Archive for April, 2011

WoW: Story and Player Interaction

There’s been some discussion lately about the role of pre-scripted narrative in MMOs. A lot of people see it as a cheat, a gimmick that only provides pseudostory, and desire a story that’s more reflective of what the players are doing in the gameworld. The WoW model is of course the one most familiar to the greatest number of people, and in WoW, the scripted storylines are, in effect, static features of the environment. The unit of plot is the quest, and quests get done over and over by different players, and that takes away from the sense that you’re participating in the story in any meaningful way: can you really say that you’ve defeated an enemy if you can stand there and watch it respawn and get defeated over and over? (In one extreme case, I was doing a quest that involved leading an NPC around, and was startled to realize that there were multiple simultaneous instances of that NPC simultaneously following different players.)

My own take on the question is a little more complicated. First, let me point out that there are really two separate stories going on in WoW. There’s the pre-scripted story, and there’s the story of the players playing the game — call it the mythos layer and the game layer. The mythos story contains events like the betrayal of Lady Sylvanas, the attempts of both Horde and Alliance to gain the support of the centaur tribes, and the defeat of the Lich King at the hands of a large band of heroes. The game story contains events like druids getting nerfed, the auction price of glyphs going up, and the Cthun raid being successfully completed for the first time. The two layers do have some points of intersection: the Cataclysm, for example, was a major event with wide-reaching consequences in both. But they’re mostly independent, and players can only have a permanent effect on the gameworld at the game layer (and usually only in the aggregate, at that).

Secondly, the above is not at all unusual. Most CRPGs have such a split, including single-player ones. This very blog contains numerous posts analyzing mythos in CRPGs, and also numerous posts recounting my particular experiences playing the same CRPGs — my exploration of their terrain, attempts at making the most of their combat systems, etc. — and they are, for the most part, different posts. Furthermore, I’ve made comments about how the two layers contradict each other, so that aspect of WoW isn’t unique to the mechanics of trying to shoehorn a single-player storyline onto a multiplayer environment; it’s something that can happen whenever the mythos and game layers both try to depict the same kinds of events. But perhaps something about the MMO paradigm makes it more obvious when it happens.

Now, you may object that the game layer isn’t a story. And I agree. It’s a story-space, a set of constraints and opportunities in which stories can happen. These stories aren’t entirely fictional, because we’re into the realm of what Jesper Juul calls the “half-real”. If my character gives yours 60 gold pieces in exchange for a piece of armor, neither the gold nor the armor actually exists — but the exchange is nonetheless a real event, something that occurred between two actual human beings, rather than just described by a storyteller, or played out repeatedly by a couple of automated NPCs like figurines on a cuckoo clock. But we do have a notion in our language of “true story”. Arguably, real events only get transformed into stories after the fact, when they’re recounted to others, but some events are more inevitably story-like than others.

Let me tell you a story that happened on Everquest during my time there: the story of the Naked Troll Run. Once upon a time, a bunch of players on the Rallos Zek server decided on a whim to make new level-1 troll characters, ditch their starting equipment, and run from the troll starting zone to the human city of Freeport to see how far they could get before they were killed. On their first attempt, wandering monsters slaughtered them all before they got far, but they just respawned back at their starting zone and tried again. As they did this, more and more troll corpses piled up along the way, and other players took notice and asked what was going on. Some of them joined in. Eventually, there were enough trolls that the combined efforts of the wandering monsters and the Freeport city guard were not enough to kill them all, and a few managed to board the Freeport ferry and continue their run as far as gnome territory. This all happened without the participation of the Everquest developers or mods. All they did was provide an environment in which running a naked level-1 troll all the way to Freeport is difficult, and the players came up with the rest.

Let me tell you another story, which we might call the Gaming of the Marble. This one happened on A Tale in the Desert. In ATitD, a combat-free game, combat is replaced by various “Tests” that increase your rank in the game’s various Disciplines. Some of the Tests had other gameplay benefits, and some of the Tests were competitive, and one Test in particular had both of these properties: a two-player mini-game that affected the player’s ability to detect deposits of valuable stone. The mini-game had a ranking system like Chess or Go, and specific types of stone were tied to specific ranks, the higher tiers being types of rare marble. Months after this system was introduced, there was still no one with sufficient rank to find the highest level of marble, and the players grew frustrated with this. So a bunch of them decided to game the system by means of a rigged tournament. A largish number of people got together to play the minigame, but there was one pre-designated champion, and anyone playing against that person would deliberately lose just to raise her rank. Other people would be chosen to win for a while to get their rank up just to maximize the effect when they lost to the designated champion — people had worked out the ranking formula and knew exactly how to optimize it. The end result was that, for a little while, the player base had access to every kind of stone in the game. But the devs knew what was going on, and they soon responded by moving the goalposts, adding several new types of marble that required even more elevated ranks.

