Worldliness

Yes, the blog lives. Technically, at least. Life gets busy and complicated, but when it eases up a bit or a topic strikes my fancy… well here you are.

On the heels of the announcement of WoW’s Wrath of the Lich King Classic, a number of recent posts have taken up the topic of WoW’s dungeon finder due to be added to the Classic version of the game. Wilhelm has some thoughts here, Rohan has a good post here, and a series of interesting somewhat related posts from Bhagpuss and Shintar, got me thinking.

We’re not playing WoW at the moment, but readers of TAGN will know that our little group of ageing adventurers have returned to Valheim after setting WoW Classic aside and exploring a few other games– New World and Lost Ark specifically. Part of what propelled us back to Valheim, for me at least, was the loss of a sense of place, of “worldliness”. I’ve been down this road before.

One day all this will be yours? No, not the curtains.

I play these games to be removed from this crazy world to spend some time immersed in that crazy world. Experiences are what I take away from these games and exploring and adventuring in a virtual world to me should be a unique experience– even if that experience is potentially very similar to that of another player’s– the pathway, choices and timeline are my own.

The recents posts weighing in on the WoW Classic Dungeon Finder debate, damage meters and dps rotations (and or the demise of “support class” play) struck a chord. These games have evolved from being a world to explore to largely being a single “story” line to experience, largely at the exclusion of all other kinds of gameplay.

I’d add a big third item to Rohan’s two ideas about Dungeon Finder– Dungeon Finder destroyed the “world” of WoW. In the guise of solving the group formation problem, a whole host of changes ensued which led to many of the issues Shintar and Bhagpuss discuss. The advent of the DF feels like it was perhaps the first big obvious manifestation of a new and shifting philosophy of game design.

As Wilhelm discussed, DF required that instance related quests were now placed within the instance itself rather than the instance run being the culmination of a world-based narrative quest line. I always trot out the Van Cleef/Deadmines story line from WoW Classic being the epitome of the before times.

A trot across the Northern Bree Fields

The “world” became irrelevant and needlessly time consuming. As the bar for accessing and experiencing content was reduced to logging in and clicking the LFD button, world questing and travel went out the window. With instanced content being simultaneously the easiest content to access and the repository for the best gear needed to progress to the, er, next best gear, an endless cycle of class and dungeon content revision and optimization ensued. The DF made adventures like this unnecessary.

The success of the new bite sized instance based experience depended on channeling players into set roles to feed into the DF to provide a predictable, homogeneous and optimized experience. Rotations, damage meters, gear score, “cleave” runs, etc. all grew out of this fundamental shift.

Likewise, the primacy of effectively lobby based instanced content in these and only these roles effectively killed off any other modes of game play. Crowd control? No longer needed. Stealth? Hardly. Unique “builds”? Need not apply. Specialized group buffs or other “support” activities? That went out with high buttoned greaves. Gear score too low? Pass. DPS checks? Yup. Fast travel to any and all points? Check. Don’t even get me started on “phasing”…

Kamagua Sunset

And all of these changes, some incremental, some more earth shaking, took us from somewhere close to the 1999 Everquest virtual world experience to something much more like Lost Ark’s fixed character archetypes, linear maps and story lines.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Lost Ark for what it was, and before that, our re-exploration of Diablo II. But what those experiences didn’t offer was an individualized character that I could relate to and take into a world to create experiences for that character. Fewer or no choices, no individuality, One True Way to gear and play.

To me, that cascade of detrimental changes fundamentally started with the DF whose original mission was to solve a quality of life problem– how to facilitate group formation for instanced content. Very soon after that, the tail began wagging the dog and my how much wagging there has been.

If the difficulty of forming dungeon groups was the problem, the DF wasn’t the only solution. WoW certainly could have taken other tacks tried in other games. Scaling dungeon difficulty to group size or other indicia of “power” (i.e., gear score, level, etc.) could have been one way. LOTRO essentially went this route.

Mercenaries could have been another. Need two more to fill out your party? Hire a merc. Everquest and other games have taken that approach. Either of those alternatives wouldn’t have done any true “violence” to the core idea of an explorable world in which instanced content serves a role to move story forward and provide for progression.

When I look back at the games I’ve spent the most time in over the years (or had the most affinity for), the ones that I have stuck with for the longest– WoW, LOTRO, Everquest, Minecraft, and to a lesser extent, Valheim all have (or had at the time I was playing them) a true sense of place, of worldliness.

