Gaming Round-Up: How MMOs Changed Me, The Division, ESO, and More

With my goals in SWTOR complete, I’ve spent the last month or so bouncing between various different titles, which means it’s time for another gaming round-up post.

The Wrothgar zone in Elder Scrolls OnlineLong Division:

Around the holidays, I started poking back into The Division. I had trouble articulating why I gave up on the game before, and I’m even less clear on why I returned, but over a few weeks of sporadic play, I’ve managed to complete the main story and explore all of the launch zones.

I managed to solo the main story missions by simply outleveling or over-gearing them. It involved a bit of frustration at first, but once I was ahead of the curve, it was pretty easy to stay ahead of the curve, and I settled into a good rhythm of play as I cleared out zone after zone.

I had only one speed bump, when I hit max level. See, The Division has these things called World Tiers that scale up the difficulty and rewards of everything in the game to keep everything relevant no matter how geared you get.

Which is actually a great idea, except for the part where you’re automatically upgraded to the first World Tier (with no option to downgrade) as soon as you hit level cap, meaning you’ll be facing roughly twice as many enemies at roughly twice the strength while still in your crappy leveling gear.

The increased rewards allowed me to gear up very quickly, and soon the game was easier than ever, but it was a little bit of a baptism by fire.

My character in The DivisionThe World Tiers do damage the game’s ambiance a little bit, too. For most of the game, The Division has a relatively scarcity of both mobs and loot, and that helps sell the loneliness and privation of the setting. But then you hit max level, and suddenly it’s Diablo: Enemies are swarming everywhere, and loot is raining from the sky.

On a more positive note, the main story did get a lot more interesting by the end. For most of the game, it’s just a lot of shooting random criminals (many of whom are shockingly racist stereotypes), but the later legs delve a lot more into realms of conspiracy and intrigue, and it’s a lot more enjoyable.

The ending leaves some tantalizing loose ends, too. There’s definitely room for story DLC or even a Division 2, and I’m invested enough that I’d shell out money for either.

Overall, though, the most memorable parts of The Division will probably still be the smaller, more personal stories revealed through cell phone recordings, other lore pick-ups, and environmental storytelling. I was particularly invested in the ongoing trials of April Kelleher, a character you’ll follow through the entire game without ever actually meeting in person, and I became quite an avid listener to Rick Valassi’s “pirate radio podcast for paranoid insomniacs.”

The Division remains a game with more than a few hiccups, but I’m glad I came back and finished it. It’s got a real charm to it, despite its flaws.

Charles Bliss in The DivisionBoresinium:

I’ve also dabbled with a little Elder Scrolls Online in the past weeks. I bought the Orsinium DLC on sale ages ago, and this seemed like a good time to finally play it.

Despite Orsinium’s near-universal praise, I was concerned going in because my experience to date has been that Elder Scrolls Orcs are very boring. They seemed to just be the bog standard stereotype of, “Me Orc. Me hit things and eat bugs.”

Unfortunately, Orsinium did nothing to change this perception. I found the story so dull I struggled badly to find the motivation to even finish the DLC.

There are a few silver linings. One is that Wrothgar is a gorgeous zone. Man, why do all the best looking zones in this game belong to the most boring races?

Another is that Orcs have surprisingly bad security, and I never feel bad for robbing them. I made a lot of gold in that DLC.

Finally, I did enjoy Eveli. Yes, I liked the quirky Elf girl. I’m sure you’re all shocked by this unforeseeable turn of events.

My Bosmer sorcerer looking stylish in Elder Scrolls OnlineWhat was a more positive experience was the ESO Plus free trial, which gave everyone subscriber perks for a week. I’ve long been of the view a subscription in ESO is not worth it, but this may have changed my mind, at least a little. There’s a lot of very nice quality of life perks.

One of the biggest is the ability to freely dye costumes, which makes much more of a difference than I would have expected. Some of the costumes have a totally different feel with better dye jobs, and I’m now using them a lot more.

Also, rented access to all DLC is nice for one reason: A lot of DLC give you rewards just for zoning into the new area, and you’ll keep those rewards even if you let your sub lapse. I got a great assassin personality just for taking the thirty seconds to teleport to the Gold Coast.

