Around the virtual world, again

Haven’t had much to say of late, because, well, I haven’t had much to say.  Seems most of the sentient universe is spending some time in Rift.  As I noted before, I’ve decided to pass on Rift for now, though I’m not getting into the Rift/Not-Rift flame wars.

I beta-ed Rift and like it quite a bit.  But for some reason, it just didn’t quite grab me though I have nothing but good things to say about its production quality.  Given what we’ve seen in recent years, it restores my hope that the industry can actually produce a game that is worth buying on day one.  Unfortunately, that is saying a lot.

Likewise, after an initial bout of new MMO expansion enthusiasm, the obvious flaws of Cataclysm have left me little enthusiasm to spend much time there.  I got my non-instance group “solo” character to the cap in the middle of Twilight Highlands and stalled.  The linearity and the excessive phasing sucked out any enthusiasm I had for feeding my alt-itis.

I like to explore.  I like to explore the game world, I like to explore what other classes play like and I like to explore how virtual economies work, etc., etc.  Gating off parts of the world behind quest phase walls is the antithesis of a virtual world to me.  If there is a far off, dangerous and exotic place to visit, I want to be able to make my adventure getting there whether I’m a level one noob, level capped or anywhere in between.  Playing with friends or guildies, even in the same zone, is nearly impossible.

Returning to EQ on the time locked Fippy Darkpaw progression server has been a breath of 12 year old fresh air.  Experiment has turned into a bit of an obsession as Wilhelm and I have re-immersed ourselves into the EQ of old.  As a concession to our play budgets and the game mechanics, we are both dual boxing the game which adds its own new experiences.

Its a worldly world.  It takes time to progress.  Combat is slow enough and unpredictable enough to require you to make interesting choices.  Including the choice to run like hell to the zone line.  Death hurts and fear is a powerful motivator.  While on Fippy Darkpaw the death penalty is not the 1999 naked corpse run version, loss of XP and respawning at your bind point makes you more thoughtful.

There are dozens of places I can go to explore and go hunting.  The general freedom from quest driven content has actually been liberating.  Its been a while, but I’m finally beginning to understand what folks like Saylah and Tipa and others have been talking about for the past few years.  Group experiences are still fun, tactics matter and you get to see and experience the world as a living place– with your friends.

A number of explorer types are reporting good experiences with Rift, especially at the higher levels, but I’m still curious whether that will hold up longer than the three-month windows folks have been discussing in the blogosphere.

I hope so, because at this point, there is very little in the MMO space that looks like it can offer the kind of experience I’ve been craving.   I’ve got high hopes for Guildwars 2 and am cautiously pessimistic about SW:TOR since it will likely be fourth-pilloried on its story heavy construction.  But for now, I feel like I’ve been all the way around the MMO-sphere and ended up right where I started 12 years ago.

Fear the Chicken

After about a month of various interruptions to our Azerothian adventures (travels, weather-related power problems, etc.), our instance group was able to reconvene Saturday.  No doubt Wilhelm will chronicle our adventures in detail later, but dinging a level on my Worgen Druid got me the talent point I needed for Moonkin form.

Who's the Chicken Now?

In all my years in WoW, I’ve not actually played a dps character, and a druid caster was one of the few paths I had not explored.  I’ve been playing him straight as a caster and frankly a bit underwhelmed since the lower levels seem very heavy on feral skills and there seems to be relatively little leather caster gear.

With Moonkin, aside from looking like a chick-a-lope, comes a spellpower buff and a group haste buff as well which is a nice addition.  Its also getting easier to tell us apart given we are a group of four male worgen and a female gnome.  I’m the one with the horns now.  As the character is verging on level 30, gear choices, spells and talents are starting to make me feel like I’m playing a more unique class.

Before the short hiatus, I had been working my way through Cataclysm with my hunter and managed to cap out about 1/2 way through the Twilight Highlands.  The new excessively linear quest model was really starting to wear on me a bit, so it was time for a break.

Along with World of Tanks, Everquest launched the new progression server Fippy Darkpaw which Wilhelm and I got sucked into, so much so that we both resubbed for at least the next month.

The return to Norrath has been quite a contrast from Azeroth and definitely not an unpleasant time.  As many have said, its not the graphics, its the game, and indeed after a short period of visual readjustment, Norrath seems a place again in my mind rather than a series of low fi 2d screen shots.  I’ve been having a very good time there.

During the brief hiatus from WoW, I had not even logged in, so I was expecting the contrast in returning to Azeroth after spending quite a bit of time in Norrath to be a bit more jarring.  I was afraid I’d either be really disappointed in WoW or the return to playing with the group in Azeroth would be so much fun that it would smash the idea of the fun I’ve been having in Norrath.

Fortunately, neither was the case, but for me, its an interesting exercise in my own tastes and what I enjoy in an MMO.

Norrath, with its vast open spaces and limited means of travel (not even mounts on Fippy Darkpaw) speaks to my longing for a worldly world.  Places that are far away are indeed far away, exotic and dangerous.
Part of what underscores that feeling is the death mechanic.  While not quite 1999 with its naked corpse runs, the current death mechanic in EQ reinforces the world feel.  When you die, you return to your bind point.  That could be a loooong way from where you were playing which certainly makes you think more carefully about how you play.

Couple that with the fact that mobs will follow you to the zone line means you better not overcommit or wait too long to stage a tactical retreat or you might be looking at a long hike back.

Azeroth on the other hand, has progressively shrunk over the years.  Mounts, more and more flight points, and now the dungeon finder leave the world feeling more like a world of boxes.  The new phasing mechanics introduced in Wrath and used heavily in Cataclysm only make the situation worse.  If I were to explore the “world” of Cataclysm, which world would I be seeing?  If I haven’t done a specific series of quests, I will see a different world and if my friends or group mates are on a different phase than I am are literally in a different world.

The tension of course is that being able to gather the group quickly and to be placed into reasonably challenging content (as long as we’re fighting red mobs) is a huge boon to those of us with limited play time.  To most of us who have tramped the old world of Azeroth, up hill in the snow both ways, the DF feels a bit like a convenience overlayed on top of a world we knew.  For newcomers that never had to explore the world, I wonder what the place feels like.

Progression is another start contrast.  Leveling in EQ is by any measure slow.  Some would say VERY slow.  After rerolling characters for a dual box set up, I’ve only just reached level 5 after maybe 8-10 hours of play (play sessions all in, not just grind time).  That actually doesn’t feel too slow to me.  The slow rate means I have an opportunity to make money, learn to actually play my character(s) and become intimately familiar with the zones I’m working in.

WoW progression has gotten faster and faster.  Saturday’s session saw me grab almost two levels (28-30) and completely run out of rested XP bonus in about a two hour session.  Even when we first convened the instance group pre-TBC, we hit 60 well before we had exhausted the old world instances, let alone the old world quest content.  Frankly, now its hard to do anything in Azeroth that doesn’t give you XP!  Exploration xp, resource gathering xp, battleground xp, archaeology xp, etc. etc.

Progression is in the eye of the beholder, but I’m increasingly of the mind that its a bit of a binary proposition– it either needs to be slow and shallow or almost non-existent.  Anything in the middle seems to just get in the way of people being able to group and play with each other.

I’m interested to see whether my impressions change as we continue progressing through Norrath.  At some point in all games, the grind just feels like the grind, but for now I’m enjoying the more leisurely approach tramping the plains of West Karana again.