“It’s not you, it’s me”: SWTOR and my waning interest.

Full disclosure: I was cautiously optimistic about SWTOR. I was very careful not to buy into the hype, but I thought some of the things they were doing could actually improve the genre (it’s bizarre that this has become so rare). So I pre-ordered early, got into Early Access on the first day, and I’ve subbed the first month. Initially it pulled me in. The stories were good, the style of questing and the voice acting were interesting enough to maintain my attention. I got to 50, did some raiding, played some warzones, did a few runs of the daily quests and some of the “hard mode” group instances.

This was all fun, I was enjoying myself. Then the wheels fell off the lightsaber-y donkey cart. (Picture a regular donkey cart, then add midichlorians).

After a few rounds of the dailies, I soon realised that these were just the same tarted up WoW dailies that I was bored shitless doing in that game, and refused to do because developers forcing me to repeat exceedingly boring content is insulting and basically lazy. To get the PvE bonuses that came from dailies I ended up buying my way through it with money I made from my various commercial ventures.

Then we came to PvP. I’m not a huge fan of PvP in modern theme park MMOs. I’m not sure whether it’s the style of PvP, or that I’m just terrible at it, but I can run a few warzones, battlegrounds or whatever they’re calling them, and then that’s it. I get sick of it, either through frustration at consistently being steamrolled by the other side, or just the sheer boredom of the same small maps and the same limited objectives. I had more fun PvPing in the open world of UO, DAOC or early WoW.

Which leaves me with raiding. I still log in to raid, but is it because the raid content is fascinating? Nope, I log in because I enjoy messing around in Vent with the guys I’ve been playing with for the last 4 years. But it could be virtually any MMO that we’re playing.

So I’m bored. I’m fast approaching the point where I only log in to raid, and we’re just shy of two months in. Granted, it’s had me longer than Rift did, but I did take some breaks over the holidays. But is it the game, or it just me?

Honestly, I think it’s me. It’s a fine game. Lots of people are enjoying it. But it’s not what I want in the genre. I think we’ve lost what made an MMORPG an MMORPG. These aren’t worlds anymore .. they’re elaborate gaming lobbies, where we sit and wait and disappear off into our own 8-player or 16-player games, and then pop out again some time later clutching tokens. SWTOR is gamification taken to the extreme. After reading many of the MMO bloggers, like Syncaine at Hardcore Casual, I realise I’m not alone in my thinking here.

So SWTOR, it’s not you, it’s me. But maybe you can set me up with your half theme park, half sandbox, PvE/PvP sister that hasn’t been born yet?

Hmm. That last sentence sounded creepier than I intended.

‘Til next time..

The Evolution of ‘Raiding’ in MMORPGs: from scarcity to entitlement

First, some context. I’ve been playing EverQuest a bit lately, on the Time Locked Progression server known as Fippy Darkpaw. The notion behind Time Locked Progression is that the server is opened without any of the 17 (yes, seventeen!) expansions unlocked. The idea is that as the content (read: raid bosses) is defeated a certain time period will pass, and then a vote will be held where all players above a certain level can have a say in deciding on progression to the next expansion. At the time of writing the first expansion, Ruins of Kunark (originally released March 2000), has been opened. The server provides an experience somewhat like that of the original game in 1999. This kind of server, and the forum drama accompanying it, provides a real benefit for MMORPG genre enthusiasts like myself. It gives a stark look at how much the concept of raiding has evolved in the last twelve years.

Raiding is as old as pen and paper RPGs. On a smaller scale, a group of players try to best a difficult foe, usually at the culmination of a story line, and receive rare or valuable items as a result. MMORPGs bring more players together, and raids naturally get larger. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to confine myself to talking about Player vs Environment or PvE raids, which means we really get started with EverQuest. The game that kicked off the MMORPG genre as we know it today also introduced players to an activity that would very quickly become a staple of successive games. When EQ was released, three ‘raid’ mobs came along with it. When players reached max level (50 at the time), they could band together in large groups to take out the estranged dragons Lady Vox and Lord Nagafen, or the underwater ruler Phinegal Atropos. The actual number of participants was only limited by server hardware, internet connections and group management. In 1999, these were significant limitations.

With lag, player disconnections, zone server crashes, a very loose aggro system, non-instanced content and week-long respawn timers on the raid bosses themselves, raiding was something many did not participate in. In fact, many initially didn’t ever expect to participate in it. Over time that changed – with new expansions older content became available to those not on the bleeding edge of character advancement, and gradually even the newer content became more accessible.

Newer MMORPGs brought new innovations to the way raids worked. Most important were raid functions built-in to the user interface (originally multi-group frames but eventually so much more), more rigid aggro and kill tagging systems, as well as enhancements outside of the genre, such as better server and client hardware, and the mass uptake of ADSL connections or better. Perhaps the most fundamental change to MMORPGs was the rise of content instancing. Initially used in some titles as means of controlling population in outdoor zones, instanced content really came into its own with the 300-pound gorilla, World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW showed game developers, and perhaps more importantly corporate investors, that the MMORPG genre was not niche and could be very successful. This led to many of the ideas, systems and methods of WoW becoming staples of the genre. Instancing is no exception, and is one of the most long-lasting legacies WoW has given to the genre.

Now, this post isn’t meant to debate which title has brought most to the genre. The genre is iterative, and wherever its origin, instancing is now in every modern PvE MMORPG title. No longer did groups of raiders need to compete with each other to make it to the raid boss. No longer were raid bosses a scarce resource that needed to be fought over in order to get the ‘phat lewt’ players drool over. Every player, if they could muster enough prepared people (and this in itself has become easier), could raid at their own pace and be entitled to items, titles and experiences. This has fundamentally altered the genre and massively increased the importance of what we now call ‘end-game’.

When EQ was first released, no-one knew that raiding would become the final gaming goal for most MMORPG players. Now, a title’s end-game is an important contributor to its’ success, and when we talk of end-game we almsot exclusively mean either PvE raids or Player vs Player (PvP) combat. So raiding went from something that only certain people did, to something that almost everyone did, in the space of five or six years. Which brings me back to the start of my post: forum drama. At present, raiding on Fippy Darkpaw has been locked down by a small handful of guilds who compete with each other for the relatively few raid bosses in the game. While many don’t care, accusations of cheating, camping, and flawed game mechanics abound – ultimately many people are disgruntled with how raiding is going down on the server.

The bottom line: people are now part of a genre where everyone is entitled to raid, yet Fippy Darkpaw is a throwback to a time when that wasn’t the case. Arguably many things make the current raiding scene on Fippy Darkpaw (and its emulated equivalents) more cut-throat and potentially unfair than in 1999. But illegal third party programs, a hodge-podge of new and old game mechanics, and an extensive game knowledge base are merely contributors to the problem, not the heart of it. The fact is, like it or not, our genre has changed extensively over the years, and a sense of entitlement to raid is the new standard. To play in memory lane, you either persist with a sense of entitlement utterly unbefitting the era, or treat it as a visit to a particular type of MMORPG, fully understanding and expecting its flaws. I think I’ll be doing the latter.

Perhaps the most important question for discussion is – what next? Much like how competitive raid races have fallen from favour with the majority, it seems that instanced content/raids are soon to follow. New titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic are attempting to limit how much players are ‘absent’ from the wider world. Will we see a return to non-instancing, or some other innovation?

Welcome to Not Real Worlds

Hi. Welcome to Not Real Worlds. You’ve stumbled over a blog about those crafty addictive beasts we now know by the awful acronym, MMORPGs. That is, Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Games. But if you’re here you probably already know that.

Firstly, my credentials: I’m a wandering MMO fiend and have played a wide range of games in the genre since I started some 12 years ago. I’ve played most of the major titles, starting with Ultima Online in 1998, then moving swiftly to 3D games like EverQuest, Asheron’s Call, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, EverQuest 2, World of Warcraft, Age of Conan, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online, and most recently Rift. I’ve even gone retrograde and played some MUDs and MUSHes during this time. I’ve played Live Servers mostly, but have some experience with emulated servers. I can tend towards nostalgia, and for that reason I’ve gone back over the years to most of these games, often multiple times.

Not Real Worlds will thus have a long-term view of the genre, and in the fine tradition of Tobold’s MMO Blog, We Fly Spitfires!, and Kill Ten Rats, among others, will not focus on any one particular game. I’m always dabbling in at least two MMORPGs, and looking forward to a few more unreleased titles – Not Real Worlds will reflect that.

Anyway, enough background. Hope I can keep you coming back.