Removing the World from Virtual Worlds

Been reading the discussion of the WoW 3.3. patch and after being struck with alternating waves of “cool!” and “its about time!”, I was overcome with the feeling that a good portion of the “World” part of “World of Warcraft” just swirled down the drainhole.  To be fair, its been doing that by degrees for quite some time.

I’m truly torn watching these trends.  On the one hand, I greatly enjoy gaming sessions with a regular group of friends.  The socializer and achiever in me loves the efficiency that all of these travel and ancillary changes have wrought over time.  The explorer side of me, however, dies a little with each subsequent patch.
As our instance group has proven, even the most casual of players, playing only a scant few hours per week can progress through the game’s instanced content almost exclusively without setting foot on virtual terra firma outside of capital cities.  That of course was never our explicit intent, it was simply a reality due to the lowest common denominator time budget for our group members.
We wanted to run all the instances at level and the xp and gear from doing those instances was vastly superior to doing group “open world” content.  As its well known, open world group activity is penalized and seeing as we didn’t intend to play solo (nor was speed leveling the object of our efforts), solo questing wasn’t on the table.

The World Before Us
Most of our group had been playing together since December 2004 and had already experienced WoW 1.0 as it then lay before us– a large number of quests and zones to explore punctuated by reasonably challenging instanced content along the progression path to the level cap.  Quest chains led you to and fro across the continents chasing threads of storylines that conveniently intersected with various instances– instances that felt distant, dangerous and exotic. 

In some cases, getting to the instances felt like a bit of an adventure itself.  Scarlet Monestary beckoned well before you were able to purchase your first mount at level 40.  After running all the way from Southshore through Horde Territory, you were rewarded with a dangerous place in a hostile land, far from the nearest Alliance town.  Likewise, before Light’s Hope Chapel was made into a full Alliance quest hub, Stratholme was a dangerous place, far far from the safety and support of an Alliance town.  But to the intrepid went the rewards.  Dire Maul was on the far side of the world for Alliance.

Of course all this open world travel and adventuring took time.  Quite frankly, more time than many people enjoy or can afford.  If all a person can afford is about a two hour block of time to play and the dungeon may take close to that to run, then 45 minutes of inventory management, repairs, preparation and travel (x5 people) acts as an insurmountable gate to that content.
Mass Transit
Warlocks’ summoning spell was always a great help to get stragglers to the group.  Great if you had a warlock in your group and three members had already arrived to perform the ritual.  While convenient, it hardly shrank the world to a significant degree.  Likewise, Mage portals at best got you to the closest capital city.  Aftewards, you were on your own.

Multiflightpoint taxi travel also took the edge off of travel to far flung destinations, even though you still had to manage any boat travel connections manually.  At least you could bio and microwave your hotpocket while you AFK flew from Darnassus to Feathermoon Stronghold on your way to Dire Maul.

The ever maligned meeting stones were finally repurposed as group summoning stones. Now only two group members needed to be present to summon (though they were level restricted).

Portals in Shatrath and Dalaran (and in each capital city to the Dark Portal) eliminated the vast majority of the travel tax for most players.  Add some additional mage portal destinations and long distance taxi travel is all but eliminated.
Hearthstone cooldowns were reduced making them much more of a travel strategy rather than a one time “done for the night” utility.  Especially in conjuction with the city portals.

Once upon a time, you had to visit a battlemaster in a city or actually travel to Warsong Gulch, Arathi Basin or Alterac Valley to join a battleground instance (Do the other BGs other than Wintergrasp even have a world presence?).  Through successive patches, all that is now required is a wee click on the pvp button to queue for a battleground and be magically whisked into the disambiguated battleground instance, promptly to be returned whence you came upon the battle’s conclusion.

Patch 3.3 is effectively accomplishing the same thing with the sweeping changes to the LFG tool and the implementation of cross server instance groups.  As Nils reported a response in the comment’s to Tobold’s recent post: “YES!  I will never have to leave Dalaran again!”  Indeed.

