Tuesday, March 27, 2012

That Elusive New Shiny

(Note:  I kind of wrote this straight without editing, and I decided to post it as-is.  If it meanders, well, you know where that came from.)

I was on Tomakan, working my way through Un’Goro Crater, when a guildie posed me a question.

“What do you think of the revamped zones?”

“I’m kind of torn,” I replied.  “I don’t like the quests-on-rails, but in some zones the stories are compelling:  Stonetalon on both sides, Southern Barrens on both sides.  They needed to do the quests-on-rails format to tell a story, especially with the phasing involved.  However, for a sandbox it doesn’t work so well.”

I couldn’t get those comments out of my head while I took a break and got catapulted into a WSG run.  While I’m not the biggest WSG fan, I still preferred that WSG game to the prospect of going back to Northrend and finishing up the zones I’d left behind.  Why was that, I asked myself.  Leveling a Warlock via BGs in Cata is an exercise in masochism, yet that was preferable to finishing up Zul’Drak for the fourth or fifth time.

The easiest answer to that is because the story never changes.  Even with phasing, we know this tale because we’ve played it before.  The outcomes are always the same, every time you play.  You may have an impact on the game world, but your choices don’t matter.  The few times you do have a true choice –to either kill or release the harpy leader in Hyjal, for example—it’s not a game impacting decision.  It’s a lot like the jokes that would get thrown around in the Culling of Stratholme instance about simply letting Arthas die:  everyone knows that the point of the instance is to keep him alive, in spite of our personal preferences, so we’ll simply just tag along in the knowledge that this really isn’t our story, but Blizzard’s.

This understanding about the game world is the basis for how Blizzard gets away with having major plot threads performed off-stage in books, rather than in the world itself.  I’ve found even in my own writing that it is easier to have certain major events occur off-stage and then have the characters react to that instead of the more arduous task of actually putting the events down on paper.  I can only imagine that this difficulty is magnified when you have to have people “act” in an MMO:  you’d have to design the quests, the NPC activity, the words, the artwork, and all sorts of other stuff associated in setting up a scene vs. paying an author $5k-$10k-$20k to write a book.  To a finance department, that’s a no-brainer.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if a good portion of the reason why the lower level zones are so consistently empty is because we really don’t have an impact on the story.  Those zones are reduced to being leveling fodder for people hunting for a transmog piece of gear or are populated with gold farmers trying to crank out as much raw materials as they can.  Because we can’t change the story we’re forced to relive the events of the doomed Alliance commander in Southern Barrens where he is effectively betrayed by elements of his own side who want a scorched earth policy toward the Horde.  We can’t even raise a red flag to the Horde commander in Ashenvale that there might be a demon hiding in his midst until such activity draws the ire of Garrosh.  (Old Garrosh despises demons far more than the Alliance, and I have to give him credit for that.)  Have we seen this play before?  You bet we have.  And like a cursed sailor on the Flying Dutchman, we’re forced to relive these events every time we quest in a particular zone.

Perhaps that’s what appeals to me in BGs:  the outcome is uncertain, and you can have an impact on the game.  Sure, you can be saddled with a lot of people who know nothing about how to play AV, but so can the other side.  Plenty of real battles were fought when one side was hopelessly green or outnumbered, and yet you can never say for certain what will happen in the end once the troops are committed.  (The Battle of Marathon or the Siege of Rhodes in 1480 both come to mind.)

In a game designed like WoW, perhaps this is the best we can come to an uncertain outcome where our decisions actually matter.  Sure, there’s raiding, and I’ve heard and seen the toll that smashing your collective head against the impregnable wall of an end boss can put on a person and a guild.  Raiding is, by nature, a hard thing to accomplish, and once you succeed all of that effort will have been worth it.  However, the story will never change no matter how many times we down that boss.  Once the boss is a photo op lying on the ground, we know how things will go.  The NPC reactions are always the same.

This might be an unintended side-effect of the LFR tool:  as more people can easily see end content, the clamor for the new shiny comes louder and quicker.  While some folks love to chase hard modes (or even normal modes now) others who are conditioned by console gaming say “Okay, I’ve beaten the game.  Now what?”  This isn’t because people are greedy, it’s just that they’re conditioned to play the game a certain way, and if that goal is reached more quickly, they’re at a loss as to what to do.


MMOs –even those that aren’t sandbox types-- are by nature big worlds with lots of options.  Soul and I have posted that very thing on occasion when the “I’m bored!” crowd kicks it into high gear.  If you’re bored with 5-mans, try BGs.  If you are looking for something off the beaten track, try a naked dungeon challenge like what Rades advocated.  Or maybe how about an old-time flashback and organize a Paladin vs. Shaman throwdown? 

However, it needs to be said that people have different motivations when playing an MMO such as WoW, and when that motivation is unfilled, people will move on in search of that magic.  But what is that magic that people are chasing?

Everyone is different.  People play games for different reasons.  Some love a good story; some love the thrill of having beaten the game; some go for the competition of PvP; some love to collect, and some just live to role play.  There are as many different motivations to playing an MMO as there are options inside a game.  That elusive magic that a game can bring into your soul is a chameleon; each player sees a different siren leading them onward.

Perhaps the restlessness we see in the MMO world today is a reflection of chameleon like nature of our pursuit of the magic.  People remember that moment, that ‘oh wow’ moment, and they wish to recapture it.  For some, the new shiny holds promise, and we shouldn’t be surprised when people unsub/resub in pursuit of that new shiny.  This same group will migrate to and from MMOs, testing the latest and greatest, yet remembering their first.

I still play ‘old’ games such as Civ and Master of Orion, because the magic is still there.  I remember that thrill when I finally beat Civ I on King level, a feat I’ve never repeated.  My kids will see the clunky graphics and primitive sounds of MOO and laugh, but I know that they’ll remember Civ IV the same way I remember Civ I.  Or how I remember when I finally started playing WoW.

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