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An Earthbound Perspective

Practical perspective on MMO play and practice.

Author: Dengar

Playing Theme-Park Games Like a Sandbox Game

Posted by Dengar Monday May 30 2011 at 1:40PM
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So, as much as I play theme-park MMOs these days, I kinda hate them. I love the number of people they attract, and I have met some really great people in them (well, and some honestly awful people and players), but the games... bleh. I was probably "over" WoW's raiding game in Vanilla during Nax. It was fun, don't get me wrong, but some of the bosses were just starting to show me some limitations with raid-based content (mainly, that there's a gimick to the encounter, like in single player games, but unlike single player games, MMOs require you to repeat the task for months at a time). I still play theme-parks, but I try to do things differently than your average player.

Economic pvp is one of my favorites when I have the time and, especially, access to the trade skills. The idea's real simple: find a fairly solid market and take control of it. There's a lot of ways to do this, such as buying up that market and relisting it for a profit, or massively undercutting the market and buying out your opponents until the market obeys your undercut, then massively increasing the price again to make the profits, etc. Huge gambles, angry tells, virtual tears, etc. It was the most satisfying thing I got out of Horizons, which was largely a pve game since you could not physically attack other players, and it really helped me perfect the art since it was a player driven economy. I did it on a WoW server as well (well, a few), and it made me a lot of cash, but felt more hollow, since WoW's just... so big. It's much easier to get away with it since there's so many niche markets, so people worried about angry tells probably don't have to worry about this as much, especially if you post on a bank alt.

Player run events are another thing you can do. I know, theme-parks don't always give the best options for this. For example, Darkfall Online has a lot objects, items, and a player-base for this sort of thing. Game Masters can also give special itms for in game events, and may advertise them officially. Horizons did the same, and I even remember when a GM showed up and (it was a roleplay story telling event) took screenshots, including when I called him a "mucker."  WoW... does not do this. However, it's still something you can pull off non-officially. Generally, center it around something people already do in a busy area, and if it's going to be affected by a patch, even better! For example, the day before the Dalaran portals were to disappear, my guild arranged a "good-bye to Dalaran" event since folks were obviously going to move out of the former capital city. We posted the information on the server forums, let people know in trade chat, and just got people together and used a lot of fun and holiday event items (reindeer mount transformations, booze, laser-pointers, forced player transformations, booze...). It was pretty fun. You can also do things like nub races, weddings, role-play events... just remember who the audience is and ask yourself how the event can be messed up, such as in a pvp event.

PvP events in a theme-park game can be the easiest event to set-up, but also the hardest. Unlike in games with FFA PvP (like Darkfall), offending players can't just be ganked to hell to keep order. You need to control attendance at times, since massively uneven sides aren't fun. This is even more important if the event's more than a glorified king of the hill match. If there are specifal rules, such as "no flying mounts," you can't simply invite everyone and anyone, since people with flying mounts can simply go to a high point and perch event goers. RP events have a similar situation, in that anti_RPers on "your side" can't simply be removed. You need to invite people carefully (probably on an individual or guild level) , and KISS- Keep It Simple, Stupid ;P. The more complex the event is, the easier it is to ruin or have things go wrong. If it's cross faction and there are language limitations, make sure you have some external communication available to keep communication going before, during, and after the event. Forums, Voice chat, Real ID for WoW, etc. Communicate often to help avoid drama!

Finally, self imposed gameplay options! Only level through gathering or pvp, level naked, only in enemy territory, etc. Slowing down the grind and doing it in a unique way can make the game a lot more fun than the simple grind, especially if you know end game isn't something that interests you.

Why WoW-heads pvp

Posted by Dengar Wednesday May 25 2011 at 11:01AM
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So there was a bit of a discussion about this on the official WoW forums (http://us.battle.net/wow/en/forum/topic/2522073685#1). WoW pvp tends to be seen as completely meaningless by the non-WoW community (and a few of us veterans that play it with out friends). Territory cannot be controlled due to the large amount of instancing, pvp tends to be restricted to BGs since that's the most efficient way of earning currency, and the best stuff is gotten through highly restrictive "competitive" ladder matches that usually only exist in MMOs via player-run events, whose prizes are also given by the players.

