I may be the last person qualified to talk about grouping, but as someone who doesn’t group a lot (whether it’s my decision or a decision that I have to make due to circumstances beyond my control), when I do get to group-up I feel particularly attuned to difficulties with grouping systems.
Last night in The Elder Scrolls Online I was joined by two others as I was dealing with a quest in Craglorn. I had to kill three atronachs, but at least one of them was in a delve, a non-instanced dungeon which usually holds a skyshard, which is a mechanic to earn free skill points. Even though my friends didn’t have the quest, the XP was good, the loot promised to be good, and there was a skyshard in it for them.
Now, the problem with themepark MMOs and grouping is that themeparks rely heavily on structured content, and that content is designed to move players through zones at a measured pace. For example, World of Warcraft is so micromanaged that you can set your watch by the guaranteed leveling schedule based on which quests you take. One benefit of this approach is that designers can chain quests together to create a much larger story arc and take a little sting out of the fact that they’re asking players to do the same tasks over and over (assuming you’re paying attention to the quest dialog, that is). It also allows devs to tune their zones to different levels, which is a nice way of saying “hey gogogo players, be sure you see all of the hard work that we did for you before you race off to that “end game” that we’re always telling you is the most important part of our product!”
Grouping upsets this pace by allowing players to group up with others who may be ahead or behind, but who can never be counted on to be at the exact same point in the content as anyone else at any given time. Many MMOs understand this limitation and allow for the sharing of quests with newcomers so that other party members don’t have to visit the NPC who grants the mission. Of course, this breaks down if the mission is a multi-part affair because first-step-plus quests cannot be shared, so if the group forms at any time other than during the initial quest then anyone who comes in at a later point is simply along for the ride and any accidental benefits.
This bit us in the ass last night in a way. Atronach hunting was a mission in progress, maybe the second or maybe fifth mission in the chain. The party could all see the targets and could participate in the battle, but once it was complete I had a step to talk to a mage who was then questioning the atronachs we had just defeated (and apparently captured). While I could listen in on this fully articulated interrogation, the rest of the party just saw me standing there, staring into space. They had no idea that anything was going on, although it was assumed, and they had to keep themselves busy while just one member of the group was reaping ongoing benefits. Worse, they got none of the quest-end loot even though they helped with a good 90% of the tasks that made up the complete mission arc.
On the one hand, I understand the reasons for this. First, spoilers, especially in “One Tamriel” in ESO where any player can go anywhere in the world for any reason now. My party wasn’t “homed” to Craglorn like I was, but if they ever made it to Craglorn themselves then seeing the mission through my eyes would have effectively ruined it for them later on. Second, there’s skipping content in a multi-part arc. While spoilers are one reason, not knowing what is going on, or not being able to receive the benefits of completing prior steps is certainly something that devs cannot code around. I’m sure that there are other reasons that are unique to each game (The Secret World is another game that “punishes” groups on account of “personal stories” and keeping content “pure” for self-discovery).
I’d be OK if party members could at least see scripted scenes when they are allowed to participate. One party member mentioned Star Wars: The Old Republic as a game that does group content right because every player gets to cast a vote during scripted conversations. I doubt that my party from last night would have gotten the full impact of the scripted scene were they able to witness it but having participated in the task that lead to the result without being able to at least see the result seems like an odd punishment for the player’s own good in a way. If this were a real-world situation, late-stage add-ons would certainly be able to witness a conversation even if they didn’t have the context that makes it meaningful, so it seems weird and counter productive when claiming group play is the way MMOs were meant to be enjoyed.
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My two favorite genres are science fiction and fantasy, which is boilerplate for nerds around the world, but I had no idea how to open this post beyond stating the obvious. The main reason why I like these genres is because they both allow stories to exceed the possible — sci-fi goes beyond technologies that we live with now, and fantasy…well, fantasy has license to simply blow the doors off of reality. Novels, movies, and video games are all about escapism, and give us stories set in worlds where problems can be solved with a plasma cannon or with a carefully selected magical spell, unlike the real world where a lot of the issues that concern us are way outside of our reach or exceed our available resources to deal with.