I had hoped to play through the Imperial City DLC during the free week, as it is ostensibly the conclusion to the game’s “main” story about Molag Bal, but that proved untenable. Going in, I was worried about the open PvP nature of the Imperial City, but I never got ganked once. Instead, I was simply unable to solo the boss at the end of the first quest.

The Molag Bal story is actually fairly dull, so never seeing the conclusion isn’t the end of the world, but on principle, I dislike it when MMOs suddenly require groups to see the end of an otherwise soloable story. It’s one of the genre’s worst habits.

My sorcerer's latest new look in Elder Scrolls OnlineAlso, I was underwhelmed by the environmental design of the Imperial City. After hearing about it all game, I was expecting something amazing, but it’s just the standard Imperial architecture you see elsewhere, but with more holes.

Oh, and as you can see, I have changed my character’s look yet again. In my defense, this was the hairstyle I had in mind when I revamped her the first time; it just wasn’t available yet.

…And then I got her some new tattoos because I had some crowns leftover. On the plus side, these tattoos cover so much more skin that I can head canon these are genuinely new tattoos, rather than a “retcon” of her appearance.

Free mediocrity:

When the release date for the Age of Empires remaster got pushed back, everyone who’d pre-ordered got a free copy of a game called Rise of Nations. Recently I had the flu, and a slow-paced strategy game seemed like the way to go, so I loaded up RoN.

It’s definitely in a similar vein to the Age franchise, but it’s even slower, and feels kind of clunky and dull overall. It’s actually a lot closer to Empire Earth, the massively over-ambitious and deeply unsatisfying attempt to one-up Age of Empires.

A Korean town in Rise of Nations: Extended EditionThe strangest thing about it is how drunk on upgrades RoN is. I mean, AoE always had tons of upgrades, but RoN is on a whole other level. It feels like you spend all your time researching upgrades. There are literally upgrades for your upgrades.

So yeah, I didn’t last long in Rise of Nations. The one thing I can say is that the graphics hold up really well for what’s clearly an older game. It’s kind of like an impressionist painting, and the towns just look so pretty.

The music was nice, too.

New articles:

Finally, I’ve had a few more articles published at MMO Bro. One of my favourite articles that I’ve gotten to write in a long time discusses how playing MMOs has changed me as a gamer and altered my approach to gaming as a hobby. Surprisingly, it’s almost all good things.

I also go old school and rant about how subscriptions suck — something I did a lot of in the early years of this blog — and discuss how I believe the future of the genre lies with niche MMOs.


RPGs Versus Progression Games

Has it ever occurred to anyone that the video games we refer to as role-playing games, or RPGs, are spectacularly mislabeled?

Scott Ryder in Mass Effect: AndromedaLet’s look at what that term actually means. “Role-playing” refers to assuming an identity or personality other than your own. To pretend to be someone else, usually to act out a scenario or tell a story.

While most RPGs incorporate at least some element of this, it’s very rarely the focus. It isn’t what defines the genre. In video game terms, RPG elements are considered to be things like character levels, stat sheets, experience points, and unlockable abilities. All of these things have little or nothing to do with role-playing.

I understand that the ingrained terminology of the genre is not going to change just because a chubby blogger in Toronto says so, but I would like to outline why I believe that most if not all video games we call RPGs are mislabeled, and how this goes a long way to explaining my love-hate relationship with the genre.

Stop, drop, and role:

I know quoting Wikipedia is in the same realm of tackiness as bringing 7 Up as a wedding gift, but while looking for definitions of role-playing, I found this one pretty apt: “A role-playing game is a game in which the participants assume the roles of characters and collaboratively create stories.” [Source]

I would argue that video games eliminate the need for other players in the creation of your role-play story, as scripted NPCs can fulfill the same need. That doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t role-play with other people, of course; it just means they aren’t a necessity.

My party in Sword Coast LegendsEither way, role-play is about assuming a role and telling a story.

Now what does that have to do with level grinds and character stats? Nothing whatsoever.

In the early days of tabletop role-playing, things like character sheets and stat rolls and such were necessary to give the experience some degree of order and consistent logic. Video games, on the other hand, have the ability to keep all that under the hood and provide the player a seamless, immersive experience.

But because the genre’s origins were rooted in numbers and stats, gamers and developers have come to conflate the two. The character sheets and dice rolls continued into the digital space, and now they’ve taken over the genre entirely to the point where they’ve shoved out the actual role-playing.

