GW2: The Controversy of “Grind”

208 hours later on a single GW2 character, up creeps a growing pressing need to switch things up a little. I’ll be doing a short post on what else I’ve been playing soon.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I still intend to play a lot more hours on GW2 – I’m barely at 47% world completion, there are about 75% jumping puzzles still unseen and unsolved, taunting me, and I basically still enjoy wandering around the world, soaking up the lore and the scenery and grabbing screenshots of everything, plus WvW and sPvP. I like ’em all.

I can’t help but notice that there seem to be a ton of people who have retreated back to the GW2 Guru and official forums to start bitching and whining about everything under the sun, though, and most of those complaints seem to have to do with “boredom” and feeling “forced” to “grind” for endless hours to get to the uber max of uber maxness.

*sighs*

I don’t want to swing that ugly word of “entitlement” around because it’s too easy a cop out.

Also, I can’t help but notice a certain similarity of protest and reaction with my rabid loathing of what City of Heroes did with their Incarnate raids, even though this time I’m on the side of the “fanboys” and apt to just shrug and ignore it.

However, I do want to point out that my issue was more of a lack of alternative choice/option for a different playstyle (not liking mass group content) who would also like to be an Incarnate.

Conversely, the big PvE issue of max stat exotic armor has a ton of alternative choice. Enjoy the DEs? Karma will get you there in the end. You can also craft exotic armor. You can buy exotic armor off the trading post, which is the fastest and easiest shortcut method. Like dungeons? Enough tokens will also get you there. I haven’t looked, but I suspect WvW may also have an option handy.

The next issue that this argument always segues into is a disagreement on the amount of TIME it should be taking. Way too long, is what the unhappy are complaining about. On this, I have some sympathy. Back in CoH, a bunch of us were fairly rabid for a while regarding the pathetic exchange rate of solo Incarnate earning power versus someone who just jumped into a group and closed their eyes and pressed random buttons for 15-20 minutes. Though I think the most galling thing was the perceived lack of respect for our preferred playstyle and a distinct disparity of faced challenge/difficulty level versus reward.

Honestly, I don’t really feel that disparity in GW2. Crafted exotic armor is basic, looks okay and works. That’s the baseline. Karma exotic armor is going to take a longer time to accrue, but not at that high a difficulty challenge, so that seems more or less fair. The sobbing mostly comes due to the dungeon exotic armors – which appear to be meant to take a pretty damn long time, and involve a high level of challenge in group coordination. The additional cosmetic aesthetic reflects that.

I think it’s intended that you feel pretty special when you get one piece of exotic armor (and over the moon if you ever get a legendary) but the baseline of these unhappy players seem to be set at a much higher level. Being decked out in exotic armor from tip to toe seems to be the expected thing, so correspondingly, they get upset when they learn it’s going to take at least a month or more.

(Me, on the other hand, I’m carrying a set of decent stat yellows around for dungeons and WvW and slowly upgrading it with crafted or karma exotics, I got the shoulders swapped out and nuthing more. I also wander around in PvE zones in an el cheapo blue and green magic find gear left over from crafting, studded with slightly less cheapo major runes giving magic find, with omnomberry bars to hand (whoever thought of that berry name is awesome) and manage just fine, with a yellow weapon or two.  I -just- swapped two of the pieces to yellow rare Explorer’s yesterday after checking my bank and going, oh hey, there’s 30 sharp claws in here! Yes!)

I’m not sure there’s that much to worry about. In dungeons, how well you play and your build and how cooperatively your entire team works together will help you survive a whole lot longer than slightly better armor. I’ve successfully gone through explorable modes in yellows (and before that, in blues and greens) and no one can “inspect” you to be all huffy about it either. (If anyone ever demands for linkage, I’ll group them with the groups who keep on chatting LFG guardian/warrior on my avoid-list, thanks.)

In WvW, while you may very well have an advantage 1 vs 1 or 2 decked out in very shiny armor at level 80 versus some random lowbie in blues, all that orange glamor is not going to help that much when a zerg of 10-20 or 60 rushes into you. It’s a lot more about group organization and coordination. Some siege equipment would do a hell of a lot more damage to that wall or door, fer instance.

Perhaps it’s just the style of game that promotes a mindset of acceptance in me. Guild Wars 1 has a long history of long-term goals, some of which should be attempted only by the most insane or the most completist. GWAMM, fer instance. Legendary Defender of Ascalon wasn’t that easily achievable either. To this date, I have neither of those, nor does many of those who played GW1, I’m sure. But some have achieved them. That scarcity makes it all the more special to them, no doubt. And I don’t have a problem with that, I can still enjoy the game without those titles.

I guess the problem for some comes when you layer a cosmetic skin on as a reward, rather than a title. For some reason, words are easily dismissed, but something so visually shiny is harder to bear for them. (I do fine looking el cheapo in Glitch, but judging by the number of players who have paid money for credits to dress up their toons, there’s a huge pool of folks who love customization and self expression and possibly keeping up with the Joneses.)

I can’t really help there because I have the ultimate cosmetic cheese-out solution in the form of the HoM. Whatever the hell I’m wearing, if I hate the look, I can make it look shiny enough with those bonus skins. (And I still get tells about that flaming dragon sword.)

But I think some examination of the cheaper crafted armor skins and mix-and-matching with cheap stuff bought off the trading post and free transmutation stones would probably work as a stop gap measure.

Perhaps things will get better when they finally start selling costume and transmutation skins in the gem shop.

Oh, don’t gasp, GW1 has a history of that too. And lemme tell you, those skins can look absolutely gorgeous. I wear ’em in preference over armor any day. I look forward to all the bitching and whining about unfairness that will start up when that happens – little tip, save up those gems if you can’t convert spare irl cash readily!

Finally, there’s the issue of just not liking the style of game. Seriously guys (and gals), if the lore or the environment or the aesthetic just leaves you cold, don’t bother following the hype and being disappointed later, you just won’t want to play it. Period.

I got nothing invested in WoW lore. I disapprove of the holy trinity and the endless raid/gear grind and achievement mechanic. I only fiddled with it up to level 60 during Cataclysm because I was bored and wanted to experience the fluidity of WoW combat, but I knew it wasn’t going to last. Two months, mild entertainment, no hard feelings. Done. Got my money’s worth.

If you got nothing invested in GW2 lore, disapprove of the control/support/damage trinity and the explore/wander time-based grind mechanic and don’t like DEs, jumping puzzles, dungeons, WvW, PvP – then… why keep playing?

On that note, I’m going to repost my thoughts on “grinding” from an earlier post, which I’m sure barely anyone read, because it was a wall of text regarding A Tale in the Desert:

On “Grinding”

I believe there is no such thing as “grind” as long as you are aware of your own feelings and reactions and honest with yourself.

1) Are you taking any pleasure in the -present- activity you are doing? (Not looking forward to what you’ll feel when you reach the end, but actively, what you’re doing, do you like it?)

If you’re neutral, or just tolerating it, that’s a warning sign. Do ask yourself if the long-term gain will be worth it or if you might regret it later. And be on the lookout for emotional progress to…

Actively loathing is bad. Stop, stop now, before it’s too late and you ruin the activity for yourself for good. Take a break, go do something else. Come back only when you can honestly answer yes to the question, being neutral isn’t good enough once you’ve ever started hating the activity before.

2) Whenever you start feeling bored with the repetition, even though you do think the activity still has its positive sides, stop and do something else. Don’t ever try to ‘work’ through it or push yourself through a bad spot. It doesn’t work. Burnout lurks behind that self-rationalizing corner. It’s a game, it’s not meant to be a chore or an obligation.

CoH: Fare Thee Well, Old Friend

Like a lot of others, today, I heard the news announced that City of Heroes and Paragon Studios will be closing down in a scant three months from today, on November 30th.

It is a hard thing to hear, and my sympathies go out to those who will be losing their employment in this euphemistically called “realignment of focus” but at the same time, on a personal note, there is a bittersweet relief mixed with keening nostalgia.

How do I say this?

I will miss City of Heroes deeply.

I will miss every so often visiting boards.cityofheroes.com on a whim and lurking around reading all the threads.

I will dearly miss the community, though they probably never knew me.

Names like CuppaJo, DJ Jester, Samuel_Tow, Arcanaville, Nethergoat, Aett_Thorn, Steelclaw, TonyV, Leandro, Aura_Familia, Megajoule, Paladin, Memphis_Bill, Bill Z Bubba, Altoholic_Monkey, Bionic_Flea, Texas Justice, Techbot Alpha, GadgetDon, TerraDraconis, Snow Globe are merely a random selection out of a whole host of other names that made the place familiar and a kind of home.

For a long time, those forums stood out as a surprisingly mature place, filled with sensible sentences and discussions, a ready helpfulness, a always-out newbie-welcome mat and bolstered by an odd harmless crazy meme, like UniqueDragon’s jerkhackin’ and gone to the Americans thread, Kill Skuls, and so on.. .

(Until things rapidly ran down the drain in the last two years, as folks turned insular and aggressive, helped along by the positive smiley troll Golden_Girl and some twisted new permission to post LOLcat pictures and the like.)

Hell, for a time before my “falling out” with the direction of the game (I still hate raids) and my dismay at the changing tone of the forums,  I was a long time wall-of-text contributer.

In the spirit of all the reveals amidst the fond farewells (Fyndhal is Castle, Tic-Toc is Back Alley Brawler! Ye gods, I recall that name!), I will share with you all here that I went by the handle Lycaeus.

You may recognize the blue-tinted wise wolf somewhere else… (hooray for grayscale)

(No, not Lycanus, who is another player who messaged me once about a similar name, but Lycaeus, for the wolf and the mountain.)

Joined in Dec 2004, and hit about 1.8k posts, most of them all lost in the mists of time.

In my newbie days after sampling the only four tank armors at the time, I wrote a lowbie guide to tanking and holding aggro, also lost now, which is for the best since it is about 20 issues outdated.

I made an amateur CoH machinima music video about my favorite in-game story, “Oh Wretched Man,” around the time demo-editing and making videos of stuff became popular, after being inspired by folks far better than I, such as Samuraiko (Dark_Respite) and Aralcox.

For those few of you who don’t like pop and can only listen to metal or something noisy, too bad, deal, don’t watch it.

But the bittersweet tenor of the music and the lyrics have taken on a new meaning in the light of the news, especially these lines:

I don’t regret this life I chose for me.
But these places and these faces are getting old,

Be careful what you wish for,
Cause you just might get it all.

You see, though I -am- saddened at the prospect of losing an old friend, I fear I went past the stages of grief and loss some time ago and hit acceptance some time back.

What I miss, and still do, are the old days of City of Heroes. When people got lost in Perez Park trying to reach the Hydras, whose xp had not yet been nerfed. When folks made teams on a regular basis and fought as a concerted synergistic whole. When the community helped each other and gave each other random gifts of influence because we were heroes.

City of Heroes was my first true MMO. It introduced me to how things worked in three dimensions (rather than in text on a MUD,) about aggro and pulling and LOS and AoE, about class roles and through a happy accident of fate (or poor game balancing and subsequent tuning,) it skewed off from a classic holy trinity and gave buff/debuffs and crowd control as much importance as tanking, healing and damaging.

Even knockback, that typically red-headed stepchild, I learned, could be put to great use in this game, from positioning smashing mobs against walls and corners, to flying above their heads and knocking them down, and orbiting the fray and knocking mobs into the reach of meleers, rather than automatically away from all and sundry, forcing people to chase.

When City of Villains came by, it was another sea-change. Hybrid classes, built to do well solo, could also learn to cooperate together, in nothing quite like a standard trinity. Splitting aggro, control, support duties among all that could handle them. You didn’t need one pure specialist per role. You just needed a couple of guys that could absorb the alpha strike by whatever means necessary (their bodies, an AoE control or debuff, their pet minions, etc) a couple of folks that helped to mitigate the damage taken by the team for the few moments it took for everyone to do damage and defeat the mobs.

