Tuesday, January 23, 2007

These Wicked Games

What Wicked Games we play...

In 1980-81, there was a brief D&D phase where I was an elven magic user. Then there was a long period of absolutely no gaming at all. I discovered the Internet in 1992 and hung out in a couple of MUD environments. MUDs were text-based environments where you could create rooms where people visited and chatted. Again this period was brief.

It was not until I met my husband that I was introduced to gaming of all sorts. My husband-to-be was the creator of RuneQuest Adventures, which was a popular fanzine of the Runequest paper and pencil game. When the Magic: The Gathering creators came down the coast to introduce the game, my hubby became an early player/collector. My hubby also played a little DOOM. It was not until Diablo and Diablo II came out that I really started to get into gaming online.

Then came March 1999, when my hubby bought Everquest home. Almost immediately, I was drawn to look over his shoulder. This was so very different than the games we have played.

The 3-D at the time would seem relatively primitive now, but at the time it was really compelling. We had to buy another copy and I started playing in April 1999.

My husband played a warrior named, Stormbull and I played a paladin named, Salome Desertheart (since her character starts in the Desert of Ro). Looking back, both of us had the rare opportunity to play a MMORPG in a time that will never be replicated. We had started so early that everyone we played with on the E'ci server (half American/ half Japanese server) was not only discovering the landscape of Everquest, but the whole MMORPG genre. We remember when the Desert of Ro was a dangerous place to be since there wasn't anyone on the server who could fight the sand giants. There was a golden era when you knew almost everybody on the server and there was a sense that we were all discovering this together. There was enough space, things to do, and loot for everyone. I remembering having my avatar taking time to fish and watching the sunset in this 3-D world and saying to myself that this is really cool (until my avatar drank too much ale, wobbled off the pier, and drowned since I didn't know how to swim).

We did get our first taste to come in our first guild we joined. Guilds are groups of players within MMORPG that are connected by a chat channel for the purpose of playing together and who have tags with their names indicating they belong to a group. We joined them because they were nice people, we were a little ahead of them in content and experience, but that didn't matter to us. Then we watched the guild break apart because people started feeling slighted that they were not as equipped as others or had hard feelings that they didn't get items that dropped from certain mobs or monsters. At one point I had the guild leader hand over leadership to me as I logged on and that was the beginning of the end of this particular guild.

My husband and I were invited to join a more organized and experienced guild, Hand of Darkness, who had set up a class based mentoring system that was wonderful.

Unfortunately, we didn't know that they too were having internal problems that would lead to a break up. We did end up in the Sacrament of Chaos, where we stayed until we ultimately left in 2001.

Guilds, especially guilds with skilled players, were a great way to experience content that would be difficult to do on your own or with a pickup group. Our most treasured moments was when we did raids or mini-raids on content with people in our guild that we were used to working with. The whole cooperative play aspect of the game always drew us in. There are times where are core group would take on a place few people were going and we had little chance of being successful, but it was fun trying to work on a strategy to ultimately be successful.

A highlight for me in game was the time we had spent hours in this special zone called, the Fear plane. On the bulletin boards and in game, my human avatar was known to have a dwarf fetish. They were so darn cute in the first version of Everquest. One day, after clearing the zone of mobs/monsters, all of the dwarves in the zone gathered around me for a bow and group hug. It was really nice. While Fear zone had some awful moments, that instance and a few raids into this zone just to rescue players who couldn't break the zone, made it worthwhile.

I have always said that the best and worst thing about MMORPGS is playing with other people. It was at its best when players banded together to defeat the game, and at its worst when players played against other players. Everquest became a game where items that are needed to be able to handle higher and higher content was scarce, and so there was heated competition and a subjective mini-game about who was worthy to get items. The Japanese players who shared our server when we were asleep, awarded items randomly to all who participated, whereas the Americans had a rather elaborate systems to determine worthiness and need.

Our downfall in such a game was that we took about 2-3 month breaks from the game when we had too much of the politics and bad feelings. It was supposed to be a game. It was supposed to be fun, but why did it seem like work?

The game required you to spend hours upon hours at a time without sleep for sometimes days. It was not unusual for someone to have played 200 days (or the equivalent of 4800 hours total) we spent significantly less than that but still way too much for our tastes in a two year period. In a player vs. player competition it is impossible to compete for worthiness against people who have made this game their life and play 80 hours or more a week.

We noticed also that it became a game that items would become obsolete so quickly that there was this never ending treadmill of having to access things. We would help people get items to get experience but also with the expectation that in exchange someday they could help us, but it was always the case that these people would be putting off helping us and asking us to get the latest and greatest thing.

People started resenting us because we took breaks from the game, while they didn't. So each item we received met with resentment because they thought that taking breaks from the game made us less worthy. As people accumulate "time played" the stakes get greater to justify the time and work they put in and that is the root of the resentment. People would say hurtful things, all for a game.

After our Everquest experience, we took a break. We played around with an experimental MMORPG called A Tale In The Desert. It was experimental because it didn't involve any combat and it had a political aspect where denizens could propose and pass laws enforceable by the programmers. It was interesting and we got to meet people from Turkey and Israel, which made for really compelling conversations just before the invasion of Iraq. Ultimately though this game had too much tedium for us. Life in A Tale In The Desert was to grow wheat, smelt metals, keep your camels and sheep alive, while making Egyptian obelisks. It was a lot of repetitive work making thread, weaving it into canvas for stuff. It got to the point my avatar went crazy and ran off just to fish to escape the tedium (Tedium in the Desert?).

We then found City of Heroes around the time I was nursing my son. I was able to breastfeed my son and play a superhero with my husband. We lucked out because we found a group of mostly other parents of small children to play with. What really made the difference is using Teamspeak to talk on headphones rather than just type.

It was a great time with no pressure of having to obtain items, but without the endless pursuit of things, we blew through the content and there was nothing left to hold us there. Plus, my son could no longer just sit on my lap and nurse and nap. City of Heroes and its cousin City of Villians are very fun MMORPGs, but the playability for us was limited. Many of the people we played with were only playing until World of Warcraft would come out.

I looked into The Sims Online, but it quickly devolved into the world of cyber sex operation that was total turnoff.

When World of Warcraft came out, we tried it out. This game was far more playable than Everquest or Everquest II, which we Beta tested. WOW featured my favorite class of all time, the Hunter. I picked the hunter because it was an excellent solo character with ranged bow and a pet who acts as a melee character. I picked a solo character so I didn't have to depend on grouping with other people and have them depend on me to stay online for hours. I could log on and fiddle with my avatar and do part of a quest, then logoff to do other things. That worked until I got to a level that I would have to group more to accomplish anything more.

With this game we tried to reclaim the feeling that we had when we just began in 1999, but it just didn't happen with us. Everyone is jaded now and these games are about competing against other players for stuff rather than banding together against the game.

World of Warcraft is now the hottest game in the World dwarfing both Everquest games. We have friends who still play and run into people who play. I still get notices for free weekends to re-activate my characters on Everquest and World of Warcraft. There is always a twinge of something that makes me want to peek back in. These games are compelling, that is why millions are playing the game around the world. I just do not have the time to devote to these games.

In the past couple of years, we have moved to boardgames where we invite real people to play with us. We play lots of games like Power Grid, Ticket to Ride, Tigris and Euyrphrates, Carcasonne, etc. We also go to Monday night gaming over at a Pizza parlor in Marin once in awhile. It is not the same thrill of the early years of Everquest, but we have our lives back. What is refreshing is that you can play a game and either win or lose. It is not this ongoing game that is more like work.

We warn our friends with older children about these MMORPGs. When I played these games, my teenage years and my twenties (and early thirties) were spent being out in the world and accomplishing things. I cannot imagine starting my teenage and early adulthood stuck on a computer playing these games endlessly to the exclusion of anything else. I cannot imagine having my young adulthood having mostly or exclusively virtual friends. MMORPGS are designed to take over people's lives by intentional time sinks and setting unattainable "win" conditions that may never come. Timesinks are there to keep the majority of players from blowing through the content and the scarcity is there to challenge some and keep others playing. When it comes down to it it is about market share and keeping the monthly fees coming in.

MMORPGS...What a time we had...what wicked games they were...

No comments: