Dual Wielding: On the Level

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

Make sure you don’t miss Kunzay’s take.

The topic of leveling in MMORPGs can be a contentious one. Some players view leveling as the “meat and potatoes” of the game, others as a means to an end (game). Then there are those who view leveling as an irrelevant and outdated feature. I’m inclined to believe it is the first of those choices; I consider leveling to be a definitive feature of the genre. That said, if leveling is so important to the MMO experience, why is it not always an enjoyable one? Which characteristics make the process a pleasure and which make it painful? There are several MMOs with leveling I enjoy, however there is no single game that has designed a leveling process with the perfect blend of pace, variety, and continuity and all three of these aspects are necessary for a quality leveling experience. For this edition of Dual Wielding I’d like to examine each, discuss what benefits they bring to leveling, and offer examples of games that have done them well.

Pace

A good leveling experience will allow the story to set the pace, rather than letting it be determined by a bewildering insistence on unnecessary grind. One of my biggest pet peeves while leveling is when an abundance of filler is included simply to drag out the process. Generally speaking most MMOs will have a main storyline told through questing that leads the player from zone to zone and ultimately ties in with the end game content. Additionally, within these games each zone will have a quest line that is distinct but supports the main narrative. Both of these categories of story quests make for enjoyable leveling, especially when they tie together in some way.

However when there are additional filler quests that must be completed in order to gain the level(s) necessary to enter the next zone, I get irritated. There is a point when the story the developers want to tell is segmented so badly by the mechanic of grindy leveling that I am no longer able to enjoy the unfolding of the story. Half the time I can’t even remember what was happening in the main quest line before I had to kill ten rats for “nameless peasant #17”. Imagine having a parent or spouse call you every fifteen minutes to run an errand while you are in a theater watching a film; that’s pretty much the same effect filler quests have on MMO storylines.

ffxiv_02142015_222806

“Please let the next quest reward me with a new pair of paints…”

There aren’t many titles that pace the leveling with the storytelling well, most are too concerned with slowing the players down for fear that they will “finish the game” too quickly and move on to another MMO. Final Fantasy XIV is perhaps the best game I can think of that illustrates good pacing. While there are a few one-off storylines at every quest hub, they add character to the zones and are not so numerous that you lose sight of the main narrative. I especially like how the game ties dungeons in with the story so that for once I know why I’m entering the instanced scenarios. Because the pacing in FFXIV is done so well I am able to follow the storyline and understand the motivation my character has for traversing the world.

Variety

Variety is not only the spice of life, but of leveling as well. In addition to narrative driven questing, leveling should include dungeons, battlegrounds, crafting, gathering materials, exploration, and any other creative feature developers can imagine. Questing on its own grows dull very quickly. A good leveling system will provide the player with opportunities for other types of gameplay and reward experience points for participating in those features. In addition to alternative forms of gameplay while leveling, MMOs should also provide multiple paths for leveling as well. This can be accomplished by having several zones with the same level range or by allowing characters to scale down in level to match the zone they are in. Having variety in leveling allows players to gravitate toward those activities that best suit them as well as granting them options when leveling a second or third character in the same game. Options even while leveling allow me to change up my gameplay based on mood or inclination while still allowing me to make progress on the character I’m playing.

I make

Don’t let out-leveling a zone give you a big head.

Guild Wars 2 is one of the best examples of providing variety for leveling. It is one of the few MMOs that grants experience for nearly everything you do in the game and it also allows you to scale down so that you can continue to progress while you finish a zone, even if you out-level it considerably. Gathering and crafting even provide enough experience for leveling; with my first level 80 character I completed the last three levels solely through crafting. There are also vistas and points of interest to visit, dungeons to run, and realm vs. realm PvP to participate in, all of which contribute toward gaining experience. Nearly everything you do will help progress your character’s experience and all are viable options to choose from.

Continuity

Nothing mars the leveling experience like discovering once you’ve attained max level that everything you have done prior has no bearing on the end game. In fact, the reason why some players see leveling as a means to an end or why they would rather it be abolished all together is because of this issue. If greater continuity existed between the leveling experience and end game, there would be no reason to rush. Continuity between leveling and end game would also “flatten” the experience while also allowing for the sense of progress and achievement that levels provide. Rather than creating one experience while leveling then tacking on a completely different one at max level, MMO developers should first determine what it is they would like players to be doing in their game and then find ways to incorporate those goals from the very beginning of the leveling process. With a cohesive gameplay model the process of leveling can be enjoyed because the game elements you want to play are those you are already playing rather than on the other side of a goal line.

2015-05-13 033015

I… can’t figure out how to take a screenshot in Marvel Heroes. But Trove is another game with great continuity between leveling and end game.

