The Online Backpacker Part 2

By – Stuart Young

Greetings from the world of MMO gaming! In this series, I’m exploring the strange land of massively multiplayer gaming from the perspective of a complete newcomer. In Part One, I ventured onto the shores of Star Wars: The Old Republic (but not before being forcibly detained at the customs desk of registration, installation and patching). Once I’d arrived, I found unfamiliar territory indeed, with mechanics and an interface that left me mildly bamboozled. In this part, I’ll continue to document my travels and travails in TOR, as I begin to get to grips with the game systems and encounter a few surprises.

Holding down the right mouse button to move the camera. It’s just not natural!
I don’t think I’m ever going to get used to that, but I soon started to feel more at home with the conventions of the MMO genre and began to enjoy my journey. Stranded on the starting area of Ord Mantell, I was sent into a chase to get my Smuggler’s ship back from the hands of a dastardly traitor. Doing that meant nabbing data from Separatists currently fighting the Galactic Republic to control the planet. As is the nature of such quests, finding out where my foe had gone required me to single-handedly defeat what soon felt like most of the Separatist army along the way.

Big task, perhaps, but I soon felt like I had the tools to handle the job. I’ve already mentioned the confusion I felt when confronted with a huge line of mysterious skills mapped onto little buttons at the bottom of the game screen. After a little experimentation, this daunting prospect turned into a chocolate box of tasty combat possibilities as I began to grasp the benefits and drawbacks of each.

Soon, I was settling into a nice little rhythm. Approach some enemies close enough to not trigger an attack, take cover, read their health-bar displays to discover the weakest, stun the rest with a flash grenade and focus on whittling down their numbers quickly. It’s worth noting that, although I’ve progressed quite a bit further in this game since these early days, the basic formula hasn’t really changed very much. Although a few kinks and new abilities are introduced, I’m surprised that anyone ever decided that you could sustain a hundred-plus hour game by looping the same thirty seconds of gameplay.

Yet in those early hours, I started to quite enjoy this routine. Despite that, it’s also worth noting that I never felt truly excited or engaged. This style of gameplay seems to operate at the precise spot where all your low-level animal brain functions are engaged but no actual thought is required. Like a simple matching-puzzle game, this ostensibly complex RPG started to turn into a mental fluff where routine reigns over variety. Once I began to enjoy the game on this level, it was satisfying enough to just keep plowing on through squads of identical baddies, watching my experience bar tick up slowly and stopping for the occasional ‘story break’ – handing in or accepting a quest. Even after a few tasks, it became clear that these generally consisted of the kill 10 X’s, destroy 10 Y’s or walk somewhere variety.

It’s a pity you can’t effectively play this style of game in a tiny window or with the sound off (the writing gets too small, and you can’t hear enemies attacking) because otherwise it would be ideal fodder to have on the backburner, say, while you watch the news. It asks just enough of you to prevent you from multi-tasking. For the most part, the game was providing just enough to do to keep me attentive.  Occasionally, though, I was thrown a curveball, and it’s those little moments I remember fondly.

For the first few missions, I’d barely come into contact with other players in the world and was beginning to become rather cynical – surely, I thought, there’s more to the MMO concept than watching another player with a silly name run into a building I couldn’t enter to be sent off on his or her own breadcrumb trail of missions.

Eventually, that changed, albeit only temporarily. I came across a quest (one of many) requiring me to clear out some of the local wildlife – a bunch of green ogre-type things called savrips. The quest was labelled in my log with the legend [Heroic 2+]. Now, I didn’t have a clue what that meant, but I figured – ‘hey, my Smuggler’s a pretty heroic guy, right? I’ll go and have a look.’ I approached the island on which the savrips lived, and attracted a few, using my normal cover-attack routine. But the monsters did something I didn’t expect – they all ran straight at me and started walloping me. I panicked, and before I’d even managed to take a single one of the ogres out, I was dead.

I’d ‘died’ a few times before, but previously it was nothing more than a trifling inconvenience – a few seconds wait and a medical robot would be there to revive me. It had always been a result of carelessness or error – not paying attention to my health bar, or attracting too many groups of enemies (I later discovered this is known as ‘pulling’ – a word which commonly has a very different meaning here in the UK). In this situation, the defeat was different – somehow the game had gone from having a practically flat difficulty curve to an enormous difficulty spike.

I tried again, with a better plan – I got into cover as far away as possible, focused all my shiniest toys on the weakest creature and prepared to run. This time, I fared marginally better, taking one savrip down before his cohort mauled me to death. The penalty for failure seemed to increase every time I died, and this time I was given the option of waiting half a minute or returning to a safe area. I waited, tried again, failed to take down the larger beast, and elected to give up, returning to safety.

