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 Then there are those who view leveling as an irrelevant and outdated feature.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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

The Novelty of Fun in Trove and Marvel Heroes

Whenever I read an article on Trove or Marvel Heroes I always think “man, that game is fun.” That’s pretty much it. I don’t have any guilt when I leave one or the other for extended periods of time, no reservations when I return, no concerns as to how playing either of them “on the side” will affect whichever MMO I’m currently focused on. I think that’s intentional; neither game is directly trying to compete with the traditional MMO paradigm. Marvel Heroes has been categorized as an OARPG while Trove in a recent interview with Massively OP was christened by Trion as an MMOG, which I’m assuming is meant to be a removal of the “Role Playing” aspect of MMORPGs and not a misspelled apocalyptic reference (I’m not ruling that out as a possibility). And yet while neither game is intending to overthrow the rule of World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2, Star Wars: The Old Republic, or any other traditional MMO gameplay they are both quietly imbedding themselves into the community while simultaneously breaking barriers between MMOs and other gaming genres. What is it about these two titles that is so compelling? I’ve got three reasons why I think both games are having success within the MMO community and will continue to grow in popularity over the next year. Individually these traits may not be that compelling, but wrapped up in one neatly styled package, they provide something that has often been lacking in my traditional MMO sessions: fun.

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Free-to-Play Business Model

This is a no brainer, both Trove and Marvel Heroes have such a low barrier to entry there’s little reason not to try them out, especially when word of mouth on these two games is spreading so quickly. You read an article on Massively OP or a post by a favorite blogger and you think, “sure I’ll give that a shot.” Next thing you know, your elbows deep in chocolate fudge fighting a cupcake on the back of a unicorn wearing a moustache. You’re wearing the moustache, not the unicorn. Don’t be ridiculous.

There are negative elements to this business model as it is presented in both games, Marvel Heroes more than Trove. Whenever you log in you are conveniently reminded of current promotions and newly released content for sale. Both games can technically be played for free but both hamstring gameplay just enough with limited inventory slots (amongst other quality of life improvements) to make it very tempting to spend at least five bucks here and there. Trove is far more generous in my opinion, as the speed with which you can gain in-game currency for purchasing new classes is weeks faster than what it would take to earn another hero in MH2015 however the promotions offered in the latter are quite generous, often giving away heroes for free so perhaps it balances out over time.

Familiar Concepts, Bite-Sized Conception

This is perhaps the number one reason I return to both Trove and Marvel Heroes. After years of playing massive time sinks like World of Warcraft, I revel in the opportunity to jump in, make progress, and jump out— easy peasy, lemon squeezy. I don’t always have two to three hours to devote to a raid or running several dungeons, let alone the weeks and months it can take to level a new character to end game in most MMOs. As such I appreciate being able to log in for 30-45 minutes for a couple of days in a row, drop the game for a week or two, then come back without fear of feeling behind the curve or uncomfortably unfamiliar with how the game plays. Both games still feature levels, gearing, dungeons (sort of) mobs, and crafting—all concepts familiar to every MMO player—and yet the games do not feel as demanding on your time. I get the gameplay I want for a reduced cost, at least when time is the currency I’m most concerned about.

The Leveling Game is the End Game is the Leveling Game

This didn’t even dawn on me until I sat down to write this post, but one of the other reasons I find Marvel Heroes and Trove so care free and relaxing is that I’m never in a rush to get to the end. Well, almost never. If anything, the pressure I feel to get to end game comes from the conditioning I’ve received from traditional MMOs, not these particular pseudo-incarnations of the genre. When I finally reached 60 for the first time in Marvel Heroes it was quickly apparent that most of what I would be doing at level cap was the same as I had been doing while leveling, just at higher levels of difficulty with better rewards. Trove appears to be much the same.

Both games offer group content of a higher difficulty level at end game but neither seems to be rushing the player to it. However both encourage you to level additional classes or heroes, and whether you do that or spend your time with a max level character you’ll largely be playing the same game. Compare this to the raiding culture in Warlords of Draenor. The end game model almost exclusively funnels players into raiding, yet prior to that point there is no content of a similar nature to experience along the way. WoW isn’t the only game performing the old bait and switch; this is a common complaint amongst players of vertically progressing, theme park MMOs. Of all the features offered in Trove and Marvel Heroes, this is the one I would like to see carried over into traditional MMOs, a common thread of activity between leveling and end game such that you do not feel pressured to rush through the former in order to reach the latter.

