The Gathering Gloom

Running around EQ2X this weekend and enjoying working on some tradeskills.  Crafting in EQ2 is one of the things EQ2 does a bit better (note I said a bit better because its far from ideal) than many MMOs.  There is a bit if a minigame to it, so perfect success is not guaranteed though there is little chance of real failure, the products are genuinely useful, there is quite a diversity of recipes across a broad range of professions, it doesn’t require the generation of many many useless/valueless items to make progress and its an entirely separate progression mechanism from the rest of the game.

Of course, all crafting requires inputs.  That means gathering.  Ugh.

No MMO seems to have done this part well.  So what has the last decade brought us on the gathering front?

Consider the Miner.

Random spawning, mailbox-sized chunks of “ore” that are curiously unevenly distributed in zones the difficulty of which correlates to their relative value.  How immersive.

I just looked over, and there it was...

How do we find this resource?  Mining radar of course.  Sort of Yukon Cornelius meets Aquaman.  And how is this oh so valuable ore actually gathered?  Take out your trusty pocket pick, give the ore pinata a few whacks and voila.  Paydirt.

Not exactly the picture of mining that I had in mind.  Why did they bother with Moria or Thorin’s Halls when the dwarves could have just skipped through the fields tapping rocks as they went?

Sure some games try to jazz up the immersion by actually having the nodes spawn in or near hills.  Others just don’t bother.  How the farmers in Kingsfell manage to plow their fields with all that rich iron popping up in their fields is beyond me.

I guess the Kings fell because they tripped over giant mining nodes...

Eve got it partially right.  Mining in Eve is a full-blown progression game in its own right and encourages group play.  Yes, its a bit boring with the waiting factor, but to me that is a question of how much, not whether it takes time.

Mining in Eve requires the development of various skills that increase proficiency (speed, mining yield, refining efficiency, etc.) as well as collaborative supporting activities (hauling, group management, even defense).

So why hasn’t any fantasy MMO bothered with truly fleshing out the gathering professions properly?  I for one would love to have to go prospecting for ore deposits and constructing a mining operation out in the wilds, alone or with others.  Then figure out how to haul it all back to town all the while defending your operation from marauding mobs.

A noob miner would have little but his pick, pan, a trusty pack mule and a bit of luck.  A journeyman could construct a proper mine that would yield more, a guild could construct and man a large mine, etc.  Like scouting asteroid belts in Eve, prospecting for a good site with lots of the desired ore (to justify construction of a mine, etc.) would be half the battle.  Imagine if prospecting was a bit like WoW’s archaeology?

Of course, one aspect that is key to the viability of Eve’s mining progression is the economy.  Even the lowliest of the low minerals (Tritanium) which comes from the most abundant asteroid in the game (Veldspar) is used in nearly everything constructed in the game.

Copper doesn’t cease being useful just because I can wear or wield iron or steel or mithril items.

The same paradigm can be applied to any of the other gathering professions as well:  hunting/trapping for hides and leather; farming for food and fiber (thank you LotRO, sort of); lumber mills (with depleting forests) for wood.

Did no one at Blizzard remember the resource gathering part of Warcraft when they designed WoW?

Was an entire civilization built solely on the basis of logs of weathered driftwood that washed up on a beach or random yew branches that the wind knocked down?  Did no one think to swing one of those enormous battle axes at an actual tree from time to time?

Even fishing never progresses beyond a string on a stick… No fish traps? No one invented the throw net let alone a fishing boat?

A beautiful thing, yes. But how about a net?

Of course, a key component to making a system like this work is dangerous transport.  Without some risk, there would be little excitement to the process and less value in the product.  Lets add some transportation for the poor gatherers.  Start with a big backpack, claw your way up to a donkey, add a cart, maybe an ox team and wagon…

And of course, a nice big slow transport full of valuable goods invites bandits…

Seriously, I’d do this all day.

The Fun Quotient

Tobold’s post quite nicely explained why our little group is looking outside of WoW for group fun.  Frankly, there is nothing in the world that is particularly fun for a group to do.  Even if the mobs weren’t trivial, XP is diluted in a group (versus bolstered in other games) and if you want to enjoy the actual quest content, you can’t increase your level of challenge by playing in red zones since you can’t get the quests!

Several of the commenters somewhat snarkily chided that somehow that viewpoint is tainted if one of your reasons for saying WoW no longer lets people play together is “lower efficiency.”  What is lost in the discussion is what efficiency really means.

On its face, most people assume that “efficiency” means simply the shortest path (time-wise) to the level cap.  Personally, I think that’s too narrow.  In my mind, that’s only looking at one narrow aspect of the entire picture.

A better measure is the amount of reward you receive from participating in group activity– whether that is gold, xp, loot or unquantifiable fun– in a given play session.  The unstated denominator in all of these things is time.  The fun quotient.

When you add time or proportionately reduce your numerator, the fun quotient decreases and the overall entertainment experience is diminished.  Its in that sense that it becomes “inefficient.”  Its suboptimal entertainment measured against the potential you know is there.  Its worse in a game where alt-itis is rampant since its likely that you may have experienced the content more than one time on different characters.

