Would I be playing Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, Vanguard, and Warhammer Online if they were alive today?

The oncoming shutdown of WildStar isn’t the first time that I’ve heard some low-level snark slung against bloggers and players from various quarters to the effect of “You’re not playing it right now, so why are you mourning this? That’s some weird hypocrisy right there!”

To me, that ignores a few factors, such as:

  • You can’t always be playing all the MMOs all the time, even the ones you like
  • If you’ve spent significant time with a game in the past and have a connection to it, that doesn’t fade to nothing when you’ve taken a break or left it. Plus, I’ve done my time, so that gives me the right to pine over its loss. Tell me you haven’t felt sad over the death of some musician or celeb that you haven’t spent time enjoying in the past year. When things are taken away that we loved in the past, that can hurt us in the now.
  • You can love a game and not be playing it for understandable reasons, such as a broken state, an obvious impending shutdown, or a lack of developer involvement

Anyway, this all got me thinking about whether or not I’d be playing certain shutdown MMOs if, for whatever reason, they were legitimately started back up and running today. We’re talking fresh starts, new servers, the works. And while I would be ecstatic to see any MMO revived, I can’t say that I would play all of them past perhaps a night of curious tourism.

Star Wars Galaxies is a strange case. It never grabbed me when it was running, but the more I learn about it now, the more I think that I could have really warmed up to this game — or at least some aspects of it. It certainly would provide a nice alternative to SWTOR for those who want a Star Wars MMO fix but are done with BioWare’s business model and approach.

I can say that, in regards to City of Heroes, the answer there would be an emphatic “you betcha!” I’ve been absolutely craving a good superhero MMO the way that City of Heroes once provided, and that was the perfect game to return to. I’ve really regretted not having spent more time playing it past 2006 or so.

Vanguard is a different story. It’s a game that I sincerely admired for a lot of reasons, yet it kind of is lumped in the same pool of fantasy MMOs with solid feature sets yet don’t grab me all the time as EverQuest II or TERA. I guess it would really depend if there was a movement among the MMO community to be engaged in that game that would pull me along for the ride.

And as for Warhammer Online… the answer would be “no.” I put in my time there, got out of it as full of an experience as I wanted, and ultimately felt as though the game wasn’t quite all there and wasn’t the approach that appealed to me.

That’s just a few of the bigger ones, but I know that WildStar will soon join the list of games that I’ll feel occasional twinges of sorrow that I won’t be able to log into when I want to see that beautiful, vibrant world.

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Nostalgia Lane: Dogz

Back in the mid-1990s, the internet was only really starting to take hold in homes, and on our college campus, it had finally arrived in the fall of 1995. We endured all kinds of long website loading times on very slow modems to see the glory of the world wide web, and it was both strange and glorious.

One of the effects of the internet invasion was that software was easier than ever to share and download, especially with all of the different trial programs out there. So when I went to work in the computer center help room on our college campus, I found out that everyone had been bowled over by this program called Dogz for Windows 95.

Dogz wasn’t a game, not really. It belonged to the virtual pet craze of the 1990s, but also to the “things doing unproductive stuff on your desktop” craze that was infecting a lot of Windows machines. We were kind of nuts for overloading our computers with all sorts of gimmicky programs that would slow everything down to a crawl. Today it seems like the opposite — we’re all about streamlining and simplifying our workspace. I guess it was the novelty of it all.

Anyway! Dogz! So the idea here is that you would adopt one of five highly animated dogs and then raise and train them. Each dog had a specific personality, so generally you’d pick the one that was suited to your own. Personally, I liked Jowls because he had a sweater, but your mileage may vary.

I thought it was a nice touch that the pet would then break out of the window and romp all over your desktop (if you had the window reduced in size instead of fullscreen). You could then train the dog with spritzes of water and snacks, feed and water them, pet them, and play with them using a variety of objects from the screen. Throwing the ball around to see the dog chase it or playing tug of war was pretty entertaining, at least for a while.

I guess the idea here was similar to vanity pets in MMOs — to give you that feeling of virtual companionship, even if you were so desperately alone. So alone. Why? Why wouldn’t anyone date me? Why was I destined to be alone each and every Friday evening? WHYYYYYY HUG ME DOG AND LICK AWAY MY TEARZ

Ahem.

Anyway, while we spent a good amount of time fiddling with Dogz at our job, it was mostly because it wasn’t seen as a game and playing games there was frowned upon. I never took Dogz with me on my laptop or fell in love with it — it was more of a temporary fascination that became dull once you’d seen all that it had to show you. I know that the series kept on going for a good long while on many platforms, but right there in 1995 was where Dogz and I crossed paths and then parted for good.

Fornite and the freedom of gaming silly

My relationship with the uber-popular, can’t-escape-it Fortnite has been one of an educated outsider. I’ve covered it for news and have listened to my teens talk about it endlessly, but it’s not a game experience that I’m eager to have myself. Kind of like how I feel about MOBAs. I can acknowledge that it’s hot, I can understand why it appeals, but it’s just not for me.

That said, in attempting to dissect the Fortnite phenomenon, there’s an element here that I think a lot of the battle royale copycats have overlooked, which is the spirit of humor in the game. DayZ, H1Z1, PUBG — all, by and large, skew more toward gritty and realistic (not entirely, but by and large). Fortnite, on the other hand, has been a goofball since the very beginning. And that definitely has played to its favor. There’s a particular joy that can be found in games that free themselves up to be silly.

I’m not talking about nonsensical lunacy but rather “Weird Al” and “Simpsons” kind of silly. The type of silliness that isn’t afraid to go for the cheap visual gag, the doofy outfits, or the bizarre juxtapositions of a fight-to-the-death arena and players wooshing around in golf carts and shopping carts. This whole approach gives Fortnite some key advantages in drawing in large crowds, including:

1. There’s that attractive, colorful art style and palette that softens the PvP nature and is visually inviting (see: League of Legends).

2. Humor takes the edge off of winning or losing — because as long as we’re entertained and having fun, winning and losing don’t matter as much as they did before.

3. Being silly opens a game up to creative approaches that aren’t always grounded in reality. Look at the old Duke Nukem 3D. There were tons of 3D shooters at that time, but DN3D distinguished itself with an “anything goes” tongue-in-cheek approach that wasn’t afraid to push aside realism to have goofy, pointless fun at times.

4. It also allows over-the-top combat without anyone complaining that it is “immersion breaking.” Those fights become the game standard and everyone is OK with that.

If you were to chart MMOs on the spectrum of silly to serious, you’d probably get a good range… but would also see more titles lean toward the latter. Get humor wrong, and you alienate players. Include too much silliness, and you might be communicating that your game is just a joke.

Titles like World of Warcraft, WildStar, Fallen Earth, and TERA, in varying degrees, embrace their silly side. You get a lot of this from eastern titles, too, that have that anime bizarre wackadoodle attitude to them, although that’s not always appealing. Usually I don’t mind a game having fun in this way, but it does have to be incorporated into the game’s base design and personality — and not just appear out of nowhere as a non-sequitur.

I definitely enjoy when a game can cut loose a bit and have fun. As kids, teens, or adults, sometimes we need that, especially in our relaxation. There’s a value to going goofy, and it doesn’t exclude adults by default when that happens. Some of the silliest people I know are as old or older than I, because they know that it’s important to laugh and play as well as the other parts of life.

Perhaps it’s time to break down and take the easy mode

Back in the 80s and 90s, I don’t remember computer RPGs offering difficulty modes — although first-person shooters sure as heck did. In fact, I vividly recall how Wolfenstein 3-D would outright taunt the player with difficulty levels ranging from “Can I play, Daddy?” to “I am Death Incarnate.” The easiest of those, I should mention, was illustrated by your hero’s portrait wearing a baby’s bonnet and sucking on a pacifier.

This got the point across to the player fairly well: If you go the easy route, you’re a baby. Even though it wasn’t a multiplayer game and no one else would ever know, the player would — and so the player’s pride and honor were attacked.