Fun, What a Novel Idea…

Neither of these two games could ever become my main stay, I’m still married to the features and gameplay of traditional MMOs. Nevertheless, I doubt I will completely leave either of these games in the near future. Trove and Marvel Heroes aren’t asking me for my exclusivity yet they are wining me over by being what all games should be: fun. I may prefer more persistent worlds and customizable characters, but there is a lot for the traditional MMO studios to learn from these two titles. With no barrier to entry, activities with lower demands on my time, and continuity throughout the leveling and end game content it’s no wonder these titles are doing so well. If you’ve never tried one or both of these titles give them both a try, especially Trove. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how fun they both can be.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have about thirty minutes before my kids go to bed and there’s a cupcake in candy land about to get a beat down. Cover your eyes kids, this ain’t gonna be pretty.

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“Who you calling princess, bub? Time to bring the pain, you yellow-bellied, cream filled confectionary.”

State of the Rez: Invariably Variable

Commitment is not a strength of mine; I’m more of a visionary. That’s true of both my blogging endeavors and my MMO gaming habits and while I’m conscience of this tendency toward good intentions with little follow through, having it on display via blogging heightens that self-awareness. A few weeks ago I decided to post three times a week— Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday— with specific categories in mind for each day. I was able to maintain that schedule for a week or two but quickly realized it was too much. I’m now committing (as I did at the start) to once a week with anything else being optional. That said, I have in mind to improve my speed as a writer and may attempt one or two additional posts per week, limited to 30-45 minutes for completion. (If any other bloggers have advice for writing quickly and briefly, I’m all ears).

Around the same time I set a goal to write on a schedule I also wrote a post about Final Fantasy XIV, stating that it would serve me well as a “home” MMO. I’m no looking for permanence in my virtual spaces, I’m more of a world traveler when it comes to these games but nonetheless I was enjoying the title so much I thought surely it had become the homestead amidst my nomadic exploration, a place for hat racks, area rugs and of course, ninjitsu. As with every venture I’ve had into Eorzea it begins well but ends with a fizzle. On paper it fits with what I’m looking for in an MMO and I imagine I’ll revisit the game in the future but for now I’m finished with Final Fantasy XIV.

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The deciding factor was Elliot’s post at Massively OP listing the steps necessary for a fresh 50 to be prepared for Heavensward. When last I left FFXIV I had just reached 50 and was planning to take a month off before returning to finish the main story scenario up through 2.55. I did not realize at the time that completing the story would require a certain ilvl. To be ready for Heavensward I would need to devote my time more fully to FFXIV rather than casually playing through a series of quests as I had expected so instead I uninstalled the client for now. I may return in the future but at this time I am put off by the prospect of having to go through the end game grind of A Realm Reborn before entering the next expansion.

Final Fantasy XIV wasn’t the only game I removed from my hard drive recently, either. The WoW token was released this past month and I had more than enough gold to purchase several months of game time and could do so from the character selection screen. Warlords of Draenor still offered little of interest for me but I had intended on leveling my followers and setting up my garrison in such a way that I could passively earn enough gold to continue my subscription indefinitely. After two weeks of logging in daily to send my followers on missions with little desire to pursue any other objectives in game it dawned on me: if I’m not having fun in WoW anymore, what’s the point of having a garrison able to cover the cost of a subscription?

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At that point I made the decision to not only uninstall the game but also the other Blizzard titles I own, the battle.net client, and to delete all the bookmarks to the WoW related podcasts and news websites that I have followed for the past three years in order to completely distance myself from the game. In all this time I’ve been playing other MMOs, I’ve never completely left WoW. Even when I wasn’t subscribed I continued to follow the news and listen to opinions on class design, content release, and lore. I was like an ex-boyfriend too curious about the current status of an old flame. As such I would inevitably return to the game but I think it’s time now for a clean break and a cleansed palette. That’s not to say I will never play again, but that if I’m going to return it will be refreshed and curious, rather than jaded.