The Incredible Shrinking MMO
I’m reminded of the recent success/failure of Warhammer’s disparate approach to the same problem.  Early on, the insta queue anywhere battlegrounds were the most efficient means of gaining xp and the most reliable way to find pvp which was lacking in a pvp oriented game.  There was something of a world out there, but for many it simply didn’t exist in any meaningful way.  Log in, queue, BG pops, go done, repeat until cap.

I’m also reminded of DDO which I’ve been revisiting a bit of late.  In many ways its the ultimate session play environment.  In DDO (like Guildwars), there is essentially no massive multiplayer world outside of the instances which are spawned as needed for a solo or group players.  In DDO, all progress comes from completing these instanced challenges too, so walking the earth like Caine and grinding on what you find there is pretty much nonexistent. 

All of these “improvements” increase social interaction but at the expense of the sense of a virtual world.  Maybe that’s what most people want.  Heck, I was lobbying for our group to pick up Guildwars or DDO as a follow on to our WoW instance efforts because of these features that would allow all of us to quickly and easily get into the group content we enjoy without all these hassles.

Can the mass market support a virtual world or are we relegated to a shiny 3d chat room with a right click adventure menu?  Yes, of course, with WoW, one can always choose to run, ride, fly or even walk to experience the virtual world.  That’s not the point here.  The question is, what will future massive games hold for us?

Will Blizzard’s next gen MMO adopt most of the grouping/travel paradigms that are evolving in WoW?  I recall reading somewhere about wormhole travel for the upcoming STO and I’m cautiously pessimistic.  Likewise for SW:TOR.  Game functionality tends to evolve convergently.  Functional solutions and popular features from earlier games tend to end up represented in subsequent games of the same genre.  Part of this is meeting consumer expectations and part of it is simply addressing a gameplay need for the player base. 
As much fun as group content can be, I can’t help feeling we are losing the world from our virtual worlds.  The increasing focus on the “endgame” only exacerbates the problem as the virtual world is reduced to a series of repeatable instance pinatas, all of which must be run and rerun to fuel the gear progression game.

Looking Back on 2008

A few reflections on my gaming and blogging in 2008 with a few follow ups from last year’s post.

The Blog

On the stat line:

Total Hits: just over 100,000
Posts: 228
Comments: 825

My blogging has been a bit uneven this year which coincides with my equally unpredictable work pattern.  Feast or famine it seems, coupled with a few periods of just plain nothing much to say.

While the pace of my posting has remained about the same, its nice to see many more comments coming in.  Something I attribute largely to getting picked up on the VirginWorlds feeds and cross traffic from other friendly denizens of the blogosphere.

My top 5 referring sites were 1) VirginWorlds, 2) The Ancient Gaming Noob, 3) Tobold’s, 4) Kill Ten Rats and 5) Keen and Graev’s.  Many thanks to them and all who visit and comment.

Games in 2008

World of Warcraft. Our instance group slogged our way through The Burning Crusade to cap out at 70 just as burnout set in and before Warhammer released.  The group has been diligently pursuing its ultra casual, keep everyone together approach for more than two years at this point playing together just a few hours each week.  After diverting to WAR briefly, we are back in Azeroth with the Wrath of the Lich King where we’re having a good time.  I’m looking forward to continuing our weekly adventures with a great group of friends.

So far, Lich King has been much more of what I loved about the WoW 1.0 and much less of WoW 2.0.  Still, progress is fast and even for our group, we’ll likely cap long long before there is another WoW expansion on the horizon.

Eve Online. I’ve been mostly diligently pursuing my two box strategy with Eve having built my miner up to Hulk-capability and my hauler up to an Iteron V.  Along the way, I managed to get both pilots into Drake battlecruisers and have developed their social skills to the point where mission running and mining the mission spaces is a fun hybrid way to experience the game.

