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Ascension of player avatars and the problems it brings, Or how life was simpler before someone told me I had a story of my own

September 20, 2012

 

 

 

Stubborn over at Sheep the Diamond posed an interesting question in his entry “The Where is the Boss of Me” asking whether it was better for the questing experience to help a geographical area, like in Guild Wars 2 with the “heart-system”, where you do not get your quest from an NPC you rather wonder around and “observe what needs doing”. Or if the traditional WoW approach of talking to an NPC and then knowing what needs doing was better? Arguably you can also throw in the question if the SWTOR system of having standard quests (picked up from NPCs) and bonus quests (randomly discovered by killing things, mostly kill Y of X quests) is better.

 

 

 

My stance on the question is that helping a geographical region can be far more stimulating, as you are given the impression that your actions were worth something, an aspect which Guild Wars 2 enhances with its dynamic events system, where your actions have some form of consequence to the region and advance the event (even if it’s  only in the form of keeping the Centaur War council busy with drawing new battle plans and electing new leaders or blowing up the rubble of the mine that has been bombed for the umpteenth time) or WoW with it’ quest phasing (which faces its own problems). But this kind of system, which involves helping geographical regions by stumbling upon quests, has some problems, which in the end let me support the old style of NPC questing more:

 

 

 

A tiny issue I had is how to convey story through you randomly stumbling on quests. If you get them from an NPC you at least are provided with some background story as to why said task needs doing and most likely also where to go next. If you randomly stumble upon them how do you know why something needs doing? Of course you can say well I see the farm is beset by animals so I kill them, but still no story is conveyed as to why the animals are there in the first place, nor if they actually needed killing. This was one of my bigger problems with Guild Wars 2, I was doing stuff and that’s it I never really knew why and I only had a very tiny idea about the general story in the zones outside of the big general one. I also never really knew when to leave a zone because there were no indications what so ever on where to go next. It seemed to me the game gave me so many mixed signals with their quest system, by telling me to go explore in order to find quests as the story did not give you any hints on where to go, but at the same time exploring your entire map for you showing all the points of interest and giving you teleports close to them completely ruining my incentive to explore. I am not saying that I want a path that I have to follow while questing merely I want the option to always have a path to follow and never feel lost. But those things at the end made my game experience very shallow, when it could have been anything but. So all I’m saying is give me a reason as to why I have to be here and tell me about how the zone fits into the word we play in and if you want me to explore give me a blank map! And why is this story so important you might wonder? Because in its essence it’s what makes the world come to life; neither WoW’s nor AoC’s nor SWTOR’s game world feel alive without the compelling stories the franchises and especially Star Wars has crafted over the years (this is not me saying original franchise can’t do MMOs, merely me saying if you do, convey the story well and properly). In order for the game to be fun and entertaining we need the stories and the conflicts it describes in order to keep us going. If the game was only about helping mundane people in a world without a compelling story, the game would quickly become boring. So if you give me dynamic events and geographical regions that I am supposed to help through quests “I stumble upon” (I’m still looking at you Guild Wars 2), give me the story behind all these things as well!

 

 

 

Yet the overarching issue that I have with quests that help geographical regions is that they so easily fall into the trap of making you the hero of the entire zone or game for that matter. A factor that is so immersion breaking and also invalidates the epicness of helping an entire region, I mean how epic does it not feel to be the chosen of Aessina (Hyjal quest line in WoW)? Well it certainly crumbles when you realize there is a whole army of those same chosen avatars sharing the world with you! I mean I was supposed to be special but I guess that is a shared position. Same issue with SWTOR; the Dark Council consists of what 12 members yet every Sith Warrior and Inquisitor get to be one, suddenly the population of the Council is bigger than the population of Korriban, the original home planet of the Sith, and the whole notion of you being special falls apart. This ascending of avatars into the realm of heroes and legends works only in single player games as it’s just you playing the game and that’s what makes it feel epic. If you have thousands of copies of chosen ones running around the ascendance is not elevating the quality of the game (story wise), it’s rather cheapening it. It dares to repeat itself I guess; rule number one in making something valuable or “epic” is making it rare! A story that everybody can complete is not rare, therefore saying it is epic is a lie! It might be epic standing on its own but in the perspective of an MMO, where you see a lot of people doing the same things you do it is not!