In me, at least, this cultivated a long-standing tradition when it came to any game that offered difficulty levels: Never, ever, ever take the easiest one. In fact, never go below “normal” in any circumstance. To do so would be to admit defeat, and that was unacceptable.

I know I’m not alone in feeling like this, because I’ve seen other players mention as such. Easy mode doesn’t exist for us, because even though we’re not Ironmen or Vikings, we have some standard of toughness.

But…

But maybe I’m starting to relent on this, especially when it comes to RPGs.

The thing is, RPGs these days take an insanely long amount of time to complete. Less, of course, than the eternal treadmill of MMOs, but still, you plop Fallout 4 or Witcher 3 in my lap, and you’re asking for a time commitment from start to end that is pretty staggering. These aren’t walking simulators done in two hours or action games done in 20. We’re talking 80, 100, 150+ hours to finish. And that number tends to skew on the high side if the game’s combat is difficult or impedes progress.

Divinity: Original Sin 2 recently put out a definitive edition or somesuch, and as part of that, it offers a new “story mode” that is easier than the easiest mode that it originally launched with. From what I understand, the story mode doesn’t eliminate combat, but it does make it far less punishing and reduces fights as an obstacle to progression.

That actually has some appeal to me. Not every RPG is created equal — nor are their combat systems. Some games have combat systems that aren’t as much fun to me as others, and I’m not the type to relish an encounter that takes 10 minutes to resolve these days. So a more streamlined approach actually sounds appealing, especially if it would let me see more of the game world and experience the story.

Then again, there’s always my pride. And that baby bonnet. And this very public admission that I might be losing my edge in my middle age.

Dealing with MMO feature bloat, pruning, and obsolescence

Today I’m going to combine a few rants/whines about MMO systems and look at it as a combined, rather than separate, issue. There are two situations that particularly bother me about developing live MMORPGs, and I’m starting to think that they’re related.

The first issue that I have are games that introduce new systems and then either fail to support them or end up deleting them in the future entirely. World of Warcraft is downright notorious for doing this. Blizzard is forever introducing expansion-selling features — glyphs, jewelcrafting, garrisons, artifact weapons, order halls — and then downplaying them or outright eliminating them come the next expansion.

This frustrates me because it creates an environment where nothing can be depended on to last. You get super-invested in these systems because the studio is pushing them hard, and then you’re left holding nothing for all of your hard work and effort. Star Wars Galaxies’ Creature Handlers know of which I speak. It’s also frustrating because then it develops an inner attitude of mistrust, of thinking “well, why get invested in this, it won’t last!” And that’s not the attitude I want to have when playing a game. I want to get excited about it, I want to revel in it, and I want to play with the reasonable expectation of feature stability as long as that game lasts.

The second issue I have are with MMORPGs that, over the course of time, have introduced so many additional systems that they are now bloated and incomprehensible to the newcomer. Long-time players (and developers!) who have been with the game through the introduction of each of these systems don’t notice the bloat, as they’ve gradually grown accustomed to them. But too much in the way of systems can be a barrier to anyone coming into the game who now has to read enormous guides, anyone who wants to come back after a long absence, or anyone who would like to roll a new character and has to navigate all of these systems to build up a proper toon.

Marvel Heroes, pre-shutdown, is a good example of this. That game was forever adding new systems and stats and various ways to develop characters to the point where it gave me a headache to try to figure out everything that had to be done in order to properly build a superhero. And that was a game where your primary interaction was fast mouse button mashing!

As I said, the more I thought about both of these situations, the more I realized that they really are two sides to the same coin. MMOs should and do add features over time. That’s just part of live game growth, and it can be really exciting for players. But MMOs do have issues with too many systems and unsupported systems that ruin the quality of play for newcomers and experienced vets alike.

There’s no miracle cure for this but rather a sensible middle ground. As MMOs introduce new systems, they have to commit to fully supporting them going forward. These new systems should integrate well with previous systems and not overpower, overwrite, or clash with preexisting features. And MMO studios should always be evaluating the number of systems and how they work together — and guard against bloat. They should consider streamlining obtuse systems and even combine two or more related systems together in an improved fashion.