Now, both of these stories involve player-initiated events involving large numbers of people. The Naked Troll Run happened in a game that worked on more or less the WoW model (except less questy and more grindy), and it didn’t have any permanent effect on the gameworld. The Gaming of the Marble took place in a game designed with the explicit goal of involving the players in a larger story that developed over the course of play, and it had a permanent change in the global game-state as a result, both before and after the devs intervened. If you take the people who say they want more meaningful interaction with the gameworld at their word, the latter seems more like what they want. But the Naked Troll Run was far and away the more satisfying experience.

Ultimately, the game doesn’t have to make stories happen. There’s nothing stopping the players from making stories at the game layer if they want to. But a lot of people don’t want to. A lot of WoW players don’t even want to engage the mythos layer, and being part of an ongoing creative process takes a lot more mental effort than being a passive audience to something pre-scripted. With power over the gamestate comes responsibility, and responsibility plus persistence equals obligation, not fun. Perhaps MMOs that seriously attempt to provide a more genuinely interactive world are doomed to be niche things, not because they do a bad job of it, but because that’s not actually what the majority of the players want, even when they say they do.

So what do the players want? As far as I can tell, the main thing is just harmonization of game and mythos. Give us a game where the NPCs don’t lie to us about how we’re having an impact on the world. Stop trying to pretend that every single player is the hero of the story. Find a fictional premise that acknowledges the truth of the situation, that thousands of people are going through the same experiences.

Or, alternately, do away with the mythos altogether. Hey, it worked for Minecraft.

WoW: Big Bosses

Bosses in WoW dungeons are generally easy to spot, even if you’re mainly concentrating on healing your party. They generally take two forms: the big boss, and the talky boss.

Talky bosses are people. They’re humans or undead or whatever, just with high class levels and one or two unique skills or spells. As such, they don’t necessarily look all that imposing. If the grunt forces of the dungeon are all members of the same army, the boss will probably look more or less like his underlings, just with more swagger in his bearing, and a slightly more impressive uniform with bigger epaulets. (WoW is very big on epaulets.) So they identify themselves as bosses by means of pre-fight monologue and/or continuing banter throughout combat, possibly including cries of disbelief at their defeat.

Big bosses, on the other hand, need no such verbal reminders. They’re just big. Many of the monsters in the game are substantially larger than the player, but whatever has been established as the usual scale for the dungeon, the big bosses will be something like three times their height (or length, or other appropriate linear measure). They’re appropriately impressive, and often take the form of horned demons or dragons or something of the sort, as appropriate to the dungeon’s theme. The game is saying to the player, “You are now facing something ultimate, something apocalyptic. Fear it.”

The problem is, it starts saying this somewhere around level 25. And the fiction supports it: you’re already starting to challenge gods at that point (even though you continue to also get routinely defeated by mortals). Bosses of higher-level dungeons are no more impressive than earlier dungeons. You know they’re more powerful, but only because the UI tells you so. It’s all just a numbers game.

It’s easy to blame this effect on the expansions: originally, the level cap was lower, and each expansion has raised it somewhat, so that the enemies that previously were in fact ultimate, the toughest monsters around, no longer hold that title. But this explanation would be wrong. The maximum player character level was originally 60, and the effect I’m describing takes hold long before that. No, this is simply a matter of the designers not leaving themselves room to scale, and also of the utter arbitrariness of power levels endemic to CRPGs.

There is one boss that stands out, though: Deathwing, the massive dragon released by the Cataclysm, as depicted on the game’s launch screen. I’ve had one run-in with Deathwing so far. Apparently every once in a while it just flies through a zone and kills everyone. It doesn’t even seem fightable; it manifests more like a weather pattern, or a sunset. You get a certain amount of warning about this — possibly enough to hightail it out of the zone if you know what’s coming, which you certainly don’t the first time it happens to you. That’s how you make an enemy feel epic: you make it completely beyond the normal rules.

