Category Archives: WoW

Your last MMO ever and the Troubles of Aging together

I am a 30+ MMO player with a history. I don’t speak for all 30+ MMO players with a history. This post is about many things at once.

Not too long ago I had an interesting discussion with an old gaming buddy reflecting much of the current MMO malaise that seems to have struck several bloggers around the blogosphere lately. The most memorable statement in our conversation was this: “Wildstar is going to be my last MMO” – something that I’ve heard several times now and keep reading on the official forums. Clearly MMO culture is in a phase of re-evaluation both on a personal level and otherwise.

On the surface, such final player declarations appear singularly odd and certainly unique to the genre; never would you hear anyone say “this is going to be my last RTS ever” or any variation thereof. Why would anyone make plans for their last MMO ever?

Of course the answer is simple for those among us who have been there – played MMOs, breathed MMOs, lived inside the same MMO for years. This genre is not like other genres and neither is its commitment. Players are passionate about their character progression, their guilds, their dramatic quitting gestures. And sure, there are exceptions to the rule, players content to solo and never invest in any type of cooperative endgame. Yet, there is still a consensus, spoken or unspoken by developers too, that the heart of the MMO experience lies in cooperative multiplay. A big chunk of content gets created entirely for this reason, for better or worse.

And multiplay takes extra time, in fact not just when you’re in the middle of it but way in advance. Looking for guilds, spending time getting to know a community, working around timezones and schedules in order to group up and advance together, that’s a type of effort that asks for special dedication. For the more fatalistic among us that don’t do casual solo even when they aren’t hardcore, this also means the decision to jump into a new MMO is one that must be carefully considered. There is no time to waste or something, it’s either all or nothing.

All of this resonates with me given my early WoW history. However, there are times when I wonder if it’s really such a good thing to make one’s own happiness so dependent on other people (it’s not like that ever works out in real life). I love the cooperative aspect of MMOs but they are also virtual worlds, canvases of beauty I’d like to travel and explore. The older I get, the more there is compromise to my own time spent in games. O tempora, o mores, I guess.

The Troubles of Aging together

That said, I’m a player who is still counting on social ties for longterm dedication and so many times since WoW have I been flustered about MMOs not bringing back the “good old times”. Of course there’s a pattern here; you’ll never hear an early player talk about the good old times because there are no such times (yet) to make flawed, subjective comparisons to.

The only reason I’m probably still playing Wildstar every night and enjoying it immensely is social environment. I’d still be paying a sub and exploring the maps of the Nexus but as a solo player or member of a dwindling group of peers, I would never have bothered to acquire the Genesis Key, step one of the attunement of doom. Wildstar might actually be another MMO on the shelf already, as it is for others that used to be more excited for launch than myself. I’m still in though and wondering about the reasons, knowing at least half of the answer:

I started playing Wildstar with three old WoW buddies of mine, all of which have drastically changed weekly schedules now that they’re in their 30ies rather than early 20ies. So do I, despite all of my personal time still being my own. I am not 23 anymore, I need more sleep than I used to (it’s true and I hate it), I don’t do rushed PC dinners any longer and I have no wish to be in charge of anything or anyone else than my virtual self when online. I’m still looking to be a regular in an efficient and fun guild though, one that manages to balance the hardcore casual for lack of a better word.

Facing the fact that a group of ex-WoW raiders now all in their early thirties don’t stand a chance lasting in Wildstar’s endgame (we’ve tried and failed before), I soon resolved that our small guild needed to move on and reinforce a bigger team run by fresh people full of “MMO-oomph”. It’s been the best decision possible both for my own enjoyment (and hopefully theirs too) and dedication to the game. More importantly maybe, hearing others talk about the game made me realize that MMOs are as new and wonderful as ever for players of another generation – the players we used to be ten years ago. In no way is Wildstar inferior to WoW when it comes to how it’s handling group content. Nothing has changed in that department – we have. The people around us, our original peers have.

Early MMO enthusiasm is contagious. So is dwindling enthusiasm.

Truthfully, every MMO since WoW was a game I tried to re-connect to together with my ever less active WoW buddies. You could say I’ve kept trying to recreate my old communities elsewhere, as so many of us do. A guild’s greatest virtue which is bonding with others, becomes it’s greatest peril in the long run when communities get so insular that there’s hardly room for new blood, not even across games.

Yet the more we kept to ourselves and didn’t mix, the faster we dwindled. It’s a downward spiral and it doesn’t work. Soon everyone’s frustrated that they can’t ever seem to get a full group for anything. Maybe somebody out there knows a critical mass of 35-year old MMO veterans that are mostly regulars but I do not – and you need a regular (slightly nutty) core to run a guild effectively. Now that I’m in a way more mixed guild with dedicated leadership, I feel completely boosted by their enthusiasm. Who are these people and why are they having so much fun? Oh wait, I used to!

sylvs

Luck and then some

There’s always an element of luck and timing involved when we start out in new games and looking for a new guild can be tough. I’d certainly call it a piece of luck to have chanced upon an active bunch of people with so similar a player ethos to my own. It would be amiss and incomplete however, not to try analyze things beyond luck.

Mingling with a wider age range aside, the choice of RP server and faction is probably crucial. On the only EU-RP server, Dominion side is a very calm and underpopulated place to be a Cassian, with dead zone chats and limited wares on the AH. My first instincts were calling it a bad choice when in fact, it’s the most beneficial thing to guild life. Players need their guild. Already this community feels tight-knit, the way it only happens in MMOs after launch rush is over and grasers have moved on. It’s the people who stay behind that you want to guild with.

And so maybe, it all comes down to this: staying behind and choosing to be part of a new, active community rather than maintaining an old one. Rolling on a cosy low-pop server. Sticking with that choice past launch rush. Not so different from ten years ago. We blame design a lot of the time when it comes down to frustrating social factors that ultimately, we’re both in control of and aren’t. Even if an MMO facilitates group play, and I believe Wildstar does, commitment remains a choice and unfortunately it’s not enough to make that decision yourself, you need others to make it with you. So maybe new blood is where the aging MMO player needs to start focusing his or her attention, if future gameplay experiences are meant to outlast a brief visit. I am guilty of having lived in the proverbial past.

For the Record

I love MMOs and I intend to play them for the foreseeable future. I believe that my generation of gamers especially, born in the 70ies and early 80ies, have an important and unique opportunity to be rolemodels for everyone else to come, doing away with gaming misconceptions and stigma. Yes, you can be an older gamer! No, gaming doesn’t have to stop at 30! If we can embrace ourselves and let go of the good old days in favor of new ones, new people and new experiences, there’s nothing to stop us from becoming the first gamers to happily make it to retirement (just think of all the free time!). Loving this place that is the MMO blogosphere, I hope to see you there.

Second Skin: The perfect MMO Gear and Impact on Longterm Commitment

The other day, I had a bit of an argument with my significant other concerning folk who like to transform themselves with help of expressive or more unusual attire, often in their private time. The topic wasn’t so much cosplay but people generally wearing clothes that come with a certain message of affiliation or membership, to name more flamboyant members of the goth/black metal scene as one example. This type of expression isn’t limited to the rock’n rollers among us though; it can be found anywhere, even for more conservative interests such as golfing or hiking. Dressing up for the occasion plays an important role in many social activities and for some people it’s an integral part of who they really are.

gothscene

Probably not on their way to the golf course. (www.timeslive.co.za)

At a first glance, this might strike you as a very superficial approach to identity. Why do you need to wear a certain style to feel part of a social group or (in some cases) to communicate associated belief systems? Isn’t our heart the place of true identity? Strictly speaking that is true – it doesn’t make you any more or less of a “punk” whether you’re wearing torn jeans and a mohawk or not. Clothes and looks are deceptive and they should never be a requirement for someone to belong to whatever culture or creed they relate to. I can be committed to a set of beliefs without looking a certain way.

At the same time, clothes can be a powerful catalyst of self-expression, even self-discovery and confidence building. There’s a reason why many actors, especially method actors require authentic clothing that goes with the character they’re not just playing but becoming. Inner and outer transformation go together. There’s also a more common phenomenon of someone cutting their hair after ending a longterm relationship or getting tattooed after a great cesura in their lives. Our body is a reflection of the things that are happening to us. Some people, not all people, simply choose to include that part of themselves more actively.

Loving variety, I hold a torch for people who go for the so-called deviant styles in our society, be it a part-time thing or fulltime commitment. It takes guts to go against social conformity and nobody deserves to be written off on account of green hair or piercings. That’s one of the criteria I try to push as a recruiter too, by recommending clients keep an open mind to more colorful candidates rather than blindly trusting another picture in a grey suit and tie. At the same time, I’m trying not to fall prey to inverted snobbery; I admit I have a soft spot for people who don’t fit the corporate cookie cutter.

The perfect MMO gear

I’m neither the most imaginative nor boring dresser in real life but when it comes to my MMO avatars, I’ve always cared a great deal about customization options and cosmetics. I don’t know if this interest is more prevalent among players that treat their avatars like an alter ego but I am guessing most of us have preferences regarding their MMO character'(s) looks and have things that can throw them in/out of immersion. Unfortunately, we are all too familiar with the sub-par customization options of some games and the often lackluster or ill-conceived gear choices. And so I wonder: how have my past avatars’ looks, more specifically gear approach of the MMOs I’ve played the most, affected my playing longevity? Where and when did I truly feel at home gearwise?

World of Warcraft

wowclowns

I played WoW for over 6 years and would call my experiences with its gear a very mixed bag of hits and misses. WoW made me feel epic spellcaster and disco clown in equal amounts and even the better sets I collected over that time were more hyper-stylized than I would have wanted, glorified leotards with near-zero extra customization options. Transmogrification was added just after I left and to this day Blizzard haven’t added a dye system. I guess this means gear wasn’t an integral part of my character immersion in WoW despite a few definite favorites.

Guild Wars 2

unrealgw2

To this day I’ve never played an MMO with more beautiful, aesthetically pleasing gear than GW2’s, certainly none with a better dye system. While ArenaNet could’ve offered more variety in their initial character selection, there’s not much left today that you cannot do with cosmetic and town gear. And yet, despite loving the different looks of my Elementalist, I cannot exactly claim to have been immersed in my alter ego. This is tricky to explain: to me, GW2’s gear is almost too beautiful, like a painting or wonderful piece of art to admire from afar without wishing to take it home with you. I love looking at my character but she isn’t really me, not the way I think of myself as an adventurer. What can I say, it’s complicated!

LOTRO

humblelotro

I’ve never written a post on LOTRO’s gear. Instead, I’ve praised it frequently as my personal winner of immersion in so many ways – from scale to atmosphere, scenery and sound effects. There’s an authentic quality to online Middle-Earth that’s never been reached in other games. It’s therefore probably no surprise that my favorite MMO gear too, is in fact my Lore-Master’s humble Ferrier’s Robe with its leather straps, stitched pieces of fur and merrily dangling satchels (I imagine they would dangle). Combined with a simple hood and backpack, I never felt better dressed or more ready for adventure than in LOTRO. There is countless lovingly detailed gear in the game like that, with the kind of commitment to practicality that may only be found in ESO right now. I love my character’s looks in LOTRO – more importantly, this could be me tomorrow!

Sometimes less is more, especially where immersion is concerned. However awesome gear or not, it’s probably fair to say that it’s not our character’s looks or customization options that decide over the longevity of our commitment. That doesn’t mean they do not add a lot of enjoyment to the games we’re playing though or that there aren’t certain breaking points. Playing Wildstar right now, I am back to hyper-stylized but also practical gear. Mostly, I am happy that the game doesn’t make me run around half-naked.

What was your perfect MMO gear of all time? Do you feel your character’s looks have any bearing on how much you can enjoy a title longterm? I wager more customization is always popular in MMOs, no matter how much we love cosmetics. There are limitations to what I can wear or get away with in real life, so it’s all the more important my online selves enjoy that unlimited freedom of self-expession.

Weekend Wildstar Wrap-up: It’s all Blizzard’s Fault

If there is just one observation or rule that, after almost four years of meta blogging, I may declare applies without fail when there are two sides to a passionate debate, it’s the following:

Both sides of the argument want exactly the same. That’s been the case each and every time I’ve experienced engaged and complex discussions on this here blog or elsewhere; two or more people arguing for the same thing but believing in opposite ways of achieving it. Your prime example for this is the ‘grouping and facilitation’ debate where some will argue pro enforced grouping for more community while others believe grouping, in order to be the real thing, needs to happen naturally and dynamically. It’s important to understand that on the most basic level, these players all want the same thing.

Quite an entertaining phenomenon in retrospective, it usually takes a moment to sink in. Once you’ve distanced yourself from a topic, you’ll detect such patterns a lot more clearly even if that won’t bring you any closer to a satisfying solution.

In which Blizzard gets all the blame

In what has proven to be a universally divisive topic for Wildstar this week and probably for a while to come, I argued that the 12step attunement needs toning down in order to accommodate a wider variety of both casual and hardcore players. While my argument in favor of inclusion wasn’t my only point, it’s as important to me as it is obviously to others. Liore followed-up disagreeing with pretty much most of my logic, explaining why to her the attunement chain adds direction, content and more playstyle variety. Bottom line: we both argued in favor of diversity/freedom, albeit for different target audiences that are sadly all too often mutually exclusive in MMOs.

That brings me to a second, more vexing matter: World of Warcraft’s continued influence on our perception of design dynamics and as a consequence, its impact on our not-so carefree experiences of new games such as Wildstar. Liore makes an explicit WoW reference in her article, in which she equates not having hard attunements with “being just… like… WoW” because well, like me she’s played and seen a lot of WoW. Just like that, I referred to WoW attunements in my own post and ended up responding (guilty..):

Funny enough unlike for you, to me this [read: the current status of the attunement] is all exactly like WoW and not unlike WoW. I raided in vanilla and it was considered hardcore, the way WS raiding seems right now.

And today, in an interesting update over at Tobold’s, the comment section is full of arguments, speculations and assumptions inspired by past experiences in – you guessed it – WoW. All the while, somewhere else an anti-Wildstar brigade is forming within WoW’s disgruntled and bored community as we speak, because apparently Wildstar is appealing to many of that same demography. Shocker.

wowglass

Our WoW glasses need to be smashed.

….It’s all WoW. WoW, wow, wow. Whether we’re for something or against it, whether it’s totally cool because different from WoW or dangerously close to being like WoW, WoW is the all-encompassing factor and ultimate perspective. Apparently we cannot free ourselves from the mind print that this MMO has left in our collective memory. If something happened in WoW, well it’s probably gonna happen in Wildstar, right? Wrong!

To close a week of intense feels: it’s clearly all Blizzard’s fault. Happy weekend everybody – to the Nexus as well as Azeroth! Stay classy!

[Wildstar] Oh wow, that raid attunement

So I like attunements. I missed them a little when WoW made away with them entirely, mostly because it’s always an all-or-nothing approach with some developers. I like attunements for their symbolic value: they’re a rite of passage and as such an opportunity to add meaning to the event of unlocking a raid dungeon for your character. Perfect time to have a special quest chain with the obligatory lore tidbits before you send your players off to the abyss or city above the clouds, or wherever it is they are going. Think the personal storyline in GW2 for instance, doable enough for any player on his way to level-cap, plus one Arah run on normal mode. Fair enough.

What attunements absolutely shouldn’t be is a way to divide your playerbase and essentially make it excruciatingly frustrating to nigh impossible for the more casual crowd, which constitutes the majority of your paying customers, to ever experience endgame or raid content. It makes no sense to create content for your top 1% or even top 5% and that’s a lesson Blizzard learned down the line, to a point where even flex raids have become a reality.

After seeing Carbine’s excessive 12-step attunement to 40man raid entry in Wildstar (thanks Jeromai!) which makes a 100 jailbreaks look decent, I am trying very hard to stay cool and understand what they were thinking and cui bono? Not the l33t kids and top guilds either, surely – anyone who has ever run a raid guild in WoW (or elsewhere) and been in charge of recruitment, shudders at the prospect of finding suitable recruits or getting new people attuned over and over just to access raiding in Wildstar. And we’re talking 40man. Good luck with that roster, the competition is on!

While reserving ultimate judgement is probably the way to go while the game is new and we’re all newbies still, it’s hard to stay positive when reading through the same old vitriolic forum discussions of “casual versus hardcore” that 12-step attunement infographic has sparked in Wildstar’s early community. An infographic which by the by, is brought to us not by Carbine but your self-proclaimed staple elitist guild, sporting core values such as “If you want to bring your shitty girlfriend along, I will personally show you where to shove it” on their about-page.

That’s my main issue right there, the fact that Carbine consciously or not, are catering to this type of demographic rather than their core playerbase. I’m not sure they realize it yet, just as they clearly didn’t foresee what one PvP realm per region would do to launch day. Yeah, sometimes developers don’t have the ultimate foresight. That’s also why I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and 6 months at most before they nerf Wildstar’s raid entry requirements considerably. They seem at odds with everything else I’ve seen of the game so far and Carbine have proven they’re in touch with community feedback before.

It would be a great shame to see this game go down a similar road as GW2; no endgame or inaccessible endgame is all the same to me. That said, early days friends, early days.

What the players want – who can say?

In a recent comment over here, blogosphere buddy Bhagpuss made an unsuspecting remark which at its core is a most familiar sentiment to all longterm MMO players, I’m sure:

[…]But that’s just what GW2 has become and, as people are prone to say, it is what it is. It could have grown into something very much more but apparently that’s not what the majority of players wanted so there you go.

I am going to blatantly take this quote out of its specific context and write a longer, more generalized post about it (sorry Bhag!).

What’s what the players want?

“What the players wanted” and any variation thereof is a commonly used phrase and reaction to MMO design, more often MMO design changes, that vexes me on a personal level. And oh, I have done it myself: how many times did I not do the “now reap what you sowed! (and I hope you suffocate on it)” fist-shake in gloomy retrospective whenever WoW changed for the worse over the years since 2004, in my very personal opinion? In a less considerate moment I’d love to blame all of you out there who are still playing for the state of the game. You ruined WoW for me or something.

But let’s get back to more rational debate. Every time MMOs change/evolve design direction the way so many have, the way GW2 has done from a non-commital “grind-and endgame-free” vision to what it is today, are we really in the position to say that it’s what the players wanted? If so, how do we know? More importantly, where would developers get such corroborated information?

(*)Not once in my 12 years-and-ongoing MMO career did I ever receive a developer letter asking me what I wanted. Not once did I receive a legit, official request or poll along the lines of “Dear Syl, please vote now if you would like to see achievements introduced to our game” or “…please let us know if you’re happy about another +5 level-cap increase with more gear grind at its end”. That would be spelling it out of course (and not a bad thing either).

Not once did anything remotely similar happen to me. And unless there is a secret society of select MMO players out there that receive these kind of emails when I’m not, other players don’t either. So, where and how exactly does the playerbase actively get to decide over an existing game’s direction? Surely not on chaotic message boards that no CM can effectively interpret and where it’s only ever the loudest voices that get noticed. Everyone should have figured that out by now.

DustSpeck

So maybe it’s the silent majority? Only, how does one speak on behalf of a silent group of people? Are they just “everyone else that is not on forums and twitter” that you therefore get to refer to easily for any given purpose since hey, it’s not like they’re saying anything to oppose you? Are we a homogenous mass of people just because we don’t scream and shout?

For me, it doesn’t work that way. It won’t do to retrospectively declare that things are the way they are because they went along with it. There’s a big difference here for me to actively shaping a process. To clarify: I’m not saying that developers should be telepathic and my main point is not to blame any particular group in the gaming industry for this situation (although clearly someone is to blame) – but you don’t get to tell me it’s what I wanted when it clearly wasn’t what I wanted and I never told you that it was.

Voting with your wallet blah

Here’s another catch-phrase I’ve come to dislike over the last few years: just vote with your wallet. The reason for my dislike is the simple truth of it and yet, it falls so horribly short in taking reality into account. I’m a part of a collective whose power is only as big or small as that same collective. I am also an enthusiast in a changing industry and on a wider scope, a human being in a constantly changing world. I’m not generally opposed to change; I’m constantly trying to evaluate which changes to embrace and which not to. Do I pay for an alpha? A beta? A collector’s edition? Do I pre-order? Kickstart? My head hurts.

I did vote with my wallet and unsubscribed from WoW at the end of WotLK, after a 6 years run of raiding madness. It has clearly made no impact whatsoever. If anything, Blizzard has become even less of a company I like to endorse than I did back then. But hey, I have the grim satisfaction of voting with my wallet, right? At least I don’t appear to be agreeing with this product anymore.

