet, when we finally arrived at the B&B with them waving in the drive-way, I thought how weird it must have felt to wait for us and miss out on things we had gone through to arrive at exactly the same place. Maybe (most probably) it was just me who noticed it though; we just had so much more to tell and show for. Like some of the most brilliant coastways we had passed through on the way. Like riding one of the fastest Catamaran ferries of Europe (feeling seasick and then overjoyed to feel solid ground under your feet once more). Meeting that lovely old couple who would tell us about their long life of travels together. Driving through a tunnel far below the ocean. Smelling the increasingly salty sea breeze as you approach the first coast line. Feeling the spray on your face with anticipation. I would not trade that for the world.

We saw so many things on the way, the journey felt fast although it wasn’t. All the while our friends “saved time” by skipping the road; yet they ended up at exactly the same point as us and they hadn’t really benefited on the extra time either. If anything, they spent more time waiting before the go, staring at a suitcase and then checking out the area a bit while they waited for us. They certainly had nothing to tell when we met up. Which ultimately brought me to the following conclusion: we gain no time by saving time. Subjectively speaking, we stretch time by filling it and thus feeling fulfilled or at least active. Cutting things short has the opposite effect: eventually we feel like we did nothing at all, simply because we experienced less and our perception of time feels shorter. The more time you “save”, the less time you feel you’ve had. Mostly because you cannot treat time like some currency: just because you save time now, doesn’t mean you’ll make good/better use of it later or beforehand, it doesn’t quite work that way. At best, it’s a trade-off between definite opportunities and potential ones. Meanwhile, time keeps flowing without pause. Really, we might as well enjoy our travels, inside and outside our virtual homes.

Anyway, I am back now.

Wiping expansions off the table

There is one thing I am still waiting for in the world of MMOs. Okay – that is not quite true, there are a good few things I am expecting to see developers change in the future. One particular aspect however, has been gaining ground and speed there lately: namely the removal of the classic expansion model.

If I consider some of the biggest negatives MMO developers and players currently suffer from, it’s the ever-increasing pressure to deliver content fast vs. beating it, the extreme between players with not enough time to experience new content  and waves of un-subscribers towards the second half of an expansion-cycle. We all know at least some of these feelings: the race right after an expansion or major content patch hits. Then, the inevitable monotony and burnout hitting raid guilds and players at later stages, the “been there done it all”, driving some into creating yet another alt and others into canceling their sub altogether, waiting on the next installment.

And when you think about that, you realize that it’s quite an unnatural flow of things: a disturbance to the consistent and long-term enjoyment of a game. The “content peaks” delivered by traditional expansions create highly negative side effects, not just for the player base but the developers. So, why keep clinging to this model?

How extremes destroy stability

My main grief with expansions is their very situational concentration of a truckload of new content on one arbitrary and artificial moment in time – funny enough called the “release”. Players will wait 1-2 years for that monumental chunk of new content to arrive, all its ground-breaking changes and additions to the game delivered in one, fatal strike. The wait time drags on and gets tedious, the expectations are high. Some players cope by rolling alts or going on preparation sprees, others fall deep into “player depression” and “identity crisis”, leaving their guilds, canceling their subs.

The change of emotion that finally follows on arrival is extreme: players go from utter boredom to an almost hysterical rush to take in as much of the long-desired content as possible. Between those two points in time, we have a gradually plunging curve, only ever lifted by a major content patch or two (if such exist). Make no mistake though: the first quarter into a new expansion is peak time. Things go steadily downhill from there, on an individual level as much as overall sub numbers. Every time, every year, the same story like a groundhog day

Now let’s assume developers decided to get rid of these opposite poles entirely: let’s assume that instead of featuring virtual coitus, erm release, every 1-2 years (few content patches included), they would rather aim to create a more natural and continuous flow of events and change by releasing regular patches on a 2-weeks base. Every other week, something in your world would change, get added or removed. It might be small things like a flood destroying parts of a map. It might be big events like a new quest hub being installed or a new dungeon. The frequent patching would allow developers to create an atmosphere of a living, breathing story where things happen constantly and where the environment (both NPC and PC) reacts accordingly, more like to our real world. There is never the one, big traumatic change but a dynamic world that is being re-shaped all the time, like a book with endless chapters.