Its gets more complicated when you start adding in the impact of “group generated” rewards– the fun stuff that people bring to the mix extrinsic to the game itself– conversation, jokes, humorous mistakes and yes, the sense of a shared experience that is unique to that group. Even if its a well known encounter or challenge, your group attempt(s), successful or otherwise, are still unique.  These group benefits (and detriments) can add to and substract from the numerator in the fun quotient.

How we perceive the value of rewards is measured against what we had to invest to get them– time, mostly.  Even the other things we “invest” in them are still just proxies for time (even consumable items from a cash shop, the cash is still a proxy for RL time).  In our MMOs the progression element (whether level, gear or otherwise) is almost universally the main reason we play.

We ding therefore we are.  Anything that slows down the ding (in the broadest sense) without adding something else to the mix (recognizing that is entirely subjective) frankly makes the process less fun than it could be alone and hence less efficient from a “fun” perspective.  A lower fun quotient than soloing.

WoW grouping for open world content suffers from all of these ills.  XP is diluted, so time to ding is extended.  The challenge of fights is completely trivialized since there really is no open world group content.  Collection quests in a group multiply the time it takes to complete them.  Finally, mobs may be killed so quickly that a group experiences increased downtime waiting for them to respawn and all of these aspects feedback on themselves as well further exacerbating the problem.

At some point, the additional time to gain meaningful progression or the diminution of the challenge in gameplay simply becomes much less fun per session in a group.  Lower efficiency in the broadest sense, means less fun.  Azeroth in a group just isn’t that much any more.

At this point in WoW’s evolution, I often wonder why it isn’t a local client or individually instanced world with a global chat server and matchmaking lobby much more like Guildwars or DDO.

Interesting choices

A theme has been circulating around the blogosphere of late, several posts for which its too late and I’m too lazy to link back to (apologies), that have been commenting on aspects of gameplay that can be loosely categorized as requiring (or at least permitting) the player to make “interesting choices”.  I’ve been somewhat busy and remiss in commenting on them, but ultimately think they are on to something…

In some games like Rift with its multivariate soul system, that means that players get to make interesting choices about character development and differentiation.  Likewise those choices in theory permit a player to choose how to configure one’s character for a given play scenario– instanced dungeon, rifting, solo pve, solo pvp, etc.

Gordon at We Fly Spitfires and Wil at The Ancient Gaming Noob both touched on a few aspects of class design that highlighted another aspect of player choice or the (merits of the) limits thereof.  Likewise, Keen had a few good thoughts on old EQ which resonated.

My own recent experiences on the progression server in EQ which were initially borne of nostalgia and perhaps a bit of a masochistic streak have been validated well beyond the mere “lets go see how bad it was and we can blog about it” angle.

I’m having a good time on Fippy Darkpaw.  Its not easy.  There is no definitive path.  Death is my copilot.  Travel can take both time and luck…  My druid may know two dozen spells, some of dubious value, but can only equip eight at a time.  Choices.  I can’t cast them all, only the ones I’ve memorized.  A load out.

Once out of the pure noob zone, our progression has been fueled by a desire to “see the world”.  There is no definitive path.  We’ve zigged and zagged across Antonica and now to Faydwer to serve a our own goal or to build our own story.  Not a narrative that came out of a team meeting and was preordained by the only progression mechanic permitted but rather one of our own making.

There’s an interesting tension in reading about the seemingly extreme flexibility of Rift’s design paradigm and the rather rigid structure of old EQ, however both are based on creative player choice.  I wonder what problem they are truly trying to solve.

In the case of Rift, players have what appear to be myriad choices and are thus capable of adapting their characters to emergent gameplay situations.  In old EQ, its more like chess.  Or even Rock, Paper, Scissors.  Each piece(class) has certain attributes and to be effective, a player has to learn, analyze and make creative choices to be effective.  In essence, rigidity creates unique opportunity for making interesting choices and emergent gameplay.  Players are forced to solve problems with the tools they are given.  This is a good thing.

Encounters aren’t so finely tuned that there is, in essence, only one solution of player classes and actions that permits success, but rather, the opposite– multivariate solutions permit success and thus create a dynamic choice environment for players.  Iteration and innovation in situational tactics permit success on many levels.

That sounds like a bit of a high falutin’ way to describe that I tend to enjoy games that emphasize creative problem solving (given a relatively limited set of resources) more than those that restrict the “solution set” and rely merely on execution– Dance Dance Revolution writ large.  One successful strategy, one optimum group composition, etc.

More problematic, IMHO, is the fact that mainstream games like WoW have trivialized the leveling game completely removing any meaningful player choice.  Likewise, raiding (I’m not a raider) and for that matter current instanced dungeon content, only requires execution rather than tactics and strategy.  Regardless of your class choice, the optimal solution requires X effective dps, Y effective hp of the tank, and Y effective mana of the healer.

I’m probably in the minority, but I’m certainly more interested in the journey rather than the destination.  Currently, I’m enjoying the journey involved in a twelve year old game over everything offered in the current crop of MMOs.  It will be interesting to see whether the convergent trend to in essence no free will or player choice trump more open systems in the next few major releases.

I suspect I’ll be playing GW2 more than SW:TOR.

 

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.