WoW: Guild Activities

Oleari’s current guild in has suddenly started doing raids. There’s one scheduled for every Tuesday and Thursday until the end of the month. I think this is happening as a push to get guild XP and consequent perks, and, perhaps more importantly, to reach the guild level cap and get people to stop being concerned with guild leveling. (The whole system of guild levels is a recent addition, and there’s been some complaining on the guild chat about it, how Guild Experience distorts the guild experience.)

Now, to the extent that I’m playing this game to understand the WoW phenomenon, going on a raid or two seems essential. Raids are a big part of the WoW image. Even if you only have a vague understanding of what a raid is (and my own understanding is kind of vague; I gather they’re like dungeons, but with multiple parties acting together), you’ve probably at least encountered jokes about raids as the dedicated nerd’s one unshakable commitment. So I definitely want to experience that firsthand. Also, raids done as a guild activity help the participants’ guild Reputation, which is one area where I’m sorely lacking: I’m still only about 1/6 of the way to achieving Friendly status, which locks me out of most of the guild perks. Which is fair, I suppose, considering how seldom I have anything to do with the guild beyond the chat.

Raids seem to be rare these days, so this is an opportunity not to be missed. Except for a couple of problems: the raids scheduled for my guild all require the Cataclysm expansion, and they’re calibrated for level-85 characters (the current maximum). Oleari, by far my most advanced character, is not quite 60.

It seems like there’s a bit of a newbie lock-out problem here. There’s been a little bit of guild chatter about the newer members’ lack of activity in the guild, but how can we participate? There are other guild activities, often spontaneous, but they’re mainly about doing “heroic” versions of dungeons, similarly too high-level for me. It seems like people are just expected to be at or close to the level cap with at least one of their characters, with the bulk of the game being just a hurdle you have to clear to achieve this normal status. Once such an attitude is entrenched, it may become self-reinforcing, with people power-leveling who otherwise wouldn’t. Or maybe it’s just that the non-power-levelers drop out after a while. There are guilds specifically described as “leveling” guilds, but I don’t see any “stop and smell the roses” guilds.

WoW: Trike!

Have I mentioned my goblin turbo-trike? No? I’ve had it for a while now, and it’s easily my most prized possession in World of Warcraft.

I described goblin trikes in a previous post as three-wheeled go-karts. The turbo-trike is similar, but goes faster, and has a raccoon tail on an antenna and flames painted on the engine housing, clearly souped-up but still as ungainly-looking as the original, half hot rod and half Big Wheel. Like all mounts in this game, it vanishes when not in use; obtaining a mount means learning a spell you can use to summon it. I have several mounts, some in both their slow and fast versions, and, aside from the fact that some are fast and some are slow, they’re basically all equivalent in terms of gameplay. But the feel of the trikes is superior in two respects. First, the ride feels very smooth. With other mounts, you get hoofbeats and the rocking motion of galloping. Goblin trikes just go forward, without any fuss. You can move and steer (both in and out of vehicles) with the mouse by holding both left and right buttons down, and doing so in a trike feels very simple and direct in a way that a more complicated animation would spoil.

Secondly, trikes are pleasingly incongruous. Now, Azeroth is a technologically diverse place. Chainmail and rifles are both commonplace, and robots and rocketships are not unheard of. So internal combustion engines have a place here, even if they’re magically summoned. Nonetheless, many of the settings — elfin glades, deep jungles, trackless wastelands — have dominant moods that jar a little with puttering around in a little car. (It helps that the design of the trike kind of jars with itself. The trike is automatically scaled to fit its owner, but “fit” here means “appears to be a little too small for”. Oleari really needs a fez.) I won’t say it spoils the mood exactly — but it does help to keep things from feeling too serious.

The best part is that trikes have all the abilities that all the other mounts do, but the mere fact that it’s a little car doing them makes it all much jollier. What abilities are these?