The latter makes it sound like WoW pvp fans would probably be highly competetive, but this is not the case. Blizzard's latest ladder matches, "Rated Battlegrounds," are never praised. Arenas are primarily discussed in reference to 2v2 teams, not 3v3 or 5v5, and mainly for acquiring gear. Regular BGs and world pvp seem to be the biggest hits, even if they aren't rated and provide no reward other than killing another player (though oddly enough, some people enjoy talking to their enemies afterwards, which is diffuclt in WoW due to langauge barriers preventing the two side from communicating, forcing players to create a character of the opposite faction to speak with their victims).

Essentially, it sounds as if WoW pvpers kill for the sake of killing. Most prefer very small scale battles or being randomly grouped with others and just being able to jump into things, similar to FPS players who don't play competitively. They do not seem to want highly organized matches on competitive levels, which makes me wonder if, perhaps, some would prefer a game like Rift, where there is currently no competitive ladder matches, just grinds and world pvp targets that give small rewards. In addition, other games also allow you to speak with your enemies, such as in Darkfall or Asheron's Call, though dropping loot on death in those games may also scare them away.

I don't want to do too many guild pieces, but this one's always a hot topic. Books could be written on what not to do, but I'll try to keep this blog very short.

1. Before you even make your guild, ask yourself this: what am I doing different than other guilds? If you can't answer that, please stop and check your local guild listings. Unless it's a very small game, most gamers know that the biggest differences between new guilds are time zones and progress. Guild leaders tend to make all of the decisions, including choosing officers. All guilds claim to be "fun," few admit that they need more skilled players, and I've yet to hear a guild admit "We're here for loot and loot only- don't expect any guild events beyond this." To be fair, some multi-gaming guilds are the same, but they have established reputations. People know who they are and what they're about. If you're just starting out, you don't have this advantage, so figure out what makes you shine and build on that.

2. Guild site. Make it. Use it. Make others apply on it. Make others use it. I don't know a good team player these days that will join random guilds, especially ones lacking a guild site. I know one gaming vet that does, and he'll swear to the moon how much of a team player is... until he's bored with the game and ninja-cancel his account without a word. He's also the guy that won't fill out an application, will demand recruiter rank, take just about anyone and everyone, and in general, make your guild a mess and leave it for you to fix.

I'll bet a lot of guilds in Sony MMOs got hit hard with their ~month of down time, especially if there wasn't any out of game tool to keep people connected. This also essentially happens to friend guilds during "lulls" in the game: you raided, conquered, and you're waiting for the next patch. If there's nothing out of game to keep up the lines of communication, the guild dies and you'll be recruiting all over again come patch day, if not making yet another guild to distance yourself from the death of the old one. Get it right the first time so, much like the older guilds, you can at least rely on guild history as a recruitment tool and retainment device.

3. I can't press this enough: choose your guild name carefully! They don't all need to be original, but much educated readers looking at bad romance novels, players can smell trite a mile away. Your name alone can attract or drive off potential players. Check http://www.nickyee.com/python/guildname/generator.py first. If your guild name popped up there, don't use it. There's probably 30+ other ones, 90% of which you probably don't want to be associated with. Also hit refresh a few times. There's certain words you'll notice that appear in almost every refresh hit (this could also reach article length, but I'll just point out some choice cliches): Dark/black, death/dead, killers/assassins/ninjas/pirates, holy/order/heroes, chaos/cult, knights/templars/lords, horde/alliance/militia. You can still use these words in your guild name, but be aware that they carry a stereo-type. Personally, I'd be looking at a guild called "Belly of the Whale" faster than "Black Ninja Order" just because I'd expect the latter to be filled with basement dwelling zerglings (not that they don't have their uses ;P ), while the former probably has some sweet story behind it.

Again, this is supposed to be a short and sweet summary of starting a guild. If you read this, nodded, and said "You forgot XYZ," you probably didn't need this ;P If this gave you some insight, great! Your odds of guild survival shot up at least 20%, depending on the size of your server/game.

"Reputation," guilds, and community: Sandbox vs. Theme-park vs. Fusion

Posted by Dengar Sunday May 15 2011 at 1:48PM
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A recent blog post (http://www.mmorpg.com/blogs.cfm/blogId/1654/entry/21707)  reminded me just how disjointed guilds become in theme park based MMOs.

Before I get into that, let's go back in time a bit. There was a little game called "Asheron's Call" in which guilds were groups of players. Cliques were defined by those who, literally, followed someone in the guild. Players had to swear allegience to a specific player, not the guild, in order to join. You were in the guild because the person you swore to was in the guild. Should there be a falling out, you would have to find a new contact in the guild to re-enter it. Players based additional xp to each other, so that you wanted people to swear to you. However, most items in the game could be given away, so good "patrons" (the people you swore to) would give little gifts to their "vassals" (the person who swore to them) to help them out or just as tokens of continued friendship. Bonds weren't lightly broken, but since everyone could see both your guild and your patron, reputations could spread. Both bad guilds and bad patrons could make it hard for you to get into a group, and because there were no instances or server transfers, this was devastating, even more so on a pvp server were people may kill you based on your relationships.

Enter the theme-park MMO, where the developers give you everything you need to not use social connections. At some point, someone came up with the idea that MMOs would benefit from FPS/RTS style systems, in which the game was multiplayer, but the end rarely mattered. Defeat meant fewer rewards rather than punishment, monsters would come back, bases would be recaptured next round. World of Warcraft uses this model and while it may make good money, the game community is usually seen as unskilled and anti-social, with reputation being pigeon-holed into NPC terminology. Guilds recruit based on your performance and ability to get the guild gear- being behind the guild progress wise usually means you will not be recruited. It's not completely true, but the guilds that defy this are few and far between.

It seems to completely go against the idea of "persistent worlds," but here it is. It makes the game easier to get in and out of, but at the price of community. Darkfall Online, one of the few recent MMOs went with a similar more like AC (minus the patron vassal aspect, but gift giving still applies to an extent for luring new players into guilds to teach them the game and, hopefully, turn them into a contributing guild member). Reputation means everything, granting other guilds de facto right to kill you or trade with you, unless you act in a way that makes you stand out as different from those you are associated with.

However, there's a game in beta called "ArcheAge" which aims to fuse the two genres. My question, however, is how the guilds will turn out in this new generation of MMOs. Will we be seeing a system in which players actively seek others out to help them grow, or will guilds recruit simply based on the ability to get gear? Will we be judged on our guilds, recruiters, and personal reputation, or will instancing make it nearly impossible to get to know our server mates? Will the fusion of the two simply put the community some where between the two MMO genres, or will something completely new occur?

Unscripted RP PvP: What you may have been doing for years

Posted by Dengar Thursday May 12 2011 at 9:04PM
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Roleplay: we've all done it. Whether it's kissing up to a boss you want to stab in the eye or something you do with your significant other, we've all presented ourselves in a manner that suited the situation. However, in MMOs, it's a bit different. Usually thought of as people who "talk funny," role play is nothing more than playing your character as if you were them and if the world they live in were real. You don't say "afk" in real life unless you're on voice chat with someone or a weirdo, and you don't talk about taking hit points when you skin your knee. It's not hard, and can usually be enjoyed by most people when given the chance. I should know, since I recruited some hardcore pvpers into an RP guild in Darkfall. No easy task, let me tell you!