How exciting would that be! To log in every other Wednesday, knowing that something has happened somewhere in your world! Maybe even uncommented in patchnotes at times. Sometimes big, sometimes small. Sometimes an isolated event, sometimes an ongoing number of chapters. The world would feel more alive and relaxed because change happens gradually. The game won’t rush ahead of you, leaving you behind. And it won’t just stop at some point, leaving you longing for more –

Not enough, along with this change in game flow, a long list of negative effects would shrink considerably or fall away entirely. Things that used to unsettle and spoil your fun in the game:

  • Begone player burnout during the second half of expansions
  • Begone (raid) guilds struggling to keep going because players despair or leave
  • Begone un-subscribing and re-subscribing once things are looking up
  • Begone social break-ups because friends frequently leave and return
  • Begone “content rush” right after the big fat expansion hits
  • Begone time pressure for raid guilds fearing the next major patch striking
  • Begone missing out on big loads of content
  • Begone long wait times to experience something new
  • Begone radical changes to economy and gear/item values
  • Begone big jumps and breaks in lore and world

I remember how underwhelming player reception was in places for WoW’s Shattering in 4.0.3.; pretty much the entire world as we knew it got revamped in a swift strike, and yet there was little orchestration or preparation beforehand. Few earthquakes aside, it was certainly no thrill. Then, we did not get to be present when it happened, either. We got to log back later, presented with a grand Fait accompli that didn’t make us feel like a part of the world. Expansions often feature drastic and overwhelming changes and additions like that which simply feel un-immersive. Getting to read huge walls of lore later on is not the same as experiencing a process.

I want to feel part of the world I play in. I want to be included in a continuous and ever growing story. I want change happening all the time, not every 1-2 years in traumatic leaps. I want stable and lasting fun, not a curve that goes from player fatigue and long wait times to over-excitement, before tumbling back down into the valley of tears. I don’t want to regularly un-subscribe from the MMO I am playing because it’s delivering content in situational peaks. Surely, developers would wish for that too?

Why don’t they do it already?

If you consider Blizzard’s ongoing (failing *cough*) effort to create a game that keeps a tight, exciting leash on its player base through an unebbing flow of fast rewards and achievements, you could think breaking the “peak-time” expansion model would follow the same strategy; after all, what better way of keeping things fresh and interesting than releasing new bits of content every other week?

Is it a marketing thing? Are expansion modules so crucial a selling-point for recruiting new customers? Surely, it can’t be the retail factor – it would have the smallest part in overall profits generated via subs, virtual goods and merchandise. So, attracting potential new customers with announcing your next big hit, I can see that as a factor. As far as I know, Blizzard added a substantial amount of new subscribers with each of their expansion releases, heavily marketing for “The Burning Crusade” or “Wrath of the Lich King”. I wonder though: how many effective customers have they lost since Cataclysm’s launch – does the strategy really work forever? And how much sub time do they lose every year because players unsubscribe regularly? It would be interesting to compare the potential losses and gains here.

It would be interesting too, to hear a developers point of view concerning the planning, administrative and actual design efforts (and deadline pressure) that go before a full-scale expansion. Have them compare the effectiveness of such an undertaking to a large number of mini-patches allowing them to break down change and innovation, focusing on one chapter at a time. Somehow I feel that from a pure design’s point of view, it would be more controlled and rewarding to go with the second option. Safer in terms of devastating bugs and far-reaching miscalculations, too. I am of course entirely speculative here and as usual happy to be educated otherwise!

I am no design or marketing and investment specialist; I would still claim however, that a content delivery model creating the more lasting effect, the stable fun and entertainment and the more dynamic and immersive flow of content for a player base, bests a system full of highs, lows and break-ups. That is from my humble point of view – from me, the paying customer. Somehow I have the feeling I am not alone.

So, who will step forward and show us how it’s done already? I am waiting!

P.S. I love charts, don’t you? I have actually used them in the one, proper way in this article – serving and exemplifying my personal message and meaning, rather than basing on existing numbers. It’s called journalistic freedom!

But…I wanna be a hero in MMOs!

Wolfshead published an interesting article yesterday in which he questions heroism in current, popular MMOs and criticizes the player base’s need to feel like heroes all the time. And I do see an issue with spoiling your gaming audience very much myself; the overkill of things ultimately undermining all their value.

However, if you were to go as far as to say that the player’s wish for heroism in WoW & Co. was wrong or somehow the wrong thing asked of the wrong genre, a detrimental thing even, I would very much have to disagree with that premise. The wish that drives us to certain books or movies, drives us into playing online games too and it’s neither wrong nor sad wanting to feel like a hero in MMOs. In fact I wouldn’t be playing them if that wasn’t part of the deal.