The dev team pioneered many things: the character creator with a multitude of options that all other subsequent MMOs had to struggle to match, developers that chatted with their community over the forums and listened and explained things, and they were never afraid to experiment and create odd new systems, some of them more successful than others.

I believe my mindset is much broader having come from such an innovative background.

But I also know that I have learned all I could from this game.

When you play a game long enough to see past the trappings and grok the patterns, boredom begins to set in. You have no idea how many groups of 3 minions or 1 minion and 1 Lt I soloed before one could set the difficulty level to match the challenge one wanted. The same missions became way too predictable, to the point where I enjoyed street sweeping more because the spawn sizes were a lot more random.

I saw the community start to slip and become more selfish as the concept of “loot” reared its head, with the ultimate grindy goal of making oneself uber-powerful and self-sufficient. Well, as time passed, that happened. And when you can take on all the spawns in a mission solo, why would you wait or care about others on your team? It’s all about getting to the end as quickly as possible so as to farm the mad rewards, no?

And eventually, the ultimate hamster wheel of Incarnate raids slouched its beastly way into existence. There, I drew the line. It’s a personal preference, but I don’t actually find much intrinsic joy in standing around for an hour waiting for LFG chat to gather enough people together, then rolling through as a big zerg where one barely can keep track of all the team members, trying to figure out unclear gimmicks in order not to die and to succeed. And even worse when there was no other alternative or option, and one would be in fact, compelled, to attempt them if one wanted the rewards.

Players like autonomy. Players like choice. When finally they listened and created a solo path to Incarnatehood, only then could I feel it was okay to give the raids a try. Because I didn’t -have- to do them. I was choosing to attempt them. And mostly I did so just long enough to see how they worked and how the story went, and I never wanted to do them on repeat loop ever again. Personal preference and all that.

One thing became rather clear. The thrill of basic combat was gone. I could stop playing for 4-8 months, come back, and my fingers would automatically hit the keys in the appropriate patterns for each character and take down the mobs. Over-familarity. The new stories were… not that terribly well-written, with a couple of exceptions. I was mostly ambivalent about a good part of the game. I could stop the sub, stop playing, and not really miss it very much.

The stuff I liked and still do? The zones, mostly. The scenery. The cleverness of the scripted mobs and street-side encounters. And of course, the good ol’ memories.

Be careful what you wish for, you just well may get it. For a long time, the cynic in me has seen it coming, despite the denial of the ever-more-insular players on the forums. Player numbers and profits appeared to be dropping badly over the past months and years. Going Rogue wasn’t as successful as hoped, though it seems most old players bought the expansion. Freedom gave CoH a monetary boost at the expense of morals, by utilizing lockbox lotteries and milking a lion’s share of money from the most passionate players with the cash shop. A lot of the later additions have seemed a desperate attempt to garner sufficient revenue to meet quarterly targets.

I do believe it still could have lasted as a F2P game for a good while yet, though not with any record numbers of anything, but alas, we all know how ruthless NCsoft can get.

A lot can happen in three months. Perhaps we can hope that some other benevolent investor or company steps in to buy over the game or keep it afloat in some fashion. But if the worst happens, I am prepared.

Nothing lasts forever.

All things pass.

There is a time for all seasons, and every season comes to an end.

I will mourn for the loss of a good, passionate community.

I will, no doubt, spend at least a while in-game to take even more screenshots than I already have, of my characters and favorite zones.

I might even make myself get around to making a few more demo-edit videos of stuff I had ideas for, but never found the time or urgency to work on. (The deadline is certainly there now.)

But I am ready to move on.

I have been for some time now.

For ultimately, all that lasts in an MMO are memories and relationships, hopefully good ones. (I wonder if all those folks grinding for electronic bytes find their efforts worth it now?)

The Endless Virtual World: A Replacement Life?

I think I’ve bumped into another one of those paradoxical concepts that are both right at the same time (we previously touched on whether Xena glorifies or denigrates women here. Kosh answer: Yes.)

Is it a good thing for a game to never end, to have long-lasting replayability, to have an endgame that keeps players in-game, playing, forever? Or are we out of our minds to hold this up as a healthy, desirable ideal? (What is wrong with variety and taking breaks, after all?)

Fair warning, this is going to be more meandersome than ever, mostly because I don’t have any idea where I’m going with this. The colliding concepts have just been bugging me a lot lately.

Spinks discusses in great depth various ‘endgame’ possibilities to keep players logged in and doing something in an MMO – some of which are traditional endgame like progression raids, some of which have always quietly existed alongside as lateral progression possibilities (PvP, accumulate achievements, collect the fluff, trading tycoon) and some which are ideal dreams  (frequent content updates that keep up interest – Rift’s managing, not sure about the rest here) or new experiments (Mists of Pandaria’s scenarios sound rather fascinating, no reliance on heals or tanks in a holy trinity game? Are they finally realizing 90% of casual players would really rather just DPS?)

Most of the time people seem to take for granted that a game that never ends is a good one. There must always be “something to do,” “something to strive toward,” “something to keep them wanting to keep logging into the game.” Why is that?

And most of the time, what they’re looking for is the raiding hamster wheel that Everquest copied off certain MUDs, and WoW mainstreamed to everybody.

I confess, I would much rather come at this from the opposite angle.

My preference tends towards non-raid progression endgame models and it’s visible in the kinds of games I prefer and support.

City of Heroes had my undying loyalty (and unceasing sub) for a long time until they decided they needed raids after all.

Guild Wars is my eternal idol because they still have no raids whatsoever, but pioneered so many other clever ways of keeping players interested in the game (not the least example being the Hall of Monuments, egads)

I’m heartily impressed by Rift (despite them having a couple raids) because Trion’s main schtick is to not mind the churn, as long as players pause their sub on good terms when they run out of content, because they will come right back once there is new content for them, and boy, can they generate new content at a good clip.