And that's the odd thing. PvP and RP usually aren't seen as related. In fact, when most games launch RP servers, unless the game is full pvp (like EVE or Darkfall), the default for RP servers is PvE. Personally, I got into role playing as a mechanic for fun. Be a racist and kill all the elves, or be a hero by patrolling the town you live in. It's not hard, and it can be a lot of fun. But when I role played, I was seen as an oddity. I could, GASP, get non-RPers to join in, even when I "talk funny." You'd think that'd make me some sort of RP god, but in fact, I don't get along with many RPers.

Part of this stems from many RPers aversion to PvP. They don't like losing control of their character. Part of this is the "Mary Sue" crowd who claim to be gods among men but think "keyboard turning" is a tactical secret as opposed to an incorrect playstyle. I always assume that these people are into pure escapism, but I never undestand why one would do this in a social environment. I think these are the people who give RPers a bad name, but there's another group that does this: scripters.

Some folks script RP events. Maybe 15 people show up to an event. They're notified that a lvl 6 warlock is going to kidnap a lvl 60 priestess and that the others must come to her rescue. If you vomited a little in your mouth, that's fine, I do the same thing. This, to me, seems like better ammunition for a MUD or creative writing class, or possibly acting school. It's partially because everyone knows what's going to happen and simply acts it out. Even if you have FFA PvP, there's no way the level 6 can honestly "kidnap" the level 60. There's a game mechanic that sorta makes that tough. What you end up with is, at best, surprise dialogue. When people talk about MMOs being an expensive chatroom, this is what they're talking about.

So what's left? Tossing out the script, diving into pvp. Think for a moment: when was the last time you typed out a threat to an NPC and had it respond? In fact, when was the last time you even heard about RP involving PvE? Most WoW guilds will tell you that raid time is not RP time. Why? It costs time, yes, but mechanics are a huge issue. How do you explain constantly killing the same named NPC again and again and again? Unless the game's lore's good (Oh Asheron's Call and lifestones!), it's pretty tough. The same applies for pvp: why can my lvl 2 WoW bank character come back from the dead but no priest could rez Cairne Bloodhoof? However, pvp involves reactions.

We've all run into combat and yelled "For the Horde" (alliance don't count, since language restrictions are applied to ensure that we can never communicate, meaning they are glorified robots, right? ;P ). That right there's RP. When you see that, some small, guilty part of you cheers "YEAH!" But that's just the tip of the iceberg.

I was playing Asheron's Call with 2 friends on Darktide, the game's free for all pvp server. A man ran up to us on our way to a town and demanded that we swear fealty to him, or face his wrath. Yup, you guess it, he was an RPer. However, the mechanics were in place. In order to join a guild in AC, players literally had a button to place themselves underneath another player. We decided to go for it, but to role play as highway men.

We swore fealty to the stranger and said that we were tired travelers who had lost our supplies. Without weapons and armor, we could not help spread our patron's name, so our "leader" proceeded to hand us out gear. Once we had that, we told him that as kind as the gifts were, we were too weak to fight the local wild life off. Our leader proclaimed he was a mage, and could make us more powerful, so he buffed us. Crossbows ready, we asked if a mage were powerful enough to enchant our aummunition as well. Our leader wasn't on to us yet, and proceeded to enchant all three of the quarrels pointed at him. Despite his level advantage, our leader had made us just strong enough to execute the plan.

All three of us fired on our leader at once. Right before he died, my friend yelled "We will not serve under a weak fool!" We broke our oathes officially and looted the body, taking his crown, his robes, and a few other trinkets we sold for ammunition before arriving at town.

Upon arriving at town, we were suprised to see our former leader, talking to his other followers. We had used the enchanted arrows, but without his armor, our former leader was a prime target. He shouted "Traitors!" but died again, dropping more loot for us to sell, while our former co-vassals provided us better armor and weapons, some of which had been improved to combat us. We were feeling pretty smug by now, and ran into the town. We gave the few people shopping a warning, saying that the town was ours, but few took us seriously, so they also died.