  • It can jump. With a horse, you’d take that for granted. With a car, it becomes like something out of an old videogame. Sometimes when I’m going over the top of a hill, I’ll jump at the end, knowing that I’ll take damage when I hit the ground, just because it seems somehow appropriate. Other steeds do not inspire this behavior.
  • It can go up stairs, on ramps, and into some buildings. Most interiors automatically unmount you, but some of the larger, more monumental enclosed spaces are treated like outdoors, so you can send the trike zooming up and down corridors like it’s a child’s toy.
  • It can swim. It can swim underwater, just driving upward and downward like a little open-air submarine. I recall James Bond had a car that could do this in one film, but his was at least airtight, and went through a little transformation sequence to shift between ground mode and underwater mode. Also, although it doesn’t involve swimming per se, driving along the bottom of a lake and emerging on the other side is fun.
  • Shamans have a spell for walking on water. It applies to your mount as well. I’ve come to really like driving around on the surface of the ocean. It’s often the easiest way to get from point A to point B, because there are no obstacles, not even any wandering monsters. (The ocean has monsters, but they’re all underwater.) Again, you can do this with any mount, but the trike’s smoother ride brings out the smoothness of the surface.

Combining these, sometimes the game presents an opportunity to jump into a body of water, be carried under the surface by your momentum, and then surface and drive away.

Soon, Oleari will be advanced enough to be permitted flying mounts. We’ll see if the turbo trike is still my favorite mount or not when that happens, but at the moment, it seems to me that flying has the danger of making the terrain irrelevant. Half the fun of the trike is how it interacts with the terrain.

WoW: Learn Alchemy Fast

Questing in low-level areas helps to satisfy my sense of completism: as I’ve mentioned before, each zone of Azeroth has an Achievement for completing a certain number of quests (generally several short of what’s attainable), and at the rate I’m going, it looks like getting all of the quest Achievements for one or both continents is a reasonable goal. But that isn’t my only motivation. When I started doing it, it had more to do with herbalism. Early on, when I was questing in the Northern Barrens (which were appropriately-leveled for me at the time), I found that the place was riddled with a plant called “mageroyal”, which, at the time, I didn’t have enough Herbalism skill to gather. This was frustrating enough that I eventually departed for a zone with herbs I could pick, and didn’t come back until I’d had enough practice to gather mageroyal to my heart’s content. By this point I was too advanced for the quests to be challenging, but I did them anyway, because just picking herbs without any other simultaneous goals is kind of boring.

Mageroyal was plentiful enough in the places that I was going through repeatedly that I accumulated a glut of the stuff, which I stuffed into a satchel in my bank vault. The same later happened on a different continent with kingsblood. 1Pretty much all the herb names follow this pattern of two-word compounds. In fact, the game as a whole is inordinately fond of this formation, starting with the title. I hoarded these things because I had potential future needs for them: Oleari is also a student of alchemy.

My alchemy skill has long lagged behind my herbalism: most potions have two components, and although I have a surplus of some herbs, I have a shortage of others. In fact, that’s more or less inevitable. Practicing alchemy generally means making the most advanced potion you can until you run out of one of the ingredients. But I had something of a breakthrough lately, in that I started finding just the right herbs to let me advance. Partly this can be credited to my finally discovering how to find herbs. An earlier comment mentioned that pickable herbs call attention to themselves by sparkling, which hadn’t been my experience at all. It turns out that they only do this if you have the mini-map set to plot herb locations. (Probably I hadn’t noticed this because the last time I right-clicked on the mini-map was with a different character who didn’t have herbalism and thus didn’t have the option.) And making them sparkle is crucial for some types of herb. Mageroyal and kingsblood are colorful enough to stand out, but fadeleaf, which is used in invisibility potions, is, appropriately, really hard to spot. But I don’t want to overstate the effect this had on my gathering. Mainly I was just exploring new territories, with different distributions of flora.

Now, I’ve spent quite some time speculatively picking herbs that I had no immediate use for. And this means that suddenly being able to practice alchemy had a slingshot effect. Raising my skill a little gave me access to a new potion recipe, one that I could make using herbs that had been languishing in my vault for some time. Making as much of that potion as I could, I gained enough alchemy skill to learn another potion, and so on. For a while I was running back and forth and back and forth between the bank and the alchemy trainer, until came to my senses and just cleared the vault of herbs. (Well, not quite cleared. I’ve still got more mageroyal in there than I know what to do with.) So now I’m considerably more advanced at alchemy and have a great deal more vault space than previously, both good things.

It strikes me that a sufficiently wealthy character could just buy a bunch of herbs at auction and zoom all the way to maximum alchemy skill from nothing in a single day. One could conceivably sell alchemy kits — and tailoring kits, armorcrafting kits, etc. — that contain everything you need for such a purpose. And if I can think of this, there are probably people already doing it.

1 Pretty much all the herb names follow this pattern of two-word compounds. In fact, the game as a whole is inordinately fond of this formation, starting with the title.

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