What a Difference a Month Makes

Posted By on Jun 12, 2013 |

So, this is kind of funny, because my last post was almost a month ago, and in it I was cautiously optimistic about the future of console gaming. EA was dropping online passes! Microsoft was moving to real cash money, rather than dumb Points! Things are looking up, and maybe this means good things for consumers!

Well, I’m glad that I hedged my bets at the end, because the last few days of E3 announcements have been a rollercoaster of cheers and jeers. Specifically, since it’s getting the most negative reaction, let’s talk about Xbox One (or Xbone, as is my current favorite way to pronounce it). Old news, at this point, but I’m including it for context: Microsoft is moving to a distribution model that is a lot closer to Steam – discs are basically installation software for cloud-supported licensed software. This means a few things:

First, once you’ve installed a game once, the disc will theoretically not be needed to actually play the game. Second, renting/sharing/reselling games will all be done only in the way that Microsoft (and publishers and retail partners) allow. In general, handing your friend a disc for a game that is worth playing, but maybe not worth spending another $60 on is a lot harder. And finally, Microsoft will have final say over your ability to access your game library (including saying “no” when you are offline for more than 24 hours).

I guess the first one is kind of a bonus, since it saves some energy and noise and deals with lost/scratched disc media. Hooray. I mean, this is actually not terrible. I totally prefer digital distribution for a lot of things, and being able to swap games without swapping discs seems like a nice, if minor, quality-of-life improvement.

The sharing/selling/renting games thing, though, sucks. I’m sure we’re all getting tired of talking about it, but I have extensively shared, rented and purchased used games over my life, and I can’t imagine that I would be anywhere near as passionate about gaming as I am without those options having been available to me. I’ve never actually traded in a game at GameStop (though I have donated them to charity), and the pricing model there is pretty predatory, but there are large populations of people for whom purchasing multiple full-price games each year is simply not an option. Trade-ins and reselling facilitates all sorts of good things, and I do not in any way buy the argument that cutting off that market will result in better prices for everyone. Magically, and benevolently. Microsoft’s official word on how this will happen is “we’re still figuring it out – but we won’t be ready when we launch”. Which is pretty bad.

And that last point – that Microsoft has say over your ability to access your game library. This one is not being talked about too much (outside of the general “check in online every 24 hours or be hosed” discussion). Yes, Steam does this on PC. And we grudgingly accept it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. I also very rarely pay full price for a Steam game. And Steam will allow me to play offline for a month at a time (still not really good enough). Plus, Valve is being sued in Germany for not allowing people to resell their games, so things may change there. And there are some alternatives. And it is not a massive paradigm shift, which is definitely part of the perception problem. Plus, what happens when the Xbone is eventually retired? Do we just not get to play any of our games anymore? Do we have to re-buy them all on the next system? Or trust that they will come up with some sort of plan that works for everyone? I don’t know about you guys, but I still have an NES sitting in my closet – just in case.

Look, I’m not going to buy in to all the hyperbolic shit about “SONY KILLED MICROSOFT FOREVER” or “MICROSOFT SIGNED ITS DEATH WARRANT” or whatever. I expect that the Xbone will, in fact, do fairly well. Even if we see a reversal of the 360 vs PS3 dominance this time around, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. The competition between the two is good, and let’s not forget that Nintendo has a bunch of interesting ideas floating around, too.

I honestly wouldn’t even be particularly surprised if Microsoft’s all-digital-delivery strategy works out exceptionally well. I think there are a lot of potentially great things there – like the ability to share purchases with “family” members (who, keep in mind, don’t need to actually be blood-related). Having access to all my games when I drop in on a friend’s console is awesome, because it means I won’t have to pre-plan to bring my discs around. And if their strategy for being able to lend/resell/rent digital content ends up influencing Steam and the Apple Store and all the other digital marketplaces, that could be a major win for everyone, long term.

But those things do come with drawbacks, and at present, it is certainly making me lean the other way.


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Good News, Everybody!

