GW2: There Goes the Neighborhood

Let’s be playfully controversial today.

Breaking news of the last few hours is that two of the core three Aussie guilds that laid big foundations for the Isle of Janthir server, Southern Cross (SC) and The Kelly Gang (TKG) have transferred off the server and moved on to Jade Quarry.

While I’m a little disappointed that a core bit of the server community will no longer be there, and the logical thinker in me understands perfectly, the cynic in me is chortling.

Say whatever pretty things you like about “commitment,” it appears that there are many different types of commitment after all.

There’s commitment to the server and its community (aka server loyalty,) there’s commitment to one’s guild and personal friends (aka guild loyalty) and there’s also, horror of horrors, commitment to having fun (and all the varieties thereof.)

And it turns out, some are prioritized over others.

It is clear that for SC and TKG, that lately, the Isle of Janthir has not been giving them the level of professional hardcore WvW action that these guilds, regular 7 days a week, rain or shine participants, have been seeking. The Oceanic timezone in particular seems to be a morass of casual leaderless zergs pitted against some huge, well-led, tactically minded teams. Uphill fighting against stupidity is always hideously morale draining.

(Personally, I’ve flipped my hours some on the weekends and been playing more in the NA timeslot which seems to have better tactics and use of siege, so yeah…)

And after, we presume, a carefully considered decision, they’ve decided to prioritize the enjoyment of their guild members and their fun by moving on to a decidedly more WvW-focused T1 server, where the fights will no doubt be a lot more exciting and constant and competitive and at the level which they prefer.

I rest my case.

Fun über alles.

Chase the fun, for whatever definitions you find fun, because anything else leads to burnout.

Chortling aside, it makes me start to wonder if this guild moving phenomenon we’re seeing has been considered by the designers when they made WvW.

Are we seeing something that will ultimately be healthy for WvW, in that these periodic guild shifts provide change and novelty to servers who are moving towards stagnancy in their tiers based on ELO rating?

Some people claim they’re getting sick of seeing the same faces in WvW, the same guilds and the same tactics for the past, oh… 2-3 weeks now. More and more, it’s looking like players -don’t- have long term patience after all and a one week matchup is about as long as ArenaNet can push it. The hoped-for two weeks? I suspect a rebellion would be had and 75% of WvW players will turn up in Orr and in dungeons instead.

Guild movements shake those things up, with a little drama spice on the side. Especially if it’s a big guild shifting territory. Titan Alliance and RUIN in particular have sent Henge of Denravi and Eredon Terrace on a freefall towards the bottom rankings, causing a mad jostling of servers as they inherited pieces of TA.

Alas, all the excitement is to be had on the corpses of two servers.

Personally, if something that drastic happened to IoJ, I would transfer out too. (My own criteria is a crowded server, enough to PUG dungeons with at the timezones I play, enough to accomplish DEs in Orr, and to a lesser extent, enough WvW action going on.)

Or is it unhealthy, in the sense that these multi-game-spanning guilds are more focused on their own communities and less about fostering -server- communities?

One of the constant complaints from players of oldschool MMOs is that these newfangled MMOs simply don’t feel like home anymore, no one recognizes each other, there’s no familiarity and certainly, no such thing as server loyalty.

For a while there, I harbored a little idealistic hope that perhaps we would see something different in Guild Wars 2, that as more level 80s migrated to the WvW endgame, trust and respect would be engendered and there would be more server togetherness.

More and more, it’s looking like this optimism is getting brutally shot in the face. For one thing, WvW is not the only endgame. It does look like a hefty helping of PvE players would never be caught dead (or alive) in a PvP zone, as sanitized and un-trash-talky as WvW is. When I take some time out to farm stuff in Orr, I see a whole bunch of new different faces that I’ve never seen in WvW before.