Whatever the silent player is supposed to do, I can’t seem to win. That’s why I object so strongly to the sentiment of absolute player/customer responsibility. As far as game design and development goes, the powers at work are way more complex and obscure than what any of us could influence. As much as players love to think they’re shaping games and as much as we love to blame others for when things turn badly, the much more likely scenario is that somewhere in an office, someone in a fancy suit with too many spreadsheets has figured out exactly which design directions to push in order to maximize monetization or subs or co-dependence. Sure, every once in a while a developer will ask us directly what we’d like on some social media platform, usually years or at least months before launch because that’s a good time to crowd-source and get cosy with fans. But videogame design is not a democracy, first and foremost it’s business and sneaky psychology.

wallet

BLAH

And players tend to go along with stuff. There may be some fluctuation but overall we are a flexible bunch when it comes to franchises we’ve come to love or where we’ve simply invested so much time already that it’s hard to leave behind the trophies and fancy dresses. Design directions don’t change over night either; they trickle down ever so slowly until we’ve all but forgotten where we came from and one small change at a time seems as harmless as the last one. That’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a way of doing business and shaping your audience to fit your product.

In summary to this conundrum I will say this: I never wanted achievements in WoW, the cross-sever dungeons or flying mounts. And I certainly never ever asked for an achievement tab greeting me at the login screen of GW2 – game of too many back items and weapon skins. I didn’t ask for that, more importantly didn’t vote on that. Maybe others did consciously and some unconsciously and I could blame that second group’s lack of action but it tires me to do so. As long as nobody is sending each and every one of their paying customers an official, transparent and individual request to vote on a game’s direction, I am sure as hell not going to take responsibility (or credit) for the way that MMOs are changing and neither should anyone else. Sorry developers but that one’s still on you!

(*) Clarification: I’m not saying I want these kinds of democratic player votes on game design; I don’t for various reasons. What I’m saying is since I am clearly not in a democracy here, you don’t get to share responsibility or retrospective blame with me democratically, either (let alone putting it all on players).

Day/Night Cycles for a Chance of Sunset

So Wildstar has a day-night cycle as was inquired about by John in yesterday’s topic here. I’m not sure that there’s one for all the zones of the Nexus but given that I’ve experienced it several times over this past beta weekend in Celestion, Whitevale and Thayd even, I don’t see why the mechanic wouldn’t be applied across the board unless we are looking at different planets and solar systems in the future. Or non-solar systems respectively.

While elaborating on day and night cycles is hardly ever a priority on any devspeak’s list, players tend to care a lot about the question of changing light and different times of the day for new MMOs. How many phases are there and for how long? Is it a 24-hour cycle? How dark is the night? Where can I find the timer on my UI?

I am a passionate supporter of this feature for “authenticity’s sake”, wherever there’s a fitting context to be found which is the case for most fantasy MMO settings. Whenever a day/night cycle is missing I am the sadder for it, yes even in open world RPGs that often tend to disregard them. Without changing light even a virtual life feels oddly stagnant. It feels like a missed opportunity too for developers and designers to install different events and time-relevant encounters in the game.

rainb

Rainbow over Oatbarton / mmorpg.com

There is an extraordinary creative power to light, no matter real light or fictional, that we can all recognize be we students of quantum physics or mere observers of all the indirect effects and cosmetic wonders that light bestows on our senses. There is such painterly glory in dynamic light changes to a point where even the more ordinary and literally lack-luster is elevated to a state of brilliance.

Dawn’s just a heartbeat away
Hope’s just a sunrise away
[Fear not this Night – GW2]

The night becomes frightening and mysterious for darkness’ sake, that absence of light. A morning heralds a better day, a day of possibility and things to come. Light is the great revealer of our reality but it is also constant interpretation and therefore it is poetry. There may be nothing new under the sun but neither is there ever the same.

24-hour cycles or multiple mini-days

One of the biggest concerns for MMO players has always been server-time versus artificial days or WoW’s 24-hour cycle versus all games that will allow a full run multiple times during a real-world day. There are many who dislike the classic WoW mechanic for understandable reasons:

I played an MMO where it followed the 24 hour cycle and I was kinda bummed because I’d always play at the same time every day, and it was ALWAYS night time on the server. The world was always dark and I rarely got to ever see daylight.

If the day/night cycles could be offset by a few hours, it would ensure that everyone will experience all the different times of the day since most people tend to play at the same time everyday. [source]

I remember the times in vanilla WoW when I was questing in Westfall and only ever experienced sunset, beautiful sunset, and then moonrise. While Westfall is a zone that has much to gain from the night’s black ink, I was taken aback when I visited during noon time for once several weeks later. So different was the atmosphere, so much more unnerving the shrill yellow all around. For other zones however, the night becomes an obstacle and players weary of hunting and questing for hidden objects that time of the day. They’ll take prolonged coffee breaks or re-schedule their ingame agenda entirely if they can.

sylnub

Light on a stick, I haz it.

I’m not sure personally which cycle I prefer the most. There’s a good argument pro multiple mini-days, at the same time I dislike MMOs that rush their cycles and rush transition phases especially. I am fine with several hours of night if only I get a properly long and developed sunrise phase in return. I am weirded out when there’s a new nighttime every hour, a schedule that exhausted me quickly in Minecraft’s unmodded version. What day is too long and which night long enough? It’s a tricky balance and yet a discussion worth having. Light is ultimately a very important factor to our overall gametime and gameplay experience as well as greater immersion (for us explorers and suckers of the second home). I’ll happily take tricky, prolonged nights over none at all and bear a toxic afternoon sun for a chance of sunset.