I couldn’t understand it. Was I at too low a level? That didn’t sit right – before, all the quests I’d encountered seemed to have been designed for roughly the level I found myself at. Perhaps the mysterious [Heroic 2+] had something to do with it. Was I just not hero enough? Did I need to gain two levels, perhaps?

Then something caught my eye in the top left of the screen – the chat window. ‘lfg svrip island’ said the message. ‘Anyone?’  I felt a little surge of excitement as I typed a reply. I didn’t have much of a clue what he was talking about, but this player sounded like he was facing the same problem as me. I knew I was going to sound clueless, but it couldn’t be helped. ‘Do you mean the green troll things? What does lfg mean, I’m new?”  Yes. Looking for group want to join?’ ‘Sure,’ I replied. A few moments later, a dialogue box popped up and invited me to his party. I’ve always liked being invited to parties, so I signed right up. ‘Come back to island,’ said my new-found samaritan. ‘Can bet heroic with two players.’   Spelling aside, I’d finally caught on. The term heroic referred not to flashy acts of individual bravery, but to teamwork.

Two minutes later and I was crouched in the shallows next to the aforementioned island. ‘rdy?’ said my new pal. He was a smuggler, too. ‘Let’s go’ , he continued, after I’d found my way to cover.

And go we did, cutting a veritable swathe through the lumbering savages on the island. I found that our firepower had not doubled, but tripled – the other player was assisted by an AI companion that, when I looked closer, I recognised as a character from my main storyline. Corso was his name – an unfeasibly enthusiastic and wholesome armed guard who, as I rightly surmised, would soon be joining up with me. Seeing him fighting alongside another player rather took the surprise out of having him as a companion – and certainly diluted what personality he possessed. His most memorable character trait was a ludicrous trustafarian hairstyle, so it came as no surprise that he’d started his career volunteering to travel the galaxy in what seemed to be an interstellar equivalent of the Peace Corps. As you might be able to tell, I found him rather bland but impossible to actively dislike.

My human companion and I finished clearing out the Savrip’s island. I was all for exploring the new horizons that an actual interaction with another player seemed to lead to, but he had other ideas.

‘Thanks for the group, gtg.’  ‘Bye,’I replied’.

I confess to feeling just a tiny bit abandoned. The group was disbanded, but I smiled when I saw he had added me to his friends list. This, perhaps, was a tiny little glimpse of the MMO experience I had been looking for.

Join me next time when I’ll be getting a sweet ride, trying to outsmart the game, and committing suicide. (In the game, please don’t make any phone calls.)

When he is not performing on walking tours in Edinburgh, Scotland, Stuart Young writes as a freelance PC gaming journalist.  His contributions include pieces written for GameZone, The Escapist and Adventure Gamers.

Follow TruePCGaming on Twitter and Facebook.

36 thoughts on “The Online Backpacker Part 2

  1. Oh, part 2. I’ve been looking forward to this one.

    I totally get everything you said, even though I have never played TOR. I think these things are the same across all MMOs. I discovered that there is supposed to be patterns in your combat moves for maximum efficacy. It’s not just picking from a list of moves, you have to identify what class enemy you face and then either launch attack A, D and C (in that order) or A,B and E. Or you can keep doing like you are and let all those around you know that you have no clue what you’re doing. Well maybe it’s not that bad, but there are those “hardcore” MMOers that play this game way.

    I also discovered that there are temporary groups and permanent groups. You grouped up with someone for a single mission/quest/jaunt and then it was over. I did this a few times and then got another request to join but I didn’t notice or even realize the slight difference in terms and am now part of some kind of guild and don’t know what to do. (This is in Lord of the Rings Online and the two groupings are Fellowship and Kinship, I still can’t tell you which is which) I don’t know what is expected of me by being part of this group, or if I need to adapt my level of play somehow. I decided to take the most responsible approach in accordance with my mature adult self. I quit the game, pulled the ethernet cord out of the computer and have not taken that machine online since.

  2. It helps a lot of you’re going in with a preformed group. I always start off on a new MMORPG by finding the thread for it on the PA forums. I usually find 5-10 people I know either still playing it or willing to log on for a bit to help out.

    That usually translates to a mid-level set of equipment, support (party + knowledge) for the first few levels, and enough gold/credits/whatever to last until I get bored with the game.

    • Is is easy to find veterans. or at least someone who knows what they are doing, to help you out? I am in the same boat as Stuart in that I have no MP experience at all.

      Surprising to some, I would say.