And if a system really won’t be supported, it should be cut — but that should be the final resort rather than a regular habit.

Decluttering

I’ve recently had the opportunity to go through two major rounds of de-cluttering in my life. The first was two months ago, when I cleaned out my office of 18 years as they refurbished it. That place was pretty much my second apartment/home and had more junk and decorations than I care to admit.

The second has taken place over the course of August, as my wife and I prepared to move to a new house. We’ve lived in this home for a decade with four kids, and while none of us are excessively messy or hoarders, you can imagine that stuff piles up.

Our moving strategy was to cut clutter to the bone — we gutted rooms, packing only what we really wanted to keep and donating/selling/trashing the rest. We cleaned out areas that hadn’t been touched since we moved in. We got rid of half-used paint cans, dug through a mess of outdoors stuff in the shed, and sold more than half of our furniture through Facebook groups. I found myself going through boxes of stuff that I had been lugging around since college and chucking most of it (I kept only things that I would want to share or give to the kids some day). I shed myself of about ten boxes of books that I’d packed up once I got a Kindle.

The thing was, the more we did this — both in my office and at home — the more we started to like our environment. When it came time to move back into my office, I didn’t want to unpack that much because I liked how clean and modern it looked. And we kept remarking how open and clean our house looked without all of the stuff that had been taking up space here and there. It wasn’t that we wanted to live an ascetic life, it’s just that somewhere along the line, we had gotten used to a certain level of clutter and stopped seeing it around us. Once it was gone, the house felt refreshing and new.

I’ve certainly experienced this on a smaller scale by “de-cluttering” parts of my life. Maybe I was too busy in one area or too disorganized in another, and I fixed that. Often it was straightening up my work space or coming up with a storage system that kept the clutter firmly under control.

As I head to a new house and new office this week, I’m hoping that we can take this newfound appreciation for a clutter-free space and try to carry it forward. I think that electronics have helped to consolidate some of the entertainment/work clutter of the past, but there’s always kids’ toys, kitchen goods, and the million other things that we lugged along with us on this journey.

Is there any point to playing an MMO “once in a while?”

As I’ve expressed in the past, in an ideal world where I had all the time to game I wanted in addition to everything else in my life, I would most likely be playing (and blogging about) a lot more things. I’ve tried to figure out ways to maximize my limited time, and to an extent, that has helped. But there’s a huge wall when it comes to the idea of logging into an MMO that I do kind of want to play — but I don’t have the time to do it more than once in a while.

The thought process goes like this:

  • “Oh, I haven’t played or would like to play GAME X! Maybe I should log in tonight…?”
  • “Maybe. But what’s the point if you’re not really getting into it? What can you get out of just one or two sessions here or there?”
  • “I… could get some personal enjoyment. Maybe a blog post. That’s something.”
  • “But no real progression. No social connections. And without some level of dedication, you most likely won’t be coming back. So you’re really just wasting that time that could be spent progressing and having fun in a game that you play regularly.”
  • “I guess you’re right. Back to FAMILIAR GAME Y it is!”

It’s an even more brutal thought process if the game in particular has a low population (like Fallen Earth) or a very uncertain future (like WildStar). Some games, if I’ve progressed in them far enough or have an episodic rollout, are easier to use as “once in a while” MMOs.

It’s an even more grindingly brutal thought process if the MMO in question is one that I haven’t played before and will need to learn and get acquainted with. I really should make a rule that if I try out a new game, I commit to doing it three nights in a row so I’m not tempted to jet off to an old favorite where I can just log in and play without taxing my comfort zone any.

I’ve thought about streaming as a way to break through this mental zone. If I’m directly entertaining others and sharing my experiences, it might make flitting about to different titles personally appealing. The focus and goal wouldn’t be on progression, it would be on the moment-to-moment experience and social aspect.

Of course, I have no idea if I’d be a good streamer or what that entails or if that would just eat up more time I don’t have. I’m going to be settling into a new schedule, and there is a possibility that I won’t be as crunched for time as much as I used to be once I get through this transition.

What do you think? Is there any point to playing an MMO once in a while?