Garfang Zul my avatar Ranger in Guild Wars 2
decked out in his Ascended Gear
Of late to keep my mind active and alive after working hard on my family’s new home I’ve found it tough to read at night. Too physically exhausted. So instead I’ve gone back to one of those first love’s engendered by the new computer worlds: the MMO or Massively Multiplayer Online Game. Back in the 90’s (does even saying that show how far we’ve come, suddenly gaining a history, and losing the thrill and freshness of the web, computer, and it’s fascination?)…
Once upon a time when I had my first computer, a commodore… no, I want put you through that history, instead I’ll tell you about my first game (and not the platform gaming of Sony or Xbox) downloaded from the net (but not an MMO); Doom. It was clunky, dark, and strangely weird. But something about moving an avatar (we didn’t call chars or characters: Avatars, back then!) through a cave or tunnel system or building, etc. and suddenly coming on a progressively alien cast of monsters trying to kill one awakened something in the primal heart of my mind: the need to hunt and kill. Exasperating, isn’t it? Here I was in the midst of the clichéd “mid-life crisis”, somewhere in my mid-forty’s thrown into a world of make-believe sword (gun) and dungeons scenario. A man who prided himself of intelligence and hard work, etc., a guy who’d read through the gist of the now defunct Western Canon (Bloom!) in what used to be the humanist tradition of history, philosophy, poetry, literature, etc. blah, blaa, blaaaa…. and, boom a new world had opened up my eyes. Here was here was for the first time a new form of art awakening, a art that would combine the ancient forms of science and humanism: the online game would produce living worlds of mythic scope of heroes, legends, and… frankly, the combined efforts of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and you name you’re fav … into a world of action that visually stunned the mind and eyes with a mathematically based world of pixelated 3D life full of all those ancient adventures in weird, and fantastic realms of romance that in our staid late capitalist society we thought were dead and buried under two-hundred years of critical suspicion.
Sorry, friends, but the mind and soul of humanity loves fantasy, loves the world of cartoon superheroes and villains, sword and sorcery, and every other imaginable and impossible thought-form of Quest and Exploration one can imagine. And the online world’s of gaming has it all. Millions of men, women, and children (not just geeks!) play games such as WoW, Guild Wars, Eve Online, LOTRO (Lord of the Rings Online), Final Fantasy XIV, Rift, Aion, Tera, Secret World, Elder Scrolls, Wild Star… I could name a ton of them, but such sites as MMORPG (acronym embellished with the previous mentioned Massive-Multiplayer-Online Role Playing Game) list some of the best.
There’s something fascinating about entering into a strange world of imagination where one can play and build a character who is either like or unlike one’s everyday self and identity. There’s every variety of gaming style: some prefer PvE, PvP, WvW, and every variation under that guise. For me the first of these is what intrigues me: PvE or Player versus Environment. It’s a style of Quest Romance, a world that begins with a personal story scripted by various storytellers which guide you through a set of adventures to help you in your exploration of the game. Over the years the gaming industry through the power of improved programming (and, believe, me the sheer engineering power of intelligence and imagination – combining whole teams of architects, developers, artists, and, yes… computer geeks who build these worlds behind the scenes) have allowed a growing industry of thriving individuals who have gone from the early repetitive games of grinding through mob after mob of kill this or kill that with stick characters and bad screens and horrible dialogue with NPC’s (Non-Play Characters – in other words: engineered avatars for creatures like us to interact with).
I used to keep my love of this under lock and key, afraid of what people might think of me at work or how friends might feel about a man who on the outside appeared like everyone else in this capitalist society of drones… but, no more. I love gaming. And, yes, dear friends, it takes a certain amount of intelligence to master this strange art of the engineered.
I could probably write a book on my past twenty years in gaming. The Good, Bad, and Ugly of it. And, yes, there have been flops and games that went bust along the way. Companies over the years have tried many ways to gain a following, to pump up the hype and then fall due to poor design and even poorer public relations. It’s typical in this industry (as in all computer engineering!) for companies to push out a product that isn’t ready for prime time. Because the world of gaming is so competitive to gain customers it’s gone through many strategies and niche markets. One could write a complete Gaming Economics on just what makes a successful MMO. But one would probably fall short on this. For one thing there is the great East/West divide. What will work in Korea, China, and any number of overseas countries want work in a Western market. Why? The tastes and styles of gaming for the individual is just plain different. It’s this difference that makes on realize that there is a complete philosophical aspect to gaming that has yet to be openly tapped. One that could bring in the whole cultural index of mental modes of self, identity, and cultural interaction that has become a part of the underlying part of this industry. Companies trying to gain both markets have had to figure out the various mix of cultures and find an equitable balance in their approach. The amount of thought put into the storyline alone is humongous. I exaggerate not. Companies will hire writers to script novels for their games.
With my recent return to Guild Wars 2 I remember some of the various novels: find here: Ghosts of Ascalon, Sea of Sorrows, Edge of Destiny… Each giving the user the background story of the world one will find online. In both the original Guild Wars and the new Guild Wars 2 one lives in a realm of historical change. Half the fun of the game is taking one’s time to get into the storyline and work one’s way through the various romance quests and side quests. Some seasoned players seem to love the Player vs. Player, and World vs. World action so typically will forget the story and just grind their way to max level in most games. In Guild Wars one can have it anyway you want. By that I mean some players love tPvP and sPvP, team or single’s play against opponents in a tightly bound world of instance based fighting or Arenas. Others love the open spaces of World vs. World where larger Raid like parties roam with hundreds of other players into specialized zones with both difficult and changing environments with both hostile npc’s, players, and factions. While still others never deign to enter these realms of live-action player killing venues and instead roam the grand maps of unknown realms of exploration, dungeon crawling, and large raid realms of legendary scope. I love them all.
This game is so large it would take me ten or more long posts to do it justice in a review. For years I played the original version of Guild Wars which is old school development based on – what was at the time, new technology. What was interesting about the original game was the ability to script one’s own skill set. One was provided with a set of expanding helpers or avatars as a part of a team that helped you wander the various realms. What was unique with Guild Wars was that each realm had its own specific forms of offense and defensive capabilities, and the player would have to script whole new sets of strategies for one’s team to meet the harsh power of these impossible realms. Another feature of the original was it’s power to keep the player interested in continuing the game. It provided the standard version of the game (which was difficult enough), but then once one had maxed out and finished the first run through the game one was gifted with what they termed Hard Mode. Something that came out of CD games in playstation or Xbox with various Easy to Nightmare modes of play.
The new Guild Wars 2 is still in growing stages and developing the completed storylines and maps that will take years to build. That’s part of the fun in coming back: the world continuously changes and grows exuberant and massive with each return. I left GW2 back in 2015 (two years!). An eternity in gaming… Now that I’ve returned the game has so much new content and scenarios it will take me months to work through it all. Not only that it has changed to the point that my old masteries have grown with the game, and new one’s have opened up. By that I mean that the new skill system has added two advanced or elite modes of play to one’s original character progression. Along with my five avatars: Warrior, Thief, Elementalist, Ranger, Mesmer, and Engineer (yes, I’m a fanatic in playing various styles and skill sets!) comes the need to play each of them again to master all the new content.
Another feature that was not there when I played from 2012 to 2015 was mounted rides and flight. With the various expansions in the past two years (Heart of Thorns, and Path of Fire) came whole new skills and masteries. Right now I’m working through the Heart of Thorns which gives you the ability to fly or glide (as they term it). I remember my first experience of flight in NCsoft’s (same company that built Guild Wars) game, AION. Which unlike GW2 was a grinder ( a game one had to grind mobs forever to level, etc.). But they had an in-game flight system, one that one had to level up by grinding out certain plants etc. to produce alchemical fuel to skill up one’s ability fly longer and longer periods. In Guild Wars 2 one not only flies, but one goes through a pre-defined mastery of flight through plain old world questing and experience so that it doesn’t feel like a grind. It’s just a part of the game play progression.
I’ve probably bored you to tears… and I could ramble on for hours about the various parts of this game and a dozen others I’ve played over the past twenty years. Strange that… so young an industry, and yet it feels like it’s just now coming into its own. One imagines in some strange future where one will not only be playing an MMORPG, but one will like the movie Avatar inhabit (not literal bodies) but virtual bodies and actually “be there” in the VR world as if one existed in this mathematical construct as “reality”. The point of my quandaries about much of our current investment in superintelligence, robotics, transhuman life-extension, transmigration of mind to machinic existence etc. comes from this luring of so many millions into the gaming worlds of these MMO’s. It’s as if something deep within many humans has a need for escape from the mundane worlds of their actual lives. Most of our everyday life is filled with the harsh worlds of stupidity in economics, politics, war, climate change, disease, famine, etc. that humans used to escape into literature and play board games etc., got the sports bars, watch the boob tube for hours on end…. now they play in fantasy worlds that lure our desires and tap into our hearts and minds and pocket books… yes, like anything else these games are based on capitalist economics, and companies that are successful try various tactics to lure you into spending money either through monthly pay systems, or through in-game buying and selling of items for profit to get the latest goo gag and toys. Exploitation of humans by both companies and the players themselves is par for the course in this industry. Sadly it’s what keeps us hooked.