  3. Honestly, as far as your “pulling” definition goes… they’re pretty similar. In the game, you “pull” mobs to you so that they will kill you. In Britain, you “pull” your preferred sexual gender so that you can do whatever you sexually prefer with them. It’s the same basic idea. ;P The game just has a bit more sexually deviant attitude than you do.

    Other than that though, I think the most telling part of this article is the comment that you don’t know how they can make hours of gameplay out of repeating a thirty second combat rotation. I’ve only played one MMO that doesn’t have this (Guild Wars) and it was only broken up by the fact that you had so many skill options. That said, people could still play it exactly that way.

    I will say though… it seems as if all games can be boiled down to this, can’t they? Even your more typical CRPGs are all combat rotations at some level, right? I don’t know… I just don’t think this is definitive of a MMO… I think it’s a breakdown of gaming in general right now. Also, it’s the reason that I lean more towards indie games at this point, instead of the AAA titles, which just seem like the same game repeated over and over and over again.

    Good article!

    • I was a bit surprised by the “right mouse button” thing precisely because I’d thought it was pretty common in modern single-player RPGs. Certainly Dragon Age used it, and how else would you manipulate the camera in a third-person game with a free-moving camera where quick movements are often necessary but the cursor still needs to be free?

      • I never did play Dragon Age on the PC – I made the mistake of playing it on PS3, where you have to play a tactical RPG without being able to tell your party members where to stand. Don’t play it on console.

        I don’t think the hold-button for camera is too bad in a party-based game like that – but imagine playing Skyrim and having to do that? My feeling of being-there would be cut to zero.

      • I’m actually doing a playthrough of Morrowind right now. Been playing through the whole series, as a matter of fact, and I just finished Daggerfall and moved on to Morrowind. Interestingly enough, Morrowind also has right-clicking serve to switch between mouselook and cursor; the difference is just that it’s a toggle, and that it defaults to mouselook.

        But I still don’t think that Skyrim’s a fair example. Skyrim is not only intended to be played in first-person, but its UI is notoriously bad on the PC, equally as bad as Dragon Age was on consoles. Third person games aren’t necessarily going to be built around always-on mouselook controls on PC any more than they are on consoles.

        Heck, many World of Warcraft players don’t use mouselook at all; the game even supports Diablo-style click-to-move!

        So, no, I don’t believe that this hurts immersion at all. Mouselook isn’t necessary for immersion, and “right click to move camera” is clearly intuitive enough that millions of World of Warcraft players use it without issue. Certainly it may be novel for someone who isn’t used to it…but I do still wonder how on earth one is supposed to move the camera otherwise, barring always-on mouselook in a console-level UI.

      • It was an amazing game, the original. I like the sequel less… but we’ll see. ;P I suppose that we should wait until it’s released for final judgement.

  4. I think part of the problem you’re having, Stuart, is that SWTOR is in a difficult transition period right now. There are FAR too many servers, and most of them are utterly empty, which means that the all-important sense of being surrounded by fellow players that makes MMORPGs interesting in the first place is absent.

    The other problem is that Ord Mantell is the weakest starting planet of the lot. The Smuggler 1-10 plotline has its moments, but the planet completely and utterly bland compared even to Tython, let alone the Empire stuff. You might want to try rolling one of those Imperial Agents you mentioned earlier, or a Sith Warrior. (Now THEY have some fun bits.)

    MMORPGs are slow burns. You aren’t going to get the immediate hit of some billion-dollar modern military multiplayer manshoot. And, yes, SWTOR’s combat and quest structure is basically ripped straight out of World of Warcraft circa 2006. But I did find the game more rewarding than I expected to. It might be worth giving a bit more of a chance.

    • Thanks for the comment, Craig.

      I do not have any experience with MMOs either so this is a great discussion. Do you believe there is a reason BioWare decided to use the 2006 version of WoW as a base for SWTOR? Was is simply a matter of being lazy? Have things changed in WoW since 2006?

      • Yes. WoW has changed tremendously. Both the leveling experience and the top-level experience are more accessible than they’ve ever been, and I just did a thing last week about how Blizzard’s doing a lot of work to inject honest-to-goodness narrative and change into their game, instead of the “kill ten piggies” stuff that had been the rule earlier.

        As for SWTOR…all I have is rumor and conjecture as to “why”. Supposedly the designers were all huge fans of World of Warcraft back during “vanilla” when it was most inaccessible, and wanted their game to be more like that, and less like it is now. It’s a bit like those people who pine for the days when Everquest made them camp spawns for twenty four hours at a time. Going back to that makes no more sense than going back to circa-2004 World of Warcraft, but that’s what happened here.