Posted By on May 14, 2013 | 3 comments

Actually, it’s not good news. RIFT is apparently going free-to-play this summer. I’m pretty sure that this sucks. I feel like I’ve talked about subscriptions and F2P a lot, in general, but I find it even more frustrating when a) it’s a game that designers have said many times is not going to go F2P, b) has been championed for its subscription -> rapid content updates service model, and c) that I still have 213 days worth of prepaid time for.

I think the last bit is the one that frustrates me the most. It’s not that I’m upset with having given Trion my money – the choice I made to purchase a year’s subscription along with Storm Legion is one that I’m still reasonably happy with (despite not having actively played RIFT very much in the last couple months) – it’s that the thing that I paid for is being swept out from under me. Given that the developers have said that they have been actively investigating F2P conversion for more than a year, it is clear that they made the pay-for-a-year option available knowing full well that some part of that year would probably fall under the F2P umbrella. I don’t know whether I still would have gone for it, or not, but it feels like the negotiation is made in bad faith when one side is holding out on pertinent information (sidenote: Apple does this same sort of thing a lot, by being extremely tight-lipped about product launch schedules. Informed consumers can make decent inferences from past behavior, but lots of people still end up buying a new computer in the week or two prior to product launches.).

Now, Trion is doing that thing where they convert all of the subscriptions into “Patron” accounts – giving them perks like trainer-summoning and extra storage space or whatever – but that is a very different type of service from what those of us who paid for subscriptions were committing to (i.e. access). Trion is also introducing things like purchasable raid gear which sounds like a truckload of landmines. Theoretically, it’s only going to be the not-top-most gear, and only things that are otherwise obtainable in game, but man does this seem like a good way to destroy any sort of reasonable progression structure. Who knows though, I’ve been in a position before where I really wanted a viable catch-up option (say, to join a more progressed guild).

I’m way more worried about the social implications. Will people still be interested in running tiers-behind raids at the end of an expansion, like I was doing, when there are more direct shortcut methods to gear? If I join up with a new guild that happens to be ahead of where my old guild was in progression, will I be expected to drop $40 on a complete set of cash shop gear? Or maybe just $5 here and there to fill in holes when the boss doesn’t drop my shoes for 6 months?

Two other things they are adding are pretty standard cash-shop fare: xp/token boosts and cosmetic items. I’d like to go on record here and now that XP boosts, in particular, are a complete fucking travesty of game design. To me, they indicate that you have failed to build a game that people actually want to play – if people are willing to give you money to not play your game (or to “have” to play it less), then you should probably reevaluate the game systems. And yes, I absolutely realize that for some portion of the population in any given MMO, the “max-level experience” is all that they are really after. In fact, I’ve played with that mindset at various times. But the thing is, if you want to provide end-game-only players an opportunity to ignore the part of the game they aren’t interested in (and think that this is actually a good idea, which I doubt), then why not let them ignore the part of the game they aren’t interested in? Why not just sell them a max-level character, complete with some standard of gear that lets them actually complete whatever tier of content they want? Why even force them to bother with the leveling experience at all?

And, as a more casual player, still working through the available questing content, why would I be happy about getting some XP boosts that make me miss out on cool quests and exploration time that much faster? If I don’t have a group waiting for me, then all I have to look forward to is tooling around town waiting for an instance queue – and I’m not especially keen to get to that place faster than intended. Same thing if I am leveling up with a friend. If one of us happens to get XP boosts, and the other doesn’t, then all it does is break our ability to play at the same level. Sure, I can “just not use them”, but then I’m actively throwing away part of what my money is paying for.

I just… really, really hate XP boosting items. If you want people to experience a leveling curve and area storylines and things like that, it seems important to understand approximately how quickly a character will move through a zone. Blizzard got this completely wrong when they introduced heirlooms and refer-a-friend bonuses, and they made it so very much worse when they redid all the leveling zones in Cataclysm. Even when doing my best to avoid rest experience, I couldn’t finish an area without quests going grey on me. And, again, I could just not care about that (and tried not to), but that doesn’t meant that it isn’t completely terrible tuning.