Take GW2… my main is and will always be a Ranger. A Char (a lion like character!) who sports Ascended gear and Legendary weapons. It took me years to master crafting the old fashioned way of grinding mats and the necessary luck to gain the appropriate items from dungeon crawling or the mystic fountain, etc. (that’s another story…). But I finally made all the things I needed for this character-avatar. And, believe me, it was tough going to do it. I have two Legendary bows: Kudzu and The Dreamer; as well as an Axe (Frost Fang) and Torch (Flames of War). The interesting take is that one had only two paths to such weapons in the past: one either did it the long way of making and grinding and luck; or, one spent a cash load of one’s hard earned money in buying gold from NCsoft to purchase the high-prices weapon from the in-game player based market). Things have changed. Oh, it’s still difficult to attain, but one can now do it through a mastery system (which of course entails much hard work and grinding and luck), but with a light at the end of the tunnel that offers a one time gift of the Legendary Weapon in a progression that is part of the storyline effort that includes the end-game Raids.
Of course all this entails the need to put the guild in Guild Wars to active status, which means participating in an online community of fellow travelers learning, playing, and actively participating in a Guild. Like anything else there are various types of guilds in GW2: soft or casual PvE guilds for first timers or beginners; more medium scale guilds with a motley crew of PvP, WvW, and PvE players; and, the hard-liner guilds of dedicated guildmates who grind out all content, raids, and player vs. everything. It’s usually up to one’s taste, time, and desire as to which one goes for. Currently I belong to my own solitary guild to grind up my new content. After a few months I’ll begin looking for a Raiding guild to slowly grind out legendary weapons and legendary armor for my main and other secondary characters or supporting avatars-chars. My warrior is my main dungeon crawler, while my Elementalist (ele) and Mesmer (mes) are used for Open World WvW, and my Thief for sPvP/tPvP. Each has a different skill, weapon, and armor capabilities mastered for these various activities. There is no one suits all armor and weapon for each sort of activity. By that I mean one has sets of runes, accessories (i.e., rings, amulets, necklaces), sigils etc. that are added to one’s character for attributes of Power, Precision, Condition, Concentration, etc., that along with crafted food, tonics, and sharpening stones, etc. all add up to variations in one’s offensive and defensive capabilities.
One can now transfer items from char to char without having to go to one’s bank all the time. Certain items of Ascended or Legendary rank in armor or weapon are account wide items, while all else is soulbound to the specific character. As you can see there is a complexity of learning curve in MMO’s, and each one has it’s own unique way of adding in such accoutrements. In fact many of these games that are successful like GW2 and GW have their own Wiki’s with hundreds of pages devoted to all the various modes, behaviours, and strategies; along with certain sites like Duffy’s that give newcomer and oldster alike walkthrough’s for the more difficult aspects of the game (like in-game jumping puzzles! That’s right “jumping puzzles” are one of those in game PvE things that one can spend hour upon hour in frustration trying to overcome certain obstacles in a quest to gain a box of goodies at the end!).
Compared to twenty years ago MMO’s have come a very long way, and GW2 is probably gathered a crowd quite different from let’s say, WoW or Word of Warcraft. Deciding what fits your budget and player style is always a hard given. I’ve tried many of the major MMO’s like others falling and failing the hype. And there is only a few out of hundreds of MMO’s that have survived this process of building a customer / user base who would keep such companies profitable. Guild Wars 2 by NCsoft is just such a one. And, one will either love it or hate it. As in many things there are players that have come and gone. Some players like WoW because of the long hours in their dungeons with all the camaraderie that goes with it. Others like the looser appeal of variation that comes with GW and GW2 that allow both solitary and group participation with living world content. Living World opens the door to “events” that spawn at irregular and regular cycles throughout the maps allowing for people on a specific map / instance to participate and gain HP (hitpoints) and Loot (gifts from boxes of treasure) that would not otherwise be available. Plus it keeps the game alive and changing all the time with the unexpected event cropping up when you least expect it.
All in all I’m a die hard fan of such games and could continue spouting pros and cons to such gaming experience, but in the end it’s a personal choice and for me a way to relax when I don’t want to tax my brain with such deep imponderables as I do on this site for the most part. So there… I’m playing for a while and want be posting till I get my home done in the next few months. And the above speaks for itself… I’m on vacation from my pessimistic vision of our world. Call it an escape into fantasy. I call it a reprieve from the stupidity of our mundane life so full of heartache and pain and exploitation. Once in a while one needs rejuvenation and play: Viva homo ludens!!!
I like this post even though — or maybe because — most of it unfolds beyond my experiential parameters. I’d been trying to think of examples of collaborative fiction writing: television series is what came to mind, but online games fill the bill too. I’d also been thinking about situations in which the boundary between writer and reader is blurred: there’s fandom, with conferences and cosplay and fanfic and meta writing, but there’s also online gaming. It’s an intriguing realm that, alas, I’ve never delved into.
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True, Games like Myst Online blur the Role Playing completely for its fan base with people inhabiting their characters to the max… Fantasy Online 14 is like that too.