I want to be a hero if nothing else

In one passage, Wolfshead questions the “by proxy”-effect that attracts “normal people” to the more heroic: those iconic, shiny beings that lead seemingly exciting and perfect lives under a public eye, celebrities of all flavors but also countless fictional characters, protagonists of movies, books, comics or video games. Virtual or not, they represent virtues and qualities we wish we had and for a short moment they lend us a little piece of that imaginary glamour which can be addictive enough to turn a fan into a die-hard groupie, following his idol around the globe for 5 minutes of VIP-pass glory.

People cult has always been big for this reason; if you can’t lead a so-called glamorous life yourself, at least you can watch those that do with envy or admiration. Nevermind that other, less presentable side of the coin – the pressure such people bend under, the non-existent social life, the fake friends, the complete sell-out of privacy, the uppers and downers to keep them steady on their feet. If we can’t be shiny, someone has to be. And it better be so.

I’d like to think that I have a good life, a better life in fact than most, no matter how easily forgotten. The fact that I’m writing this article on my internet-blog, in my free time on my warm bed, is testimony to such blessed privilege. I’m also no person for people cult which I find silly regarding celebrities and disgusting in politics, to name two more popular, public phenomena. Maybe it’s because looks rarely impress me and I never feel particularly inferior to or in awe of anyone on grounds of mere social status, looks or titles. While we’re at it: Royalty is a joke. Thanks for listening!

I’ve always had a soft side for fictional heroes though; those had the power to inspire me beyond all limits, be they from classic novels, hero or fairy tales, sometimes even an RPG. I have confessed before how I carry quotes around in my head and how that adds meaning to life for me at times. Yep, I am that normal a person. And if you liked to measure me, then yes I probably have a boring and “uneventful” life. I sit behind a desk everyday, like millions do, I (struggle to) pay taxes, I feed my (lazy) cats. The weekend is the highlight of my average week and if it includes a BBQ with old friends and a good glass of red, I am happy. If my partner still brings me flowers out of the blue after so many years (or remembers anniversaries *gasp*), I am fucking euphoric.

I don’t slay dragons and I don’t save the princess like the heroes in my stories do. I still do the dishes by hand instead of wiggling a finger. And God knows, I’d make for a lousy adventurer – I wouldn’t get through the first wood without hopelessly getting lost (been there, done that) and I’d be halfway through my provisions by noon. So just sometimes, I wish I was a bit more like my heroes; a little bit more than myself. Sometimes I long for the epic and magical in my everyday life. And you know what: that’s okay. It’s neither sad nor “desperate” – it’s just life. Unpretentious and real, Mr. Thoreau. That doesn’t make it any less of a life, maybe it just makes me honest a person.

…That’s why we love stories and lose ourselves in them, that’s why we get absorbed watching the Lord of the Rings for the 10th time (extended), that’s why we play mighty warriors and dark mages in games: it’s called escapism. Mankind has done it for thousands of years, in furs, on smokey incense, with bone and dice. So yes, I want to be a hero in my MMOs; I don’t want to play accountant and write reports with my pen on planet reality. I want epic skills, I want to be powerful and kick some magic ass with a flaming sword!

If I can’t be a hero in a game I play so utterly, what’s the goddamn point???

The dragon – hero equation

There’s an article I wrote some time ago, early into this blog, that I keep coming back to like a broken record (I apologize at this point). It’s the never ending story of game difficulty level vs. meaning in MMOs, cost vs. reward and how they are opposites that rely strongly on each other to survive in perpetual balance. Hard-won victories last forever – easy rewards mean little no matter how purple they are. There is no adventure, nor real heroism where there are no struggles and challenges to face; your book’s protagonist is hardly a hero if he has no fears and demons to overcome, no dragons to slay.

And this is where me and Wolfshead agree completely: the doom of easy and numerous rewards in this genre we love so much, the loss of depth, adventures and stories because we get fed so much candy we lose all tolerance for downtimes , for exclusive content with high requirements and earning our passage. Along with that, a sort of baffling player self-entitlement, no doubt bred in MMOs like WoW that have overdone it on access, balance and fast rewards.

I don’t think that wanting to be a hero in games has any part in these issues though, I really don’t. In fact, I’d turn the table and say that it’s exactly because of this excess that there can’t be any heroes in today’s WoW (as opposed to there being superheroes everywhere) and that’s what’s leaving so many players feeling slightly unfulfilled – how could they not be in the absence of hard requirements and obstacles to make for such a title? It’s really hard to be a pioneer under such circumstances. And that’s what actually makes me sad and desperate. 