Thanks John for inspiring this post today. It was the waning light outside my window that told me it was time to publish and get on my way home.

Wildstar ain’t WoW – Wildstar is Heavy Metal

Suddenly everything is moving really fast. ESO is about to launch, Blizzard hints at launch dates and pre-orders, Wildstar takes another day to get real. And somewhere in between all of this, people are getting bored of Landmark’s alpha. Looks like this year of new MMOs is finally happening!

Sooo, Wildstar. I’ve played in the permanent beta since this January, not for any particular fandom but gloomy frustration over ESO. Clearly, going into this second MMO without much anticipation has helped a lot. I like Wildstar; not the way I love LOTRO or Guild Wars 2 but enough to pre-order come this March 19th. Smart of Carbine to move fast and set their launch well ahead of WoW – not because the two are one and the same but because WoW is always competition. To anybody.

That of course leads me to where I want to go with this post: how Wildstar doesn’t feel like WoW when you’re playing. The internet is obsessed with comparing the two for obvious reasons, the cartoony graphics and well, the classic approach. Yet probably 70% or more of all MMOs out there are themeparks with a holy trinity. If that’s the similarity you’re judging things by then Wildstar isn’t any more a WoW clone than Final Fantasy XI – a game that launched 2 years prior to World of Obsessioncraft. But hey, I too am guilty of early comparisons and Carbine weren’t exactly shy to point out their target audience in the past, either.

Contrary to the popular notion Wildstar isn’t WoW, more importantly does not feel like WoW. Much rather I would say this: Wildstar is heavy metal.

wstar2

A penetrating first look at Wildstar’s feels

From the get-go, Wildstar struck me as its very own thing. The overall feel and very consistent design concept seem well-known and yet aren’t, not after taking a closer look and certainly not within an MMO context anyway. If I had to describe the visuals to anyone, I would go with Brutal Legend meets Borderlands 2. That level-up animation still paints a wide grin on my face. This game is outspoken and slangy in its humor and despite the candy colors, it also has grimness and maturity to it (candy-color me impressed!). There’s the Firefly-like thematic fusion of a cyber-metal-punk wild west adventure…with pink bunnies.

The cartoony graphics of Allods mimic WoW in a way that Wildstar never does; more stylized, more artsy and whimsical are the settings of the Nexus and this painter’s brush is a different brush entirely. The world expands vertically as much as horizontally so the player character gets dwarfed more easily; a counter-immersive effect I’ve referred to (and complain about) as the goldilock’s experience before. Anyway, as a sucker for authentic and mature in MMOs it took me a good while to get used to the hyper-stylized graphics; staring at the grass in Wildstar for too long requires a willingness to suspend disbelief –

Spellsinger_Galeras

Whatever this is, it ain’t real grass!

But let’s rewind things a little and start at the beginning: the character customization. Wildstar offers as many options as vanilla Warcraft in terms of body and height variety which means well, none at all. That’s quite the flaw in 2014. At the same time, we are seeing some of the most exciting, accomplished and refreshing race design since Allods and maybe Tera. Boring and uninspired humans with weird hairdos aside, some of the Draken, Mordesh, Granok and Chua models are simply to die for.

wsraces

Once you leave character customization, Wildstar is quick to introduce players to combat with their very own tunnel scenario. Yeah, they do that. Once again, there’s much to get used to here and it’s safe to say the doubly active telegraph combat couldn’t be more unlike WoW even if Carbine are aiming for the same strategic depth and role-based play with their group content. In the same vein, their restricted skillset and talent system strike me as modern and light-weight in a way WoW is only just learning to be, simplifying things with every new expansion.

I could go on from here and point out how the (sticky) camera in Wildstar works differently which gave me pause. There’s no insta-turn and quick 90° cutting corners which some players will clearly miss for the first few hours even if it feels natural after a while.

Or I could describe the chaotic refugee city of Thayd that feels nothing like any Warcraft city I’ve ever been to. If I had to name something about Wildstar that really let me down it would be questing which, despite different path options, is very kill ten rats. In this there’s no letting off Carbine.

In summary: You should probably give this a try

So many aspects in MMOs make for that complex, intangible quality that we call “overall feel” and if nothing else, you should give Wildstar the benefit of the doubt as long as you haven’t played it. The Nexus is an odd place, alien yet familiar – not entirely new but new enough, a little more grownup than expected and every bit as polished as anyone could hope for. There will be things to love and things to hate but dismissing this new title over being a second World of Warcraft because cartoony looks, well that would be wrong entirely. Wildstar is a fresh interpretation of a classic, an ambitious and deep MMO world with an unmistakeable, stubborn and outspoken style. It doesn’t need to copy WoW any more than any of the other upcoming games do; I believe we can move on from this notion already.

MMO Dragons through the Ages – Fantastic Creatures, Formidable Foes

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D&D cover by L. Elmore

Dragons. Formidable beasts of fantasy and wonder. The stuff of nightmare in many a heroic story of folklore, mythology and children’s tales. Most beloved foe of the high fantasy genre be it in movies, books or video games. Where would our MMOs be without dragons? Who doesn’t love dragons?