        But it’s equally likely that they were so caught up in grafting the Bioware storytelling style onto an MMO that they just didn’t have the time, money, or latitude or expertise to recreate everything else, too. After all, all the attempts to “beat” WoW have failed: the games that aped WoW didn’t succeed in getting WoW’s numbers, but the ones that tried to “do something different” absolutely collapsed. (Remember Matrix Online? Me neither.) Bioware may have been willing to take the chance on being seen as a “me too” when the alternative was utter failure.

      • It may. I’d still honestly suggest trying a different class, though. The smuggler’s fun, but Ord Mantell just sucks all the energy out of it.

    • I loved Progress Quest! Seriously, I do get how this kind of game design works, I just feel ambiguous to whether it’s a ‘good thing’. Certainly, in my limited experience, MMOs seem to throw everything at it – maybe a habit that needs to be broken to avoid things getting really dull?

      • The irony is that, at the level you’re at, you really don’t have everything thrown at you.

        If you’re still on Ord Mantell, you’re below level 10, which means that you haven’t engaged with the crafting and gathering systems, with interplanetary travel and space combat, with the “advanced classes”, with the talent trees, or a lot of the rest of SWTOR’s post-prologue gameplay. You’ve also only been exposed to the barest fraction of the various character abilities.

        By the time you get to the raiding stage in World of Warcraft, the mechanics have become complex enough that players end up having to practice combat on training targets in order to get their “rotations” right; many (notoriously) spend hours poring over spreadsheets to figure out what sort of gear and enchants to get. Brandon’s assertions aside, it isn’t a Skinner box. It is, as I said, a really slow burn.

      • Item drops from mobs or shards are a Skinner Box.

        Baroque combat mechanics and skills are an example of what I call “vectorization.” Why offer paper-scissors-rock when you can offer {N}paper-{P}scissors-{Q}rock and get your paying players to drive themselves crazy trying to optimize the best possible arrangement of {N P Q} ? The players who think more abstractly will realize that juggling all those vectors doesn’t matter. It all amounts to “firepower” in a big hand wavy sense, with fluctuations as to what’s most effective in any given situation. You can’t prepare for all situations when there are so many variables, so the variables really don’t matter. Just make sure they’re “high enough.”

      • Adding meaningful choices in your game mechanic loops to a game’s design doesn’t make it irrelevant, Brandon. ALL game mechanics are arbitrary, by definition; they exist to make the player’s experience more rewarding and more exciting.

        And, no, the game isn’t a Skinner box. Skinner boxes are a myth that psychology moved past 50 years ago. The only time they’re cited is when people are taking cheap shots at games they don’t like. Like, say, now.

      • The {N P Q …} vectorized state space expands so greatly that nobody balances all those combinations and the choices cease to be meaningful.

        Prove your claim that Skinner Boxes are a myth. Cite a reference.

      • Operant conditioning chambers do exist. What doesn’t exist, what IS a myth, is this idea that they’re the sort of weird parody of decades-dead behaviorist theories that you so lazily refer to when you toss out the phrase “Skinner Box”.

        Go read Jon Radoff. Games aren’t these cartoonish “Skinner Boxes”. Even the ones you don’t like.

        (And, say, make up nonsensical game design theory about games and genres you don’t understand. Go tell Blizzard or their top-level raiders about how they don’t understand all the variables, or that nobody can balance them. They could probably use a good hearty laugh.)

      • Craig, you have so much vitriol… have you heard the expression “teaching your grandma how to suck eggs?”

        Jon Radoff does not disprove the notion of Skinnerian Conditioning. In the link you gave he says, ” It’s not to say that reward systems and frequencies aren’t important–it’s just that there’s a lot more going on inside games than the reward mechanism.” I said that item drops from pulling mobs in (MMO)RPGs is Skinnerian Conditioning. There isn’t anything more going on with an item drop than that, it’s straight Skinnerian application. It is also not the whole game.

        “Vectorization” is just my personal description for why I and others find games with too many gewgaws and chrome dissatisfying. Different people are turned on by different things and some like having “MOAR stuff.” I find it uncompelling when the choices are no more than trivial variations. Generally it’s an excuse for artists to churn out a lot of assets, so that consumers think they’re getting a lot of product when they buy the game. It has little game mechanical substance.

      • Apologies to our host, to start. This, sadly, isn’t very productive.

        Brandon, it isn’t “vitriol” to call people out for intellectual dishonesty or misrepresentation. Like, say, when you ignored when Radoff said that “Skiller Boxes” were “a part of behaviorist psychology which has largely been passed by advances in cognitive and evolutionary psychology over the past 50 years”.
        You read the article, clearly: tendentiously avoiding that point is just unseemly.

