Thursday, January 16, 2020

Levels

Warning: A big rant without much of a point. Buckle up.

Oh levels. You old buddy. You old pal. You old so-and-so. Always around. No MMO feels complete without you. Even if we aren't always sure why you're here. But we're always chasing after another one of you.

Levels are on the mind. Everquest 2 increased it's by ten levels, even if they go by so quick as to make one wonder why. World of Warcraft Retail will be undergoing it's customary reinvention of the wheel by crunching theirs down to 60 again. Black Desert Mobile has them, and yet a gear score-esque number called Combat Power seems to be the vastly more important number to raise. As I'm leveling a necromancer through EQ2, the most exciting power gains seem to come from Alternate Advancements, not levels.

I've never cared less about levels. It's a thing I've done, leveling. I've gained all sorts of levels. I'm gaining levels in genres that aren't even RPGs. I'm getting meta levels; I'm now level 8 on my PlayStation trophy thing. A spam email wants me to 'level up life' with some of their dick pills. I think my bank account has levels now.

D&D had them and thus forever it will be. But levels signified actual meaning in D&D (at least all the versions I played). Level 1 said something about your character. Level 5 and things start getting interesting. A level 20 is nearing the power of a small God.

But levels in MMOs are in a weird place. Battle for Azeroth had the inexplicable power downgrade from levels 110 to 120 because of content scaling. But that's in addition to standard new expansion leveling paradox, a fresh level 120 feels like a peon relative to a fully Antorus raid-geared 110. We go from punching out Cthulhu and his minions to being mauled by random wildlife.

We pay to bypass levels. DC Universe Online is giving away a max-level character to everyone for its own birthday. Mobile games include a button to let the AI level for you.

It's turned levels into a frivolous, meaningless thing. Which, granted, levels were always mostly a frivolous, meaningless thing. But it was a thing you could attach a meaning to. A level 60 in WoW was an impressive feat for a long time. Now max level is just the standard. Get to max level so you can increase your item Level instead.

It's an arms race by every MMO to shortcut it's own design. Playing Black Desert Mobile is just a constant stream of scrolling text, flashing buttons, and layered game mechanics all trying to shove as many Skinner boxes in front of your eyes as your 3.5 inch screen can handle. I have no idea what level my character is in Black Desert Mobile, and the game doesn't seem interested in making me care either.

It's gotten to the point where it's now difficult to walk into a MMO, new or old, fresh to me or an old favorite, and figure out which of the billion numbers on my UI matters. Hearing the old school Everquest ding was the ultimate dopamine rush, now it's just part of the game's background noise.

I know this is a rant, but I miss every level mattering. WoW Classic brought this feeling back for me. It was fundamentally built from the ground up to make a level gained feel like a level earned. At worst you got a talent point to be chucked into a meh passive. At best you got new skills or an increase in movement speed. But they did feel like they all mattered. I don't think it was 100% the novelty of it all. I had played plenty of RPGs before before WoW, and I've played plenty since.

EQ2 used to be the same as well. You didn't even get your proper class until level 20. You were a commoner until level 10. The game had its unpleasantness back then but the levels did matter. I've talked with someone who gained nearly 2 levels just on zoning into the new expansion. Why bother raising the level cap at that point? If were going to have a system of progression, let's actually make it feel like progression. Not every game needs to be a grind, but the number going up really ought to mean something.

It's complicated. How an MMO handles levels is indicative to the dev's overall strategy on a number of fronts: player retention, new player attraction, power scaling, how to sell new expansions, etc. But I'm advocating making levels a little bit more important than just a bullet point on a game's Steam page. I'm asking to bring back the journey to the top level and to make reaching max level mean something special again. Maybe the answer is a level crunch. Maybe it's more progression servers. Maybe meaningful levels are just a relic.

I keep a bell on my desk. I've had it for well over a decade now. I hit it everytime I gain a level. As I was leveling through the Freeport sewers yesterday I didn't remember to hit it once. Give me my dings back, dammit!

Friday, January 10, 2020

Everquesting and Racing

I've not had a blog post in a while, apparently the holidays had discombobulated me more than I expected. It also affected my dog a fair bit as well.


Herberta S. Everwake is my spirit animal.

But since getting back home,  I've found myself in a bit of gaming bliss. Normally around this time I begin to get burned out on video games. I've feasted on the glut of Black Friday and Steam sales and start looking towards other hobbies. But I've been playing a ridiculous amount of Everquest 2 lately.

Sadly, I've dropped the Let's Play series I was blogging because frankly it was too much work. Getting linked on Massively was cool but the constant start and stop of taking screenshots and translating the in-game story line into something bloggable was becoming a drag.

I'm playing EQ2 freely now and enjoying myself. Dusting off my main and getting her ready for the recently released expansion is simply too daunting. I've done a small bit of the last several expansions and literally don't know where to pick things back up again. The new expansion seems to have perquisite quests from all these different quest lines and putting it all together is more paperwork than I prefer in my games. Crafting wise I think I'm current up through Terrors of Thalumbra? That was the last expansion I actually remember buying but who knows. Sometimes it would be nice to have a little direction in Norrath.

But that's besides the point, I'm enjoying playing my lowbie Necromancer. I'm currently killing my way through the Commonlands, having completed the Freeport Outlying areas that I've never done before. I've also been decorating up the Isle of Refuge prestige house I got as a Veteran's Reward. Placing objects in an actual zone is a lot of fun; it almost feels like I breaking something or I'm playing with the same tools the dev team gets. Dungeon Maker or whatever it's called also felt a lot like that, but that feature has been functionally dead for some time now.

Sometimes I get into a gaming rut because I'm not really playing the correct game for what mood I'm in. EQ2 is great for a more relaxed, beginning or end of the day kind of thing. But I also want a faster paced game to pour some excess energy into. Since I have more money than sense I decided against simply playing any one of the many action games in my Steam backlog, and bought a racing wheel instead.






I struggled to find a desk that would work with the clamp system the wheel uses to stabilize itself. We did have one desk that worked. Unfortunately, it's my wife's desk for her desktop computer, so this is going to have to be a temporary setup. I'm playing Project Cars 2 right now and having a lot of fun.

What appeals to me in racing games is really the same thing that appeals to me in MMOs: small, constant, and measurable increases in ability. While just about every game has borrowed progression systems from RPGs these days, I'm talking about the core gameplay loop. The thing that drives me in a good MMO is getting just a little bit better at playing a more and more capable character as I go through content that gradually challenges my abilities. That's exactly the same gameplay loop as a racing sim. Starting with low power, easy handing cars and shaving seconds off of lap times, and then graduating to higher power and harder to control cars and shaving tenths of a second off of lap times. If only we could combine these two genres! My money to whomever can make me a wizard in a go-kart.

While a lot of games theoretically feature that same gameplay loop, I feel many games obfuscate it with a bunch of stuff I don't super care about. Cut scenes, open world markers, overly long tutorials, etc. I just want to do a thing until I'm good at it, and then do another slightly harder thing until I'm good at it, and so on. Every game used to do this, if for no other reason than there wasn't enough physical room on the cartridge or CD to do anything else. I don't want to sound like a boomer about it, there are times when I want fluff in my games. But what I want is what I want, and EQ2 and racing sims are my current preferred flavor of that right now.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

First Impression: Mirage Online


I'm in an experimental mood today, so I decided to sort through the various tags on Steam to look at what's come out the last month or so for MMOs.

Mirage Online Classic implies some sort of lineage that I am wholly unfamiliar with. If there is a Mirage Online Current I can't find it in a Google search. In fact, I'm having difficulty finding much of anything about it with a Google search. There's a very basic official website, a Youtube with a couple of short gameplay videos, and not much else. It seems to be a HTML5 game as I can play it either in a browser or in the standalone client downloaded from Steam. It must also be a mobile game as you can toggle to mobile controls in the game itself.

Character creation is bare bones at this point.



You get to pick a name, a gender, and a drop down list of Professions. The professions seem to have access to different spells, according to this chart on the official website. As far as I know, space bar is the only way to attack. There is an inventory slot for spells so I presume each class can pick up appropriate spell books. In the first hour or so of playing I didn't find any.

The game starts of linearly enough. It plays from a top-down perspective and control uses the traditional WASD keys. Spacebar attacks and E picks up items. Shift is a toggle for running. I don't believe there is anything to the controls other than that. 


The game gives you some starter items, asks you to kill a bunny and then teleports you off to the first town. A message in your chatbox sends you to the local well, where you navigate a simple maze to the end. You kill rats along the way that don't fight back and slowly accumulate gold and XP. The end of the maze gives you a full set of starter gear and dumps you to the beginning of the next quest.


I chose to navigate the overworld a bit and got some King's Quest vibes from the art style. I saw the idling of what could have been other players or NPCs, I'm not sure. The chat log showed about 25 players on when I logged in. Chat was busy enough. Exploring done, I descended into the sewers to take out a sewer dragon. It was slightly more complicated maze, this time with snakes and a bad guy who was a carbon copy of my character. Finally we made it to the sewer dragon.


The first time I faced him I died. In hindsight, tanking and spanking a dragon as a mage was a poor choice. On my second attempt I realized that kiting was possible in this game. The floor would occasionally give off a puff of smoke, and I needed to move to avoid the incoming flames. The dragon eventually went down and I was immediately teleported to a room in the overworld with bags of gold and health potions.

Unfortunately, I'm now stuck. Whereas the two previous quests were simply handed to me on screen or in my chat log, what I need to do from here on out is obscured. Supposedly, on certain maps, a UI button will light up to let me know there is a quest in the area. But that button never lit up. Chat seemed just as confused as I was. The official website gives a list of quests so I tried to follow that. I found the next 'boss' (after confusingly needing to teleport into some boxes) and tried to manually complete the nonexistent quest anyhow. Unfortunately, most of my attacks missed and the boss couldn't do enough damage to me when I'm kiting to outpace my innate healing. I got bored and closed the game.

The game isn't actually listed as Early Access on Steam, although the official website calls each update a beta release. It's fun to get in on the ground floor of a game sometimes, but it seems like I'm about to be asked to do quite a bit of grinding right from the get go. After dealing with Ultima Online last month, I'm not sure if I'm really down for that.

I do love the aesthetic and simplicity though. I reminds me of the simple flash and downloadable games I would gravitate to in my teenage years because of our tepid 28k modem connection. The game makes me want to give Realm of the Mad God a spin again. I'm not sure I'll give this one too much more play for the moment. But it's free to play and takes up virtually no hard drive space. No reason not to keep an eye on it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

New Year, New Me and Some Thoughts About Black Desert Mobile

New Year, New Me

No not really. I have survived the holidays as tired and grumpy as I always am. Overall, a good time was had in between two brutal 20 hour car rides. Major props to Everdog, who handled all that traveling with minimal complaint. She's earned all her treats for the year.

I have no interest in doing a year retrospective or even New Years resolutions. I've read enough of those in the past two weeks and I suspect so have you.

My MMO play was limited over the holidays to Black Desert Mobile. I had written before the break that I found BDM surprisingly enjoyable on my desktop. Granted, that wasn't as a full-fledged distraction, but as something to click on in the background while doing other digital chores.

I found playing on the cell phone to be a similar experience. The game proved to be a nice thing to do with my hands during the downtime between lunches and diners and trips to the mall. There is always something to do; a fact that I found to be both a plus and a minus. There are just systems packed on systems and progression interwoven with progression that it all becomes very overwhelming. The game does fill your screen with alerts on what you can be doing, but after a while it feels like you are just blindly following prompts and watching various numbers go up.

There's also limited combat gameplay. Questing and battling in BDM can be automated and I found that the only viable way to play on my phone. I'm simply too clumsy or ogre-handed to reliably deal with the controls on touch device games. So my gameplay experience is mostly of a management sim. Handle my character's camp with its upgradeable buildings and workers who can be sent out to gather or other various tasks. Redeem all of my "Boss Rush" stamps and have the game clearing those. Keep you inventory from overflowing by discarding unused equipment to upgrading your familiar. Use your black stones and skill books to constantly upgrade your gear and abilities. And try to get some overworld leveling done in between all of that.

I'd argue that it plays closer to a Tycoon game than a hotbar MMO. At the end of the day, BDM serves it's purpose. It's a casual distraction. It has a niche in my life for now but I think I'll continue to rely on Everquest 2 for scratching that traditional MMO itch.

On a final, non-MMO note. My family introduced me to an arcade that had recently popped up in their area. It took over the first floor of the old Sears in the local mall. It had the carnival games to earn tickets like the basketball hoops and skee-ball. It also had dedicated fighting game systems, racing games, and lots of rhythm games. Playing an Initial D machine co-op with Mrs. Everwake was a very enjoyable time. She got to try a legit Miku Hatsune arcade game out in the wild.

More importantly, I got to relive the high school days with a Dance Dance Revolution machine that I was able to squeeze 13 or so songs on in a row. I would have done more but I literally didn't have the stamina to continue on. Now I'm shopping for a USB DDR-pad online. If anybody has any leads to reliable controllers that are compatible with Step Mania please let me know.