Few MMOs manage to pull this off, however Marvel Heroes does it quite well. Once you reach level thirty or so you have more or less completed the main storyline, despite having thirty more levels before end cap. At this point you can play through the story again at a higher difficulty level, complete legendary quests, mindlessly destroy aliens and androids in midtown, level your vendors, and obtain better gear through nearly all of these options. Once you reach level 60, you will more or less continue to do the same. While the options are somewhat limited compared to traditional MMOs, they are closely related to your leveling experience. I actually think having the traditional questing storyline end prior to reaching max level helps alleviate the sense of a dramatic change in play style once you reach max level. You essentially enter the full end game about half way through the leveling process and nothing dramatic changes once you reach level 60. And the end game options that are available are so similar to the gameplay from the first thirty levels that it isn’t a jarring transition. In Marvel Heroes there’s no surprise or shift in what you’ll be doing when you log in as a max level character, it’s exactly the kind of gameplay you’ve been enjoying all along.

I don’t want to see MMOs remove leveling all together, but I would like for game designers to smooth out the process and make it fun. Leveling is not a “necessary evil”, it is a vital way we interact with our virtual worlds, challenging us to branch out and explore and rewarding us with a sense of progress. With the right pacing, a network of options, and a seamless flow into end game, leveling will be something to savor and enjoy. As for the “real game” that so many players allude to? It can start where it always should have: at level 1.

Dual Wielding: Third Times a Charm in Star Wars: The Old Republic

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

Make sure you don’t miss Kunzay’s take: Is SWTOR a universe to live in?

Star Wars: The Old Republic is a game that has slowly grown on me each time I play. I downloaded the game for the first time back in 2013 after the launch of Rise of the Hutt Cartel but did not spend a dime and never made it further than level seven after a week or two of gameplay. At the time I was still enamored with World of Warcraft and SWTOR was not compelling enough to tear me away. While I found the voice overs and cut scenes a unique component worth exploring, the classes felt clunky by comparison and the restrictive free to play model was a deterrent.

In January of 2014 I gave SWTOR another try having grown tired of WoW and hoping to find a new MMO home in the Star Wars universe. I still did not subscribe however I did invest about $30 in Cartel Coins in order to open up the preferred access perks and to purchase as many account wide unlocks as I could afford to make the F2P experience more bearable. This time I leveled in to the teens with several classes over the course of a month but in the end went looking for greener pastures in other MMOs. Giving the classes more time to develop did smooth out some of the choppiness I experienced the first play through and my minor investment in Cartel Coins removed many of the F2P restrictions I disliked but ultimately I searched elsewhere for an MMO home.

However looking back I don’t think either of those experiences with the game were a fair assessment. The first encounter was too brief and the second was cut short by my unrealistic expectations of finding a “perfect” MMO to replace WoW as my permanent virtual residence. So before even getting into the reasons why I am not only playing SWTOR but doing so somewhat exclusively I want to point out that the main element that has changed since those first two trials is not the game, but me; my expectations, goals, and interests in regard to MMOs are quite different now than they were a year ago.

Firstly, I had not played many other MMOs by early 2014 so there was always the promise of another title being better. I’ve since played through quite a few and recognize they all have their strengths and weaknesses but none of them will perfectly embody everything I want in an MMO. Secondly, I was searching to recapture that feeling I had in WoW during my first year in the genre and I now realize that just isn’t possible. Even World of Warcraft itself cannot grant me the experience of being new all over again. Looking for an MMO I like at this stage requires compromise on my part, discovering what features I can’t live without and which weaknesses I can overlook.

So what is it about SWTOR that has me hooked? The game has certainly received its fair share of criticism. WildStar seems to be the new contender but for the longest time SWTOR was the go-to MMO “failure” the community loved to jeer. Bioware and the loyal fan base have stuck with the game over the years and now with several expansions, features, and quality of life improvements added, as far as I’m concerned the game can really hold its own in the current MMO market.

Screenshot_2015-04-21_21_49_20_099647

“Look mom, I’m a Twi’lek on Tatooine!”

Star Wars Story

The first and perhaps most obvious reason I am enjoying SWTOR is because of the IP. While I’m certainly not the biggest Star Wars fan, I have spent quite a few hours reading books from the extended universe (at least thirty titles), watching the films, and generally enjoying the vast galaxy imagined by George Lucas. Bioware is known for their ability to tell stories through video games and SWTOR is no exception. Quality or significance may vary from quest to quest but with the attention to detail and the inclusion of voice overs and cut scenes you cannot escape the investment they have made in story. To hear the development team speak of the game now, this seems to be their primary focus going forward, which I cautiously applaud. Storytelling is the backbone of SWTOR and should be highlighted so long as content with greater replayability is also being developed to compliment it.

