Thursday, 27 March 2014

Alts, Nostalgia and the Quest for 'That Special Something'

Murd’s in a bit of a rut. Blaelock, Theodosius and all Murddock's alts are too.  For the first time in over five years, the idea of levelling another toon is utterly underwhelming.   There’s a couple of reasons for this.  But the main one is simply facing the "been there, done that" veteran syndrome with Age of Conan and yes, being weary of waiting for something new from Funcom.

Now don’t misunderstand, this is not the beginning of an anti-FC post.  Despite the recent slowdown in development, I recognize that FC's delivered enough,
at least for me, over the years.  As a casual player I concede, too, there’s lots of content left for Murd.  It's to its credit that AoC  can keep a casual subbed for so long. However, after 8 months of an RL work-schedule, which has precluded serious raiding, there’s less incidental content that calls to me … so c’mon crafting revamp!

Uhhh ... THAT'S not Hyboria!!! SACRILEGE!
The other element that’s in play is that I (Murd’s RL alter-ego) have taken a few weekends off to beta-test Elder Scrolls Online.  It’s the first time that another MMO, has seemed remotely alluring.  In the past, Lord of the Rings Online was given a shot … and despite reading and re-reading Tolkien’s Middle-Earth novels and stories yearly from the ages of 12 to 22, (and as well, a few subsequent albeit less regular re-reads over the past few decades); nonetheless Turbine's game version of Middle-Earth didn’t deeply grip me.  It’s very pretty and there’s great content, but well … meh! 

Will ESO provide that 'special something'?

Likewise, Rift was considered but its ads never quite excited me.   The early PR for Aion (with the flying demons and anime moves) looked pretty interesting, until I saw what seemed to be well uh ... pirate-squirrels in a hot air balloon ... so, nooope!  More recently, Defiance appeared to have potential … but then having seen the TV show I thought … meh! The show’s okay for the boob-tube but on the whole, the milieu just didn’t suggest I’d want to waste hours of weekly time there. 

Peculiarly, this trial of Elder Scrolls Online got me thinking about MMOs and the idea of re-playability.   What makes us play and then, more curiously, what makes us re-play?  It's fair to say that one of the aspects of MMORPGs that even permits a variety of replays is the presence of alternative play options, such as character classes.  In some respects, these might be seen as vestiges of pen-and-paper RPGs.  After a little thought, I began to wonder whether, at its core, a key motivator is nostalgia: that desire to re-experience a prior activity or place, simply because we remember some of the positive aspects of it.

TSR's Basic and Expert D&D Rulebooks from the early 1980s.

Let TMAB wax nostalgic for a paragraph or two, and revisit my earliest RPG play and replay.  When I was 13 in the spring of 1981, a new schoolmate, who'd  come the year earlier to Canada from the United States to live, asked me to make a trek across town to play what he described as 'kind of a board-game'.  He knew I was an emerging zealot for the cult of J.R.R, and so he introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons: Basic D&D (the 1977 rulebook) to be exact.  And for two or three cold rainy April weekends a few guys from his neighbourhood across town and I learned the way the game was played.  Its underlying mechanic of polyhedral dice, tables and chance modifiers and so on, was mind-blowing (yeah when you're 13, just about everything is).  On the first meeting we played a brief 14-15 room 'teaching' dungeon, he'd made. And the following weekend, we mapped and hacked a swath through a module called Keep on The Borderlands.

Nostalgia: B2 the first module most silver-age players typically played
For a few reasons: possibly that his house was somewhat far away, and that other players were just not as engrossed as I was, but that group didn't maintain much inertia (my American pal and I remained friends for years).  Several months later though, another good friend of mine, who lived on my street, broached the idea of playing D&D.  A new group was formed composed of guys who either lived closer or who just really got into the game.  And within only a few months, that group moved on to Expert Rules (the 1981 editions above) and then to Advanced D&D.  