Most fantasy, though, seems to have limits. “high fantasy” is a super-popular sub-genre which practically defines the sweep of its parent, thanks to the enduring nature of J.R.R. Tolkien, George R.R. Martin, and other folks who use letters as whole names, and folks like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss whose names are short enough to spell out in their entirety. I shouldn’t have to elucidate the meaning of “high fantasy” for you, dear nerd, but in the event someone happens along who has no idea what the hell I’m talking about, consider this: elves who live in trees, dwarves with Scottish accents who live under mountains, humans who bumble through the world and reproduce at astonishing rates, maybe a live dragon or memories of dragons long since dead, orcs, trolls, giant spiders, and of course, magic both good and evil. Despite the presence of magic as magic (unlike “the Force as midichlorians”), high fantasy worlds seem to have a hard stop to their possibilities. The genre offerings always seem to have lines that they won’t cross, because even when you’re talking about pointy-eared humanoids who live hundreds of years and in the woods, there are some ideas which are apparently too wacky to approach.
Thing is, I LIKE the wacky approach a lot more than fantasy with artificial bounds. Sci-fi will always need to be rooted in the idea that “we’ll get there, someday”, which is why I love shows like Battlestar Galactica (the newer) and The Expanse (and the book form). Over the years, I’ve come to want more from my fantasy than what Tolkien’s legacy has left us with, and I’ve been able to find such things in works of Clive Barker (Imagica, et al), Felix Gilman (Thunderer, et al), and China Mieville (Perdido Street Station, et al).
What ties these offerings together isn’t their lack of elves and dwarves, but their world building. High fantasy popularized the practice of deep world building, and to this day you’d be hard pressed to find a D&D DM who DIDN’T get into the business because of his or her love of creating a whole world from scratch. RPGs, in particular, give people opportunities to create worlds to their liking, and a lot of game-runners tackle this step with gusto because it sets up the parameters of what is and is not possible for players and NPCs to accomplish. But world building is hard, especially if one has grown up only on a diet of high fantasy with its contrived limitations and an understanding that if the Evil Necromancer can raise an army of the undead, then by golly the players should be able to do that too! And if the players can wield the Sword of Interdimensional Collapse, then by golly…the Ultimate Evil should be able to do that too…for better or worse. I call this the “Deck of Many Things Conundrum”: give your players leeway to come up with creative solutions, but don’t destabilize the game world because if the players can do it, then the NPCs should be able to do it as well*.
When the world becomes a character, things get interesting. Case in point: Numenera, a setting that uses Monte Cook’s Cypher System for role playing games. The world of Numenera pulls absolutely no punches; several billion years in Earth’s future, humanity has survived several “ages”. Each new age is built upon the ruins of past ages which means that players in the current age are constantly finding bits of ancient artifacts — numenera — that are unexplainable and range from the stupidly mundane to the terrifyingly game-altering. Whereas high fantasy discourages the idea that the players should find themselves in control of something that could cause the fabric of reality to turn itself inside out, Numenera considers that kind of opportunity “a day that ends in ‘y'”.
As you can imagine, this opens up opportunities for game runners to throw down absolutely anything he or she wants to in an effort to reward or bait the players for making good decisions or to try and push them to make really, really bad ones. Magic works as either a mystical force OR as science. Space ships are either technologically invented OR are unexplained steampunk contraptions. A creature is either organic OR mechanical…or both…or neither if you can figure out a way to present that. When there is no explained limit to what can be done, or in the case of Numenera, explicit instructions that THERE IS NO LIMIT, things get weird…and difficult.
I tried setting up a Numenera play by post game once, and quickly found myself confounded by the options in the face of established examples of what Numenera is capable of. My scenario involved nothing more than a hand-wavey reason to put the players up against a criminal syndicate, which in retrospect seems lame, and a waste of the expanse of what Numenera provides. In fact, I was recently playing the soon-to-be-released Numenera: Tides of Torment on the PC when I realized that I am simply not equipped to do the Numenera world justice.
Case in point: This screenshot.