One of my friends decided to scout the outskirts of the town while myself and my other friend hide in a second level building that overlooked a popular shopping area. Anytime someone came, we shouted "Move and we kill you!" Most people obviously died, but one person literally gave us the shirt off his back to live... and we killed him. The reason he had given us so much? He was had a very large amount of money on his body. We were bad.

The last guy, though, was probably someone we really should have let go. On the other side of town, at the respawn point, was the shirtless man, yelling about bandits in town and letting about how much we'd taken from him (essentially, he was offering a bounty). At first, people thought we were harmless RPers that could be easily handled, but we ended up taking them out. By this point, we were feeling like real highway men. We'd tricked a man out of his gear, taken a town, held people at, crossbow-point and robbed them, and now had bounty hunters after us. Of course, once you kill the bounty hunters, people call in the real deal.

By this point, the 3 or 4 naked people who didn't run away had called in friends from the surrounding towns, but we didn't know this yet. All we knew was that the shirtless man was warning anyone who came near the town about the "bandits." Most saw the other naked people and avoided the town, slightly spoiling our fun, until one didn't listen... or so we thought.

The guy was 15 levels higher than us, but we'd already taken out folks of a similar level. We were communicating via speaker phone (didn't have access to voice chat at the time) so we had done some sneaky things, but we weren't ready for this. The new "victim" came within range, but we couldn't kill him instantly. He ran towards a part of town we couldn't see from our hiding spot, and few people used that vendor anyway. We ran outside and saw an open door, so we figured we knew where the guy went and that he was trapped.

We searched the ground floor and then the second level before hearing the door shut. We ran down, thinking our next loot pinata must have been hiding in the cellar. We were... partially correct.

In our blind spot, the shirtless man had gotten 9 people, with gear, to hide in the cellar. The door had been closed, but the cellar group had come out thinking they had heard the door open. Both sides paniced for a moment, just staring at each other, before my friends and I bolted (at which point, someone said, out loud, "That's them!").

We ran from the town and didn't look back. One of my friends had invested a lot of his points into dealing damage and absorbing it, at the expense of his run speed. He... sadly didn't make it out a live. We survivors knew of a nearby dungeon that had a level restriction on it, in that people over a certain level could not enter it. We ran straight for it, and the shirtless man realized our plan, shouting it to his allies, but we were too far ahead of them. We entered the portal to the dungeon.

Now, unlike most modern day dungeons, AC's were not instanced, but simply a different place on the map that required the use of a portal. The mob that came after us was unorganized and came in one at a time, and we slew them. My friend and I stood at the entrance of that dungeon for nearly 10 minutes, our dead friend silent, increasing the tension as my other friend and I had to wait and see if a friend or enemy had come through the portal. We nearly shot him, but right before he materialized, my friend said, "Don't shoot!" 

We all ran deep into the dungeon to a relatively safe place to talk about what happened. Apparently, our friend that died found the shirtless man looting his body, and had chased him towards our dungeon hideout, all while our friend yelled "thief!' Turns out the high levels who couldn't get into the dungeon had forgotten who was the thief and who wasn't, and had killed the shirtless man. My friend thanked them, gave them a little bit of the vast amount of money we had earned, and told them they could leave so he could hunt in piece.

Now, some people might say "You were griefers." Some might say, "This is just pvp, not RP." Some might even say, "What's the point?" What we had here was text-book, unscripted, RP PvP. We saw a situation and reacted to it, in character, fully utilizing game mechanics (and some very liberating ones at that!) to create a story we haven't forgotten.

I personally don't do this in other games, or at the very least, it's much less severe. My other friends have since become huge carebears and won't be found on anything but a pve server. I've had some other fun scenarios, but this one's one of the better ones that show how natural, and fun, this sort of playstyle can be.

(Un)Masking the Grind

Posted by Dengar Wednesday May 11 2011 at 1:33PM
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Think hard about your reasons for leaving past MMOs. Social conflict and new games may be up there, but also nerfs to classes, abilities, features, etc. However, part of it may have been seeing the game for what it is: a grind.