My buddy and I began bugging our parents to buy dice, AD&D parephenelia and whatnot.  In time, we amassed a cardboard box full of hardcover rulebooks (c.f. The Monster Manuals, The Fiend Folio, a pile of Dragon Magazines, boxes of lead figures, the World of Greyhawk hex-map and guides and so on).  This box with much unoriginality, was dubbed "The Box" and whoever was the DM usually kept it.  Meanwhile, the players might pass the Players Handbook around.  I DM'd for a few years, but I was more head-in-the-clouds interested in narrative and world building and admittedly a lax DM.  Later, the co-owner of "The Box" DM'd and he was a rules stickler (I inwardly had to admit, this made the game demanding but very fun).  That group, with a few additions, stayed together throughout high school until the summer of 1986, at which the time most of us graduated and moved on in our lives.

AD&D, a veritable religion during high school

Despite the longevity of that group, I think that my favourite recollections of playing AD&D came from those earliest efforts.  When the game was raw and simple and learning to think about probability was as equally exciting as imagining killing Orcs or Kobolds and tackling Gelatinous Cubes.  Additionally, that second D&D group initially played through module B2 again, but as I'd done it before, at least one player among us had a few inklings of how to proceed.  The second time through was in some ways better: it moved faster; stupid procedural mistakes were avoided; the game mechanic was far better understood: roll initiative --- roll each player-character's 'to hit' and 'damage' --- and the Dungeon Master rolls the opponents' likewise --- roll 'saving throws' etc.  Rinse and repeat until the the group was envisioned as ankle-deep in goblin gore and divvying-up their loot ...  

DM: "Shit, your Magic-user dropped his damn torch! ... Suddenly it's dark; all you can sense is the hot stink of fresh goblin entrails."
Us: "No big deal, we start lighting a new one!"
DM: "Hmm remember, you didn't buy that tinder box! (the DM D10s and rolls a 9) ... What an incredible shame," he snidely quips, "the remaining 9 torches are on the floor soaked in goblin guts (-5 on a D6 to light one) ... Oh and you hear a slurping dragging noise ... It's getting closer. What do you do?"
Us: "We drop the loot and friggin' RUUUNN!"

Mayhem ensued.  One hysterical character inadvertently killed an other.  Soon we were all dead and bickering, a.k.a. "negotiating", with the DM as to where we should get to restart from.  Yeah a module could take weeks at that speed, but it was addictive and engrossing.

     Flash Forward ...

Now much of what kept me playing AoC, in 2008, was that same mix of enjoying learning how technically to play an MMO while also liking Hyboria and the AoC story-lines.  This was a time when the game was fresh, yeah buggy and imbalanced, and leveling was super-slow.  But it offered all the elements of fun and challenge as Keep on the Borderlands did over 25 years earlier.

And this I think is one of several factors that motivates players to replay an MMO via their alts: their second or third characters often of different classes. Many players want to recapture that special something, that charm of the first play-through ... the nostalgia factor.

Alts: some things  to consider when playing an MMO.

Now beyond this nostalgia issue (which I conjecture is what helps a lot of folks incidentally stick with their re-playing), there are more practical reasons for alts

1) As with good ol' module B2 in 1980, contemporary players of MMOs indeed benefit from a second play-through but in a different class.  My first class in AoC was HoX and then I tried ToS, despite imagining that being a mystical and dangerous Stygian mage would be cooler than being a cliched (cheap Conan knock-off) Cimmerian fighter, within two weeks Murddock was born; given light hair and a goatee to avoid being too much like "the man"; and those magic-wielding 'toons were deleted their names forgotten.  

2) Despite some database limits in the game's ancient coding, in AoC Funcom has made some reasonable efforts to help players access more storage.  Nonetheless,  having a few alts does additionally allow a player to pile the detritus of many months and years of adventures into the inventory of several characters.   With the advent of the vanity slots, wrangling inventory has become an art and a science.

3) Once Funcom had introduced more new content over the first few years, culminating with Godslayer, it became apparent that it might be fun to re-grind from scratch to try locations not previously seen.  Murd was leveled with very little group play and largely outside a guild.  Having a second or third option within a guild made play about the players again, not so much about building the main character.

4)  Another aspect of having choices to re-play older content, is that it allows players, in time, to try different roles within the context of well-known instances.  While you might be sheepish about trying tanking on your alt guard in a raid for the first time, you'll probably be more inclined to put your main ranger aside, and try Reliquary of Flame, on the 400th run.  I'd hazard a guess that this is a motivator for many PvP players, too ... if you have to play another mini-game, maybe it'd be more interesting to do it on a different class??

5) Another possibility for keeping a corral of alts, is to get a grasp of the workings of all classes.  This is a good way for a raid-leader neophyte to start memorizing the ability names and builds for the kinds of tactics he or she might have to lead.

6) There's no doubt about it, even though it's an older MMO, AoC still looks pretty sharp.  The concept art and in-game designs, might be a motivator for a player.  I do admit, that I decided to level a Barb, because I like the armor sets that were available.  Having access to a solid supply of gold on Murd, has made the leveling of one or two alts, and exercise in getting best gear, just as a point of pride.  I suspect too, that in the spirit of the saying "a change is as good as a break", some players try other classes (possibly even different character genders) just to see a different avatar running through Refuge of the Apostate or the Jade Citadel.

Murddock and 2 of his alts in Conall's Valley (Thanks, Photoshop)

Alts: the down side.

7) The chief objection to having alts, is that every hour re-playing the villas or Tarantia Commons on an alt, is one less hour that you will put into your main.  So if you are gainfully employed, or have a family, and you nonetheless wanna have the best gear and pwn Toth Amon within a few months, then don't level alts.  

8) Alts are each kind of a cash-sink too.  Every FC point you spend in the shop on the purple stuff for your twinks, is money that might later be used to buy something more appealing for your main.  That being said, for a veteran player, FC's speed of adding stuff to the shop is slow, so ... ahhh fukkit ... buy the Yothian War-Mare.

9) The final minor quip: it's a pain in the ass is managing your friends list.  If I were the god of MMOs, I'd make a friend's list that tracks a player's user ID (one, distinct from your login name), so that your pals can see when you are playing on an alt, and vice versa.*  Clearly such a list could also allow for exclusions (for anonymous play).

Balance nostalgia with practical reasons.

When ya think about it, it's a pop-culture truism that most heroin addicts get hooked in their desperate attempt to recapture that 'special something' that made the first ride on the horse appealing (that and, yeah, to escape some dismal RL stresses and pain). The former aspect is the cautionary bit.  You might enjoy your 2nd or 3rd alt's liberation of Tortage, but you'll probably never really reacquire 100% that first-time electricity.  

To conclude, yeah creating alts can represent much more than a manifestation of the desire to recapture that 'special something' which made the first great play-through in a game memorable.  However, if you plan to build a repertory company of 'toons, then accept that you'll be better off doing so, when you have practical reasons for it, as well as that yen for little misty-eyed nostalgia.    

* POST SCRIPT  Mrs. Murddock has joined ESO and when exploring the friends functionality, we discovered that Bethesda/Zenimax has done just that.  Friends are recorded by both 'toon name and player ID.   It's pretty convenient!


  1. What programme and settings do you use to make the picture look like that?

    1. Wwald k. I take screenshots in game and then run them through several 'artistic' filters in Photoshop CS6; and as well, a filter that's only available in Photoshop Element 11 (Sketch>Comic), as far as I know. Finally, I trim the edges and apply some filters to give the impression that they're pen and ink illustrations. Mostly, it's a trial and error process.

  2. Just get your ass back to AOC

    We are still going strong -DS-

    1. Yes, my Master: Thain, even in 13 words, you're unmistakeable. Family commitments and work are burying me this spring. We've had a 30% staffing cut, where I work: so I'm doing a pile of work in it's wake. I survived the cull and I will be back to raiding in full force by the end of June.