This is mostly because I burned out on the concept of raids long ago, when they still involved only 5-8 people per boss mob in a MUD, though the guild easily consisted of 24-30 people that would switch in now and then, or go on multiple runs (no lockouts in those days, just a per room player limit.)

The leading, the planning, the loot drama, the us vs them competition, the politics, the exclusivity, the elitism, the negative feelings, the inevitable obsession and addiction, the waking up at odd hours, the marathon stretches, the respawn camping, the calling in for pizza on Saturday morning during college days and not getting up again to look for food until Sunday afternoon (or was that just me?)

Call me a sour grapes Cassandra but I was watching WoW’s bait-and-switch trick over the years like a bad traffic accident predicting the inevitable burnout of many people who got caught up in the zeitgeist without really examining if they liked what they were doing.

Not that people who enjoy raiding are wrong. When I had the time to commit, I enjoyed the closeness of a small group of people that were commited to achieving a specific goal and hanging out together enjoying each other’s company. Though sometimes I wonder, did we really share that much in common, were we just projecting an idealized image of each guild member onto their names because we all just wanted the shiny loot and the others were the only means of us getting that?

More and more these days, I find my distaste for the exclusivity of it far overtakes any good that comes out of raiding. Anyone who can’t commit to a regular schedule of 2-3 uninterrupted hours with a large number of other people having the exact same free time is shit out of luck when it comes to raids. (And I’m convinced as gamers get older, that’s a growing number of us.)

But anyway, based on the current game trends, developers seem to be recognizing that raids is only one feature item on their list of things-to-maybe-have, along with stuff like PvP and PvE dailies, and they’re increasingly just trying to throw as many things to do as they can possibly think of into their game, in the hope that more options the better and might convince somebody to stick around for a while longer. (And monetizing their game in other ways by relying on F2P and  ‘whale’ spending.)

Which I suppose is all very well from a keeping-the-game-alive-by-giving-players-endless-tasks-to-do ideal, but I wonder. The same doubts about raid treadmilling are starting to creep up now in my head in respect to the whole game. At what point does it all turn into busywork and chores?

Here’s a long, meandering discussion about The Secret World’s “lastability” on their forums – most of which are just shared opinions that ultimately go nowhere, since it’s really up to the devs to strategize on if and how they want to make the game “last,” but an interesting comment by a player named Wooly caught my eye. He says:

This game is not a replacement life. MMOs are great for students on summer vacation, college students (which is basically always summer vacation), unemployed is [sic] a bad job market, etc, because they pack so much value for the money–but it’s impossible for any game company to just steady stream entertainment goodness to your brain every second of every day. Certainly not at the insanely cheap cost they sell for. It’s not a replacement to life, but an aspect thereof.

Emphasis mine. It’s meant in relation to TSW, but it applies for pretty much any MMO. And it made me wonder, just why do we demand that a single MMO be the be-all and end-all of our existence? (Obviously not, but some of the strident complaints sometimes make it seem that way.)

Are we cheap tightwads who really want our absolute money’s worth out of one poor game? Do we rely on the devs to provide that constant flood of entertainment of “things to do, things to chase on the virtual treadmill?” Is MMO playing the new version of passive television watching? Are we just hooked and conditioned like Skinner’s pigeons to keep demanding food come out when we push the button (on the remote or the keyboard?)

I dunno, it strikes me as a sad lack of imagination if that’s the reason we want an endless endgame. It’s the unexamined life and sticking to one safe comfort zone. There’s plenty of other games that can be explored and harvested for things to do, and give the poor human devs a chance to catch up with the voracious appetite of locusts.

Hell, even locusts move to new fields to chow down on if they’ve stripped one bare. They don’t just hang around wailing about the empty dirt, wanting sustenance NAO, dangit.

I’m an inveterate game hopper, so that’s not me, I long clued into the survival strategy of having an endless stream of games that I could be playing, a lot of it no thanks to Steam sales (600 games and counting, I think. *gulp*)

But while I can easily believe the worse of random troll whiner who just bitches in a single post or two on some game forums, I don’t believe that of MMO commenters and bloggers, a subset of whom also seem to be trending towards a search for an immersive, ‘deep’ (if not actually endless), nostalgia-colored player-created narrative sandbox kind of experience that might last years, and away from the consume-developer-stories-and-content themepark that lasts a couple months, if that.

Surely there are other reasons for why players are craving an endless virtual world.

What is it that we -really- want?

Could it be that we’re looking for immersion into a world that suggests it’s more of a world, less of a game? That we want a novel, yet believable setting, good stories, new content? If so, that may explain why Warhammer Online did so poorly because all the maps were laid out with very obvious ‘gamey’ metadesign and path funneling, and why The Secret World is slowly spreading attractive hooks into the community because there’s so much lore and secret stuff to keep finding.

(But TSW is far from perfect, there are plenty of people burning through the content at a vastly accelerated pace who will, no doubt, soon fall away and they certainly aren’t engendering any long term community ties with a primarily singleplayer content experience with a few bonus extras.)

Based on the expressed rose-colored glasses nostalgic sentiments, I wonder if what we’re really looking for is a sense of place.

I played none of the early MMOs that were first MMOs for a lot of people (like Everquest, Ultima Online, WoW) but I can extrapolate from my own first online experience in a MUD. It’s the feeling that in this virtual space, there is people here. Living, thriving, interacting.

Maybe getting to know one another, maybe not, because the world is so big, so vast, so unexplored, so full of the unknown, things to be learned and taught, mysteries and secrets to uncover.

A sense of place that ultimately gives rise to a sense of belonging and community.

Which is very tricky these days because we seem to have gone the other extreme in WoW’s success at bringing MMOs to the masses. We’ve moved from a comfortable tribe, a village or small town feel to a vast impersonal city or metropolis of strangers you can barely recognize and random faces that keep changing every day, and with it, has gone most of our sense of caring.