In the end I’d rather be me

We all long to be a hero at times. Maybe we even wonder: if life ever gave us the chance to a moment of lasting pathos, would we be brave enough? In video games and MMOs especially, that are so much about escaping, adventuring and immersion, we get to re-invent ourselves a little and unlike to just reading a story, we get to be interactive. Our real lives might be “average”, but in Azeroth we hurl firebolts at our foes. On our way to work, we cringe at our reflection in the morning mirror, but at night that elvish cloak and sparkling armor sit just tight.

And I know, I might never write that novel that keeps robbing me of my sleep. I might never be able to afford that fairy hut or spooky castle I would call a home. And I might just have to accept one day that neither love nor friendship are as perfect nor epic in this life as they always are in the best of stories, the ones which spoil us so utterly with hopeless ideals early on in our lives. And just maybe that’s a good thing too; because the epic and tragic lie close together and usually come at great cost. Just like heroism comes with high risk and hardship. We are not always ready for what we wish for.

Just maybe, a normal, “uneventful” life is not so bad after all. And being that hobby hero at night – in virtual worlds where death isn’t permanent and dragon’s breath is made of pixels. I like things that way.

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?

Why you really want attunements. Or: Watch your keys, friend

Unlock meh!
“See that door? It’s locked. I wonder what’s behind it..
See the lock? There must be a key somewhere to fit that particular lock…
There’s probably something worth guarding behind that door if it’s locked like that!
Damn, I really need to find that key now!
Keys – oh boy, my favourite!”

Oh, the suspense!

Attunements, such good memories you and me. That endless questline to get into Onyxia’s Lair, the crumpled up note that just wouldn’t drop in BRD. Countless wipes during countless jailbreaks. Then, getting a rogue to help you through the Shadowforge door. Jumping into the lava to enter the Molten Core for the very first time. You messed that one up alright, Executus.

In the Burning Crusade, you were still quite great. At least for a while. Not even Karazhan came for free and what a great place that was. The countless tears we shed to get Vashj down. The realm PuG I joined (the only time ever) just for a Kael’thas kill before the patch. Gawd, that lovely ring – and hands on the best title. Black Temple…I don’t know how many visits to Akama it took in total. The questline must have been 100 quests long (at least), some of which brought tears to my eyes because we kept wiping like sissies fighting those elites in SMV. All just to see Illidan. And who wouldn’t want that?

Attunements, you gave our guild a direction. You made us teamwork and plan. You gave us time. And long stories with epic moments. The excitement to get there – and everyone could get there in due time if they really cared to.

Then, things kinda changed. I felt sorry for those that came after us. Later, things never were quite the same. No more locks, just open doors. Open doors guard no treasure.

Why attunements were made of win

1) Vorfreude
Maybe you’ve heard the term before. I don’t think there’s an equivalent in English which is rather striking, given the fact that its vocabulary is generally so vast. “Vorfreude”, translated from German, means “the joy of anticipation” – the long wait before a great event, the excitement, the nervousness beforehand which are very often greater and better than the thing itself. Vorfreude is a good feeling: looking forward to something rather than having everything at once, right nao! Instant access to everything, ye I know that’s how the trend has gone in almost every possible way in WoW – but I loved earning my way to attunements, having that distant goal while enjoying content on the way, beating challenges, removing obstacles in my path. I also loved helping guildies to get there.

2) Long, epic questlines
The questlines were often long, with plenty to do on the way. Traveling was a big part, running different instances, picking up different items, talking to all sorts of NPCs. They increased in difficulty until a group was the only way to get further. They were also a great preparation or introduction to what was to come: what the background story and history of the places were, so you understood why you actually went there. I don’t think I ever got more lore from quests than during instance attunements, being as raid-focused as I was. What am I doing here? Who are these people and why are they locked up in chains? Ah, I see.

3) Content progression
A very big factor was that attunements actually timed the way content was consumed. There was a clear path of progression, a sort of dramatic script. Not necessarily in the sense that you could only ever raid one instance at a time, but you could never access everything at once. And while that could stall you, what it really did too was grant guilds time. Less rushing, less stress trying to keep up with omg-everything. More time to prepare the guild because you really had no other choice. A more natural flow of content that would last longer since it was more well-spread. Patience, suspense. Why do people think they must always get everything and at once? Good things take time, anyone?

4) Cooperation
Already mentioned under 1) and 2), the increasing difficulty of quests, frequent group quests or instance runs forced people to teamplay. You needed help to get those elites down for the next step, you needed a party to enter a heroic. The challenges weren’t overly hard but they required cooperation – no going solo for you. And on a bigger scale, guilds would engage in big attunement efforts to get ready for raiding; getting everyone up to par, attuning new members quickly, helping each other with that last step or two of the chain, no matter how often you’d already done it (eugh). I know some guilds moaned about this, but you know what: this kinda stuff is what guilds are there for. That’s WHY people play in guilds. Or used to. Anyway. I realize anything vaguely resembling “guild preparations” is a nuisance these days. 

5) Keys (and other trophies, harrr!)
Last but not least, attunements brought us keys. Keys of all sizes and flavors, shiny keys and rusty ones. Keys made of copper or brass, keys made of bronze or bone. Keys dropped by a keymaster, keys acquired after a long series of quests. Keys that opened huge steel gates or the tiniest locks in a dungeon. Keys that all told a story about where we’ve been and what we have done. Keys jingling merrily on our key ring.
And of course other trophies that we would keep for keep’s sake; like a necklace or cloak that took so much effort to acquire that parting was no option. These were our real trophies, our mementos, our battle scars.

Holding on to your keys

I don’t know what other MMO players want of their games these days. I know that I want adventures. I want challenges that are hard and long and I want to beat them with a group of people I call comrades or friends. I want my rewards to tell stories.

I want keys – and attunements are keys. Keys to open locks. Locks that open doors, doors that lead into a world of adventure. You want to watch out for them, friend; for every good fantasy story has keys in it. It can’t be a good thing if they slowly start disappearing in the sands of time.

Burning through the pages

It’s Monday morning as I am writing these words, so be warned dear reader, because this is a grumpy Monday morning post. To honor code and good manners, I should ask first mayhaps how you have been, or more precisely how your weekend was and where your path has taken you – across the planes of Telara? Or maybe down into the Maelstrom of Azeroth? Up a mountain somewhere here on planet earth, down to the city, out to the sea?

And did you burn a lot of content along the way? 

When Gods become consumers

Once upon a time there was an MMORPG that gave players a basic, functional setting and stage: a beautiful world of rock and stone, with maps and towns, woods, mountains and seas and a few roads to travel them. And the woods would be populated by beasts and animals and the towns would be bustling with vendors and tradefolk and the odd, suspicious looking traveler or merry minstrel in front of a tavern. And from there the world was the player’s: to explore, to do with and shape as he cared for, to build alliances and establish trades, to command and conquer, to build or destroy, to settle treaties or rage war against one another, within a ruleset and handful of laws.

And so life on that world was never-ending; as endless as the playerbase cared to make it and create their own adventures. There was no content to “finish” and no final goal to “beat”, because the heart of the MMORPG was a second world, not a high score or ending credits like for other, traditional games. Content was created while and through playing, making the player not just a hero inside a story, but hero and God of a much greater story.

That was a long time ago.

If you can burn through it, it’s because it tastes of nothing

Reading through Wolfshead’s most recent article, I came a cross a line that outraged me like no other, elaborated in more detail in a short commentary over at Gamasutra. And it wasn’t so much the whole shallow explanation attempt behind Blizzard’s reasoning, but the wording itself, the greater mindset and concept behind lines such as these:

“And so I think with Cataclysm they were able to consume the content faster than with previous expansions, but that’s why we’re working on developing more content.”

“We need to be faster at delivering content to players,” he added. “And so that’s one of the reasons that we’re looking to decrease the amount of time in-between expansions.”

Our player, the consumer. Our player, that hungry animal who’s wolfing down our content so fast, we have to keep throwing it at him faster and faster.

Without realizing it, the developers have not only reduced their playerbase to an insatiable cookie monster, but degraded themselves and their product to nothing but a fast food-delivery service, more scripted than ever, less dynamic and alive than ever. And like with all food that is so processed that’s it’s completely “dead” and devoid of any nutrition, Blizzard need more and more of it to keep their spoiled yet malnourished customers content. They have created their own vicious circle and now they suffer from the pressure to deliver at increasing speed. An entirely self-created pressure, because they want to do everything and let us do very little.

The player is no God in their world. He does not interact with it, only consume, he does not co-create anything, not cook his own food. It’s like eating 5 burgers a day and no workout on the side either. What’s the point of fantasy worlds if they start resembling downsides of the real one? Will future developers be forced to create “Slim-Fast”-servers to re-introduce overfed players to a more balanced MMO “lifestyle” and re-adjust things back to a more active and healthy playing environment? Metaphorically speaking?

Burning through the pages

Tonight after my work’s done, I will rush off to the local bookstore in town to pick up the sequel of “The Name of the Wind”, Patrick Rothfuss’ formidable debut fantasy novel of his Kingkiller Chronicles. I have burned through the pages of the first book this weekend, over 600 pages in merely two days – it’s been this gripping and entertaining, and overall I was just happy to read some solid high fantasy again after a longer drought in this particular corner of the genre. The second book is apparently even longer and I have no doubt that I will devour it like the first one. Then it’s over and finished until the author releases the next part in a couple of years.

And that’s okay – because it’s his story and his world, he’s the master of all things there, of a story that’s already been told. I’m merely a spectator he’s inviting to enter, I can make it a walk or rush-through, but either way my time there is limited. And you wouldn’t go and ask for more from a book; one volume, one ride for which you pay one time.

It’s okay to consume a book.

The things we miss

It’s a brilliant Friday, almost too brilliant to be working. The morning started rather late for me, as the local public transport is on strike (kinda) and so I spent much longer than usual waiting on buses and trams, enjoying the morning sun. Then, opening our guildforum page which I still keep an eye on, retired or not, a thread put a smile on my face, reminding me of the fun we’ve had together in days past. In fact it had me choking with laughter, so strong and silly was the memory that probably only those can understand who share it with me.

The things we miss

The other night, Stumps mentioned to me that it’s quite a long time now since I left WoW, but then I realized it’s actually roughly 4 months since leaving Syl behind at that lakeside in Elwynn Forest. Four months are not a long time, but I have to agree it feels long, much longer than that. I’ve always asked myself what it really is that keeps people playing a game like World of Warcraft for so long – the state of the game, or the community established, and where the boundaries lie between playing a game for yourself and playing it “for other people”.

I never quite found the ultimate answer for myself or rather, for me it’s always been about balance. I know that many of today’s WoW players hang in there for their guilds more than for the game. And I think to some extent that happens for everyone that has established a place for himself, spent years among the same bunch of people and shared countless adventures together. Community is a big factor and sometimes that’s all you need.

At the same time, we all start a game solo; because we like MMOs, because the game seems appealing, because we’re curious and everyone’s talking about it. At those early stages, it’s all about the game. If it doesn’t convince us, we’ll most likely quit. Later, quitting will never be as easy again as it is during that initial “solo period”. There are ties now and fun generated through and by other people, rather than just a developer’s script.
There are also: shared memories that have the power to carry players through “periods of doubt”. It’s the dynamic MMOs capitalize of. It’s quite the struggle too for those feeling they should leave the game but are torn by conflicting emotions.

In the end it’s about what you’re looking for in these games and that’s never the same for each person. It can also change a great deal over time. For me, the balance needs to be there, I play for myself and feel it should always be like that. On the other hand, a bunch of trusted mates are what make a good game not just enjoyable, but make it a great deal more. Without them, things are just not the same. I told those who asked me that I haven’t looked back once since leaving and it’s true; I’ve never had regrets playing WoW and I haven’t had regrets quitting. I haven’t missed my character nor raiding (backpains) for a single day. That simply tells me one thing: that it was the right time and right decision. And to be fair, I think I’ve played the game for way too long to miss any of these things, I haven’t missed out on anything in WoW.

Yet, there are things I can miss, or rather things that make me feel fuzzy inside and nostalgic; they’re locked in funny screenshots and moments remembered. They’re all about the people that were with me when I was still playing and having fun in WoW. I know that if we all went back right now, we still couldn’t bring back those times – for those times, were those times. But the shared knowledge and memory of them is a very fond one and it shows me why I really played the game for as long as I could and what really set it apart from others.

And that will always be true and never fade, locked in the eternal snowglobe of our memories. Mine has a place in the sun and everytime I go there and shake it, the gold flakes inside will dance and glitter as if no time had passed at all. In a way there is great comfort in knowing that nothing can touch the past and some things are preserved forever.

A good weekend to all of you – especially old friends, guildmates and brothers in arms.

The beast that wrecked wonderland. Or: Oh noes, I’m an RPer?

The blogosphere is loaded on fundamental design questions and debates lately and it’s not just events like Blizzard’s most recent Call to Arms announcement that make us wonder about where the future of MMOs lies. The more I’m reading, the more I realize how conservative I am – and how I really hopped off the bandwagon somewhere around the Burning Crusade. Very few game design changes have actually appealed to me since then. Maybe I’m just not the average MMO gamer anymore. Maybe I have become too “oldschool” for this genre.

Scrap that “maybe”.

I’ve tried to put a finger on this sentiment lately, but I couldn’t quite find the right word. This recent post by Green Armadillo is a great example of the overall problem though: I really do resent the fact that dungeons have become a synonym for lootbags in MMOs. That is SO far apart from what dungeons used to stand for, game designers might as well stop putting any effort into dungeon design if drops are all that matters. And now, as if loot, gold and tokens weren’t enough, you even have to bribe people further to play cooperatively in there. Sic transit gloria mundi?