I wasn’t always in favor of this element, though. At first when I returned I found the cut scenes to be a constant interruption of gameplay. Having come from other MMOs where story is delivered through quest text I was used to rushing through to get on with my questing. In SWTOR you have the option of bypassing the conversations but I have made the decision to listen to (or read) each one of them. Now my pace has changed and I enjoy the delivery much more. When I do quest, it is far more relaxed and I enjoy the break in combat and the character and story development that occurs. However I still wish Bioware had focused the labor intensive storytelling to the class quest line and let the minor planetary quests go without. Quest hubs take too much time with the amount of cutscenes you have to watch all at once and in the end it can be difficult to remember them all.

Nobody does planking like SWTOR. Nobody.

Nobody does planking like SWTOR. Nobody.

Diverse Gameplay

The second reason I am playing and the main reason my opinion of SWTOR has changed over the last year is the diverse gameplay features the title offers. Granted, many of these features were added in the last year and were not available when I first tried the game but they are accessible now and their inclusion illustrates that Bioware is indeed still invested in this game. When I log on I can play through the class story, run Flashpoints, Tacticals, or Warzones, participate in Galactic Starfighter, complete a Space Mission, or work on my Stronghold. There’s also crafting, gearing companions, gearing your ship, and even a Casino if you’ve got credits to spare. For guilds the game includes flagships for invading planets in order to earn conquest points in competition with other guilds on your server. Then there is the new costume designer which also provides additional gameplay variety for those so inclined. What it boils down to is that you can have a different experience with the game every night of the week or adjust your end game goals as your personal tastes change over time.

There is a dark side to this diversity, however. While it is true there are many types of content, BIoware has not been willing (or able) to update all of them equally or in a reasonable amount of time. New Operations and Warzone maps have come out infrequently and the Galactic Starfighter PvP game has not received an update in a long time and Bioware has admitted there are no current plans to do so. Planetary invasions seemed all the rage when they were first introduced but I no longer hear much chatter on the subject and wonder if this too will go the way of GSF. However, compare this to World of Warcraft which went 14 months without a new raid, has no plans of releasing a new battleground map for Warlords of Draenor, and has completely abandoned the three-player scenarios that were quite common in Mists of Pandaria and apparently plans to do the same with Garrisons at the end of Warlords and it’s hard to criticize a game with a much smaller player base and income for placing similar limitations on development based on popularity and available resources.

Screenshot_2015-04-28_22_56_09_075528

Weakness: 0; Asteroids: 15. I think I’m getting the hang of this.

Local Server Grouping

This last point will likely be a contentious one (and possibly subject to change over the next year) but the third reason I’m really enjoying SWTOR is because every group activity takes place on your home server. The inclusion of cross server group finders in MMOs has made it much more difficult to establish server-based communities. There were so many times when I played WoW that I would meet someone in a dungeon whom I really enjoyed playing with but I would never see them again because they were from another server. In SWTOR, even while leveling I have found myself running into the same people when I chain run Warzones or Galactic Starfighter. Not only does this allow me to meet people on my server with whom I can later interact, but in a PvP environment it also allows for rivalries to form between the factions. In GSF it’s not uncommon for me to see another player say, “watch out, it looks like so and so is on tonight” and of course the player in question is well known and quite formidable.

This limited player pool can be problematic however, especially if you are on a smaller server of if you are interested in PvP and your server has a severe faction imbalance. I have not participated in Rank PvP but from what I hear it can be hours before a queue pops on some servers or factions and that is detrimental to the overall health of the game. However while leveling I’ve found queue times for Warzones and Flashpoints as both healer and DPS to be comparable to other MMOs I’ve played. I’m hoping that whatever Bioware is working on to fix the problem with Ranked PvP does not affect any other game modes as I would like to see the Flashpoints and Warzones remain local to my server. Running into someone on the fleet that I remember from a Tactical is an experience I’ve not had in any other MMO and I welcome the opportunity to get to know my neighbors.

Screenshot_2015-04-28_23_54_38_282407

“She may not look like much, but she’s got it where it counts, kid.”

 

A New Hope… For Finding an MMO Home

I’ve not been looking for a permanent place to hang my hat (or helm) in quite a while, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I’m a wanderer and prefer diversity over depth. However with this recent foray into SWTOR, I’m starting to think I may well have found a place to set up camp for an extended stay. The story, features, and community are the top three reasons I am enjoying the game but there are so many others; the class options, legacy features, and my guild to name a few. Clearly there are problems with the game, but SWTOR is so feature rich in all the ways I’m looking for in an MMO that I may have just found my home in the most unlikely of places: a galaxy far, far away…

Dual Wielding: Depth Versus Diversity

Dual Wielding: A series featuring two bloggers writing on one topic and answering the question, “If the pen is mightier than the sword, what happens when you dual wield?”