Several other titles were uninstalled as well leaving only those games I am currently playing and a few others I may pick up again in the coming months including Star Wars: The Old Republic, Marvel Heroes, Rift, The Elder Scrolls Online, Guild Wars 2, and Trove. As for my current favorites, I have nestled quite contentedly into Star Wars: The Old Republic and Marvel Heroes. Coincidentally, the former was the title that a little over a month ago I thought was unable to compete with the others on my “must play” list. With both expansions purchased and having played for a month as a subscriber I have subsequently changed my opinion. It turns out I’m quite happy with the Star Wars flavored WoW clone, theme park, combat lobby MMO. In fact, I believe those words— often used derogatorily by many a Massively OP patron and columnist— describe the elements I enjoy most in the genre. It’s liberating to recognize and be content with the fact that I am happy with the mainstream model. Besides, if I wait long enough the genre will shift and I’ll get to tell the new MMO youngsters about the glory days of dungeon finders and gear treadmills.

“You mean characters used to progress vertically grandpa?” my cyborg grandchild will say.

“That’s right Mark-I,” I’ll nod, remembering those nights of chaining dungeons and raiding for hours with guildmates. “And we use to gamble on loot pulled from the corpses of dragons once a week as well.”

“You mean you didn’t have to wait in these lines? What about the crafting overlords, weren’t they mad you didn’t have to buy their stuff?”

Reality will wake me from bittersweet reminiscence. “That was before the rise of OPnet and the Bree-800 series cyber-economists,” I’ll say, resisting the tears. “That was before #Sandboxgate ruined everything.”

And then of course I’ll send my cyborg grandchild back in time to prevent the Sandbocolypse by stopping the development of Star Wars Galaxies at all costs. As his form vanishes a Bree-800 series android will burst into my open world housing plot and overcome my avatar slowly but assuredly with item decay.

….what was I talking about again?

Right, Star Wars: The Old Republic and Marvel Heroes. With 12x XP arriving on May 4th, I plan on diving into the class story of my Scoundrel however lately when I log in I spend most of my time healing in Warzones and Galactic Starfighting. With most MMOs in the past I’ve engaged in PvP sparingly and sporadically, but in SWTOR I am uncharacteristically preferring the leet pwning of noobs over PvE questing and Flashpoints. I’m not great at either Warzones or GSF but this past week has seen a couple of significant milestones for me in these arenas. During my last GSF match I managed to rack up eight player kills, three of which were rapidly one after the other. It was exhilarating. I attribute this relative success to my upgraded striker as much as any skill development on my part. As a healer in Warzones I managed to heal one million HP in a single match at level 35 this week and over 650k HP without a single death in another. I accomplished something similar in the 10-29 bracket but that was largely due to the fact that few people knew to target the healer at that stage. This time I survived because I had a better grasp on when and how to use my defensive cool downs, crowd control abilities, and cc breakers.

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Whereas SWTOR is my new favorite MMO, Marvel Heroes is more of a guilty pleasure. I recently leveled my first hero to 60 and rather than explore the end game for max level characters I have decided to level the other heroes I have in my roster. At first I was working on Ms. Marvel but with the announcement that the Avengers would be receiving an additional 50% bonus to XP, I decided to give Black Widow a try. In a handful of days I’ve leveled her to 40 and I fully intend to blitz my way to 60 before the event concludes. Afterwards I’ll pick back up where I left off with Ms. Marvel or set this game aside for a while as I tend to play it in bursts.

A lot has shifted over the last month with both my gaming and my blogging. My intention with this post was to outline some of those changes and to put my current blogging expectations in writing and to mention what I’ll be playing over the coming weeks and months. Expect one post a week with one or two writing exercises in brevity as well. I’ll be chronicling my leveling progress in SWTOR as well as Marvel Heroes and hopefully I will also get back into the habit of writing reflectively on scripture once again. David and Goliath Revisited was one of my favorite posts of this past month and I’d like to do more in that vein going forward. Of course, given my proclivity for writing down one set of plans and then taking off in another direction entirely, next week I may be chronicling the adventures of a fictitious time-traveling, cybernetic grandson instead. One never knows.