That’s just the tip of the iceberg which fast-food, drive-thru MMOs are developing into, with their dungeon finders, achievement points, welfare loot and in-built quest helpers. Big fat red arrows across your fantasy world. Flashy text hovering over your stupid head. Min-maxing guides for teh win.

All the things I want are almost completely opposed to the current trend: no quest helper, no maps, no fast leveling, no soloing major content, no anonymous grouping, no welfare loot, no cookie-cutters, no bottomless bags, no epeen titles and silly achievement points. Instead, more need to cooperate. More need to play intelligently. More consequences when not playing cooperatively or intelligently. More customization. Lore rather than loot. More need to travel without an instant map. More wetting your pants on the way. Proper outdoor PvP. Less linearity and more player-generated content. Player housing. More campfires. A bag-pack with bandages you actually use.

And then it dawns on me, the inevitable conclusion: my wish-list strongly resembles the 100+ pages long RPer’s wishlist that was up on Blizzard’s official RP forums a few years ago, a collection on how to improve the game for roleplaying (unfortunately that topic is long gone). Is to wish for these things, to be an RPer in today’s post-WoW MMO world?

I’m not an RPer in the strict sense. I do play role-playing games, but I’ve always played on PVE servers. I cringe a little at the whole “in character”-stuff some people really take to extremes on dedicated servers. On the other hand, I’ve absolutely no problem with players who enjoy their MMOs that way, it’s just not my cup of coffee to make up a past history for my character, attend ingame weddings or talk in Shakespearean English. But when it comes to everything else that adds atmosphere to fantasy worlds, yes I do want that. It’s been there before.

So, am I an RPer now? A traditionalist? How do you call MMO players like me today? And is it really me who needs a new name?

But finally, I realized what this whole mess is called that’s currently happening to the genre (thank you Spinks): the beast that’s wrecking wonderland is called “Gamification”. It’s been going on a lot more rapidly on consoles ever since the XBOX went live and now it’s made its way into PC MMOs too. And I really shouldn’t be surprised: just the way traditional RPGs have become a rarity on console ever since, the classic MMORPG is doomed to disappear. I never realized the parallels in such clarity. MMOs might be part of the world of games, but they never played by the same rules, their virtues were always of a different kind. They were virtual worlds; not linear, scripted scenarios with the goal of instant gratification, stilling players’ achievement hunger and collection drive whenever they please. Those games were about setting, narrative, simulation and cooperative longterm goals. But there’s a whole new mentality out there today, a new type of gamer walking down my virtual streets. A gamer with different values than me.

And I’m fine with it, really – you can collect achievements ’til kingdom come for all I care. But if game studios start developing more and more MMOs for you rather than me, then I have a problem.

And no, I don’t want to start playing MUDs or write fanfiction.

We remember the hard times

Lately there was quite a bit of discussion on gend……..errr, I mean, there was quite a bit of discussion going on about where the MMO genre is going and also, about people being bored silly with WoW while being unhappy with the increased “dumbing down” of the game by Blizzard these past few years.

I’ll admit that I am one of those that have an issue with the continuous ‘casualization’ of WoW; not because I need to feel so l33t over more casual players and think they shouldn’t experience the same content as I do, but because I feel a sharp loss of ‘authenticity’ and immersion as a consequence of the related changes since WoW launched in 2004. And I don’t label myself an elite player, far from it.

I am not going to pink-glass vanilla WoW here: there was certain imbalances and unnecessary downtimes that were plain annoying and I wouldn’t want those back. However, I feel that Blizzard’s increased endeavor to make the game more and more accessible and easy to play for a mass market audience, ever since halfway through TBC, has killed a lot of what I consider the ‘soul’ of the true MMORPG experience. A topic that has possibly echoed most of my own feelings in brilliant detail was Wolfshead’s article on EQ3 and the future of the genre in general.
Was everything better back in the days? No. Neither was everything worse. It is rather depressing that oldtimers like Everquest and Ultima Online are still regarded as the games with the most content depth and immersion in the MMO genre up to this day.

When I think of how 5mans are being run in WoW nowadays, it seriously makes me cringe. While it’s far from being my only issue, I think it serves as a good example: queue up for an instance, wait a few minutes, zoom into some cross-server party of which hardly anyone will even say ‘Hi’ in partychat, steamroll the instance, cash your badges and leave, rinse and repeat – it’s like the zombie hour of MMOs.

