Working on a Chain Gang in Elder Scrolls Online

Posted by on Feb 13, 2017 in The Elder Scrolls Online

Working on a Chain Gang in Elder Scrolls Online

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 fewdo 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.

Not sure if he’s talking to me, or that loaf of bread

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Conan Exiles Re-Revisited

Posted by on Feb 8, 2017 in Editorial

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 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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What To Do With This Space?

Posted by on Jan 30, 2017 in General

If you’re a regular, semi-regular, or drive-by reader of Levelcapped.com, thank you! And you might be wondering, now that you’re here, where the posts went. I’ve pretty much only been posting the occasional D&D session recaps as of late, leaving the site devoid of my usual award-winning insight and in-depth analysis on subjects that 9 out of 10 gamers refuse to acknowledge. What gives?

TBH, my word-tank has been needling close to “E” for some time. I’ve been spending less time gaming than I ever have been in the past. What gaming I have been doing has been — wait for it — spent with a mere handful of titles. Currently, I’m playing a metric shit-ton of The Elder Scrolls Online, and very little else. I have been spending more time reading, and even spend more time in the same room with family than ever before (please, keep the audible gasping to a minimum so as not to spook the animals).

I’m not entirely sure why the shift of focus, but as you might imagine I’ve not a lot of subject matter to write about. I suspect that Olde Age is catching up with me, despite my insistence on acting as childish as possible. I’m finding that for me, a lot of the “piss and vinegar” that usually makes up the impetus among gaming blogosphere has lost its vinegar, so the desire to opine about stuff like I care has pretty much gone out the window. 

Mind you, I do still care about you since you’re my people and our kinship will never fade. It’s who we are. It’s just that the consistent yin and yang of snark and indignation that usually trails in the wake of announcements, developer blogs, and the drama of the week just doesn’t seem worth commenting on any longer. At some point, the shock of missed deadlines, under-delivery on over-promises, and community infighting becomes boilerplate and loses its need to be singled out and amplified for scrutiny. I used to want to champion a better community, but these days I’m content to sit back and let whatever happens, happen simply because its time for the community to sink or swim according to its own merits. 

I’ve been keeping council at Imzy when I do bother to find something to write about. I find that a more generalized platform allows me to spend less time writing stuff and more time communicating. That’s always been a shortcoming of long-form blogging for me; I was never sure my efforts were being consumed because I tended to measure my interactions against other bloggers and always found participation here lacking. At Imzy, we’ve gotten a nice, comfortable group of folks who have switched over and who use the platform as one of their primary social outlets, and it’s been more satisfying than blogging has been for me in a long, long time

And now for the title reference: I have no idea what to do with Levelcapped.com at this point. I have a few email addresses attached to the domain, so I need to maintain ownership for the time being. I do plan on weaning myself off those addresses, however, in the event that I can’t figure out how to use this domain for something. One option that I’m entertaining is to convert it from a gaming blog to a development blog. This, of course, depends on my ability to stick with my current game development efforts so I  don’t simply trade one themed ghost-town for another. Of course, I won’t know if that’s viable until it either is or it isn’t. I might opt to set it up for that just in case. More to follow on that, I suppose. 

Still, I’m kicking around on Twitter, and sometimes on Facebook, and of course on Imzy. I still get the urge to stream from time to time but realize that it always ends up as more of an effort than I get in benefits so I usually shrug and move on. But thank you, dear reader, for stopping by today and in the days gone by, for plowing through my word walls and to those of you who have taken the time to leave comments. I appreciate your participation on whatever level you’ve been able and willing to provide.

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