Consider MMOs. Traditionally developers have had to designate special servers (usually a minority of the total server pool) for role-playing, and increasingly they’re not even bothering to do that.

Those who do role-play in MMOs are often viewed by other players as strange or even deviant, and openly mocked. They are a minority, and like all minorities in gaming, held in very low regard.

My rogue in RiftDoes this not seem incredibly bizarre to anyone else? If we’re to believe the name of the genre, role-players are the only ones who are actually playing the games correctly, and I say that as someone who is at best only on the barest periphery of role-play.

I think this proves the games we call RPGs aren’t about role-playing at all. Most of them incorporate RPG elements, but that doesn’t make them true RPGs.

To give you an idea, I think Life Is Strange is much more of an RPG than World of Warcraft. It’s all about playing a character and making choices as that character to shape the story. I’m not sure it’s a perfect example of what an RPG could or should be, but it’s certainly much closer than most of the games we call RPGs.

So what should we call them?

I name your true name:

I would argue that the genre we have come to call RPGs should instead be known as progression games.

The core concept that unifies the genre is that of progression, of growing more powerful and improving your character’s performance. You level up, unlock new abilities, get better gear, and so forth. This is true regardless of whether you’re playing Mass Effect, Pillars of Eternity, Diablo, Aion, Persona, or whatever other example you want to give.

A screenshot from the RPG Titan QuestProgression is the mechanic that purists of the genre cling to. I’ve often heard complaints that level-scaling such as was introduced to the Elder Scrolls Online with One Tamriel is bad because it makes games less of an RPG. That’s an absolutely ridiculous argument; level-scaling makes a game more of an RPG by eliminating ridiculous scenarios like slaying a dragon with a single punch.

But level-scaling does make it less of a progression game. We have conflated RPGs and progression mechanics to the point where people are unable to separate them, but in truth it’s little more than an accident of history that the two are related at all.

Pretty much the only area where the two concepts meet is when constructing a character build. Your choices of which stats to stack and which abilities to unlock help express the identity of your character, and that is an element of role-playing as well as a means of progression.

For example, in World of Warcraft, my warlock actually hates demons. As a result, I choose the talent Grimoire of Sacrifice whenever possible, allowing her to sacrifice her demon minion to increase her own power. This enhances the fantasy of the character. To her, demons are simply a resource to fuel her own quest for vengeance, and Grimoire of Sacrifice lets me express this concept through the gameplay.

But even then performance concerns in progression games can often cause you to make compromises in your character concept in order to ensure your character is strong enough to overcome the challenges before you. This is especially a problem in MMOs, where there’s an element of social pressure to conform.

My warlock cosplaying as a demon hunter in World of WarcraftStalled by progression:

Understanding the difference between role-playing and progression games goes a long way to explaining the love/hate relationship that I have with the genre we tend to call RPGs. You see, I’m a big fan of role-playing games, but much less fond of progression games.

Certainly progression provides a very strong psychological hook, which is why nearly every game of every genre now has at least some small element of it. We are as a species keyed to appreciate reward structures like this.

But that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting gameplay, and the more time you spend with it, the more transparent it becomes. After so many years of playing progression games — especially MMOs, where the treadmill is at its most naked and cynical — I have almost entirely stopped caring. I’ve gotten so much phat lewt and heard so many level dings that it’s stopped meaning anything to me at all.

I still like making builds, and earning new abilities is the one part of progression that still consistently excites me, hence my two Panoptic Cores in TSW (RIP). But for the most part I’m reaching the point where I just want to establish a good build as quickly as possible and then focus on actually playing the game.

Progression inhibits role-play at least as much as it enhances it. It’s a distraction at best, a roadblock at worst. Hence my eternal frustration with a genre I otherwise love. What I want is to inhabit a character, to immerse myself in a world. Most of what we call RPGs offer this, but not always to the extent I crave. Too much focus is put on the numbers, not enough on the texture and character of the world and its story.

Jeyne Kassynder in Dungeon Siege III. Ah, Jeyne, we hardly knew yeI think this is what keeps me coming back to Bioware, despite their inconsistencies. They’re progression games, but they haven’t forgotten their RPG roots. They’re still, at their heart, about people, places, and stories.

And that’s what attracts me: Exploring new lands, getting to know characters, and living out stories. Those are the experiences I crave. That’s what role-playing games are truly about.