And quickly, on cosmetic items. I’m typically glad when there are more cosmetic items available. I love customizing characters and giving them personality. I even just like collecting bags full of weird robes or hats to show off for 5 minutes and then put away. MMOs typically offer a lot of opportunity to collect things – and, more importantly, show them off a bit. So sticking the vast majority of “cool” items behind a pay wall is sort of getting old. Hopefully, they’ll end up similar to the costume items in Defiance – where the models aren’t unique, but the colors are – but I think that will be hard with the (totally awesome) dying mechanics in RIFT.


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Just Shut Up and Play

Posted By on Feb 27, 2013 | 2 comments

The title of this post is something that I have to constantly tell myself when I game. And, as it turns out, that is not nearly often enough. People have threatened to give me a stack of Post-It Notes to stick all over my monitor and/or wall with that emblazoned on it, and it still probably wouldn’t help. Specifically, here, I am talking about my tendency to overanalyze choices and turn an ostensibly fun hobby into something that is much closer to a stressful chore.

Let me paint you a (totally hypothetical and in no way real) picture, here. Say that you are trying out a new game – one that you’ve even ridiculed in the past for being dumb. This is a game that presses all sorts of silly (and/or terrifying) buttons, and one that you aren’t expecting to ever do anything more than mess around with for a few hours before you find something else to distract you. You spend the time to download and install the game, maybe take a quick glance at the official website to get a feel for what your options are, and then dive right into the character builder.

At this point, most games offer you a choice. Sometimes it’s a class, sometimes it’s a race. In this (again, totally made up) situation, it’s to pick your race. This isn’t actually too bad, since I have a few things that I tend to like and dislike aesthetically, so I pick one. Let’s say it’s the hilariously adorable uplifted animal race for the game. Cool, we’re on the path to playing and deciding if this game is any fun! Obviously, it’s hard to choose between the slightly-too-realistic sad cat (think Puss in Boots) face and the proud-of-himself hamster with a curly handlebar moustache. In the end, both are awesome, so you go with one. Still, even at this point, there is a nagging sensation in the back of your head… But you soldier bravely on!

Now comes a trickier choice. Which class will you play? Let’s assume that there are, I don’t know, eight classes to pick from. Those classes can be broken down in several ways. First, I usually try to decide if I want to play a melee class or a ranged class. But then there are other, more subtle choices. Do I want to play someone that can tank? Heal? Do I want to use magic or a bow? Do I want to use DoTs or direct spells? Do I like to AoE, or do I want to be strong on a single target? Does the game offer stealth, and is that something I would want to explore anyway? Do I prefer axes or swords or two weapon combat? Holy shit there are a lot of options and now I do not know which one to pick and this matters so much even though I am only playing this game on a lark to appease my curiosity and it was free anyway and what if I decide I really like this game but all my friends are healers and my class is a healing class and then we can’t go to do group content together because you can only take one healer and that other person definitely likes healing but I haven’t healed in several years and I might suck at it and then everyone will be sad and they will quit and they will blame me or worse yet I will get left out and/or have to reroll into a useful class and start this whole process over and oh god what is happening this is the hardest decision of my life!

So, umm… yeah, that happens to me. Usually, I end up just picking one, playing around with it for a while and letting all those thoughts stew in my mind. Inevitably, those demons get the better of me and I’m like, “Well, I’ll just try this other one out for a little while cause I saw one in the game and it looked pretty cool!” But then the same thing happens again and again. And while I am still in the starting area – rerolling level 1 characters and fiddling with the character generator – the people that don’t suffer from this same crisis of thinking are happily puttering away and spending their attention-for-this-game capital by actually playing the game. At which point, I start to feel like I’m falling behind, and that certain people have already established themselves as “the tank” or “the mage” or whatever, and the process turns in on itself again.

This is not some new phenomenon in my gaming life. And I know that I’m not truly isolated here. There are plenty of people who have come up with some sort of term for this – the one that I’ve always used is Multiple-Character Disorder (MCD) – and I’ve seen plenty of talk about the same kinds of issues on forums from time to time. I’m just not really sure how to combat it, or why it happens. But I do know that I’ve been suffering from MCD for almost 20 years now. This started back in GemStone in the mid 90s. There were just so many cool mechanics and classes to try! WoW was, of course, a serious offender here. I’ve struggled with it in RIFT, and SWTOR, and basically every other game I’ve played since. And when I tried out the SWGEmu thing a few weeks ago, I was already over-stressing about it. And I only actually was logged in for a total of about 5 minutes before I remembered how genuinely unfun that game was at the beginning!

The strangest thing, to me, is that I don’t always have this issue. In games like Mass Effect or Dragon Age, I am (usually) able to pick a class and just go with it. If I ever have any regrets or misgivings, I am able to say, “Yeah, it might be fun to do that – maybe I’ll take a crack at it on my next playthrough!” That extra playthrough that never happens, by the way, but I guess the point is that it could. But maybe that’s the point. Maybe I’m able to deal with it better in games that have a defined lifespan because there is the potential to replay it. Whereas characters in MMOs tend to be a much larger investment of time, and they live without any really well-defined end point. I guess, in those cases, the gravity of that choice appears much heavier.

Do you guys struggle with these issues? What have you done to combat them, if so? I’m definitely open to suggestions. Although, again, they probably boil down to “Shut Up and Play”.

Also, in case it wasn’t obvious, the latest game that I was referring to was TERA. Actually, nevermind. Let’s never speak of this again!

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For some reason, I was having a conversation with Liore and Arolaide the other day about the end-of-Burning Crusade zombie event in Warcraft and whether or not we thought it was the most awesomest thing ever. For those that don’t remember (and I hardly recall the specifics), there was a plague going around the major cities that turned all the infected characters (PC and NPC alike) into zombies. Zombies that could explode and infect other people. When you were a zombie, you moved slowly, were attackable/could attack other people, and got a special hotbar with skills (hiding your own for the duration). Basically, this ended up with a ton of dead NPCs and the main cities being unusable for standard activities. I think the whole thing lasted a week or two, but my memory on that is fuzzy.

The community, as usual, was split. Some people seemed to love it and think it was the greatest thing that WoW ever did. And then there were other people who yelled and yelled and yelled about how horrible it was and how it interfered with their ability to play the game and was essentially Blizzard-sponsored griefing. And, for a lot of people, those feelings still burn almost as brightly! Which, to mean, only strengthens the fact that it was awesome. In our conversation, Liore basically said, “That kind of chaos is the whole reason I like multiplayer games! People are content and I want them to be able to do horrible shit to me!” Aro, on the other hand, came down firmly in the “Don’t fuck with my experience, griefer asshole” camp.

For my part, I basically called Liore an MMO Libertarian (although I think Anarchist is probably closer to what I actually meant), but simultaneously told Aro that she was wrong. Is that incongruous? Probably. But it’s how I felt. I really *like* world-affecting events, and I want more of them. They make things feel alive, and give the setting a feeling of constant change. On the other hand, people are jerks. I don’t know that I’d really want to spend a lot of time letting them be jerks to me (or defending myself against that inevitability).

Back in MY day…

I’ve mentioned it before, but one of my major gaming influences was a MUD-style game called GemStone IV. Its mechanics are based on the Rolemaster P&P game, and there are just so many “hardcore” things about it. Aside from the Rolemaster crit-tables of doom (one point of damage to the wrong place could be enough to kill you), the game itself had a strong time-limited experience mechanic. Levels took progressively more experience to gain, but the XP/hour was more-or-less fixed – often leveling time was counted in weeks. If you died, you would drop your weapons on the ground – where, if the monsters didn’t pick them up and kill your rescuers, the in-game garbage collection algorithm might sweep through and destroy them forever! If you weren’t rescued within a certain amount of time, then your corpse would decay and you’d return to life naked – with all of your gear left behind to the same fate. On top of that, if you hadn’t bribed the church enough (another increasingly expensive endeavor), your character would just be lost to the underworld forever.

The game was also set up so that free-for-all PvP was enabled at all times. Characters with the pick-pocketing skill could steal loot from other characters (limited to small commodities and cash), but unless you were diligent about closing every container you wore – or spent valuable training points in perception and pick-pocketing yourself – you might not realize that your healing herbs were gone until you went to grab them at a vital moment in combat. When you were in town, there was an automated sheriff who would sweep through and arrest people that killed others or were somehow caught stealing (and accused promptly). But, in general, the thieves would hang out just on the edge of the sheriff’s jurisdiction because they were also the only people who could open lockboxes – the game’s primary form of treasure reward – and sometimes those boxes were trapped and would kill everyone around them when a skill check was failed. So, typically, you were out of luck if someone jacked all your treasure in the few moments you had to spend in a place like that.

