Sunday, November 2, 2014

Adrift in Archeage, Part I - Immigrant Blues

It's tough to be an immigrant.

Stranger in a strange land. It's just Hatakeyama and her beast - mount - thingy - in a hostile world.
You're a stranger in a strange land. You don't know the language, or in the case of MMOs, the peculiar shorthands which spring up to describe the various dungeons, raids or what-not. The geography is confusing, and the road ahead is murky - you don't know what activities are level-appropriate, or what the best route to the power cap is. You are ignorant of the norms governing the space, nor do you know who the influential guilds are, a factor which becomes important if you want to dive into inter-guild warfare. The vast multitude of crafting materials and harvestable goods on offer present an intricate interlocking jigsaw that defies easy assimilation. The plethora of NPCs and their titles mean nothing to you as of yet, and the simple act of drawing water has you in a tizzy trying to remember where the last well you stopped at was.

As a tourist, however, you do possess a number of advantages. You have travelled through similar landscapes before, and there are many elements which are familiar. The tab targeting CD based combat is like a second skin, and soon the neural pathways begin to be mapped and reinforced by hundreds of key presses against generic mobs doomed to wander in circumscribed areas like lambs awaiting the slaughter. Skill trees are easy to comprehend, and you find yourself peering at the tool tips to try to winkle out synergies and combos. The gold sellers and bots are a familiar blight, as are the trolls, the idiots, the know-it-alls, the lost and confused, and the occasional wits with the genuinely funny comebacks and one-liners.

Yuri Hatakeyama, in yet another incarnation in another virtual world.
This is the situation faced by my avatar Hatakeyama in Archeage, now level 36, currently guild-less (actually now a member of Unreal Aussies - why do I always find these badly named guilds?), friend-less, and somewhat hapless in this brave new world she finds herself in. AA has had its share of detractors, most recently Syncaine of Hardcore Casual and J3w3l of Healing the Masses, and their most biting criticisms have been aimed at the (to use Syncaine's term) pay for power (P4P) elements of the game. While J3w3l is quite happy enough to continue playing despite Trion's dubious payment model, Syncaine has thrown in the towel and cancelled his sub. This has led to, somewhat interestingly enough, a spirited debate on his own blog where his buddy Mobs accuses Syncaine of not giving the game a fair shake. Not knowing either of the two protagonists I stay out of the argument - but it has led to a new resolution to view the game with my own eyes  rather than taking at face value everything that Syncaine has to say on his blog regarding AA.

So this posts, and all other posts marked with the pre-fix "Adrift in Archeage" will detail the tales of this wandering Haranya. In her travels she has noticed a few things, chief most being the different caste of citizens which exist in AA. The lowest caste are the people who play for free. They are unable to own property, and earn Labor points at a reduced rate. Labor is the bedrock of crafting in AA - all crafting actions cost Labor - and this caste only earns Labor while they are online, which led to some interesting ramifications during launch. On the upside, they have the chance to play without shelling out any real life currency before deciding whether or not this game is for them.

The second tier of citizenship belongs to subscribers. They have priority queuing. They earn Labor at a higher rate, but more importantly, they also earn Labor while they are offline and have a higher Labor cap. They also have the ability to own property. Property allows you to grow crops, raise livestock and builds houses on protected land - while anyone can plant or raise livestock pretty much anywhere in the world, these items are vulnerable to depredation from other players who chance on these items growing in the wild. Crops or livestock on protected land cannot be plundered, although I have to confess that I only know this to be true for "protected" (i.e. non-PvP) zones. Whether protected land in PvP zones offer the same guarantees is something I have to discover once I venture forth into these areas.

The very top tier of citizenship in AA belongs to the "whales" who are subscribers but are also willing to shell out extra cash for P4P items in the cash shop. While being a subscriber in WoW, Eve Online or TESO gives you access to the complete game supplemented by a cosmetic cash shop, Trion has taken the somewhat dubious road of implementing a cash shop which sells not only vanity gear, but also items which boost a player's power. These items include Labor boosts, crafting boosts, better gliders, and items which dramatically remove the RNG factor in the upgrading of gear.

So the question for me is whether I am willing to put up with this kind of blatant cash grab in order to play the game. In many ways AA is a strange beast - it forces PvPers to play PvE until level 30, and it forces PvErs to adjust to a PvP end game beyond 30. PvP can be avoided entirely by staying in protected zones and venturing into contested zones during times of peace only, so it is conceivable to play AA as a PvEr only, much like how high-sec industrialists do it in Eve Online. As a PvPer though I do have legitimate concerns as to whether or not I am willing to face players who can spend wads of real life cash to get a gearing edge on me in PvP.

The short answer is yes, for now. Quite a few reasons spring to mind, the first being the lack of alternatives. Single player games which I have been looking forward to have not met my expectations - Jagged Alliance: Flashback, by all accounts, is a steaming pile of manure, while Beyond Earth has been damned with faint praise, with one reviewer comparing it to a Civ 5 mod without the actual charm of historical leaders, units, wonders, religions and cultural works. I have no doubt I will buy and play this game one day, but coming off a Civ 5 marathon game on a Huge map on Deity difficulty which took about two weeks to complete, it is the last thing I want to do at the moment. I have TESO burn-out thanks to the immeasurable grind required to level Veteran ranks, and am willing to put off levelling until patch 1.5 goes live, and the experience requirement becomes drastically reduced. Being a long time WoW player I thought WoD would tempt me, but strangely enough it hasn't. When I was a WoW subscriber I didn't play WoW the MMO, but rather WoW the MOBA ladder tournament of Arenas and Rated BGs. The only reason for returning to WoW would be if the old gang decided to assemble one more time, but given that my team mates have scattered all over the world this has become increasingly unlikely. Corona is off on deployment, Rykester is doing his Masters, Sally has a new baby, Tamati has moved to the United Arab Emirates, and even Ratsac is focusing more on RL diversions. This is actually the first time I have really played an MMO on my own - I'm used to having Sally and Rykester having my back, and when we're together the thousands of Arena games we have played together means we can give as good as we get in the vast majority of encounters against other players in both WoW and TESO. Focusing targets, quick swaps, synchronising CDs and peels are second nature for us, and usually means we can leverage our years of teamwork against disorganized mobs of players. No longer. I'm just one guy now, and an ignorant neophyte at that. I tried joining Syncaine's guild in Ollo, but given that the guild has disintegrated prematurely that idea is still-born. If I'm going to play AA I'm going to have to start from scratch, with nary a friend in sight, but this isn't a prospect I am facing with dread, although I do miss my long time intrepid companions.

Seeing a skyship for the first time, Hatakeyama looks on with awe.
The more fundamental reason as to why I'm OK with playing in an environment like AA's is that I hold with the idea that asymmetry is a fundamental aspect of open world PvP. The distinction between symmetrical and asymmetrical games are very clear in my own mind - I place discrete, balanced and instanced games like WoW Arena, League of Legends and StarCraft 2 in one category, and persistent open world games like EVE Online, Darkfall, TESO and now Archeage in another. Each style of gameplay has its own appeal - in balanced PvP all things being equal the team with greater skill will win, which is why this type of gameplay has to be scrupulously balanced in order to ensure that player ability is the primary determinant of victory. In persistent world PvP there are so many variables that winning is not always determined by skill. It can be influenced by level/gear differential, state of readiness, time spent in the world, time zones, and even by the amount of friends you bring to the gunfight. I have written copious amounts of words on this topic here, and I don't intend to rehash it. Suffice to say that I understand that AA belongs to the latter category of PvP - open world PvP - and understand that I will be outgunned and outgeared by people who are willing to spend tracts of cash to obtain a gearing edge. I don't expect balance, nor will I be weeping and gnashing my teeth on the forums when I eat gank after gank while I level up in the contested zones. I will simply collect my bruised avatar at the Statues of Nui, and head off again and try to use my wits to avoid a similar fate. The trade off for me will be to live in a world that is alive, where people till and work their fields, and trade convoys go rumbling along the dust-beaten tracks on route to far away lands. I have yet to venture onto the open sea in Archeage, yet watching from the cliffs as convoys prepare to embark to distant shores I have to confess to a romantic stirring in my breast. The landscape of AA is an exotic one, born from the shores of Korea, and now transplanted uncomfortably to the west. Like J3w3l, I love the Korean speaking NPCs, but more than this I like the guild advertisements that scroll in zone chat looking for people in several different languages. I have seen Russian, Filipino, Portugese and French so far, and this adds to the feeling of living in a strange land far different from anything I have experienced to date in a computer game. MMOs are best when they convey the feeling of organic, shifting life, and this world, for all its perils and the all too-common brutish idiocy associated with F2P and OWPvP, is alive.

3 comments:

  1. "although I have to confess that I only know this to be true for "protected" (i.e. non-PvP) zones. Whether protected land in PvP zones offer the same guarantees is something I have to discover once I venture forth into these areas."

    I would really like to know the answer to this question!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hello there,

    I have found that player owned land is also safe from depredation in contested (PvP) zones, so you can grow crops, raise livestock and build houses, etc. in these areas without fear of losing your goodies.

    The one caveat is that PvP zones in Archeage fluctuate cyclically from peace to war, so during war time you can be killed by members of the enemy faction while you are farming. You can also be killed by members of your own faction during war time, but this is much rarer as the justice system imposes steep penalties on inter-factional PKing (depending on the jury they draw in their trial).

    During peace time however, no one can touch you. Your crops and livestock are always protected regardless of whether the region is at war or peace if you have them on land you own.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Ok good to know. That would ruin a lot of player motivation I imagine to allow enemies to harvest your goods, so makes sense. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete