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Archive for October, 2009

Crafting: the Other Missing Link

Or, a funny thing happened on the way to building my shrine to Guild Wars:

I simultaneously had the dumb luck of being invited to the Fallen Earth beta, and signed up for an Everquest II free trial. My refusal to have anything to do with the Everquest and Warcraft franchises in light of their addictive notoriety was starting to wane as time between updates about Guild Wars 2 stretched on, and I had already given WoW a couple of college tries, so when a few people offered up EQII as an alternative, I saw that I had nothing to lose. Fallen Earth, on the other hand, was my attempt to support an indie company hoping to bring more innovation into the MMO industry.

Both of these games showed me a world of crafting that wasn’t merely time-killing side activity, but a viable way of life in the virtual world of your choice. In Fallen Earth I found myself wandering around the landscape for hours collecting cotton; in Everquest II I gave myself hand cramps, my adrenaline-filled grip fueled by time-restricted Rush Orders. I have never killed an elite mob that gave me as much joy as I felt upon creating nine items in under ten minutes.

This discovery, this new-found realization that I liked creating stuff, really really liked it, and liked having it advance my character as more than just a hobby, made a number of things clear to me. Suddenly I realized why I had logged out of so many other free trials, declaring, “I don’t know, I just don’t feel like killing things anymore tonight, and what else is there?” I realized why I had given up on Lord of the Rings Online (after buying a lifetime subscription, no less) because the prospect of becoming independently wealthy by selling my goods on the Auction House was not appealing enough to me.

I can find short-term satisfaction in a game in which crafting is more shallow, especially if more of my other must-have elements are present: I still enjoy my forays into Guild Wars from time to time, and am currently enjoying myself greatly in the red-headed stepchild that is Champions Online. I have no desire to craft full-time; my primary activity and goal is still exploration and hunting. But ultimately the game that allows me to log in and say to myself, “shall I be a murderer of wildlife and bandits today, or shall I make something beautiful?” and have both matter equally to my character progression will always be one I’d like to explore further.

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I have an addictive personality. I freely admit this. I prefer to think of it as “obsessive,” but I’m not certain my behavior is outwardly different from an addict. In the time after I left StrangeMUD I started hearing about EverQuest, and later World of Warcraft – I had friends and significant others who were former players and the tales were legendary – and I vowed to stay away. I had spent so much time playing a text-based, free game that I knew I would be dangerous if allowed to tie a credit card to a shiny graphical game. I became more resolute after I watched someone leave the birthday party of his best friend because he had to do Molten Core. What kind of game, I wondered, would charge you monthly for the privilege of not spending time with your best friend because you “have” to raid?

Then Guild Wars came along. A few of my friends were playing this and encouraged me to try it because it didn’t have a monthly fee. I had seen it in action and fallen in love with the graphics, so I used a trial key, rolled my familiar healer/fighter hybrid and suddenly I was running around a virtual world with friends again! Wait a minute… I was running around with friends again… so why did I feel so lonely?

Instances, as executed in Guild Wars, took some getting used to, and I can appreciate (though ultimately disagree with) the points of those who argue that the instancing removes Guild Wars from the pool of massively multiplayer RPGs. While I appreciated the ability of the game to tell a tailor-made story by using instances, initially I felt claustrophobic knowing that the only living souls in any given explorable area were myself and whatever friends had accompanied me. For the first half of the game, I could not bring myself to do missions alone, even with NPC henchmen; it is this same unease that prevents me from playing and enjoying single-player RPGs. I crave and thrive on the ambiance created by the bustle of other players, the chatter on the channels, the knowledge that somewhere, at that moment, someone is playing a character in the same game doing the exact same thing that I am.

Still, the story was engrossing and the gameplay was incredibly fun and versatile, and I had a nearly-static group and guild to game with whenever I liked. My complaints about the insularity of missions gave way to the expansive storyline and additional chapters and characters that I played, and the fact that there were virtually no tasks in the game that required more than an hour of my time to complete. There certainly were times when my guild went on story-completing frenzies that ran upwards of seven hours, but each mission completion provided an opportunity to drop out with no harm done, and that was more important to me than almost anything. I rounded up around 500 hours of gameplay with Guild Wars over the next two and a half years. It was my sole obsession, even though I played it casually; I spent many waking and dreaming hours making up builds in my head, contemplating trying different professions and combinations of professions, and designing character appearances to try out later.

Somewhere, between the lush graphics and casual story-based gameplay of Guild Wars, and the whimsical, social world of StrangeMUD, I felt lay my ideal game.

Later: Crafting, the Other Missing Link?

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I blame it all on Jojo the lich.

I was introduced to the world of multiplayer online gaming in 1995 by a college friend who enthralled me with tales of her adventures in a world called StrangeMUD. Late nights after studying, I would watch her rapid-fire typing, shrieks of glee and dismay as this or that mob ANNIHILATED! or EVISCERATED! her character, a warrior/mage lich, in battle. Eventually I would join her for 5-hour gaming sessions in the university computer lab with several other friends, slaying foes in such whimsical areas as Sesame Street, Wonderland, Ancient Rome, or the Stairway to Heaven.

It was through StrangeMUD that I learned what it meant to be addicted to a game, to log in to see my friends and find hours suddenly gone from my evening. It was also here that I developed my predominant play style: as a paladin hybrid it was relatively comfortable for me to solo most areas by myself, with occasional grouping for elite areas. More often than not I logged in for social reasons – the community was small enough to have an active global chat in which discussions of politics did not erupt into flame wars. Auctions took place on an automated public channel and could be participated in anywhere in the game world; Madlibs were a similarly automated channel to which anyone could contribute as well. Even while playing technically “alone”, I never felt lonely in the game world, as everyone in the close-knit community was a mere whisper and recall spell away.

Sure, there were no quests outside of special events held by the Imms from time to time, and levels had to be gained by wandering the world (or visiting a few favorite haunts) and killing mobs for hours. Sure, there were corpse runs and mobs that corpse-looted, mobs that would track you once they’d killed you and had to be taken down before you could re-enter the game world. Sure, there were Death Traps(tm) that insta-killed you in dramatic ways and caused you to lose whatever loot you were wearing or carrying, with no hope of retrieval. I remember all of those times, and not all of them fondly.

But mostly, I learned back then that I gamed for the people, and secondarily for the experiences I had with them. My friend and I left StrangeMUD after a couple of years for a variety of reasons, one being that we needed to refocus on our studies. I’ve returned, from time to time, to create a new character and run around the place I called home for so long, but the population has moved on, and none of my friends play any longer – it just isn’t the same. So, I suppose I’ve been looking to recreate that experience ever since. It is common knowledge by now, isn’t it, that you never forget your “first?”

Tomorrow: Addiction, Subscription, Guild Wars, and the Single-Player Experience

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