Make sure you don’t miss Kunzay’s take: Dual Wielding: one or many?

Is it wrong to play more than one MMO? More specifically, if you are playing multiple MMOs by cycling through several throughout the week or switching titles from month to month, are you “doing it wrong”? That’s the question Kunzay of Party Business and I set out to answer this week with our first pair of posts in a cooperative blogging project we’re referring to as Dual Wielding. Both Kunzay and I have spent time searching for that one MMO to call home operating under the assumption that this is the correct way to approach the genre. It wasn’t until I began reading Massively-that-was (now Massively OP) and the many adventures of Justin Olivetti who often plays four or five games over the course of one week that I began to consider the legitimacy of this alternative.

Having now approached the genre both ways for at least a year apiece, I would argue that both are valid approaches, but like many things in life choosing one way will limit your experience of the other and for some that potential loss is haunting. However, for the sake of enjoying the hobby of MMO gaming, you must ask yourself, “do I prefer depth, or diversity?” and once answering the question, press onward without looking back.

In order to establish the difference between depth and diversity, let’s consider combat classes in MMOs. There are those who exclusively play a single class in one MMO; Matthew Rossi of Blizzard Watch comes to mind. Matt I believe has four or five max level warriors in World of Warcraft spanning both factions. Before WoW Insider (his previous writing gig) shut down class columns, Matt had written weekly about warriors for roughly seven years. Very few people could tell you the ins and outs of the class not only as it stands now but also as it has been over the life of the game as well as Rossi. He exhaustively understands how the class works, where its weaknesses lie, and how it can best be utilized in any given situation.

But let’s assume hypothetically that Rossi is a WoW purist and has never played a warrior in any other MMO. While he may totally understand the strengths and weaknesses of the class within the context of the game he plays and the historical iterations of that class over the years, that context is quite narrow. Another player focusing on the same class but across six or seven MMOs would lack the same depth but would have a far better grasp of the warrior “essence” as an MMO archetype overall. This player who favors diversity will more quickly identify blind spots in Warcraft’s execution of the class and will have a broader resource of experience to draw from when considering improvements to class design. Depth of experience enhances your ability to fix the object of your expertise. Diversity better positions you to reinvent it.

One set of characteristics isn’t “better” than the other, but they are different. And the decision to focus on one must of necessity be at the exclusion of the other. There is only so much one can learn and experience in a lifetime; even less when it comes to MMOs because you’re talking about a single hobby amidst many other needs and interests generally of greater importance. And so you have to make a decision as to which specialization you will pursue (even choosing diversity is a type of specialization) and come to terms with the consequences or else you will find yourself quite anxious over all those imagined or real missed opportunities. Instead, I say place those “what ifs” on a raft, set them out to sea, and torch that pyre with a flaming arrow from shore so that you can get back to the business of enjoying your hobby. It will always be either/or, not both/and. Coming to terms with this reality and figuring out where your priorities lie will help you determine how you want to approach this genre and grant peace of mind over what you will be missing.

Some of you will notice that I have not touched on the social aspects of MMO gameplay. For many gamers that is the primary reason this issue comes into question in the first place. It is assumed (rightly, I think) that playing multiple games inhibits your ability to build lasting relationships with other players in an MMO community. Personally, this does not have a large impact on my gameplay and so I see it as a secondary issue. When I first started playing MMOs I spent a large amount of time in a single game and developed ties to my guild but not strong enough to soothe my wanderlust. Since then I’ve developed a kind of community through websites like Massively OP, the blogosphere, Twitter, and by participating in a multi-game guild. It’s not the same as my first social experience with MMOs, but it suits my preferences and goals within the genre and I’m happy with it. When you’re a virtual world traveler, the best you can hope for is to find a few people who enjoy traveling as well and share stories along the way.

Is it wrong to play multiple MMOs? Does it go against the spirit of the genre? No, but it is a limiting factor and will change your gaming experience, as will focusing on only one MMO. The important conclusion to draw here is not the rightness of whichever side of the line you fall, but that you must chose an approach that best aligns with your preferences, interests, and goals and say goodbye to those things that will naturally be excluded so that you can enjoy all the genre has to offer in the way you decide to explore it. Renowned local historian or pervasive world traveler? The choice is yours. Choose wisely and be content with your choice.

Otherwise, you’re doing it wrong.