        And, no, items in RPGs serve more purposes than just as a neat little gewgaw. They serve as visual rewards for play and achievements, yes, but modern RPG design is also built around giving players meaningful(!) choices between different types gear supporting different choices of gameplay.

        Those choices have everything to do with whether you can work together to take down the extraordinarily difficult challenges at the end of a modern MMORPG; the whole reason WoW players DO learn how all the systems work and DO pore over spreadsheets and strategies is because their decisions aren’t “arbitrary” at all. They’re quite meaningful, and Blizzard’s done a great job of ensuring that they are.

        That’s what makes raiding compelling, and why World of Warcraft remains so successful despite having most of its “lottery” elements removed years ago: because people’s strategic and tactical choices fit together to allow them to surmount some of the toughest challenges in modern gaming.

        Brandon, you really should learn more about genres before blithely dismissing them. I’m sure it wasn’t done out of malice. But you’re clearly speaking from ignorance.

      • Brandon, I do have to ask: have you ever actually PLAYED any complex, competitive or cooperative game? Because, stopping to think about it, I honestly can’t think of any that doesn’t fit your complaint about MMOs.

        Maybe you should take up a different hobby.

      • I… I don’t see the point of the objection to Brandon’s point about skinner boxes. He never said the game is a skinner box.

        It seems like all Brandon referred to as a ‘skinner box’ is the reward loop of getting loot and killing more stuff. Whatever you do with the stuff you get, as long as it’s a positive thing that *is* a classical skinner box. There’s nothing innately wrong with that because it’s a part of a larger game. If Brandon is right and considerations about what to do with abilities, skills and items are ultimately irrelevant or pointless, that seems like a perfectly valid criticism to me. It seems like the argument should be about that and not about what a skinner box is and isn’t.

        I personally would be very interested to see where you draw the line as to where the state space you mention has expanded too far. I’ve got a fairly high level character in WoW but I still don’t feel I’ve explored the system well enough to make a judgement. I’m not sure whether this uncertainty is a problem in itself or if I could come to some greater understanding once I’m at max level and I know how everything works. I probably have reached my personal limit of how far I’m interested in exploring this particular state space, but I wouldn’t write it off as a game mechanic just because of that. I did enjoy exploring WoW’s abilities and talents for as long as I did.

        I do agree with Craig about the game being a slow burn. There is a lot to enjoy, it’s mostly a question of whether it’s worth the absolutely massive time commitment. I think for most MMOs that depends on the content more than the mechanics, because not many games have mechanics worth going into for MMO amounts of time. Eve is probably a notable exception.

  5. Glad to see that the original article had a follow up, even if it is not exactly as good as the previous one (still pretty good, though :-). Pointing out MMO’s flaws is a pretty strong basis for a series, as there are many of them and often pretty ridiculous. Looking forward to part 3 too.

    I have to admit I never could get into this genre, due to huge metagaming shell it has developed around itself over the years. My suspension of disbelief simply is not sufficient here, it seems.

    Your article on Nightmare Mode was pretty good. However, I remain unconvinced that MMOs have something for me I will like and at the same time not find in other genres. 😉

  6. @Mike I think it may be a mistake to talk about a Skinnerian “Box.” I didn’t start out using the word “box;” the term I used was Skinnerian Conditioning. A box has the connotation that that’s all there is to the game, that you’re trapped inside a teeny weeny little box with nothing else to do but get your rewards. Whereas Conditioning could be part of a larger experience, but you’re still being conditioned.

    It may take a very long time to explore the state spaces of MMORPGs, RPGs, or other complicated games. “Popping huts” in Civ games is another form of Skinnerian Conditioning, as whether you’re going to get a good reward or not is random. But measured over decades of game playing experience, the patterns emerge and things do get old. A calibrating question I’d like to be able to ask people, is just how long has one been playing the kinds of games where Skinnerian Conditioning occurs? I thought muleing chests was great when I was 13, back in the days of Ultima III. It’s not as charming now that I know I’m just making some number go up inside a memory location somewhere, and have done that sort of thing millions of times in many different games.

    “Tech trees” and “skill trees” create an analytic complexity, a big state space to explore to find optimal paths. This is a genuine intellectual challenge for awhile. Unfortunately a lot of these trees turn out to be trivially reducible. It really doesn’t matter what resources or values you stock up on. Most games are generally won by having “more stuff” and all those different skills can be looked at as “material.” Like on some big bean-counting WW II battlefield with millions of participants, and you know the Axis is going to lose because the Allies simply have more material. No matter what kind of material it is.

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