Maybe we just want a microcosm of life, not life itself. (Or a replacement life, for that matter.)

There’s that theory about Dunbar’s Number, which suggests we tend to like to hang around in a stable cohesive group community of 150-250 odd people at most, because that’s about all our brains can recognize and remember and maintain social relationships with. Beyond that number, it’s probably all us vs them kind of affairs? I don’t know.

Curiously enough, when I go looking for a sense of place and community in MMOs, there are a couple that come to mind.

(Right off, in the interests of fairness, even though I don’t play them much, let’s just quantify WoW and Eve Online.

WoW has an extensive world and sense of place, even if they’ve ruined it by now by speeding people through it to hang around queuing for instances in cities, and I’m convinced many people still hang around in WoW because of prior association with the lore and the world and the communities they formed there.

Eve has vast geographic territorial space and folks band together in corporation communities to hang out together, even if they’re promptly encouraged to tear out each others’ throats in a Lord of the Flies us vs them scenario gone terribly terribly wrong. 😛 Well, it’s a game and it’s a niche they’re catering for, all power to them.)

Lord of the Rings Online is a big one for me, even if they’ve also ruined it fairly extensively with the obtrusive cash shop and endless grinds. The landscapes and the music and the sheer power of Tolkien’s setting is phenomenal, I used to like to just log in and ride around on a mount across the -world- for a sense of peace.

Glitch is a curious place. It’s not a community that I’m deep into, because I don’t visit it enough, but I think they have formed one. Or the potential is there. Perhaps more when player housing was a part of the world, rather than spawning from the mind of each character, but there’s still ways to link houses to form neighborhoods.

Wurm Online was a good attempt at recreating a survival and pioneer town community, but ruined personally for me by being a hair too time intensive and aggravating in terms of random skill roll success, infinitely slow progress bar increments and log-in-constantly-to-keep-stuff-deteriorating mechanics. I think the time consuming nature of the game knocked out too many people who might have stuck around.

For me, the first MMO in which I found a true sense of place and oldschool community, that re-encapsulated what I felt in the MUD, was in A Tale in the Desert. Regions, housing, territories, villages and towns. People that talked to each other and interacted because the game mechanics encouraged cooperation, not defection (at least, not openly.) Chat that persisted past players’ logging out, and multiple guild affliations that situate you into a customised-for-you network of people. Though sadly, it dwindles with time. Again, way too time intensive for most, and in the mid and end game, the long term players tend to log in with intervals of days in between, not exactly great for community forming.

Besides that, well, I’m not sure that I can find it in MMOs these days. They’re just too big.

(Who knows, maybe some clever dev somewhere will think up something to surprise us, something that gives us back that sense of knowing each other and being in a virtual place, not just playing a well-designed keep-busy game. Here’s hoping, but not hoping too much.)

Ironically, I wonder if we haven’t found it in the MMO blogosphere – we have our virtual homesteads on the web, the recognizable names, the socialites, the hermits, the networkers, the grumps, the comedians, etc. and our readers, the silent but appreciative, who keep coming back and pop in for a visit and a comment chat or two.

TSW: THAT Guy – A Soliloquy on Preferring to Solo

Self, I gotta question for you.

Go ahead, shoot.

Why is it that you’ve just spent the better part of an hour slicing and dicing these Goliaths into itty bitty pieces by your lonesome? Aren’t you sick and tired of repeating the same thing over and over?

Not really, no. Do ya see how easily I’m taking them down now that I spent half an hour reworking my build into something more efficiently survival-dps based? See how sexy it is to finish them off with my flashing chopping blade? I’m Slayer-ing them good.

I forgot to screenshot cos I was having too good a time, but I’ll let this Surf Hulk thing stand in for the Goliaths.

And the green crap that has been dropping is pretty spiffy, from a providing crafting raw materials perspective.

Who knows, maybe a blue will drop, you see that blue chaos focus (that I can’t use) that dropped and shocked me?

Maybe it’s a really rare chance, a jackpot chance that’s not likely to happen, or just bugged because of extra players in the vicinity, but I won’t know until I slice and dice a hunnerd of them or so, right?

Why don’t you just go to that Polaris dungeon I keep hearing about? You got that “Dead in the Water” quest sitting in your mission log like so much deadweight. I hear tell you can get blues in dungeons.

Well, self, I got lots of issues with grouping right now. And I’ve been thinking as I meditatively chop these hulks down to size, I’m thinking they all ultimately boil down to  “THAT guy” problems.

Huh?

First off, self, it’s not like I didn’t try. Look, I’ll show you, I got into a group, I got on board that damn plane, and I hit the instance. I lucked into one of the DPS slots, so I won’t touch on the holy trinity perception problem until later.

I think there was some kind of cutscene. About a ship, maybe. I don’t rightly know, I kinda blank out on any group-related storytelling because I’m too worried about the actual grouping mechanics and details and not dying horribly.

There was a guy there, he said he was gonna tank. There was another gal (who could be a guy) who was gonna heal. And two other DPS people. And me. So far, so good.

Then one of the DPS guys said he needed a sec, he was gonna respec and rebuild some stuff. Ok, no problems, it’s a new game, the first dungeon, a lot of us are all coming into this cold, let’s give him a minute for him to get set and ready.

The tank and I hadn’t done this before and said so. No worries, said the last DPS, I done this dozens of times, it’s nothing. Don’t worry, said the healer, I’m a dang good healer. We wait. And we wait some more. Then the healer accidentally aggros a patrol (oops, my bad, she says later. No problem, to err is human, after all) and the four of us jump it and hey, it’s really not so bad, this trash mob, quite easily killed and wowee, the xp is good.

We wander over to the first boss, and since it’s a boss, the tank says, we better wait for the last guy. We wait longer. And more.