Player killing was moderately regulated – the GMs didn’t particularly appreciate people who just went around killing others for fun, and killing people multiple times in a row was strongly frowned upon. But, in the end, the world was very loosely patrolled externally. Most of the societal constructs had to be built by the players, and the “rules of the town” were only as strong as the enforcement of the community.

The problem, here, is that it’s really easy to find situations in which the community either can’t or won’t mete out appropriate consequences. In GemStone, for instance, there was a constant meta-debate on the forums about whether stealing was something that was reasonable for people to do. “The skills support it, so it’s totally fine!” and “Elanthia is a frontier setting, and bad people get ahead!” competed with “I just want to do my own thing, and this sucks” and “Real frontier towns would have hanged repeat offenders”. And I was pretty firmly on the side of “stealing sucks” – despite having a rogue that was fully trained in it. There were also plenty of people who would just provide services to everyone regardless of their reputation for doing shit like paying their healer and then immediately stealing back all of that money.

But would Elanthia have been as fun if there hadn’t been any of these choices and arguments? I’m not sure. I am sure that a Might-Makes-Right society sucks unless you are Mighty enough to actively participate in the rule-setting process. Despite that, I played GemStone for years.

That’s great, but how does it relate to zombies?

If I’ve painted GemStone as some sort of free-for-all craziness, it really wasn’t. What it really was, first and foremost, was a role-playing opportunity. Certainly, there were parts of the community that didn’t participate as heavily, but straight-up out-of-character(OOC)/real-world conversations were unacceptable in public chat channels, and another good way of getting a talking-to from the GMs. Players created all sorts of interesting interpersonal relationships and storylines. But one of the most important sets of events were GM-run storylines. They’d build NPCs, script intricate world events, create unique items, etc. Basically everything you’d want out of a cool tabletop game, but with several hundred players trying to participate instead of just 5 or 6.

When I first started playing graphical MMOs, this was always one of the pieces that held me back. Star Wars Galaxies had a bit of world-building, and at least the world itself didn’t feel particularly static, but the storyline did. When I first started playing WoW, I spent a lot of time trying to get similar RP experiences – that’s really what I knew and what I wanted, a game with fun mechanics AND good RP. But the world and story were both SO STATIC. And I had to rely on players who had all sorts of different ideas about the world and what was fun, and it just didn’t work at all. So, a couple years later, when the Zombie Invasion hit, I was totally psyched up by it. It hit all the right notes about a changing world and the shit that was ostensibly going down affecting my character. Sure, I couldn’t train or do my professions as easily, but who cared? I got to (try to) fight off a zombie infestation in my city – and that was awesome. Yes, it sucked that I couldn’t actually fight off the invasion like I had been able to back in GemStone, but at least it showed a glimpse of it.

Many words, no real point

But how would I feel about an event like that these days? Is it something that a current MMO could pull off again? I’m not sure. I do know that Blizzard hasn’t had any major events like that since, and I think that’s a shame. There have been a few events in RIFT (like the end-of-1.x Storm Legion invasion) that did affect all the capitol cities and were hard to avoid, but none of them were really on the quite the same level of take-over. I think it completely depends on the type of game I am playing, and my reasons for being there.

I do not generally agree that people having the opportunity to be assholes to each other is necessary to gain really interesting gaming experiences. People say that a lot about a game like EVE (and also, 40 hours of boring spreadsheeting for 5 minutes of totally awesome gaming), but all that ever did was make me want to stay away from it. PvP servers are similar to me. MMO PvP can even be really fun! But getting murdered 10 times in a row while I’m just trying to pick berries and have literally no opportunity to defend myself is just… shitty. Sure, I can log off and go play another character for 30 minutes, but that’s letting the other guy win, and despite it not being fun, I am not built to accept that easily.

So, I don’t know. I guess I don’t mind when my game world is antagonizing me, but dislike when my fellow players are allowed to do that.