Click for the horrifying description
If you’ve ever read anything by Clive Barker or China Mieville, then the LEVEL of this kind of weirdness is par for the course. To me, it both makes my skin crawl and gives me gooseflesh because of the sheer level of malevolence and creativity involved in pushing well past the barriers of the kind of thing high fantasy would employ to tackle such a scenario. This is some other-world level stuff right here: one part mystical, one part horror, and one big part psychological. It takes the conceit of the world and employs it in ways that are projecting at an angle that can’t be measured by traditional geometry, and it hurts my head. I am in awe of the creativity in this one panel simply because I know such a system would never have occurred to me. I don’t know if I’m too practiced in the ways of high fantasy, too old to get my mind kick-started to think this far outside the box, or if I’m just nowhere near as creative as I’d always assumed I was. I suspect it’s at least a little from each column, and that makes me sad.
The Cypher System is one of a new breed of “anti-D&D” systems that have been cropping up over the past few years, where the rules call for fewer numbers, less dice, and more free-form roleplaying. For many, it’s difficult to wrap one’s head around, but I continue to really want to try. Problem is, I don’t know that I could ever do the system justice, certainly not on the level that Tides of Torment is offering. That is what makes me sad: it’s a great system with actual, limitless potential, and here’s me…wasting it.
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[Bonus points for whoever can tell me where the title is from. Extra bonus points for admitting this publicly]
I has ragrets. I am not a big screenshot taker. In the days of my youth it never really occurred to me to save pictures of games or to record video, but in my defense back in My Day taking a screenshot was a painful affair. If the game itself didn’t support it, you needed an external app to handle it, and there weren’t that many (FRAPS and…). If a game did support in-game screenshots, it was usually followed by a session of “where the hell does this game store images on my hard drive?” Even when taking screens became a lot easier I still managed to avoid having a record of my gaming history, because at that point, I really just blame old age. You know how when you’re in the middle of something and you’re concentrating on it so when you finally get a breather and look up and, like, hours have passed, you’re hungry, and need to pee? It’s like that, except in addition to all those things, I smacked my forehead for not having taken any screenshots.
A brief discussion on Twitter with Sers Dusty and Belghast made me realize how many screenshots I don’t have. This makes me sad on a personal level because all of the time I’ve spent in-game and what do I have to show for it? About as much as I’d have had I not spent all that time in-game. On the other hand, as a soloist, most of my screenshots would be of mundane things like landscapes and NPC conversations, and not memory provoking images of my time spent doing events with friends. More importantly, though, I’m missing a record of all of the games I’ve played, but which are no longer with us.
I’ve tried to get better at taking screenshots, though. Back when it first launched, Forge’s biggest draw for me was that it could take a screenshot of whatever you were playing. Then they went all Brittany Spears circa 2007 with their streaming to Twitch and dropped that cool feature, only having brought it back in a weaker form just recently. I now use Greenshot, a desktop app which allows for full screen or regional capture but also uploads to Google Photo where I archive all of my pictures.
Last night I went through what images I have from semi-recent forays and organized them into folders because my dumping ground directory was just that — a massive pile of unorganized images. I sorted the images by game, leaving me with a more profound sense of loss in seeing how few folders there are, and how few images per folder there are. Even now, a lot of screenshots in those folders are on-demand captures of funny dialog, attractive landscapes, or regions of the screen that I used to send to other people to explain something about the game, or to use in a blog post.
Th-th-th-that’s all folks!
Looking at Greenshot, though, I realized that I should re-work the filename pattern to auto-sort the images into their own folders. This way, I won’t have to remember to sort them all into the appropriate bins and will have everything nicely organized for when I want access to those images. The key, of course, will be to remember to take those screenshots, because no amount of organization will be worthwhile if there’s nothing to organize.
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Being an MMO veteran, I’ve completed far more quests in game than I can remember. In fact, I’m kind of amazed at how few I do remember. There’s one in Vanguard: Saga of Heroes that had me kidnap NPCs for a mage’s experiments, only to find myself disposing of the bodies over the edge of a bridge. I remember that because it actually disturbed me. A lot of times, quests I do remember have more to do with the fact that I did them with other people than they do with the fact that the quest was memorable.