Trust, respect and server togetherness? Hahaha. Since the week of IoJ’s tier 1 foray, where I think a shit ton of people pushed themselves over and above the limits of human endurance and monetary expenditure, the WvW maps have gotten somewhat worse in terms of armchair commanders, less communication and scouting calls, and an increase in tactical bickering that has led to a minor server implosion. I suspect SC and TKG are not the only guilds to move out, I haven’t seen certain other tags lately either.

I’m only relieved that it’s so far, been a minor implosion. Other servers have had it worse in terms of how much drama surrounded their “tactical disagreements.”

It’s looking more like what’s happening is that there is a WvW community forming, rather than separate server communities. Like professional athletes, some of the more hardcore WvW guilds look to be cycling from team to team, wearing whatever colors suit them at the moment, pitting themselves against the challenges they prefer. Screw the server, they’re all just pretty names, ultimately it’s the guild tags they wanna fight.

And I do have to wonder what this means in the long term for WvW.

PvP is an inherently competitive dog-eat-dog format. What we often see in FFA open world PvP scenarios is a few large guilds clambering on top of everyone else, destroying the will of the majority to even enter the fight. The sheep wander off somewhere else to have fun. The wolves run out of sheep and start preying on each other. And then even the weakest wolves quit and the remaining few look up and start whining that there’s no one left to beat on. Cue the end of that short-lived open world PvP MMO.

WvW is obviously not as bad or as accelerated a death spiral as that. But word is that even the biggest servers are finding WvW participation dropping off, that the outmanned buff has been seen at various timezones and the queues are shortening (except on reset days and weekends.)

Do we read into these guild movements a sign of server consolidation, a circling of the wagons, PvPers seeking out their own kind, a hope that they can achieve the holy grail of three servers fighting 24/7 indefinitely (perhaps six servers was too optimistic, given the forces of entropy acting on a three-month old MMO?)

It’s really hard to say, because a month ago, a lot more guilds dispersed out the other direction to attempt to fill 5-6 servers.

But I really wonder, in the long term, if we’ll see these guilds closing ranks again as attrition takes its toll.

What’s the cause of the attrition? I’m not sure. It could be a combination of many factors. People get tired of the MMO and stop playing, period. Tons of new games to hold their attention with. Or people getting tired of the lack of, ahem, external reward in WvW. PvPers live for the battle, but there isn’t enough of them to fill all the maps, and I suspect PvE folks are discovering that other GW2 activities are a lot more profitable in terms of virtual monetary gain.

I can run a dungeon three times a day and get 75 silver easily in just end-of-dungeon reward, not to mention the spare coins from the items in the chests and the mobs which may drop 5-15 silver.

I put on a magic find suit, and go to town spamming staff 1 in certain Orr DEs – I still hate Plinx, it’s over-farmed, but I’m quite fond of the Gates of Arah and Grenth chains – and it’s like a loot pinata of blues, greens, crafting materials and the occasional yellow. (Only still in the 90-100% magic find range. It might get even better with higher.)

I spent an hour flashing blade teleporting into various air elemental sparks, killing them meditatively to music, and I even met two guys in my timezone to party with, and all three of us popped 4, 3 and 2 charged lodestones respectively. You know how much that goes for on the TP? 2 gold each! (I’m still debating on whether I should be hoarding my measly two in an effort to get 250 for a pretty greatsword skin, or if I should just offload the darned things now.)

If we run the merry go around supply camp karma train in WvW, maaaybe we might get an insanely good karma rate and decent gold return, but frankly, it isn’t tactically sound at all. No, instead, most of the tactically sound options are goldsinks. It’s draining, in every sense of the word.

And I think, increasingly, people are wondering, what’s the point?

If you’re a T2 or T3 server, there’s a common goal. Wheeee, we wanna get to T1!

When you get there, the brutal truth is that you find out it’s just more of the same. More relentlessly paced.

Which really starts to differentiate those who love the art of killing and live for the ganks, while weeding out those who don’t really find it fun.

Not to mention, for some people, there’s also commitment to real life, to balance out commitment to fun and all the other types of commitment mentioned above.