 

 

 

Back in the day when the title of “the hero of the game” was only given to NPCs and the PCs were merely classified as “a (potential and nameless) hero in the game” things were far simpler. Sure you required some leaps of faith to believe Onyxia’s head got stuck on a pike every week besides Nefarian’s, but that’s what you got to live with if you want everyone to have the chance of experiencing bosses instead of making them into a “one-kill-only” business. But what made this system better in my opinion was the fact that even though there were no visual consequences to you questing around (something that is not impossible to achieve via a similar system as the dynamic events) it gave your character (especially if you like roleplaying) the opportunity to be anyone you wanted, you were most often than not tied to this image of you being the hero of this and that. No, you were just a Rogue killing kobolds to help a poor merchant get his gold dust. Because a personal story line is heavily restricting your path of levelling and in that sense restricting player choice, one of the things MMOs especially nowadays (SWTOR, TSW), but any RPG pride themselves on giving. Suddenly you find yourself forced by the game to rescue your imbecilic Sith apprentices on the noxious world of Quesh (only to see them die in the end), one of the most boring planets in the game, that is really tiny and always feels like such a speed bump and makes me want to put auto pilot on my character, without any regard to the fact that I might want to go to Belsavis or Hoth! I mean it is not as if the class quests were a one quest thing either, no they span the entire zone! That pretty much means you can’t really skip zones. So thanks for throwing my wishes of how to level my character out of the window and telling me how I am supposed to do the levelling of my character!  That’s one really huge thing I loved about the way questing was merely helping NPC’s in the old WoW and AoC, how I could pick and choose which zones I wanted to do with my character: “Oh I really hate Duskwood (I can’t stand creepy places with zombies sorry, don’t ask me how I did Western and Eastern Plaguelands I honestly don’t know ), but I’ve never been to Ashenvale or Wetlands, so yeah let’s go there and see if I like the zone more” or in the case of AoC: “I really don’t like the Egglyphian Mountains with all its cannibals (just another form of zombie if you ask me) and frozen tundra, let’s just go to Thunder River and do some river rafting (at least there the mobs won’t try to eat me!)!”. Nowadays it’s more like the minute I press “Enter World” I’m given a road map on how I am going to get to max-level. Instead of giving me a world to roam and immerse myself in and with the personal storylines you are only aggravating the problem.  Part of the fun of MMOs and RPGs for that matter was the choices they at least used to offer you, now that choice seems to be a relic of the past.

 

 

 

This streamlining of the levelling experience through personal stories and ascendance of characters into heroes through helping zones, has also another far wider reaching effect, than merely forcing players on specific set paths, that cannot be altered. The psychological effect of a streamlined levelling process is that the game is far more fixated on the goal of getting to the endgame; I mean it’s even supported with your own storyline most of the time that is propelling you toward it by rewarding you with an epic conclusion to said storyline. This focus in turn enhances impatient and success fixated player behaviour, by virtue of from day one telling them to be fixated on the goal. A far more slow paced game would and has in the case of WoW Vanilla and TBC, as well as the start of AoC taught its playerbase to be more patient. Something that is evident by the fact that nowadays a wipe in a PUG means the group is disbanded or at least harsh words fly around. I get it though, levelling has got this “bad reputation” of being boring and what not, a chore on the way to end game; the real game to most players, so in order to lessen this ordeal developers invent incentives to keep us going, like a personal storyline or one where you feel your character was really important and that made all this hard questing worth it. In a sense the whole invention of personal story lines is there to invalidate the levelling process, “because it’s all about the endgame” you are not supposed to care about levelling, so we make levelling fast paced and always focused on what’s to come at the end, be it the epic conclusion of a storyline for your character or your character being made the hero of the zone. The question then is why do you have something called levelling then if you do not feel the need to let it stand in the game out of its own right, but have the need to pamper it with all these “sweeteners”? Make levelling rather something that is about exploring the world and your class and your game experience suddenly feels far more fulfilled and you won’t have the issue of the two games within the game, levelling and endgame as it all fits together. To do this you must also make sure levelling takes a bit longer than just 15 days, not 15 days /played, but 15 days of 6 to 7 hour sessions played. Because it is mostly through time spent on something that we learn to appreciate it but I know it’s hard with the new impatient gamer mentality (even I qualify for that), but at least we should give it a shot.

 

 

So yes in the end it’s not about whether helping zones or NPC is better in my opinion, it is more about if you want to help entire geographical reasons then please don’t make me into the hero, saviour, reincarnation of ages lost, or what have you, let my character stay mine! After all the personal story line and you being the hero are only fun once! Every succeeding time you do it, it feels more and more boring. Let players have the choice of how and where to level, by providing them several zones and the replayability of your game is far greater. And for those who only play one character, nothing prevents you from doing the zones you missed out after max level. Make levelling fun in a way that does not invalidate the whole process of levelling! Or put into broader terms make the MMOs levelling experience about exploring the world, like in a world simulator, and not about rushing to endgame!

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