Travel and realism in MMORPGs

Over the last few months I’ve been ruminating over the role of travel in MMORPGs. I’ve played some irregular sessions of two more ‘realistic’ games, Black Desert Online ; a game where a mount or vehicle has a more tangible existence in the world than the norm, and can be left somewhere for good or bad. If you stable your horse in BDO it remains with that stablemaster NPC, you can run off elsewhere on some errand and find yourself further and further away from the mount and your only option to get that mount is to make your way back to where you left it.

It harkens me back to conversations I’ve had with a friend over Star Wars Galaxies and how spaceships in that game were similar to mounts in BDO – you parked them somewhere and if you then took a shuttle to another planet then your spaceship wasn’t available until you returned to where you left it. Despite the potential for inconvenience in either game, I do find a certain appeal to this level of ‘realism’, that mounts are more than a spell and that they remain where you left them last.

Now, where did I leave my horse?

That said this kind of realism would be pretty awkward in a game with a strong or directed storyline: imagine trying to change Star Wars the Old Republic to use such a system. If Fleet Passes could even exist as an item, then every time you used one you’d risk stranding yourself as your ship would be left on whatever planet you last visited. That could make for some interesting social interactions (“LFG, lift to Quesh!”), but would be royal pain in the behind nonetheless. It would also place limits on storytelling, the use of the Graveyard as the new main ship in the recent expansions would mean the potential for plot issues – if we jump into the new chapter or story with a button what happens to our class ship if we happen to have been doing some dailies or other content in-between?

Diving into story chapters wouldn’t work so well if your ship was left behind…

The idea of travel having more implications to it extend beyond where you park up at the end of a session. In BDO, for instance, your horse is only 100% safe if it’s with a stablemaster. If you dismount in a road to go chasing Fogans across a field there’s every possibility that some spider, imp or other critter may start attacking your poor horse as it stands idling. I’ve had this happen a few times, although the mount will edge away from attackers and has enough health to survive for a while. Imagine if you were back at Fleet and your poor ship droid holo-called to shriek “Terribly sorry to bother you, sir, but we are being boarded!”…

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WoW: a poultice of healers

I wonder what the collective noun of healers should be? You have a squad of soldiers, a gaggle of geese, a murder of crows – how about a poultice of healers? That’s pretty much what I have these days in World of Warcraft, most of my favourite characters have a healing spec even if it’s not their primary questing role.

Holy Paladin is my current favourite healing spec

I have played all the healing classes in the game with one exception – the Mistweaver Monk. So when a nephew started playing the game for the first time recently, a new leveling group was called for, and I volunteered for the group’s healer. Eventually when we get to level 15 and above we can run dungeons together for loot and experience – there’ll be some questing as well but we want to do fun stuff together and take our time.

Azuremyst Isle has some fun quests despite its age

My first choice for Mistweaver would be the obvious Pandaren, I happen to love their character animations. However, two of the group chose to make Draenei, and Pandarens can’t start with non-Pandarens, so for the last few weeks I’ve been playing a Draenei Priest through their starter zone as a ‘stand-in’.

When this group reaches level 15 and can step into Deadmines and Ragefire Chasm, I can then swap to my Mistweaver healer and start experiencing this one undiscovered frontier of healing in WoW. My husband has played the spec for some years and has always talked highly of it. For now, as I level this new character through to 15, I’m sticking to Windwalker (DPS) just for the practicality of having a wider range of attacks, but as soon as we get into dungeons I’ll be swapping to Mistweaver for all the leveling dungeons ahead. The dungeons up to level 60 hold a lot of nostalgia for me, it’ll be good to return to old group content once more.

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ESO: finishing Auridon

In last night’s session we made some good progress and completed the first major zone post tutorial, the elven isle of Auridon. As a reminder, I’m playing Elder Scrolls Online as part of a trio of Aldmeri Dominion characters – one of each race. I continue to enjoy the faction and main storylines enough to feel engaged in the game and the world of Tamriel. The solo-only instances, so far mostly the main story but also the odd random quest too, are an annoyance but no more so than in other story-heavy MMORPGs.

Auridon is an interesting zone: when we created these characters I was slightly worried that two lots of elves plus cats might be a boring faction to play, but I’m liking the intra-factional tensions at play.

