WoW: Guild Switch

One side effect of getting hacked seems to be that I lost my guild membership. Presumably this happened as a result of Oleari being deleted. At first, my reaction was that I had to get back in. I mean, I was almost halfway to raising my guild reputation from Neutral to Friendly! And that took a very long time, due to my inability to participate in guild activities. Guild rep works more or less like any NPC faction reputation, which is to say, it’s completely automatic and has nothing to do with what your guildmates actually think of you. Nonetheless, it’s significant: to some extent, it governs perk access. There are special tabards you can wear that increase the rate at which you gain guild rep, but your rep has to already be at least Friendly for you to buy them, a sort of semi-permeable catch 22.

There was some evidence that I still had my accumulated guild rep in some kind of dormant state, and could recover it by rejoining. But in order to rejoin, I would have to contact someone in the guild, and the only person in it I actually know had been inactive for over a month. Which in itself was perhaps a sign to let it go.

There’s also the fact that the guild had reached its level cap. I think I mentioned guild levels once before. They’re a concept that came in with Cataclysm. Various activities, including just completing quests, give experience to the guild as a whole. As a guild levels up, its members get perks like increased riding speed and diminished wear-and-tear on equipment and the like. Some of the perks help members gain reputations faster, but it’s not clear to me if this applies to reputation with the guild itself. I suppose that a powergamer would want to be in a level 25 guild all the time in order to have all the perks, but to me, the whole point of having a system of levels is to level up. I actually felt a little cheated when I logged on after three months and found that my guild had managed to reach level 25 without me. There’s no sense of accomplishment in reaping the benefits of what other people have done.

And there, I perhaps show why I’m not ideal MMO material. I mean, a lot of people do take pride in other people’s accomplishments, in simply being associated with the group that accomplished them. Consider fans of sports teams. Or consider Alternate-Reality Games. I like the concept of ARGs, but they’re really designed as team efforts, things that can only be solved by people sharing information, which always feels to me like spoiling the puzzles. I’d rather figure things out on my own, you know? Or if I’m going to be part of a team effort, I want to know that my own efforts were significant to the result. One of the most satisfying MMO experiences I’ve ever had was participating in the construction of the first Megalopolis in A Tale in the Desert, an undertaking that required no fewer than 49 participants, because it was made of 49 segments, and each segment had to be slotted into place by a different person. But as well, all of the 49 people were working together on the materials needed for those pieces — mixing cement, cutting gems, etc. — because no one got credit for their part until everyone did. (When the final piece was put into place, most of the participants gathered in front of the structure to watch. Then we all gained a rank in Architecture simultaneously, and the resulting pyrotechnics were enough to crash the client.)

So clearly, if I was going to be in a guild again (and really, it’s something of a waste to not be in one), it was going to have to be a new, small one that I could actively participate in growing.

Finding a guild to join is not hard. The mere fact that Oleari was nearly level 70 and not in a guild meant that she was getting frequent invitations from strangers. (Possibly the fact that she’s a healer helped.) But I wanted to make sure I was joining a guild where I could make a difference. Fortunately, there’s a newish built-in tool for this: the Guild Finder. I had never seen this before, because it was added after I joined my previous guild. The button for it sits in the same slot that, when you’re in a guild, brings up the guild details. It’s not really adequately documented: the list of actively-recuiting guilds lists a few numbers without explaining what they mean. One was clearly the guild level (as it never rose above 25), and another seemed to be the membership count, but the third took me a while to puzzle out: it’s the number of guild Achievement points it has. Achievements are another area where getting them is more appealing to me than already having them, so I wanted to find guilds with low level and Achievement points, but more than just a couple of members: I don’t want it to fizzle out underneath me.

Finding such a thing could have been made simpler with a better UI, one capable of sorting by different fields, like a Windows directory listing, but no, the UI designer here decided to go with pretty rather than functional. But I did find a few, and even got a reply from one, a new one that had just been created the day before. We’ll see how it goes. The membership was about 20 strong when I last checked, and an encouragingly large fraction of them were below level 85.

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 on the Wane?

I’m still in that state where I don’t have time or attention to spare on starting (or even resuming) a major game. But I figured I should put in a little more time on WoW as long as I’m paying for it, and logged in for a couple of quick sessions, doing low-level quests over in the Hinterlands. (I’m very close to getting the Achievement for that region.) But even as I come back to the game, it seems that a lot of people are leaving it. At least, that was the constant refrain on the chat channels.

Partly, it seems, it’s the competition: people torn away by Rift, which has been very specifically advertising itself as a WoW-killer for the last month or two. Partly it’s just that a whole lot of people reopened their accounts just to see the effects of the Cataclysm expansion, and now that they’ve seen it, they’re losing interest again. Or so it’s said. I honestly don’t have any direct evidence that people actually are leaving in droves. If I were to go to Orgrimmar, a place that I think of as the Times Square of Azeroth, and find it deserted, that would be something. But I haven’t been back there yet at all. Like I said, I’ve been in the Hinterlands. Not encountering anyone in the Hinterlands comes as no surprise.

Of course, even if most of the players are suddenly leaving, it doesn’t strongly affect my mostly-solo play experience. It might even be beneficial, by reducing the competition in auctions or something like that. But even so, the idea that the game is on the wane just as I’m getting into it is disheartening, like I’ve cast my lot in with a losing cause. Which is a completely irrational reaction for someone who used to play and enjoy A Tale in the Desert. I’m pretty sure that ATitD‘s user base on its most popular day ever was still multiple orders of magnitude below WoW‘s today. But that means that ATitD has always been the scrappy underdog, while WoW has to play the role of the empire in decline.

And when I say it “has to”, I mean that it’s inevitable. If not today, then someday, and soon enough that most current and former players will live to see it happen. This is the fundamental tragedy of MMOs: that they’re doomed to peter out. A single-player game can end in triumph, but a conventional 1Note that A Tale in the Desert doesn’t qualify as “conventional”, and tries to deal with the problem by periodically bringing its story to a conclusion and starting over. But since it does in fact start over, with mainly the same players, it’s not all that different for our purposes here. MMO can only end in lack of interest. Oh, sure, in theory Blizzard could decide to end it while it’s still on top, as various TV shows have managed to do, but while this might be right thing to do artistically, it’s unfeasible financially. They’re not going to kill their cash cow until it stops being milkable.

I spoke before about how WoW‘s popularity is self-supporting. And this isn’t just based on the perception of popularity; actual raw numbers of people give the game certain advantages, regardless of whether people are aware of them or not. But the perception of popularity is undeniably a factor. I mean, heck, my own perception of the game’s popularity, of its ubiquity in game culture, is what convinced me to start playing. So I start to wonder if this advantage might be double-edged. Will a perception of people leaving in droves induce people to actually leave in droves? I don’t know. Very likely not; the old-timers have probably heard it all before.

1 Note that A Tale in the Desert doesn’t qualify as “conventional”, and tries to deal with the problem by periodically bringing its story to a conclusion and starting over. But since it does in fact start over, with mainly the same players, it’s not all that different for our purposes here.

WoW: Grouping it

Last night, for the first time, I spent a little while in a group. Not a large group — it was just me and one guy from work. (I’m still reluctant to quest with anonymous strangers, although I suppose my WoW experience won’t be complete until I’ve tried it at least once.) I was using a newer and less-experienced character, an Orc rogue named Crumbcake. I may wind up using Crumbcake exclusively for social play, because I don’t want her to level faster than my friends on that server, but she doesn’t really seem like an ideal sort of character for that sort of thing. The real social roles are healing and enhancement — abilities that become more effective when you have someone to share them with. Rogues are experts at sneaking, which seems like it would be more effective when you’re alone, because non-stealthy companions are liable to get into fights that you’ll have to either break stealth to participate in, or ignore and be a bad teammate. But even without force multipliers, playing with someone else will tend to increase both participants’ survival rate. Quests tend to become available when you’re at the experience level that can just barely pull them off without dying if you’re lucky. You can overcome this by only attempting quests that are a level or two below you, and indeed I think you’re likely to do this automatically after a while just because of all the quest XP there is lying around, but with a partner, it’s much less of a worry.