Finally, there’s life down the group chat bar and he’s done. Where are you all, he says. Couple minutes later, he finally finds us. Woot, now we’re a team. Now we’re set to rock this joint and we charge the first boss. And straight away, the last DPS pulls aggro from the tank and he ends up the impromptu tank. Gee, the tank says, maybe you could have told me you were rebuilding to tank, and I coulda put some DPS into my build. There’s seriously no way I can pull this aggro back, I’m trying and it’s not working with the tools I got right now. The guy says nothing, just keeps pulling aggro.

Good thing the healer was right and she really was a damn good healer cos that DPS guy stayed upright, if at half health. I feel obliged to help out a smidgen with Anima Shot, which I tossed in by taking out my hate generating blade AoE because I didn’t want to be THAT DPSer guy who yanks aggro from the tank. Everybody stays alive, probably cos first dungeons are first dungeons for a reason and relatively forgiving.

We go through some bosses. There are a few mechanics to take note of. Don’t step in this or that. Burn adds down fast. That kinda thing. Self, lemme tell you something honestly.

What’s that, self?

I really hate that kinda group learning mechanics thing. Or at least, it’s been wearing down on me bad.

I did lots of group dungeons in Rift, because it was easy to get a Looking for Dungeon team with their tool, and at least I could queue as support, which is something that fits my psyche and after investing a couple hours reading guides and forums, respecing, following a template build and parsing, all of which were quite tedious, at least I was sure that I was contributing a satisfactory amount of damage and healing and I wouldn’t be shouted at for dragging the team down.

But the problem was that there were so many mechanics to learn and remember and perform to exacting standards, otherwise you wipe the whole team kind of deal, that I always had a dungeon guide/walkthrough sitting open in my other screen so that I was aware of the theory, even if complete learning had to be practiced by repeatedly doing. That kinda spoils the discovery aspect of the thing, you know? The joy of exploring and finding out that I like so much. But I don’t want to be THAT clueless guy running ahead into every damn trap the designers set up either. Because I’d look fucking stupid in front of a lot of other people.

It’s not like I’m so good at the game that I can perform well 90%, 100% of the time either. I’m probably a 50%-75% average to above average player, optimistically speaking. But you know what’s the biggest difference when I solo and when I group, self?

Hmm?

If I fail when I solo, it just affects me. I fall over and die. I respawn and gotta run back. Shit, I wasted my time, but it’s my own time to waste. I’m not screwing over other people.

Then there’s the locus of control. If I’m alone, it falls to me to examine what my problem is, to fix my spec, to experiment and try until it’s good and I’m killing the mobs and not vice versa. It feels good when I take myself from fail to success, cos I did it, my invested time to strategize a build and my skill hitting appropriate buttons at appropriate timings.

With other people, it’s not just a two dimension problem. Me fail or me succeed. The ideal is me succeed, they succeed. Then everyone’s happy and the dungeon is run at picture perfect speed with perfect execution, badabing badaboom. But then there’s me fail, they succeed. Which would make me feel really bad at being THAT guy.

Oh come on, you’re not that bad. Maybe you’re a 75/25 person, which is pretty good already.

Hell, self, even if the whole team was made up of 75% good people, we have an inherent problem. If two people succeed 75% of the time on their own, mathematically speaking, they got a 9/16 chance (or 56.25%) of both succeeding at the same time. If three people, then well, we’re looking at 3/4 x 3/4 x 3/4 or 27/64 = 42%. Five people, 23.7% chance that all will perform to perfection.

At other times, at least one guy is failing and the other people  have to compensate. Or the rare chance that everybody fails, at which point, they total party wipe. On the bright side, there’s no one to blame if everyone fails together. Otherwise, there’s always THAT guy who is screwing something up, somewhere, somewhen.

That’s just a bit aggravating to me. I don’t know why, but it is.  I know it doesn’t make logical sense, but emotionally, intuitively, that’s how I end up feeling on these things. Maybe I’m just reading a bit too much into it, but I do. I can’t help myself.

Anyhow, I was complaining about mechanics before I sidetreked into this. I did a lot of this in Rift. Realized I didn’t like it much. I did a lot of this in City of Heroes too, on Incarnate trials. Which was even worse because it was just way too many people to keep track of and overwhelmingly exhausting on one’s situational awareness. And those were just baby raids if that. I have no clue how people can stand it in games like WoW because it seems mathematically impossible that with 10, 15, 25 people, at least 3-5 people must be screwing shit up at any one point in time, the cat herding exercise is already blowing my mind in theory.

Well, maybe people put up with it because they want the shiny rewards at the end.

Self, I don’t really give two fucks about shiny rewards. Well, I do, just a little, but I got big issues with how they’re distributed, see.

Need/Greed systems always screw me over. Lemme tell you, self, I see a reward drop, I want it. Call me selfish, but that’s how I’m built. When I solo, I can get it all. Shit drops. I take it. It’s mine. It goes into my inventory. It’s clear cut and easy.

In a group, I gotta be mindful of the three or four other people with me. I gotta be polite. I gotta be courteous and build my rep, so I don’t look like an asshole that no one wants to group with ever again. I gotta share, and the way the crazy developers think is the fairest method of sharing, is for everybody to keep rolling individual dice rolls for individual items.

Self, I am crap at lotteries. The dice never go my fucking way. Every time I greed something, I never get it. Period. Probability already says I got a 80% chance of not getting it, if there’s five people all greeding it. That 20% chance? Doesn’t really happen for me. Some people are naturally a little luckier and I guess there’s the opposite to balance them off, and I’m it.

Well, that’s why they have the Need part of Need/Greed.

Right. The part that tests your speed reading skills when you have to mouseover the item real quick-like to see if maybe the stats are an improvement over what you’re wearing and make a snap decision as to whether you can legitimately Need it without folks shouting at you for being a ninja looting whore. I read fast, but I don’t like the stress and the pressure, thank you. And there’s usually someone else what Needs it too, and remember my sucktastic luck at dice rolling?

I end up more irritated than not if I run a dungeon expecting to get any loot out of it. I’ll be content enough just sightseeing. Makes me calmer and more Zen that way.