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Happly New Year to everyone! It’s the end of another holiday season, and that means that there was (is still, even) another Steam sale. With that comes the inevitable realization that I have way too many games. And while that realization does seem to repeat itself quite often, it hasn’t stopped me from participating. Again.

However, this year, I’ve been a bit more judicious than in the past. Or maybe I’ve just purchased most of the large packs that interest me already. Who knows? What I do know is that I’ve picked up a number of indie games that I have somehow missed in other packs or shopping sprees. So far, that has included Intrusion 2, FTL, Legend of Grimrock, Mark of the Ninja, The Binding of Isaac, and Hotline Miami (thanks Liore!).

I haven’t yet approached Mark of the Ninja or Legend of Grimrock – or FTL, since that kind of scares me – but Steam is reporting 8 hours on Hotline Miami, 2 hours on The Binding of Isaac, and 30 minutes with Intrusion 2 (enough for the point I’m going to make, here). And I have to say that while all three of these games are fun, they each very much suffer from being “indie”.

Hotline Miami is probably my favorite of the bunch, and the time I’ve put in backs that up. Sure, some part of that time was paused while I was doing things around the house, but I’ve completed all the levels, unlocked a number of the masks, AND gone back for more. It’s a cool mix of strategy and shameless beatemup, with a funky, violent vibe. It runs smoothly and supports my Xbox 360 controller well. But there is no way to control the volume in the game. Music volume has a slider, but the sound effects do not. I eventually solved this by using the Windows audio mixer to drop the sound level for the program, but that seems very silly. It also has been having issues with Steamworks – reportedly, enabling Steamworks will cause some installations to crash. For me, it just isn’t tracking any achievements. Which is annoying, because I scanned through the achievements and a lot of them seem really fun to try to pull off! I can obviously take on those challenges anyway (or make up my own), but it has definitely impacted the replay value for me.

The Binding of Isaac is a really bleak game that is set somewhere between a child’s nightmare and purgatory, with distinctive art and sound – I mean, you literally fight your enemies with your tears! The problem is, I am constantly fighting against the controls. It plays in a similar style to an old top-down shooter – say, Smash TV – and is crying out for dual joysticks. By default, these are implemented with WASD for movement and Up/Down/Left/Right for shooting. It’s undocumented, but you can also use the mouse to fire, with aiming direction determined by your cursor’s relative position to your character. This is… not the easiest. I went looking in the menus for controller support, and the game literally says “Gamepad? Use JoyToKey (Google it!)”. I mean, it’s nice that there are some breadcrumbs but also… fuck you. I mean, I got the program and set it up (with more googling for how to map a 360 controller to the keys, and a lot of experimentation for which mapping made sense), but I haven’t had to do this sort of shit for like 10 years. And JoyToKey does not seem to play very well with analog sticks – they seem to “stick” in a given direction occasionally. I mean, I’ve been pushing through it because the game is fun, but actually having precise control would be nice.

Intrusion 2 is another dual-stick shooter, although it’s more side-scroller and reminiscent of Contra than top-down. The problem here is just that it’s not smooth. Everything is just a little bit jerky and kind of frustrating. I want to like the game, and I don’t hate it, but I feel like I’m again missing out on some more responsive controls. This one at least works with my controller.

So I guess the meat of this is that I am sort of struggling with myself over the following questions: Given that I like a lot of things about the indie development trend (in terms of storytelling, interesting/innovative gameplay, publishing/pricing models), is it also unreasonable to expect some level of polish and support? Is asking for controller support, resolution control, and SOUND LEVELS too much? Should I just be happy that I’m getting to experience these games at all?

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So, as you may have noticed, I’ve been away for a while. This is mostly due to the fact that I’ve actually… been away for a while. Like, on a vacation! It was a long one, and it was awesome – I went to South Africa with my family, and we had a great time. I also didn’t play any games (except for the few odd iOS games that I have on my phone), and was only somewhat internet connected. And, while I do enjoy writing a blog post, I was way too busy doing interesting things to get worked up enough to write one.


See? Here’s a giraffe!