I used to push 8-10 hours easily on weekends just WvWing, probably 12-16 when it was really ‘important’ with time out only for meals and an afternoon nap. Weekdays, maybe 3-5 hours in the night. Fun in the moment, fun while it lasted, but nothing lasts forever, eh? It’s like riding the launch wave because those crowds only come around once.

Some rethinking of my priorities later, it seems more personally healthy to me to only commit say, 1-3 hours as and when I feel like it, because obligations lead to burnout.

Surely, I’m not the only one.

And slowly, but surely, the WvW population might begin to shrink.

Let us also expect a dramatic crash next week, as the new and novel PvE content rolls out. Depending on how interesting and rewarding and repeatable the upcoming Lost Shores dungeon content is, I wonder how long it might take WvW to recover, and whether it will ever be the same again.

GW2: Do Players Have the Patience for Long Term Strategy?

This week, I had another one of those small revelations. Natural Selection 2 is launching on October 31, in case you didn’t know, and it suddenly hit me that there are some significant similarities between it and GW2’s WvW format. (But there are also some big differences.)

What is Natural Selection 2? Well, it’s an FPS mixed with an RTS basically. It’s the long awaited sequel to a now-very-old Half Life mod which I used to play very heavily. It’s human Marines with guns and armor versus bitey, clawy, flappy, spitty, goring aliens known as the Kharaa.

I’m not going to talk about NS2 any further, though I’ve bought it long ago to support it. I’ve had too much fun with the free NS1 to regret it.

You see, I do have to admit that I am disappointed that I can’t seem to run it very well. Like 1-3 FPS on a self-created map, then crash. I can’t even join a server without stalling and hanging. Part of it may be that the beta has not yet been graphics optimized, or maybe it’s just poor coding, or most likely, it is the first reason colliding with my ailing ancient computer – I’ve mentioned I crash out of GW2 WvW habitually if I’m not on the rock bottom graphics settings, right? Other people get like 80 FPS in WvW while FRAPSing, the lucky bastards. Still got to wait until my budget stabilizes some, alas.

Instead I’ll talk about Natural Selection 1. The first game had a Marine commander calling the shots, placing structures for his fellow players to build, supporting them with medpacks and ammo dumps and basically giving them a set strategy to focus on and move toward taking out all alien hives on the map. Sound a bit familiar? That sort of coincides with WvW commanders in the sense of pointing out the long term strategy and giving direction. And yes, if the commander was bad, it made for a fairly short game, though folks would give some leeway to commanders still trying to learn the ropes.

Aliens had no commander in NS1, but they will have one in NS2, so it’ll be interesting to see how that develops. The alien hivemind in the first game was pretty much a sum total of the general intelligence of all the players in the field. Hopefully, some people would contribute their resources to building necessary structures and new hives (by turning into a builder alien, called the gorge) and at the same time, you needed some people who were very good at killing Marines to keep them occupied, reap resource, and eventually change into a hit-and-run assassin alien known as the Fade. Generally, if the aliens lasted long enough to have two good Fades, that meant the backline was doing well enough to have 2 or 3 hives and the aliens would be on their way to victory.

If insufficient players worked together well, or ran around like chickens with their heads cut off, the aliens would be massacred in short order. Sound like certain PUG zergs in WvW, perhaps?

NS1 had some interesting evolutions through its lifetime. In the patch version that I first joined in, it held at a fantastic balance point that could see 2h+ long games. This was a massive human versus aliens war that would rage on and on, with humans ending up bottlenecked at their last base, guarded by so many turrets the aliens couldn’t get in to seal the deal. Humans could have fun playing “Last Stand” for a long time, mowing down lots of aliens, holding out, while desperately guarding and waiting for their one last lone resource collector to earn enough to buy one or two jetpacks, for the most skilled of the team to sneak out of the vents and try and blow up the alien hives as quickly as they could with upgraded shotguns (aka a ninja.) It was tremendously exciting to watch your guys on the map and win as the underdog like this.