Icebergs Ho!

I have memories of those places and experiences as if I had visited them and spent time there. These are entirely unlike the memories I have of reading a novel or watching a film. For that matter, even the experiences of separate characters in those worlds have their own unique recollections.

Are there any virtual worlds left to explore and experience any more? For the time being, I’m entirely content with the sense of place and worldliness I’m finding again in Valheim.

5 thoughts on “Worldliness”

  1. Yep. Fully agree. Alas, world-seekers might be an even smaller subset than hardcore raiders to cater to, though perhaps a little more in number than pvp full-loot lovers.

    I find that big MMOs these days are a little too gamified and streamlined in structure to offer an immersive sense of world. I still manage to find them in smaller sandboxes with player creations though, e.g. A Tale in the Desert, Boundless, etc. Different start locations, unique landmarks, functional reasons to explore and have adventures venturing in different directions.

    But the number of players playing them suggest that it’s not at all popular as compared to getting on a tour bus around a theme park. An explorer’s exciting unknown territory is another guided-structure-craving player’s completely lost and confused, with frustration not too far behind.

    1. Your gamification comment is spot on. The swerve toward the extreme theme park experience and the reliance on the dance manual to “progress” through gimicky battles is exactly what has put me off most mmorgs since, well, probably the release of Burning Crusade with its attunements, etc. When the “game” gets between me and the world, I start losing interest.

      I could wander for hours in LOTRO, vanilla WoW or Everquest because it felt like a cohesive place to be that had a coherent relationship to my character’s existence. I confess to simply not “getting” Minecraft until I finally gave in and tried it. I didn’t think such a “kid’s game” with a challenging art style and no other players could feel immersive, let alone like a place, yet it very clearly did, much in the way that Valheim or other survival genre games have stepped into the space formerly occupied my what we might think of as traditional mmorpgs. Although I hate the UI, No Man’s Sky has that potential for me as well, but was lacking… something.

      With my cynic’s hat on, I’d say you’re right that the market for the game I crave is likely much smaller than the theme park with its regular infusion of new content and closed repetitive loop to keep players playing between content drops. That suggests more of a business model problem… Take Valheim for example. Where do they go from here and how do they make any MORE money? And from the answers to that question I think you see the source of some of the ills that I complain about.

  2. Great post. The success of Valheim suggests there is a significant demographic willing to devote the time and effort to a less-convenient, more worldly experience and there are several in-development mmorpgs that are supposedly trying to leverage that interest, Pantheon probably being the best-known. Whether any of them is ever going to reach a state where they’ll be able to test the market for that sort of experience is another question.

    Looking at the success of Valheim, though, and of New World in its initial phase, I wonder if what we used to think of as the mmorpg virtual world audience hasn’t already found a very viable alternative in both the survival game genre and in single-player or co-op open world rpgs. Both Valheim and NW initially presented as survival games and both are probably more successful in that regard than as either rpgs or mmorpgs. There would seem to be a massive overlap between sandbox mmos and survival games anyway and it’s certainly the mmo endgame that’s failed New World, not the worldbuilding.

    As for single player open world games, I’ve read so many people eulogizing Breath of the Wild or Horizon Zero Dawn in exactly the same terms we used to talk about mmorpgs. I wonder if the real change isn’t that mmos swerved onto another path (which, as you very accurately describe, they did) but that other genres appeared that did virtual worlds as well or better. Maybe we just don’t need those kinds of mmorpgs the way we did because now we have other options.

    (Having issues commenting on WP blogs again so this might be a duplicate comment)

    1. Interesting point. Maybe we don’t need those mmorpgs as much as we used to. As much as I like games like Valheim and Minecraft, something is lost without the presence of other players. I’ve never been able to stick with a traditional single player RPG after playing mmorps. Even when I don’t choose to interact frequently or even at all with them, the fact that they exist and we all have some degree of shared experience underscores rather than detracts from worldliness.

      I can’t spend too much time in a Valheim or Minecraft world solo. It feels too dead to me. Even a shared experience with a few others makes a huge difference to me personally, but the overlap you mention is definitely there. I think New World initially showed the potential before it tripped itself up. As New World has shown, if you blow that opportunity, you will likely lose those players as they move on to something else. I’m biased, but I think creating a sense of worldliness is what helps keep bringing players back to those worlds.

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