Wilhelm and Gaff and I were going great guns for a while but Gaff ran of to Norrath and then Middle Earth while Wil has caught the EQ2 bug on Guk.  So for now, I’ll continue to pursue my Eve objectives since it can be so forgiving of RL scheduling conflicts (the game you can play off line!).  Real time skill training FTW.

Everquest 2.  I was convinced to fire up EQ2 again as an alternative to WoW burnout and WAR disappointment.  Mrs. P and I followed multi boxing Gaff and Wilhelm to a new server and new guild where Jaye and Darren are resident.  Revelry and Honor is a wonderful group and they have a gorgeous guild hall.

Leveling is much accelerated since my last visit.  I was enjoying myself with this year’s offering The Shadow Odyssey until RL conflicts and the inevitable schedule chaos that are the holidays interrupted our adventures.  I’m on the fence whether to keep our EQ2 accounts going since I’m not playing very much and the horizon is a bit fuzzy in that regard.

Warhammer Online.  I had little enthusiasm for WAR until the open beta and then I fell for it.  It was certainly something quite different from WoW and EQ2 at exactly the right time for me.  Unfortunately, as the month wore on, performance issues and dubious design choices made clear that it just wasn’t going to be the next big thing.  The open world RvR, when it happened, was great, but the performance of the client and the incentives were too undeveloped or misconceived to make it a good fit for our group.

Pirates of the Burning Sea.  I beta’d PotBS and gave it a luke warm reception.  I really wanted to love this game, but it suffers/ed from a few serious design problems.  When I left the game, it was apparent that the fundamental port contention system was in desperate need of a complete overhaul.  Its a beautiful game and I intend on checking back in a bit, maybe with Station Access.  The thing that really killed it for me despite the rocky state was the the lack of a real open world feel to it.  Instanced battle rooms with questionable entry mechanics made it feel too much like a game of boxes.

Likewise, the much vaunted economy was seriously out of balance and, imho, poorly executed.  I’m still secretly hoping someone makes an MMO set in something like the 1600-1700 age of exploration/fighting age of sail era.  Eve with scurvy please.

Age of Conan.  I beta’d AoC and while parts were promising, it became clear that Funcom was rushing it out the door.  PvE underdeveloped, system requirements too high, PvP not really implemented as well as game breaking bugs meant I was going to pass before release.

LotRO.  Generally unplayed this year.  With Moria out, I’m almost convinced to hop in and join Gaff in his return to Middle Earth.  Time will be the limiting factor, but I do intend to see Moria at some point.

Games in 2009

I hate to say it, but after the disappointment of 2008, I’m not really looking forward to anything in particular.  I’m interested in what 38 Studio’s has going on.  I’m interested in what Guildwars 2 might be shaping up to be, but details on both of those have been scarce.

Likewise, I’m somewhat interested in watch the two most cursed IPs develop as well– Star Wars:  The Old Republic and Star Trek Online.  Both seem to be in capable hands, but if past is prologue, we’re doomed.

Goals for the Blog

Keep on keeping on.  The key to any kind of writing is to actually do it.  It gets easier and it (hopefully) gets better the more you do it.  I’ve been less concerned about my frequency of posting and generally pleased with quality and the type and number of comments I get.

A blog is a blog.  It doesn’t need to be a daily news feed unless you want it to be.

Goals for Gaming

I’ll completely rehash my last year’s goals because they STILL apply:

New Game #1. Find a game other than WoW in which to continue our group adventures. I love Thanksgiving, but I can’t eat turkey sandwiches everyday all year long. Some of us have a one game time budget, so it needs to be accessible and afford the opportunity to progress through the game in relatively small blocks of time– the mythical 2-hour casual gamer block maybe once or twice a week. If its that accessible, consider roping in some new blood for more fun and adventure. I’m not necessarily seeing anything on the horizon that fits the bill, but I’m willing to be surprised.