Did you leave over loot drama, or because the game was developed to make people run the same conent 10 or more times several days a week?

Did you leave your old game because one was shiny and new, or because you'd already completed all the content for your current patch/expansion (or at least, all you had access to)?

Did you leave because of class/abilities/content nerfs, or because these features affected the way you grinded?

Face it, the grind is the most important part of an MMO. An open world, leveless game with completely balanced skills/classes and no artificial "skill ups" (i.e. the game says your accuracy increased as opposed to having learned when and how to release an arrow to hit a moving target) may seem perfect, but how long would you play it? One may point to Second Life, but few people consider it an MMO, not just because it lacks content, but because it lacks a grind. The high amount of customization also makes it so players can potentially create anything they want. If this occured in, say, World of Warcraft, why would people raid when they could make better gear?

No kids, sorry, but the grind's going to be here for awhile. It's hard to escape, but it can be masked. For example, sandbox players in FFA PvP may argue that they're not grinding but fighting over territory. However, the same can be done in World of Warcraft. Players can actually raid enemy capitals, especially with the centralization of Stormwind and Orgrimmar. The problem is there's no tangible reward for it. Honor is gained, but the pace isn't nearly as good as with BGs. That is, the grind is more apparent. However, while Darkfall Online lacks anything similar to "honor points," it does have resources. Player cities tend to have special resource nodes that drastically cut down on the grind of gathering, and are located near creatures that may also help cut down on the usual grind (for example, newbie towns may be located near goblins, but any MMOer will tell you that giants tend to drop better loot ;P ). What players are fighting for isn't the sense of having their own town, which they could do by simply buying Animal Crossing, but because it cuts down the grind when compared to other players, which in itself can be fun since you're a "have" and know that there are "have nots."

This idea of "hiding the grind" becomes most apparent when a change comes that explicitly reveals an increase in grind. World of Warcraft is a prime example of this: players run the same content over and over again in order to have access to gear that may last them a few months before the developers once again come out with new armor/levels that must be earned in a similar fashion. It may sound cynical, but the current 4.2 test realm notes include a little tidbit:

PvP


  • Conquest Points
    • The minimum cap on Conquest Points earned per week is now 1500 at 1500 or less Battleground rating. The maximum cap remains 3000 at 3000 or more Battleground rating. The cap continues to scale non-linearly between those two points.
    • The game now separately tracks different Conquest Point caps for Battlegrounds and Arenas. The cap for Arena rating will always be 2/3 of the cap for Battleground rating at any given Arena rating. Players may earn a total number of Conquest Points per week equal to the higher of these two caps, but once players have reached the cap for either Arenas or Battlegrounds, they can no longer earn Conquest Points from that source. Conquest Points from Battleground holidays only count toward the total Conquest Point cap.

If you were to do only arenas and the daily random BG everyday for 1 week and were under 1500 rating for arenas and RBGs, you could only earn about 1175 conquest points, which is about 200 less than you currently can get by "being bad." This number only increases with your rating. As Kaliy, one of my guild's officers of our WoW branch noted:

RBGs weren't as popular as they wanted, so instead of addressing WHY they aren't popular and trying to fix the underlying structure and mechanics issues, they are simply brute forcing people into doing them in hopes of raising the numbers participating...which they can then cite as a "fix" to the issue. Lame lame lame lame.

While she may be a game professional in the industry, I don't think it takes too much mental work to see that this is an extension of the grind. Keep in mind that this change comes a patch after they drastically lowered the amount of conquest points gained all around, effectively doubling the time spent to earn the same rewards, which leaves less time for other grinds, such as raiding. 

So, as players, how have games effectively masked the grind for you? What mechanics or features made it so that your play time felt like "progress" as opposed to carrot chasing? At what point did you wake up and see it for what it is?