I blame the lack of creativity in how quests are offered. We’re still fed the line that in any MMO, the “game doesn’t start until the end-game”, which still annoys me. Not only does it belittle the work that developers and designers do on The Game That Precedes The End Game, but it’s basically telling you that all of the time you spend prior to the end game — basically, all that questin’ — is just busy work.
Now, this is a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy: Do we know that questing is busy work because we’re told in veiled terms that none of it really matters, or do we decide that questing doesn’t matter because, well, it’s so poorly done? I don’t know that I’ve ever met anyone who was totally gung-ho to receive yet another quest to “kill X number of Y” and bring the NPC quest giver “Z number of widgets”. These fetch quests seem to make up the bread and butter of a lot of MMOs to the point where the trope of “kill ten rats” is practically canon. We do these quests because they give us cash and loot and XP, and in theme park games, these quests are the people-mover that pushes us through the game world. We tolerate questing because, well, we don’t really have much of a choice, do we? We need to level up to reach the Promised Land of endgame content, and the easiest way to do this is to speed through quests.
A fact which is not lost on the ESO designers…
It’s sad that the genre which offers the largest mass of gameplay opportunity relies on these one-off tasks given to us on behalf of lazy-ass NPCs. I think one of the reasons why I am so involved with The Elder Scrolls Online is because it tends to mask its presentation of boring quest tropes by stringing them together in epic quest chains. I’ve noticed that accepting one quest from an NPC on the side of the road can lead to infiltrating an occupied fortress, seeking a set of documents that outline the invader’s plans, retrieving an artifact that turns out to be the enemy leader’s weakness, and the confronting the enemy leader for the final showdown. Written like this, I’m sure there’s a lot of examples of how other games offer similar arcs, but ESO presents these steps in an almost unbroken chain. There’s not a lot of running back to a stationary NPC to get the next step, as ESO‘s technology allows for updating NPC position and even zone composition (i.e. enemies are removed from a besieged village after you run them out of town) at certain stages of the arc.
#SorryNotSorry, other MMOs
The result, then, is that ESO presents more of a story over time than most MMOs because the story tends to follow the player rather than force the player to return to anchor points over and over. You can not only see the results of your actions in the world (and are sometimes called out by voiced NPCs who recognize you for your deeds), but the quests tend to fall in line one after another until the arc is complete. Many other games simply send you out with a clutch full of jobs, leading players to min-max their time and energy to get as many of them done as possible before revisiting their quest-givers to turn them in.
I am very much enjoying the ESO method of questing, although I’m a little irked that there’s no native way to ensure that I’ve completed everything a zone has to offer. Even though the quest steps fall into place, I still need to make sure I pick up the starter mission. Considering that a lot of ESO‘s quests are given by NPCs who are scattered all over the landscape, it’s difficult to know if everything has been discovered.
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Not sure if he’s talking to me, or that loaf of bread
Sandbox games and I don’t usually see eye to eye. Thus far I’ve only gotten one to work on a wavelength that I can be interested in, which is why I feel bad about having picked up Conan Exiles. Twice.
See, I’m not averse to evaluating games as they come. If there’s a game that looks cool, or has excite people I trust, then I’ll consider it even if it’s in a genre that I usually steer clear of (notable exception: Blizzard games, because people are irrationally excited about Blizzard games all the damn time). When Conan Exiles hit early access (EA) I had absolutely no intention of getting roped into this survivalbox game. I had tried ARK, H1Z1, Rust, Planet Explorers, et al., and of the long list of games the only one I liked was Eden Star because it was the most forgiving of all of them, IMO.
But as you may know, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to git with other people when I feel that the gittin’ is good, and this seemed like a great opportunity. I had two groups of folks who were starting up paid servers, so I bought the game and jumped in with the rest of them to make my way in Hyboria, a place I admit I know very little about.
I died. A lot. I got lost. A lot. I collected a bunch of stuff and lost it all…a lot. It didn’t take long before I was asking myself what the hell I was thinking. How the hell was this considered fun? My staple requirements for enjoying a game are that I have a fighting chance and that I see myself progress, neither of which was happening here. While I was within Steam’s refund window, I resigned myself to the fact that survivalbox games aren’t for me, and requested a refund.
Being me, however, means never having to stick to my guns. It was only a few days of keeping up with the activity on the servers by listening to folks in Discord that I started to think that I didn’t give the game a fair shake. So I bought it again. This time, though, I put my head down and charged through it. I took it slow, keeping my wits about me and making sure I wasn’t in a situation where I was overwhelmed. I spent a lot of time gathering food and water. I spent a whole lot of time harvesting rocks and wood and fiber from shrubs and trees. I build a small rectangular house where I could throw down my spawn-point bedding, and I was pretty impressed with myself…until I looked over the yard and saw the palaces and fortresses that other people were making.
I don’t have the stomach for the kind of work that I need to do in Conan Exiles. My time consisted of collecting rocks and sticks and grass. Eventually, I would be able to make a wall or a ceiling tile. Of course, I always had to stop harvesting to spend materials on repairing tools. And of course I always had to interrupt my harvesting or repairing to gather food and water. I ended up spending far too much time doing repetitive work and that kind of bothered me.
Syp of Bio Break fame asked why can’t he get into survivalbox games and proceeded to list of his requirements. That got me focused in on what I feel is throwing me off this genre myself:
- All work and no play. If I wanted to spend my evenings performing tasks for very little payout, I’d stay at the office. Zing! But seriously.
- Ultragrind. Survivalbox games are all about starting with nothing and making something. In order to do that, they mete out bigger and better things so you feel like you’re “growing” as a character in skill and reward. But in order to realize that, you need to break a lot of rocks, feel a lot of trees, and thatch a lot of roofs. A massive portion of these games is just you spending the time harvesting resources to build, and then to maintain, if not your tools and structures, then yourself.
- Kill or be killed. Supposedly, Conan Exiles has a narrative in there, but most survialbox games don’t. They rely strictly on interpersonal conflict, and rely on it in some of the most agonizingly antagonistic ways possible. Your body doesn’t vanish when you log out, meaning people can kill and loot you when you can do nothing about it. People can trash your structures (see points one and two above for the ramifications of that). PvP is really the foundation of survivalbox games the same way it is for pretty much every flippin’ mobile kingdom builder game is — hurry up and build your defenses before other tribes find you, because people are dicks, and dicks are the kind of people we’re courtin’.
- Lack of purpose. If you’re not into PvP, tough shit. Hope you brought a stack of magazines to keep you busy in between the days worth of harvesting you’ll be doing.
- Missing the potential.
It’s that last point that makes me sad. Survivalbox games are great in theory. Remember TV shows like Earth 2, Terra Nova or even Battlestar Galactica? Those were shows about people in environments where they had to survive, and they didn’t do it by quarrying rocks to build mediocre huts. They worked together to make something in the face of having nothing, and while we can do that in survivalbox games, the only mechanically supported reason why we would is for protection against other players.
Instead, I’d love to see a game in this genre whose mechanics throw people across the map without a GLOBAL channel. Players have to work together in tribes because each player can only learn so many tradeskills, and all tradeskills are needed to make a building, and then a village. Specialists are always in demand, so it’s important to not reject someone who happens along with a skillset that your group doesn’t have. And even then, take in refugees with redundant skills because not everyone can be online 24/7.
Then strike out and explore. These games need reasons to venture out that aren’t strictly about finding better resources programmed to spawn further from the starting points. Resources can come in many guises, like recipes, retainers, or even ruins that can be repaired and used. Fight the flora and fauna in dungeons, or go on a rescue mission to retrieve a tribe member who went missing.
And eventually, tribe will meet tribe. But maybe eradication doesn’t need to be the default diplomacy. Trade routes should be considered. Maybe tribes have been focusing on different aspects, like minerals versus crops. Maybe there’s an exchange of knowledge. Maybe there’s a need to reach a critical mass of players to undertake a common project.
These are the kind of actions that build worlds. What we have now are neolithic Hunger Games scenario-builders, except you don’t get a nice house in a shitty district for surviving…just more rock splitting and tree collecting over and over and over. Once again, I regret my second-time-is-not-always-the-charm purchase of Conan Exiles, but I suppose it being the impetus for this post serves as a warning to my future self not to fall in with the hype for a genre that I have never been able to find purchase in.
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