Resisting the urge to spend hours “reading all the books” in ESO is a thing. On the rarer occasion that I log back into my solo character I do spend more time reading just to absorb some of the lovingly crafted lore, but when in group it’s awkward to spend time more than skim-reading books that have nothing to do with the plot. That said books occasionally give a free skill-up, so bookcases are always the first priority when entering a new building or ruin!

All the books…

Side quests are a thing in most MMOs, ESOs side quests can be rather good in terms of story and humour. For now we’re doing everything we come across but not quite taking this to the level of obsessing about “clearing every quest on the map”. We did explore most of Auridon but we’ve already had side and guild quests to go to a new zone, so the faction story joining the siren’s call was too much to resist.

Can I climb that?

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Guiding an instant high-level character

Playing my Esper in Wildstar has given me pause for thought on what the game, and other MMORPGs in general, could do to make it an easier process to take on a newly dinged max level (or near) character. If you as a player have already capped a character the hard way then such advice is probably not going to teach you much, but even then the new character may differ enough in play style to require adjustments.

Messages and calls waiting

In my case in Wildstar playing the Esper has confronted me with a couple of hurdles, firstly what on Earth (or Nexus) to do first? The game bombards a dinged character with calls and messages from quest givers and other NPCs. The majority are actually old stuff from leveling zones that your character just bypassed – I guess some players would resent missing anything like that but it’d nice to have such quest pointers as optional access items rather than a bombard of noisy calls coming in one after another.

I’ve been out of game for a while so other than Arcterra that I have seen, I wasn’t sure what else had come since and what would be best for this ready-geared and configured character. I knew enough to spend his action points (a.k.a. talents) and AMP points to enhance certain abilities. As for runing his lovely purple gear, he started with a solitary gold coin so buying runes of the auction house wasn’t going to happen for some time.

I fancied trying something new but going to Crimson Badlands soon taught me that not all end-game daily zones (like Arcterra) are the same. My Esper nearly died to the first trio of mobs, despite them not being elite or anything special. Here I think the game needs to be more directive in what the new level 50 is equipped for, there’s a lot to do at level 50 but it seems not everything is equal. By contrast, he held his own very well in a round of dailies in Arcterra killing elites solo and surviving very well in the 20-person boss fights. That, especially, pleased me greatly – in trying to decide what I wanted to ding to 50, my main criteria was a class that would be good for this kind of public group content. I found in both bosses it much easier to stay alive and to help others to do so as an Esper, despite the tanky-nature of Engineer I found it much harder to survive boss fights on that class because I didn’t have self healing.

I’ve faced this lack of content guidance in other MMORPGs for insta-dinged characters, for example in Everquest 2. It’s all very well bombarding a player with everything they could do, but perhaps the games should put a bit more effort into suggesting what they might be best starting with as something realistic for that new character, in whatever non-optimal state it is presented. The devs would be fooling themselves if they think their version of the prepared character is anything like as optimal as one that a veteran player has leveled and crafted, so players shouldn’t expect to be able to dive into the harder content, but likewise some indication of what is going to be harder or easier when levels cease to matter would be welcome. MMOs may well present this information but it’s probably couched in jargon – for example in footnotes that note a special stat requirement (e.g. 550 Heroism needed for level 1 prime expeditions in Wildstar).

Although I’ve not yet given it a go, WoW introduced the concept of class trial for level 100 characters. This allows you to play a specific class and spec for a set time in a special zone, with a guided tutorial to key abilities. It’s a nice concept for giving newer players an intro to how a high level class would play.

I suppose it’d be easy for this kind of guidance to be too directive or annoying to veteran players. Being told what to do is a real turn off for some players. But I play with family members regularly enough who lack the MMORPG exposure that I’ve had over the last nine-odd years. A max level character can be tempting, especially for someone who is new to a game and is stuck seeing friends or guildmates having ‘all the fun’ at level cap while you slog through the levels (we had just that experience in WoW back in 2007). But it must be very bewildering to the non-veteran to be suddenly bombarded with so much content and new systems when presented with that new character.

Posted in EQ2, Gaming, Wildstar, WoW | 1 Comment

WoW: dinosaurs!

This weekend there’s another micro holiday in World of Warcraft. We flew over to Un’goro crater to fight some buffed up dinosaur-themed bosses for Dinosaur Madness.

The event consists of eight moderately tough world boss-like fights. Each is a level 113 dinosaur, the only reward from a successful kill is the Dino Mojo item that gives a random buff to you and a selected player nearby.