Okay, okay, I get it. So just go sightsee. What’s the problem? It’s a bloody MMO, innit? Mul-ti-play-er, they’ll keep stressing to you, cos yer being thick.

Self, I’m also lazy and I don’t like responsibility. I play a bloody MMO to have fun, for escapism and immersion purposes. And holy trinity group MMOs can go hang themselves.

I don’t heal. Don’t like it. Am shit at it. Playing whack a mole with green healthbars is not my idea of fun. Getting blamed or shamed for letting someone die cos their defences or hp sucks ass is ridiculously dumb and just makes my misanthropy levels rise further. All in all, not healthy and not my idea of a good time. So nix full healer-ing. That’s right out.

I confess, I half-like tanking. But tanking is a lot of work. You end up needing to find gear that is the equivalent of welding giant metal plates on yourself – great for withstanding hits and useless at doing anything else. And taking a lot of skills that are basically about you yelling your momma insults at the poor dumb mob. And you gotta know the dungeon cos folks expect the tank to lead them properly and not off a cliff or something equally stupid. Which is not great for first time experiences and winds up being a second job for an alt or some such.

So that leaves DPSing and hybrids thereof. Which nearly everyone and their momma is. Which means competition for spaces and slots and loot is fierce and you’re basically expendable and interchangeable. All of which also winds up reducing my enjoyment of the whole ‘grouping’ prospect.

The sad thing is, I don’t think The Secret World cleaves that tightly to holy trinity. I’m sure if City of Heroes can manage it, and if even Aion managed to get away with some flexibility, a heal/tank and 4 DPS/heal hybrids would do absolutely fine, among other blends and variations. But people are creatures of comfortable routine and habit and if holy trinity role specialization works, that’s what they’re going to stick with cos that’s what they know. And I don’t have four friends that constantly play at the same time who can tailor their builds to something so experimentally esoteric.

Anyway, self, there’s one more reason I’ve been holding back on joining another Polaris dungeon in The Secret World.

And what’s that?

You know that earlier story about the one and only group I joined? I ain’t told you the bitter end yet.

We got to the penultimate boss, which was all about burning adds at intervals and avoiding periodic aoe knockback or some such.

I shoulda stayed here assault rifling. But no, I had to go blade crazy on it cos everyone was melee’ing too.

Then I accidentally was a split second too late in avoiding the marking on the floor and I got knocked back. I got knocked back SO goddamn hard it crashed my client. It went beyond mere crashing. It literally hung my entire computer with the audio on a stalled loop.

I presume it’s really because I’m on a Win XP 32-bit system and memory issues were finally too much with the extra adds spawning that I got knocked into, but it was really sucky timing. I had to reboot the computer, and The Secret World loads like an oil tanker steers.

It took ten whole minutes to get back into the game, with my blood pressure shooting through the roof from the frustration and stress. Obviously, I loaded in face first, on the floor, out of the dungeon, and apparently back in my home dimension, out of group.

The team leader didn’t respond to my tells and I can’t blame them, really. Either they were madly fighting the last boss at the time, and/or they probably recruited another interchangeable DPS to make up the shortfall. I myself wouldn’t want to be hanging around waiting for the ten minutes it took for me to load in anyway.

See, so I ended up being THAT other guy too. (Through no fault of my own, but seriously, most THAT guys don’t do it on purpose, unless they’re griefers, right?)

Sheesh, you just can’t win, can you? You loser.

And that’s why I’m minding my own business over here by myself, harming no one but me and a bunch of electronic monsters. It’s a lot less annoying for everyone.

(Until the next time I decide I can put up with all the potential aggravation again, at any rate.)

CoH: Why I Love This Summer Blockbuster Event

And now for something I do like from City of Heroes, lest you think I am a sour grapes and am just using the poor aging game as a whipping boy.

I know it seems that way. I’m honestly not happy with my sudden ennui and frustration. I joined it in the end of 2004, and my loyalty didn’t waver until last year’s track record shook it badly. (It was obvious the company culture and certain devs had changed hands.)

I have the equivalent of 84 months – 7 years – of veteran rewards. I don’t want it selling out to become the worse of F2P (slippery slide down the slope of lottery and gambling for big profits) and the worse of WoW (slippery slide up the repetitive grind shiny gear-chasing ladder).

It still does do -some- things right. Though sometimes I’m convinced they were happy accidents of fate.

The Summer Blockbuster Event neatly encapsulates a lot of the good things I do like. I don’t know how much of it is purposeful design and how much is just bonus, but there’s a lot to describe and break down.

It’s an event designed for a group of 4 players. It is begun by queuing using the LFG turnstile system and you have a choice of PUGing it (a pickup group) or forming your own premade group of 4 to start.

You begin in a Theatre Lobby, which builds in some breathing space for slow zoning players, getting to know your new group and discuss strategy and tactics or teach anyone if they’re new. The Lobby also sports helpful inspiration vendors, masquerading as steampunk popcorn vendors, and acts as the hospital for defeated players.

Theatre Lobby
The all-important surprisingly non-overpriced refreshments

It also has a nice immersion easter egg, winning player-created movie poster designs for folks to admire. (I believe the vendor is also a winning player costume design.)

From left to right: Magical Dream Unicorns The Movie, Brass Monday (it’s all a Nemesis Plot), Ascension (impossible just got easier), IT Came From Beneath The City
From left to right: The Guard (not all heroes need powers), My User Dave (ever get the feeling you’re being watched?) Hero One (one mission, one chance, one way), DFB (Death From Bologna)

The event comes in two parts, representing the movies Time Gladiator and Casino Heist. Whichever part starts first is random, which brings a small but nice touch of variation to the party. They are covered in detail in two separate posts as linked.

A loadscreen sets up the two movies, aka minigame-like missions

There are so many reasons why I love these Summer Blockbusters.