However, I’m not sure how fun it was from the alien perspective. On one hand, they are undoubtedly winning the strategic game. If they stayed on guard to end the ninjas, and kept pushing and pushing relentlessly, eventually, through sheer attrition, they might take down enough turrets and bleed the other side dry of resource long enough to break through and end the game by mauling the base and the commander’s chair (aka the victory objective.)

WvW arguments for giving underdogs a chance and hope for victory sound a lot like the above scenario, actually. I’m not sure if this would be a good or bad thing. Certainly it would get more people in fighting if they had more hope, there would be longer protracted raging battles (which some people really like, and I’m one of them, to a point) but if the battle rages on for too long, people also hit a certain satiation point and get bored. Then the next round of complaints would be, “Oh, it’s a perpetual draw. We can never really win. Why bother?”

Eventually, NS1 decided to move away from the huge tableau of unending perfectly stalemated battles. (I do kind of miss them, to be honest.) Instead, they took a larger page from RTSes and made resource point control more important and the higher tier upgrades slightly more game-changing. What this meant was that if one side played better than the other, and capped more resources, they would steadily accrue a larger and larger tech advantage. Past a certain point in the mid-game, eg. one or two Fades for the aliens or zero Fades for the aliens, it was possible to predict with nigh 98% accuracy which side was going to win.  The losing team could only hope to hold out as long as possible, if they were honorable, or they would quit or jump sides.

Does that also sound familiar from a WvW perspective?

Yes, it’s morale draining and heart breaking to be on the losing team, but quite a number of strategy games seem to have this period where the winning side is obvious, but they still have a “finish the cleanup” phase and the loser just has to sit there and take the lumps and wince as everything of theirs is demolished.

Perhaps the biggest difference between games is how long this cleanup phase lasts, and the next match begins.

In the later incarnation of Natural Selection, cleanup was methodical, but it was also fairly quick and over shortly. The marines would move in, upgraded shotguns blowing up barely evolved skulks (with no resource left) in one hit, and smash the hive to smithereens. The aliens would rampage in with all their number, maybe a celebratory massive Onos or two, and wipe everything and everyone out of existence. Match over. GG. Back to lobby. New map.

A reset happens quickly, and the losers forget their low morale by looking forward to the next game where they might have a chance. (However, if a team or guild was obviously stacking into one side, causing a skill imbalance, people would jump ship and leave the server very quickly.)

WvW at the moment lacks this quick game, match, reset. I think the keyword here is “persistence.” They’re going for what makes them an MMO, rather than a lobby game. (They’ve got structured PvP for the lobby lovers.)

I have a feeling that a lot of the people protesting on the forums haven’t quite grasped just how long term ArenaNet may be aiming for here. They may not be looking for their Alterac Valley fix, but there seems to be this hope for 3 or 4 day matches.

On one hand, it’ll certainly make stuff more exciting in the short term. It’ll give those who primarily WvW and don’t PvE or do structured PvP a reason to keep logging on, instead of being bored for a couple days if there’s a blow out victory. But how many people have the earning power to spend so much gold on siege and upgrades that last so short a time? Even I’m not sure how long the hardcore can keep up that kind of pace before getting bored and burning out. Certainly, the employed cannot. The weekend battle is perfect for them.

To me, and I’m speaking directly from first hand experience here, as the Isle of Janthir is experiencing one of those blow out victories for the moment (who knows, maybe the other servers might organize a push later in the week,) yes, it is kind of  boring to have a quiet battleground after so long an exciting battle, but maybe we kinda need these quiet breaks, the slow moments, the changes in pace.

If the borderlands jumping puzzles weren’t broken, we could be reaping a little more rewards of that hard won fight. There’s still the jumping puzzle in the Eternal Battlegrounds, and the Champion mobs that are like mini-raid bosses on an open world map.