The fights for the most part were easy enough, Queen Zavra is a bit tricky with the broken lines of summoned adds criss-crossing from all sides – if you’ve done Attumen the Huntsman in Karazhan then you’ll be familiar with this mechanic.

Sherazin proved to be too tough for the small group on our server doing the rounds. We then used the in-game group finder to join a cross-server raid to farm the bosses, but didn’t happen to get Sherazin before we stopped.

Overall it’s a fun little event, though there’s no major rewards from this: no collectible items or gear, so replay value isn’t that high. Returning to Un’goro is always a pleasure though as I have some major nostalgia for questing in that zone in early expansions.

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Wildstar: existing level 50 catchup

When I played Wildstar yesterday I decided to stick with my tried and tested Engineer rather than play the new Esper. I wanted to get back into the swing of the action combat, the dodging and the telegraphs before I then deal with a brand new class and build.

This character has languished in Arcterra of late, indeed I played a session or two there before the Power of the Primal Matrix update went live. While there I noticed a vendor selling white quality gear. White quality is usually effectively trash in MMOs, it lacks the stat bonuses you expect gear to give once you’ve progressed beyond the tutorial or starter zones. But comparing this vendor gear with my character’s quest reward stuff it was all much better – like 30+ ilevels better on average! So I had to take a full set of it to give him a big health and armour upgrade.

Catchup gear?

That will make survival in world boss fights a bit easier I suspect. Coming back into game yesterday I felt like something different, but besides Arcterra I was a bit perplexed how to start him on newer content like the Redmoon Rising pirate-themed stuff or even unlock the Primal Matrix system – my new Esper has a mail about this but my existing level 50 did not.

Turns out I needed to go to one section of Thayd, the Exile capital. There I talked to three different NPCs all stood around together and that unlocked the Primal Matrix system for him, gave me two new level 50 World Story solo-instances to do, and got me started on the Redmoon Rising content.

In the end I chose the first of the solo-instances for an Engineer workout, “Journey to Omnicore-1”. It was a fun run which gave me plenty of dodge practice and also a jumping puzzle to practice some of the game’s extensive use of movement.

A fun session overall, though I’m slightly spoiled playing a tank(ish) character. I wonder if I’ll find Esper to feel super-squishy in comparison?

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ESO: story in parallel

Elder Scrolls Online has an interesting variation on storytelling when grouped. It has a lot of voiced NPC dialogues – probably the most I’ve seen outside of SWTOR actually in a MMO. That’s generally a good thing in my opinion as I am feeling drawn into Tamriel and the faction story of the Aldmeri Dominion in particular, I’ve only played Ebonheart Pact in the past so this is all new to me.

In trying to think of a succinct phrase to describe the group play experience in ESO, the best I could come up with was “story in parallel”. It’s a midway point between two rather different models used in other games. In World of Warcraft most quest objectives when grouped are shared, very often if one person clicks something that updates an objective it does so for all players if they are nearby. That can be a boon and a royal pain depending on your group – if you have people who read at different speeds for instance then this group-progress-together model is not ideal.

By contrast in SWTOR, with the shared cut-scene delivery, story is more measured in its delivery – you are all paced by the speed of the cut-scenes and the group dialogue systems pauses and time-outs. In Elder Scrolls a lot of the story seems to be delivered through talking to NPCs before, in-between and after any action. These dialogues are individual and independent of anyone else in the group. The dialogues are voiced so that sets a pace of sorts, although you could in theory speed read ahead and cut the voices short a lot of the time if you wanted. A lot of the quest objectives likewise seem to be individual, e.g. all players need to “click X things”. It’s hard to be sure as I haven’t paid much attention to this in SWTOR but certainly this differs from the WoW norm.

ESO resembles WoW more than SWTOR in another manner, the heavy use of in-game ‘scenes’ to tell aspects of story without taking over control of your game – so rather than breaking into cut-scenes all the time, ESO will have NPCs act out important moments in front of you as you are playing. It’s certainly easier to miss this kind of story-telling, usually little epilogues or extra bits of dialogue between NPCs as you pass, but I find it a real boon to immersion to have things happening while I can freely look around and move.

Overall I’m liking the approach, even if there a lot of parallel reading/chatting and clicking of things going on. It actually forces me to be engaged with the story more, not that being forced is necessary as its engaging and well delivered, but there’s no chance to “zone out” and “/follow” another player through ESO’s content. That’s a good thing I think overall, less so for daily quests that you’ve done dozens of times, but for leveling story content the systems works well to keep everyone involved.

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