From an early age I was fascinated with draco, also known as dragon, drake, sometimes wyvern or lindworm. I was a child of fairy tales and the big bad wolf aside, which mostly just scared me, dragons were the most fascinating and exotic creatures that would inspire my wild dreams like none other. I remember a particular story in my vast audio&textbook collection about a green dragon and a knight; the pictures of the ferocious beast gave me such nightmares that my mother glued a blank opaque paper over the pages so I could follow the story without seeing the dragon. Bless our early beginnings.

Remember with your heart. Go back, go back and go back. The skies of this world were always meant to have dragons. When they are not here, humans miss them. Some never think of them, of course. But some children, from the time they are small, they look up at the blue summer sky and watch for something that never comes. Because they know. Something that was supposed to be there faded and vanished. Something that we must bring back, you and I. (Robin Hobb, Golden Fool)

White Dragon Sleet(Elm)

Dragons of Winter Night by L. Elmore

Later I discovered the dragons of D&D and in particular, the Dragonlance; that’s when I irrevocably fell for this genre, absorbed in pages full of colorful illustrations by Elmore, Parkinson, Caldwell and Easley. My first artbook was a Larry Elmore limited edition which me and my best friend ordered on that novelty called the internet. I remember sending Larry a short thank-you email for the exclusive sketch he had done in each of our books, adding this well-wish: “may there always be dragons soaring across your sky”. I imagine he can see them whenever he closes his eyes or how could he possibly illustrate them in such stunning detail?

…the Dragon is the Patron Saint of all storytellers and artists and his likeness has adorned canvases and stone and has been forged in every precious metal. (Guillermo del Toro)

The Dragonlance Chronicles also opened a new, more modern perspective on dragons for me: dragons that are more than mere alien beasts and forces of nature. Dragons that have a face, that are scheming and cunning creatures of magic (sometimes shapeshifters like Silvara whose name I’ve adopted). Dragons that can choose different allegiances – good or neutral as much as evil. I love when dragons get to be real characters in stories and not just the ultimate yet dumb antagonist for the glorious dragon slayer. When a dragon ends up being little more than a T-Rex, that’s what I like to call narrative mistreatment, a lost opportunity. As far as morphology goes, it is interesting to note that historically there’s a distinction between European and Asian dragon tradition, with European dragon imagery being the predominant representation still in our western culture (with legs, wings or the ability to breathe fire) as opposed to the more snake-like Asian dragon (also naga).

MMO Dragons through the Ages

With the amount of dragon imagery and tradition out there, it’s no surprise that fantasy MMORPGs too capitalize frequently on our fascination with the winged, fire-breathing reptiles. I’ll come forth and say that I never ever tire of dragon encounters in MMOs; give me Blackwing Lair, Onyxia and the Dragon Aspects any day of the week! My favorite boss encounter of all time will probably always be Lord Victor Nefarius aka Nefarian which in my humble opinion, was a way more fascinating figure than Deathwing.

WoW is a game that loves to flaunt its dragons and “dragonkin” as foes but also mounts or pets. GW2 features the most breathtaking dragons for me as far as sheer size and dramatic entries go, so while ANet failed to make Zhaitan and Co. a particularly interesting bunch, the Shatterer or Claw of Jormag encounters will always hold a special place in my heart. Who would not feel awe and terror facing this? –

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Descent of the Shatterer (guildwars2guru.com)

Musing on dragon history and my favorite encounters in MMOs, lead me to a full-scale investigation of MMORPG dragons of the past, present and future. As far as popular mainstream titles go, there’s not a single game that didn’t feature draconic foes at some point or other – or is there? Anyway, let’s look at my quick and selective chronology of MMO dragons (you can find the full-size wallpaper of the image here):

mmodragons

While we’ve come such a long way graphically since the dragons of UO and Everquest, today’s MMO dragons have the same effect on players and still follow the same narrow design template. AION probably holds the trophy for the most beautiful and lavish dragon design. If I had to try and tackle the beast, put into words what still makes dragons so appealing to lovers of the genre, I’d call it a mixture – the fear of the unknown and supernatural as much as a fascination with the majesty, power and wisdom of a sentient being that shares traits with familiar animals. More than any other fantastic creature, dragons embody the virtues of a magical world beyond our wardrobe and maybe our longing thereof. Or as this article concludes beautifully, quoting a Tolkien essay:

Fairy-stories were plainly not primarily concerned with possibility, but with desirability. If they awakened desire, satisfying it while often whetting it unbearably, they succeeded… The dragon had the trade-mark of Faerie written plain upon him. In whatever world he had his being it was an Other-world. Fantasy, the making or glimpsing of Other-worlds, was the heart of the desire of Faërie. I desired dragons with a profound desire… the world that contained even the imagination of Fafnir was richer and more beautiful, at whatever cost of peril. [JRR Tolkien, On Fairy Stories]

That is the gift of dragon-sight; the purpose of the dragon quest. Dragons embody the beauty and the peril of an “other world” that is “richer and more beautiful” and full of strange and marvelous things.

I look forward to meeting more MMO dragons in the future. I’m not sure about Wildstar but it’s probably safe to say we’ll see more of them in Everquest Next, Elder Scrolls Online and certainly WoW. What are your favorite dragons in MMOs? And is there anyone who’s tired of all the dragons? I can’t imagine my virtual worlds without them.