And if the server and guilds were smart and organized enough, perhaps this would be a good time to teach fellow servermates where to place siege, or indeed, how to fire siege, or practice trebuchet shots and get ranges for such-and-such a place.

Certainly for myself, I’m exploring the Red Overlook Keep of the Eternal Battlegrounds from the inside for one of the first times ever, and marveling at how defensive its structure looks – like a real castle, tbh. I don’t envy someone trying to break in here.

Problem is, a lot of people don’t seem to have that kind of long term patience. You see ’em roaming around, looking for a fight, looking for excitement, the next victory, the next kill, deathmatchdeatchmatch, and the next thing you know, there are 20-30 people hovering around some poor demoralized bugger’s spawn, hoping to find a red name target.

My last story about Natural Selection 1 is a sad one. A while after the patch incarnation I talked about, they introduced a new mode for NS called “Combat” mode. This essentially took out much of the strategy and commander-ing from the equation, and made it a team deatchmatch. The better you killed the opposing team, the more resource you would get, the more upgrades and so on you could make for yourself.

The idea perhaps was to ostensibly help people become familiar with the more upgraded lifeforms and tech that they might not see in Strategy mode games except for short bursts of time, so that their play could improve. Instead, it turned out that many players, given the choice, would much rather go for the short term deathmatch kills all night and aim to become the pros of ganking and leaderboard champion, rather than work as a team, fight for resource, and follow a coordinated strategy to eventual victory. Combat mode took over the majority of NS servers, leaving Strategic mode fans mostly high and dry.

That was the death knell of NS for me, and I moved on shortly after – while combat mode was fun in short term spurts, it just didn’t give me the satisfaction of a real team victory. I enjoyed the buildup, the cooperation, and how people gelled together and supported each other. (I also missed the protracted wars.)

(Also, one always had the sneaky suspicion that some players on the top scoreboards were abusing hacks, and without team-based objectives and the attrition aspect of resources/upgraded tech, there was no way to best these guys – whereas in Strategy mode, no matter how well you aim, if you’re just one person, ramboing it alone, you’ll get mowed down eventually by the combination of all those factors that push one team towards victory.)

I don’t know what the fate of GW2’s WvW is going to be.

At the moment, I am just adapting to how it is.

If I get too depressed at being endlessly slaughtered, and can’t find it in me to do guerilla warfare, I’ll bow to the force of morale and stay out for the week. I’m human, after all. I’ll confess to taking a break last week to do some PvEing on an alt – had a mild infection that set me on antibiotics, no willpower to try and face two very alert teams without a stealth class, and it was refreshing to just quit worrying about the score or all things WvW for a while. This will allow the victors their map, their rewards, their quiet time to use or misuse as they will, and if others on my side want to practice their guerilla tactics or stay out also, all power to them.

If I feel like jumping into WvW, then I will. Possibly that’s what caused the massive onslaught of Janthir on the weekend, lots of people all spoiling for a new match after a loss, plus the regulars that play consistently.

When it’s too quiet when we’re winning, then I’ll do my jumping puzzles, PvE champion mobs, fool around with siege on innocent bunnies, and then zone out to PvE again, leaving the map in the hands of the fairer-weather players who come out to gank only when their server is dominating (but are fairly disorganized and can be run around) and the consistent players who will be in WvW rain or shine.

I think I’m basically lucky in that I don’t mind most of the activities in Guild Wars 2. (The only thing I’m scared of and won’t venture into alone is paid PvP tournaments, because I’m sure I cannot match that level of build/team cooperation by my lonesome, who knows how the metagame has evolved by now?

As such, this gives me a wide range of choices for stuff to do at any one time. And I know I’ll be playing this game on a long term basis (just like in GW1, I might take a couple months’ break at a time, but I can always pop in again when I feel like it, hooray, no sub) so I can afford a good amount of patience.

I only wonder if other players feel the same way. Or if they’ll be off chasing after the next shiny.

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.