Nonetheless, there are some obvious and immediate downsides to adventuring with a group, and I don’t just mean the mechanical aspects, like splitting loot. It requires coordination, particularly schedule coordination. I remember a “test” in A Tale in the Desert that involved putting together a group of seven people for a time-consuming pilgrimage to a number of remote shrines. It was probably the most challenging thing I ever attempted in the game, even though there was no obstacle beyond keeping the group together. WoW groups are of course more flexible than that — if someone has to log off, everyone else involved can keep going. But even with just two people, we spent a substantial amount of time discussing what we were going to do, rather than just going out and doing stuff like a solo player. Coordination of this sort is necessary because grouping implicitly asks you to be attentive to other people’s needs. Not only is it experienced as a bad thing when you’re kept waiting, it’s also experienced as a bad thing when you know you’re keeping other people waiting. I kept my partner waiting for an embarrassingly long time at one point while I tried to find my way to the Windrider Master in Orgrimmar — it was my first visit there, and, like all the capital cities, it’s laid out in a confusingly three-dimensional way. (It turns out that the only way to get up there was by an elevator which I hadn’t recognized as an elevator.) That’s an extreme case, but it’s a symptom of the larger disadvantage that group play isn’t self-paced. When I’m soloing, I can stop in the middle of a quest to try out a fishing hole I noticed. When I’m not, I feel like I’m wasting other people’s time if I stop to read the quest descriptions thoroughly instead of just skimming them.

A defense and rationale for embarking at this late date on World of Warcraft

I don’t play MMOs. That should be clear by now. I’ve played a couple of MMOs in the past, however — and they’re the reasons why I don’t play MMOs. I got into Everquest for a while when it was new and exciting, and played it obsessively until I had discerned its fundamental lesson: that “addictive” does not imply “fun”. Some time later, while unemployed, I got involved with the first telling of A Tale in the Desert, the experimental MMO without combat (but with plenty of conflict), but after a while it came to feel like a job, and I left it behind shortly after landing a job in the real world.

The big problem with MMOs for a personality like mine is that they don’t end (or, in the case of A Tale in the Desert, don’t end soon enough). If the game doesn’t tell me it’s over, I don’t know to stop playing. The fact that all the joy has been sucked out of the activity is not enough to make me stop, as anyone who has read this blog for long enough can attest. So I don’t play them.

But I think I have to make at least a momentary exception for World of Warcraft.

The thing is, I hesitate to even describe WoW as a MMO. No, it’s THE MMO, the definitive one — heck, practically the only one these days. It’s the Harry Potter of the genre, both in the sense of “universally-recognized best-seller” and in the sense of “the one who lived”. There’s a definite pattern to other MMO projects: someone notices that Blizzard is making ungodly money and decides that they want a slice, they spend a bunch of time and money developing something, it attracts maybe one percent of WoW‘s audience for a little while before most of them drift away because of the lack of content. WoW, it seems to me, is a good example of success breeding more success. A large player base probably makes for a better MMO experience, if only because it increases the odds that your friends are already playing. The mere fact that it’s had so many years of continuous development makes for a better experience. The fact that Blizzard isn’t likely to pull the plug on it any time soon has got to make it a better experience than its worried competition.

This is a game with a unique position in our popular culture, a game still played by literally millions of people six years after its release. It’s been parodied in a thousand awful webcomics. It’s left a massive enough print on gaming that even venerable Dungeons & Dragons, father of its genre, has been reasonably accused of imitating it lately. And yet I have not even tried to play it until now, which, for someone who takes games seriously, is kind of like being the proverbial English major who’s never read Hamlet. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d want to give it a whirl eventually, but the “Cataclysm” expansion’s massive revamp of the long-untouched starting areas was the thing that nudged me into doing it now.

How long I’ll be playing it, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll give up when my ten-day trial period is over. Even if I decide to start paying for it, though, it’s clear that this game has no place on the Stack: the whole monthly-fee model doesn’t fit the terms of the Oath at all. Nonetheless, I intend to blog about it as if the Oath applied to it. If at any point I can’t think of something to post about my experiences, I’ll take that as a sign that it’s probably time to give it up. Either way, I do intend to keep playing and posting about other games too.

The first character I have created is an undead warlock named Pleasance. I’ve already brought her up to level 9, and will doubtless have more to say about that experience in my next post, but I’m inclined to experiment a little with other characters before going into details.