New Game #2. Find a game #2 that offers me a different experience than game #1 but that grabs me enough to cap out. I think you need to have a #2 that you can integrate into your game life in order not to burn out on game #1 or life for that matter.”

Thanks for visiting and Happy New Year!

Can RvR Ever Work?

Been reading a few of the “Woe is WAR” posts floating around like Keen’s and on The Greenskin.  I’m reminded of similar discussions around Pirates of the Burning Sea (technical issues aside) as the struggle for the soul of the game evolved.

I’m left with the question in my brain of whether a primarily Realm versus Realm MMO can really have any chance of succeeding, or whether the MMO genre is really just too poorly suited to this kind of gameplay.

A persistent world with persistent characters comes with a price that may have some inherent limitations or conflicts when brought into contact with most MMO character progression models.  I didn’t play DAOC in its heyday, so forgive the lack of insight there.

I wonder what discussions roiled around the conference room tables when the Mythics and Flying Labs of the world discussed designing a faction oriented pvp game.  Without being exhaustive, I’d think they have to have pretty good answers to questions like these, and more importantly, the answers to any of them can’t conflict with answers to others.  No small task indeed.

What happens if:

  • one side is more popular than another?
  • one class is more popular than others?
  • there are not enough people to overcome PvE objectives?
  • there are not enough pople to overcome RvR objectives?
  • the population is spread across a number of regions?
  • the population is spread across a range of experience?
  • one faction dominates RvR objectives?
  • no one engages in RvR?
  • if RvR objectives are only undertaken when there are no likely defenders?
  • if there are players that don’t want to engage in RvR?
  • if a faction is “victorious”?
  • if a faction is “defeated”?
  • players only have a 2-hour block of time to play?
  • if players are unable to coordinate with each other?

and on and on.  I’m beginning to think that as soon as you replace factional progression with individual advancement, you’ve lost the RvR game.  Likewise, the opposite seems true too– as soon as you replace individual advancement with RvR progression, you lose the MMO game.

A game about “us” seems incompatible with a game about “me” and vice versa.  I’m hoping someone proves me wrong.

Just to avoid any confusion, PvP /= RvR and doesn’t suffer the same conflicts.  “Warfare” in a PvP game like Eve, for example, is an extrapolation of a one v. one conflict to a many v. many conflict.  Though complicated conflicts require specialization and coordination (just like PvE games), Eve remains an individual experience, whether or not you are part of a big corporation, whether or not you are Gallente, Caldari, Minmatar or Amarr.

Ultimately the rewards of the corporate warrior or the doughty miner inure to the individual, and any collective effort via corps and alliances, etc. are at their core still motivated by that individual advancement mechanic.  In Eve, thats mostly pecuniary.  ISK is King, and all good things come from ISK.  In PvE games, that’s levels and loot.

Self selective collaborative group effort is still built on an individual achievement model, just like PvE MMOs.  We run the instance to get the loot for ourselves and for our group mates’ “selves” but not for any conceptualized “us”.

My individual interests may have been aligned with those of Varian Wrynn from time to time, but if the King of Stormwind said “Go slay 1,000 scourge”, the first thing that comes to mind is “What’s in it for me?”  PvP and PvE allow us to keep individual score.  An RvR game has yet to crack that nut.

So can it be done or are we all doomed to me first MMOs?

Getting out of WAR

I’m done. Its just not doing it for me. There’s the core of a great game in there somewhere, but somewhere between the beta and release, it got lost.

The reason I went to WAR was to engage in open RvR. War is everywhere. Except its not.

Scenarios, in and of themselves, are not solely to blame. In my opinion, and its only my opinion, the game lacks the overall balance sufficient to make it compelling for a wide audience.

The open RvR, when it happens, has been some of the most fun I’ve had in an MMO to date. The main problem is it just doesn’t happen enough or perform well enough and mean enough when it does happen.

I’ll probably check back in a bit to see how things evolve, but at the moment, its just not a great fit.