1) A New Innovative System

This used to be what City of Heroes stood for. Each Issue, they’d experiment with something new, something not seen before, something that pushed the envelope of what they could do with their aging MMO engine. That’s why I kept up a subscription year after year, even if I took a break for several months, because I wanted to see the devs continually surprise us with good stuff.

These Summer Blockbusters are an intricate complex arrangement of mission mechanics that were probably first built for the Incarnate Trials, and all I can say is, it’s about fucking time that they brought some of it down to the small group level.

2) Flexible Paths to Success

There’s one perfect ideal path. The path that gets you all the ten badges in one run in the shortest amount of time possible. When it happens, it is a really good feeling that all the players are in sync with each other, perfect score, awesome team, very nice job, all that congratulatory business. But you know what?

You still get the shiny IO reward at the end as long as you can complete the entire thing, even if people take alternate routes, even if people screw up, even if you don’t get a perfect badge run. And that is as it should be. That rewards persistence, not giving up, forgiveness of mistakes (your own or other people’s). No big loss, it’s just a badge you can get at another time, assuming you didn’t already have it.

Even if people inadvertently disconnect and drop out of the team, the event is completable with less people. I’ve done it with three (from scratch, a dark def, a dark corruptor and a scrapper), and even two (that was halfway through that folks crashed, so it was the casino heist left. The biggest problem was Sylvia’s regeneration rate that my lone stalker couldn’t beat. A scrapper joined up by chance using the LFG queue and that extra damage was sufficient to overcome her and ultimately leave us both walking home with the Universal Damage IO reward.)

The only issue is that the casino story doesn’t quite line up properly and you’d have to wait for the phases to time out and forgo the chance of perfect badge scoring on that part.

3) Small Group Dynamics

The only thing I do kinda wish is if they managed to scale it down to soloability, just to be inclusive, but I’ll seriously take four-person teams over 24-man Incarnate trial raids ANY DAY OF THE WEEK.

It’s small enough to be aware of the role of each person and allows for chances for group synergy (who’s tanking, who’s doing damage, who’s supporting, and hybrid versions thereof.) It’s not so chaotically messy.

I rather like that they chose to exemplar us down to lvl 29. Too high a level is a little exclusionary for those who don’t have higher leveled characters. And those of us with higher leveled characters, well, when we exemplar down to a mid-range,  most of us lose all the gap filling powers and set bonuses that allow people to run around heedless of archetype soloing things tankmage style, and have to fall back a little more on the fun group dynamics of City of Heroes.

As a guy on the forums mentioned, his support characters actually felt valuable, like they could shine in true support, rather than be overshadowed by the thousandth and one uber-Incarnate scrapper. Scrappers and even brutes are squishier at lvl 29. Good support helps them shine. In turn, squishy classes ARE squishy at lvl 29. Proper tanking and holding aggro really makes life easier.

I also really appreciated the lack of purple triangles on many of the AVs and bosses. Control classes have a good chance of stacking enough control to make a visible, noticeable difference. This stuff matters. This stuff lets players feel their characters are effective.

I took my support characters out of the deep freeze (270 days and counting) to play the event and it felt good to make a noticeable difference, something I simply wasn’t feeling in Incarnate trials.

4) It Encourages Alting

There’s a 20-hour limit on one character to earn the desirable IO shiny via the event. I think this was meant more to limit the rate at which the shiny is earned, but it is a happy accident that this encourages the digging up of alts to run multiple playthroughs.

I’ve been unearthing more and more alts to run them through the event and it feels like meeting old friends again. This nostalgic fondness for characters long forgotten, but still up to performing well as muscle memory kicks in.

And with different alts, comes different playstyles. This is the true essence of CoH. People can run the same mission repetitively because they’re playing with different powersets and playstyles, and with different people – which makes you adapt and change to fit what the group needs at that point in time.

I’ve had picture perfect optimum role runs where everyone fell naturally into CoH’s hybrid version of the holy trinity (with extra buff/debuff and cc love!)

I’ve had runs where a secondary class can fill in roles in a pinch, with others’ support (my scrapper was tanking with the leadership buffs from a Soldier of Arachnos), or the more nonstandard but still good combinations (the controller used phantom army to tank)

I’ve even had the eyebrow-raising “ooh er, this is tricky” runs. Namely, one run with all squishies, two controllers who didn’t have invulnerable pets, a dom and a blaster. We all got tossed around and three-shotted over-and-over by the first AV in the arena as we established none of us had true tanking capability as is. At which point, I rolled my eyes, bought a bunch of purple Lucks from the popcorn vendor and acted as volunteer tank by virtue of stacking three of them at once for effective defence and just unloading on the damage till I drew aggro. Things stabilized from there, and yes, we got the shiny at the end.

Or the run with my ancient low-damage stone tank, two lowbie brutes who also seemed not that well-slotted on damage, and an illusion controller. I went in expecting to be all tanky, and then I realized that everyone was survivable, the controller’s phantom army was tanking half the time and one of the brutes the other, and the total amount of damage everyone was outputting was scarily miserable since the three melee types were sucking wind on endurance issues. So three quarters of the time, I ran around toggle-less in order to save endurance and do normal (for a tanker) levels of damage to contribute and everyone stopped for lots of blue candies at the inspiration vendor later. We managed, pretty painfully, but managed.

5) Short and Sweet, Fast and Furious

On the whole, excepting the rare cases above, each event is exactly that, short, sweet instances of fast furious fun and action where you get to beat up some AVs in a small group. It’s like the Imperious Task Force (everyone’s all-time favorite TF) in miniature.

6) LFG Tool is Actually Working For Once

Wait time is minimal. I presume this is because critical mass of 4 people is much easier to achieve than presuming 16-24 people have the patience (or lack of sense) to stand around queueing hoping that an Incarnate trial will start, utterly leaderless and still succeed.

And success is easier to come by and the mechanics easier to learn and more forgiving, which yields positive feedback into the loop and encourages more players to keep queuing because hey, these random groups of people can still  succeed and they’re fast and convenient to get into, and no one needs to lead. Everyone just needs to do their part.