You know Nothing, Jon Snow

At the verge of 2014, my MMO plans for the upcoming year looked vaguely like this:

1. TESO
2. EQN /EQNL
3. Archage / Skyforge huh?
4. probably not Warlords of Draenor
5. certainly not Wildstar

Here’s proof.
One month, a couple of first-hand experiences and developer updates later, the list goes as follows:

1. Wildstar
2. EQN /EQNL
3. maybe Warlords of Draenor (oh my god)
4. TESO when it goes free to play
5. whatever

…So, what am I playing this year?
Ask me again in six months!

wsss

Why do we raid?

While rounding up last weeks numerous posts on multi-classing and writing an article on my private immersion (yeah that’s still gonna happen), I came across Jeromai’s recent post on GW2 and the latest Origins of Madness patch. It made me chuckle.

Jeromai displays a particularly fascinating case of raiding malaise in the sense that he dislikes almost everything about MMO raiding, including its basic nature – many of the inherent challenges and social dynamics that make raiding such an exciting activity for others –

Nor am I terribly keen on the idea of separating oneself from players that are playing poorly on average because it’s easier and more rewarding to be elitist and isolate oneselves, than to lead, coordinate and teach. (Though I recognize that it is a reality of life, and periodically tempting, especially when you can’t take repeating yourself any longer.)[…]My other pet peeve about raid bosses is regarding the clarity of mechanics and gimmicks of whatever it is one is to do.

[…]There’s the waiting.[…]There’s the suffering involved with matching schedules and timezones.[…]And there’s that old bugaboo of needing to rely on other people to perform well while not being able to help them much at all.

Now to be clear, I have suffered from all of the administrative side-effects mentioned by Jeromai for most years of my raiding in WoW. A good while ago, I published an article called “Vanilla Raiding – A Trip Down Memory Lane” reminiscing on all aspects of the insane raiding prep, downtimes and aggravation that was part of vanilla WoW’s competitive endgame. Players joining WoW later are unaware of how much more convenient things have become since. I can sing a hundred songs about the woes of 40man raid coordination that include the most trivial and silly of things – yet, we lost sleep over them at one time or another.

Yet, I love raids. I love the cooperative idea of raids. In answer to Clockwork’s more recent Wildstar 40man worries, yes I still love 40mans too. Since we really don’t know much yet about Wildstar, I’ll focus on WoW which seems to be the general reference anyway: 40mans had a lot of bad in vanilla WoW but if you compare my nostalgia post with today’s situation, the way class and gameplay mechanics have changed drastically over time, much of the old raiding downtimes have been removed completely. That starts with things like having guild agendas and guild banks, diverse and instant raid buffs and boons, dual specs….and ends with the removal of progression hoops such as atunements or resistance gear. Oh and flex raids, thank you.

That doesn’t necessarily make 40mans easier but it sure as hell reduces the more aggravating and redundant aspects all around setting up, recruiting and raiding effectively. Because underneath all the organizational hassle, coordinated large scale raiding is an absolute blast and unlike smaller raid units, allows for a more lenient roster in which it is possible to make up for that weaker player or three. It’s nonsensical that MMOs with few to no mechanisms of social control or pre-selective hoops before endgame, should toss players right into some of the hard-ass, unforgivable encounters that are 10-25mans, the way we know them in WoW.

However, returning to Jeromai’s well argued points on raiding, he also dislikes core characteristics such as the clarity of mechanics (and associated learning tactics) or the need to rely on other people’s performance. Now, if you raised a poll on a given MMO’s raid forum, you would probably find these listed among the primary reasons why many people currently love to raid. It’s a huge challenge to coordinate big raids and yes, it involves time often spent on someone else than yourself. But equally, the reward of beating such high-req encounters is unforgettable – a feeling many raiders live for. As an ex-healing coordinator, I would also add that I’ve always loved the “extra work” that comes with guiding others, improving team work and progressing together.

PUGs and mass zergs have their appeal because they’re all too often the only alternative to setup/balance restrictions and recruitment headaches in MMOs. However for myself, nothing truly beats your own guild’s smooth raid machine that you yourself have oiled together with your mates over months and years. That sense of group progression. I do miss that. A lot.

I got the first twilight draaaaake!! That’s pre-nerf!

There is also a rewarding aspect in learning raid tactics and then getting them to be performed perfectly. I am not a fan of “synchronized swimming” or static combat but it’s worth pointing out how that’s a different type of challenge; not primarily a challenge of finding all new solutions (as most guilds don’t do blind raids) or spontaneous action maybe but one of coordination, balance, communication and perfection. Let’s put it this way: any long-term successful raid guild in WoW is also an achievement in different social skills.

I realize how some of my views presented here appear to clash with more recent preachings on active combat or more playstyle freedom – but at the very core of encounter and combat design, I don’t think these things need be mutually exclusive.  In a world of more flexible raids, with less unproductive downtimes and more dynamic combat, I am all game for large scale guild raiding! The only thing that worries me is time. It still takes time to raid in a dedicated, competitive fashion, that won’t just change completely. And I realize given my current circumstances, I might simply not be eligible for that type of focused play in MMOs anymore and well, that’s okay. That’s on me. We’ll see what future games will do about the casual hardcore.