#NBI2015Safari: And So It Ends

My final entry in Murf’s #NBI2015Safari will bring us back to where it all began, the high fantasy world of Tyria. My first entry was a self-portrait featuring a Sylvari ranger from Guild Wars 2. It is the image I use for most social media services as my personal avatar. Today’s submission is a companion to that self-portrait; it is the image that I use as a header here at Waiting For Rez, on Twitter, and a few other places as well. Whereas the self-portrait reflects a point of decision— whether to continue a life of adventure or retire to relative safety— this image illustrates the beauty one might find if one chooses to press on.

ranger7

Our Sylvari adventurer has continued his journey through the Brisban Wildlands, leaving the path of safety for darker roads. During his wanderings, he discovers a hidden grove within the jungle, forgotten by the outside world. Carefully traversing a narrow passage of damp, moss covered stone, Weakness emerges into a place of oversized, luminous fungi and still waters. He stops to rest for a while. There is no danger here, only the violence of beauty; a sanctuary undisturbed by the industrial machinations and savage wars of the “civilized” races. It reminds Weakness of the Pale Tree, or rather as he imagines the Dream would have been, were it unaffected by the Nightmare.

Weakness was born into conflict. His transition from the Dream to the Waking was a tumultuous birth, warring against tooth and claw for a chance at life— what should have been his by natural right.

“No one should have to battle for the right to be born,” he thinks, “an opportunity at life should not have to be earned.” The wind ripples the waters at his feet, silently affirming the ranger’s indignation and loss.

It is this thought that steels his resolve, the injustice of never knowing the Dream-that-was or a peaceful Waking. He will fight the Nightmare Court. His world may be tainted by the narcissistic cruelty of Sylvari twisted by the Nightmare, but that does not mean it must remain that way. Weakness rests cross-legged in that place for several hours, allowing the saturated hues and laughing curves to take root in his heart. This sanctuary will be the image that burns in his mind when he is hopeless, wearied, and afraid. The hidden grove of Auroria’s Remains will be the tattered banner he will carry, the hill he will die on. Should he live to see the dragons destroyed and the Sylvari people saved from themselves, Auroria’s Remains will be the place to which he retires, but not until he secures the right for all Sylvari— for all Tyria— to dwell in a haven of their own choosing as well.

Looking one last time upon the grove, Weakness bids the maiden farewell; he will likely never see her again. Broadsword in hand, he disappears once more into the shadowy crest that hides this sanctuary from the horrors to which he returns.

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.

#NBI2015Safari: A Sylvari Self Portrait

Look, this is probably going to be cheesy, alright? I’d like to tell you that’s not normally to my taste, but truth is I’m still a bit of a romantic. And not just in the rose petals and candlelit dinner sort of way; I love John Cusack blaring Peter Gabriel from a 1980s boom box as much as the next guy, but that’s not what I mean. I’m talking about the idealist, the visionary, the person who wishes the adventurous nature of fantasy was reality. We’re talking Don Quixote fighting windmills style romanticism.

That’s what I see in this screen shot from Guild Wars 2. I hardly ever play the game anymore and yet this picture has become the one I use on Twitter, forums, and here at WordPress as my self-portrait. This picture of my ranger invokes hopefulness, an adventurer peering out at the next leg of his journey. He is eager, anticipating adventure and either blind to or undeterred by the prospect of danger.

ranger15

Or perhaps his gaze is one of hesitation and uncertainty. He’s older now and has lost much of the recklessness of youth. Wiser, sure, but also cautious to a fault. He’s experienced enough failure to be a realist despite his propensity toward being a romantic. Nevertheless, the horizon calls, the promise of another adventure on the other side of that massive, stony divide.

That is why I love this screen shot, it evokes so many possible dispositions for the gazing Sylvari, all of which I can sympathize with. Whether his mindset is one of fear or expectation, he looks outward regardless. Signs of growth sprout from his head, green shoots that promise maturation with time. Eventually he will leave this vista and step back on the path of exploration. The only question that remains, how long will he linger and what will his hesitation cost him?