The Fourth Is Strong With This One

Happy May the Fourth to all of you Star Wars fans! I’m probably not what you would consider an avid enthusiast— the extent of my interest can wax and wane with time—but it’s still one of my favorite fictional universes. Considering my favorite MMO right now is Star Wars: The Old Republic I’m thinking about the franchise a lot more now than I have in a while, so today I offer you three reasons I like Star Wars.

  1. Friendship Ties- My interest in Star Wars started with a group of friends from my high school days. I began collecting comics in Jr. High but as for the rest of my favorite fictional playgrounds, I didn’t know much about them until I was a senior in high school. Star Wars, along with Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings, and Mystery Science Theater 3000 were all introduced to me by this group of seven guys and as such any fondness I have for those franchises stems from the memories I have exploring them all for the first time with my friends. In fact, this winter I’m hoping to reconnect with several of my high school buddies with the release of The Force Awakens.
  2. Extended Universe- One of my friends from high school was an avid reader and let me borrow the Thrawn trilogy. I instantly fell in love with the Extended Universe. Since then I periodically go through phases where I binge on Star Wars books and since those first three I have read around thirty additional titles. Looking back, I would say the books are what I like most about the franchise which is why I am saddened by the decision to rewrite the time period after Return of the Jedi, turning my favorite Star Wars sagas into mere legends. What I like about the Extended Universe is the focus on family relationships, family legacy, and a deeper look into particular cultures within the Star Wars Universe. One of my favorite series is Legacy of the Force for (among many things) the insight it provided into the Mandalorian culture and the family and community relationships of Boba Fett.
  3. Theological Exercise- There’s nothing distinctly Christian with regard to the philosophizing about the Force that goes on in these books but they have still provided me ample opportunity to think about real life moral, metaphysical, and theological concerns from a Christian perspective. For example, the fall of Jacen Solo and the views Luke Skywalker expressed in Legacy of the Force were great illustrations of the effects pragmatism can have on our moral reasoning, especially when under duress. Even if the Force is fictional, a lot of the musings presented in the EU books are rooted in real life religious and philosophical questions and I like the process of examining different perspectives.

WoW Clones and the Point of Divergence

Labeling an MMO as a “WoW Clone” is generally meant as an insult. Such games were developed to match the features and mechanics of World of Warcraft in order to duplicate its success but in actuality the popularity of WoW has been a singular event in the history of the genre. To some extent the criticism is warranted. Foregoing creativity and risk in hopes of making a quick buck is hardly a development tactic to be applauded however two of these games have been in continued development for 3-4 years and warrant a second look. Both Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic began by closely approximating the gameplay of WoW but since their launch have diverged along their own path offering players a “WoW that was” or a “WoW as it could have been”.

As someone who enjoyed World of Warcraft for several years, I am biased toward games of similar mechanics and feature lists. I enjoy storytelling on rails, instanced group play, and traditional combat but I haven’t always agreed with the development decisions Blizzard has made over the last 12-18 months or the features they have neglected to improve in favor of others. Garrisons for example are an interesting addition but the transmogrification system is grossly outdated. At a time when nearly every other MMO is improving cosmetic customization for player gear this is a significant oversight. And so I find myself enjoying the type of MMO WoW represents but not the game itself in its current state.

However when I take a look at both Rift and SWTOR I see games similar to WoW that have developed along very different paths. Looking at their evolution over the last 3-4 years is like catching a glimpse of two possible alternatives to the current iteration of WoW, a multi-verse of MMO development as it were. Each game features many similarities to the MMO they were developed to mimic but since their creation both games have changed systems, mechanics, and feature lists independent of WoW’s own development cycle.

Consider talent trees for example. In early 2012 all of these games featured three branching skill trees for each class and a pool of skill points for players to use in order to customize their characters. From the beginning Rift brought an interesting twist to this system by allowing each class to choose three options from a broader selection of skill trees called “Souls” and the game continues to maintain this approach. WoW on the other hand has eradicate the branching trees in favor of three talent choices offered every fifteen levels and relative freedom in adjusting those choices on the fly. SWTOR held out on traditional talent trees up until the end of last year at which point Bioware adopted a talent system of their own featuring three tiers of seven choices of which players could choose seven total across all tiers by level 60. There are limitations in place that prevent overpowered combinations (like players choosing all seven in the highest tier) but overall the system offers more choices than the one in WoW.

Did you prefer the branching skill trees that World of Warcraft offered prior to the launch of Mists of Pandaria? Rift provides you with that choice and from the start has doubled down on the character building freedom that the system offers. Or have you liked the stream lined talent choices MoP introduced but wish for a little more flexibility in choice amongst the tiers? Then you may want to try SWTOR’s implementation of talents in their discipline paths. The point is not that one design choice is inherently superior to the others, but rather that for those of us who enjoy the MMO model presented by Blizzard in World of Warcraft, we now have alternatives with slight variations. Sure Rift, SWTOR, and many other titles may have been clones of WoW at their point of launch but since then they have developed independently. For my preferences these two games offer features and mechanics that I enjoy more than those present in their parent MMO. If you enjoy World of Warcraft but haven’t sampled either of these “clones” in the last two years I’d highly recommend you do so. They may have been replicas at the start, but since that point of divergence both Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic have matured into MMOs reminiscent of World of Warcraft but refreshingly distinct.

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.