Anyway, I have returned! And once I got back, I realized (okay, I knew it happened, but it didn’t matter too much) that I’d missed the launch of Storm Legion, and that I had some catching up to do. No problem, I expected that, and most of the people I know are still working their way through the levels, or getting sucked into dimension-building, or only just getting started on any of the tons of things to do in Rift. That’s cool, it’s an MMO, and there are striations in the leveling game that are to be expected. Plus, I’m planning to continue my mostly-carefree attitude towards Rift and just play it at my own pace and enjoy things and jump into groups and raids and whatever as I have time and they come up, rather than pushing to get into it at the cutting edge. This suits me these days, and gives me time to play some other games.

But then I looked at the other games in my library, and in particular, Borderlands 2. Before I left, I had finished off Playthrough 1 and done some of the pirate DLC. My other friends were in a similar position, and we were all within a couple levels of each other. But now, when I talked to the group, we’re a lot more spread out. One friend has had a bunch of time to play and has hit 50 (though he has a lot of side missions left to do), one is basically still where he was, and another is only about halfway through the first playthrough. And it turns out that this sucks. Despite BL2 having a really nice drop-in/drop-out system – and having fixed a bunch of the issues that happened with quests in BL1 – they have done nothing at all to deal with the issues that their level system presents to a random group of characters.

Now, I’m using BL as an example here, but the issue works across all sorts of games. And it’s especially frustrating as these sort of “RPG elements” (I really hate that description, and I’m sure I will bitch about it more later) become more prevalent across genres. Obviously this occurs in the MMO world. Tons of recent multiplayer shooters have picked up the leveling mechanic to various degrees (whether it affect starting loadouts, ability access, actual damage done/taken, whatever). It’s a problem in games like Dungeon Defenders, Diablo 3, and League of Legends. And the basic issue is always the same – it’s really fucking annoying to want to play with my friends but either be unable to, or to have the game punish one (or both) of us for playing characters at disparate levels.

1 damage again?! Ugh.

What ends up happening is that, if you are the lower-leveled character/account/whatever, then you are unable to contribute meaningfully. Either you can set the game at a level that is “appropriate” for the lower-level character and the higher one just rolls everything over (generally not gaining anything useful to them), or you set it to the level appropriate for the higher-level character, and the lower one just has to sit in the corner and hide. Sure, maybe they get more experience, but there’s almost no reason for them to actually be at the controls. And, really, that sucks. When I pick up a game and join up with a friend, I want us to both be able to have a good time – and that means that we both have a chance of doing well, and we both have a chance at helping the other one out. Why is this a hard concept? It really doesn’t seem like it should be.

So, yeah. A couple people suggested solutions to me – solutions that include “why not make a character and just play that character with your friend and have a single-player character and multiplayer character?” And the answer is pretty simple – because that doesn’t actually solve the issue. The whole point is that I want to just play with my character and my friend’s character and whoever that happens to be should be good enough. Otherwise, the whole thing just devolves into yet more appointment gaming where we have to schedule playtime and/or hope that everyone’s schedules and random game desires align perfectly and that sucks. Why build a game with drop-in/drop-out mechanics if you can’t actually drop in and out and not have it be shitty?

I guess things like Rift’s mentoring system (which I think was stolen from City of Heroes or some other superhero game) do a good job of starting to address the issue. But they aren’t enough. Rift, in particular, has this awesome system where you can just say “I want to be pretend-level 33 right now” and then, bam, you are! At least in relative damage (more or less) and survivability. This is awesome. I can play with my wife even if we’re at different points in the game, or play with my friend I just convinced to join, or help out with some guildies’ alts. The problem is it flat-out stops at max level. So then you have the same problem, where someone with a year’s worth of gear collection can completely outclass someone who is new to the cap. I hope someone at Trion (and elsewhere) figures this out and extends the system to level cap. I’d also love it if you could temporarily level UP to participate in things.

I’m sure there are other things. Games without traditional leveling mechanics seem like they could be awesome (although, I haven’t been able to figure out the details yet). Games with better dynamic content difficulty would be good. I dunno, maybe even games that just rely on having a fun experience to get you to come back, as opposed to some crappy-ass bolted-on mechanics to make you feel like you’re missing out if you don’t play game X every day.

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