This past weekend was rather dull: Saturday was spent…I can’t remember what the hell I did on Saturday, to be honest. It was kind of overcast and blah, and I know I didn’t do anything that I should have been doing, so I guess that makes it a success. On Sunday, we celebrated Father’s Day at the in-laws. Because it was Father’s Day, I was allowed to return home before the ceremonial Canasta game. Hooray for small victories.
Trip to Maia
Speaking of small victories, I spent a good deal of time in Elite Dangerous this weekend and fulfilled my long-delayed goal of venturing to Maia in the Pleiades. The only real significance of this is that the Pleiades is where all of the alien activity has been going down, although I didn’t do any investigation of such while there. Maia and it’s surrounding environment is basically a ghost-town, as most of the nearby systems aren’t as well populated with stations as other parts of the bubble that I’m used to. There is a community goal happening in Maia as of the writing of this post, but it requires the delivery of materials that are only available a good number of jumps away. Traveling in Elite is one of the absolute worst, most boring parts of the game, so I quickly lost interest in participating once I learned that.
However, I did need to hit up Maia to pick up meta-alloys. I needed this to unlock an Engineer. The Engineers are NPCs that can create new or boost existing ship gear. As you play the game you’ll come across various materials that are needed for the creation/upgrade process. Each approach has a specific outcome but of a random magnitude, so you spend these special materials on a single spin of the RNG. If you like what you see, you can have the Engineer apply the changes; if not, you can spin again if you have enough materials. The meta-alloy was just an introduction gift to get me in to see the NPC but thankfully I had a hold full of several of the materials needed to squeeze some better performance from my FSD and sensors.
The good news is that I’m now only less than a dozen hops away from my current home range of Wu Guinagi. The original trip to Maia was something like 33 jumps; the trip to Deciat where the Engineer lives clocked in at only about 11, and I only have about 11 or so jumps back to Wu. Yeah, the math doesn’t add up, but Elite‘s route calculation is sometimes screwy like that.
Lost in Tamriel
Of course, I’m back to playing The Elder Scrolls Online since I had gotten a great deal on the Morrowind expansion. Although I’d only been off the wagon for a few weeks, the One Tamriel setup is officially screwing with my ability to figure out where the heck I am, and where I need to be.
The good thing is that I don’t need to focus on the main story (although I do on occasion). I can do nothing but side-quests because the design is such that quest visibility is organic: while you’re in an area doing quest A, B, and C, you can also pick up D, E, and F, which will lead to an area where you can get G, H, and I, and so on. This is great when the game forces you into a level-based box because you can only focus on the quests that you are lead to. With One Tamriel where levels don’t matter, you can skip D, E, and F and go straight across the continent for quests J, O, Pi, 721, and the Realization That The Universe is Ambivalent Re: Your Being, just to name a few.
I’ve been playing with Mindstrike and my brother Egon, and we’ve gotten to the point where the best content is currently dungeons and collecting the delve sky shards that we’re missing. So we’re all over the map, basically. That means I’m sometimes picking up quests that need to be solved within those dungeons or delves, or “accidentally” pick up a quest out in the world, or at least see quests in other zones. When we’re done, I head back to my current “home” zone and…forget what the hell I was doing or have no idea what I might be missing in the current zone by way of quests so I can get that all important zone closure achievement.
I’m not sure if there’s a way to track quests that need to be done in a zone in order to reach the closure achievement, or if there’s an add-on to help with that. I’d like to be able to close things out zone by zone since I can do so as if each zone were level appropriate thanks to One Tamriel. Nevermind the fact that I’ve not even considered touching the DLC content. I’m trying to stay away from the Morrowind official content (except for dungeons and delves) because I want Sedya Neen to be my first official landing spot — once again — in that region.
Grand Theft Coaster
On Sunday evening I sat at the desk and lamented my lack of streaming time. At this point, I’ve spent a lot of time and money getting things ready to put together the best-looking stream I possibly can, complete with multi-focal lighting, green screen, upgraded webcam, custom graphics AND animations, and the Elgato Stream Deck. Really, the only thing that I’m missing is a dedicated game capture device before I can say that I am officially the most overprepared non-streamer in existence.
Streaming is fun and non-fun. It’s fun because you get the warm fuzzies when you see people tune in, and even better if they interact with you. It’s also non-fun in many ways, such as seeing strangers vanish without having engaged, or even the pressure to “put on a show” in an effort to get people to stick around longer than they might if you’re just concentrating on playing the game. Streaming is, after all, a show. On one hand I know that this is patently false but on the other hand, you might as well aim high if you’re going to make the effort. I find myself caught between the desire to make the effort and my desire to just play the damned game without feeling like I have to emcee everything.
That’s why I decided to stream on Sunday evening, but not announce it. 75% of crossing the hurdle is to press the STREAMING button on the Stream Deck to get the broadcast started, and I figured that if I wanted to overcome my reticence to make the effort, I could make the effort in anonymity. That way I’d technically be streaming, but would also probably not have an audience to play up for. I did garner one random viewer who came and left (I hardly knew ye!) and got views from two Combat Wombat friends who were notified of the stream via our Discord server announcement bot.
I played Planet Coaster, a game that I find more relaxing than the high-stakes planet of RimWorld. I started the Campaign over from scratch and managed to cap the HIGH marks on the first scenario. One thing that constantly vexed me in the game: my visitors are apparently really easy marks for pickpockets. Every few ticks I’d get notified that someone was robbed. I hired a whole platoon of security guards, and they eventually apprehended a lot of the thieves, but I couldn’t figure out how to get out in front of that problem. In the end, it didn’t matter, though, as my park became popular enough for me to attract the 1100 guests and earn $15,000 needed for the third star in the scenario.
I enjoyed playing Planet Coaster with strict goals because it meant that I only had to reach those goals, and anything after that could be considered arson for the insurance money. It was also a good game to stream, I think since there’s a lot to do, a lot to keep track of, and a lot of ways for things to go hilariously wrong. I’ll probably stick with this as my streaming game and hopefully, in doing so I can overcome my hesitation to broadcast.
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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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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