  • People don’t speak to one another. And if they do, it’s most likely about gearscore or damage meters.
  • People don’t die anymore. And if they do, it is such an unheard of, outrageous thing that the tank and healer are most likely to ragequit after the first wipe because they got NO TIME FOR THIS!
  • People don’t even need to travel to the instance anymore. And if they did, they wouldn’t notice the world around them and its beautiful maps, because their super-fast epic mount flies at “ludicrous speed” somewhere up in the clouds.

Some bloggers have actually compared this way of gameplay to a “one-night stand”: no emotions involved, get in and out quickly, mutual benefits, no strings attached. And why would you invest anything more on people from different servers anyway? It’s an almost complete anonymity, even if you behave like a stupid troll there won’t be consequences. Just yesterday Grumpy described a very similar atmosphere in WoW’s battleground PUGs where communication and teamwork are at an all time low.

Now you could say “but this is all optional, you don’t need to use the dungeon finder if you don’t wish to play with strangers”, but that’s not it really. You play with strangers in MMOs all the time, it’s kinda the POINT. And whether I use this feature or not, it is there and it does impact on the community (lolz I said “community”) as a whole. It is also just one symptom of a spreading disease – and I’m saying this as somebody that is still in love with the world of Warcraft.

Of value and cost or: heroes and dragons

The underlying issue of most of my own points, but also those of other players, comes down to a strong disparity between effort (or challenge) and reward. The irony in WoW’s case is not that the game is too hard and frustrates players by rewarding them too little, but that it is on the contrary so fast and full of opportunities that you do not feel rewarded anymore, as there is hardly a challenge.
As human beings we attach value in relation to what a certain item costs us – value and cost being two very separate things in this case. If it takes you a long time to gain a reward or if it was hard to obtain and required you to overcome many obstacles, you value your reward more, as part of an accomplishment. Well, there is no accomplishment without a struggle: there are no heroes where there is no dragon.

So, where is the feeling of adventure and achievement in playing the game in its current state? When was the last time you really struggled questing in a new map, calling a friend to aid you? When was the last time you had several corpseruns in a 5man because communication on pulls and CC was so crucial? How much effort went into collecting your current set of gear? I had to think hard – the last time we struggled in a 5man was in Magister’s Terrace back in TBC. The instances in WotLK make me feel a lot of things, but certainly not heroic.

We are currently over-loaded on fast opportunity and reward in WoW, to a point where cooperation and teamwork isn’t a key feature anymore. You can solo and pug your way through almost everything with little struggle, downtimes or consequence. Even if you don’t pug, the low difficulty level itself is detrimental to any team building effect: you build strong teams over struggling together, not steamrolling together!

The fact that rewards not only don’t feel like rewards anymore, but also don’t look very rewarding, is doubly ironic: we all look the same nowadays, no matter how we play the game. Our gear tells no stories anymore. It seems the more we are given, the less we got. And then there are those goons that do not even know (or remember) what a party is and how instances used to be, quitting raids over a few deaths or failing horribly whenever they visit an oldschool instance.

When times were tough and memories were epic

I don’t know about you, but personally I lose all sense of adventure when the co-relation between challenge and reward, need for cooperation and teamwork, fear of death and requirements of for example travel, become so secondary in a game. There are no essential struggles, no moments of big consequence or fear – these factors being of course all co-dependent. WoW feels further and further away from the classic MMORPG experience and there goes my sense of ‘authenticity’ down the drain together with immersion.

In his article Wolfshead compared his experience of playing a (good) MMO with watching a horror movie – I find this quite a fitting analogy. If I play in a fantasy world, I’d like some excitement, some tension and moments of terror. I’d like to be scared, calling on my companions to beat a challenge together. Or in other words, I’d like to run and scream in terror; because fear is part of adventure. What follows after, is an epic feeling of accomplishment, reward and fun shared with those that assisted you – or alternatively a feeling of shame and embarrassment over being such a chicken. It is those moments we remember in MMOs, not the easy kills, not the fast loot: what we remember is the really tough times.

I remember how my guild beat Vaelastraz after weeks and weeks of wiping in BWL, and the tremendous relief we felt to have overcome this obstacle together. I remember being scared shitless trying to cross duskwood as a lowbie, waiting for my party to escort me. I remember endless hours and corpseruns in Stratholme, BRD and UBRS because those instances were actually hard for any group. I remember grinding my way to exalted with goddamn Silithus, which is quite possibly the worst thing I ever did in this game (I have still not quite recovered), but I DID IT!

It is the times of our worst struggles and the feeling of achievement in overcoming them as a group of heroes set in a fantastic and scary world that make our best memories in an MMO. I want more “MMO-RPG” and less fast food, please. I want times to be tough and adventures to be epic!

I want memories that last.