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Archive for May 12th, 2011

“The meek shall inherit absolutely nothing at all, if you stopped being so feeble you could have so much more.” – Pulp, The Day after the Revolution

 

Clearly there was something wrong with me. I was hooked on a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game (MMO), had been playing it for almost nine months, and not once, since I first signed up, had I teamed up with other players. You may wonder why anyone would solo a game that is optimised for group play, but then you’d be failing to take into account my somewhat shy nature when it comes to approaching strangers.

It wasn’t entirely true that I had never played in a group. I had briefly recruited my friend Steven to play with me for a week when I first signed up, but after his departure, I avoided grouping with any other players. It was unfortunate because, apart from the fact that it was extremely difficult to advance without grouping, as most mid to high-level quests were sufficiently challenging to require more than one player, I was also missing out on a hell of a lot of fun.

My reluctance to group was especially odd because, on the rare occasions I’d done it in other games, I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. Admittedly, however, this was not generally with strangers. At the end of 2005, before I left Sydney for Cambridge for the second time, I’d spent a good few nights staying over at my old buddy Mike’s new house. He hooked up two computers and we played some long, heavy sessions of Neverwinter Nights. It was an awesome gaming experience, for we were playing a very excellent series of modules written by a community member and posted free to www.nwvault.com called The Aeiland Saga. The game combined the very best elements of a good story, excellent challenge, exciting locations and plentiful surprises. Mike and I were enthralled to say the least, though I likely more so than he, and when it was over, I was gutted.

I also managed to get my brother on board and we too played some Neverwinter Nights modules before my departure. Firstly over a LAN connection at our folks’ place and then via the internet. Once I was back in England, we linked-up through the multiplayer server and teed-up times to play together; me lying on a double bed in my house in Sturton Street, early in the morning, and he at his desk in the spare room of his house in Brisbane, late at night. I was, of course, playing none other than Hallifax Bender, my favourite altar-ego.

I had also experienced playing in groups in World of Warcraft and this had been a largely positive experience. I’d been impressed by the willingness of completely random strangers to offer help and support, and to go out of their way to assist with something from which they had nothing to gain. Still, my group-play experiences were limited and, when I signed up to Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO), I, in my stupidity, spent nearly nine months playing the game solo.

As a consequence of this, I’d reached an impasse. I had several characters on the Sarlona server, but none of them had advanced very far. I had managed, through many hours of blood, sweat and tears, to get Hallifax Bender to level 8 and several other characters, such as Tollande Rollmops, Bethanie Brinsett, Summer Thingis, Hondeydrop Sundew, Badajon Yarnspinner and Arnalde Holdfast to around level 5. It was, however, difficult to go much further as there were few quests in my level range that I could complete solo. What I had managed to do, however, was master the workings of the local economy, and, through the harvest and sale of collectables, my toons, despite their inadequacies, were loaded with gold pieces.

There came, at this time, a very significant update to the game which made a lot of important structural changes and introduced new features. Most prominent amongst these was a decrease in the penalty for characters of higher level completing lower-level quests, some important graphical tweaks, and the introduction of hirelings. Again, just at a point where my interest in the game was flagging, when I was spending most of my time simply buying and selling things on the auction house to make virtual money, these changes brought me right back into the game with renewed enthusiasm. The introduction of hirelings was a godsend. Hirelings could be purchased for a relatively small sum from vendors around the city of Stormreach and they gave a player the opportunity to, for example, have a cleric in the group who would heal automatically, thus freeing up the player to focus on combat. They could also be commanded via a hotbar that allowed the player to cast the hireling’s spells or use their abilities directly.

For someone in my position, who had played the game for so long as a solo-artist, having to perform all my own tasks and make continuous tactical withdrawals from combat to heal myself, this was a huge blessing. Now, with a cleric hireling in tow, healing my sorry ass every time I got hit, I found I could make much faster progress. The problem was that this still only really allowed me to take on quests at a low difficulty level and usually below my character level; partly because of the considerably greater difficulty of many mid-level quests, their length and complexity, but also because I was running toons I’d made a long time back who were not especially well thought-out.

What hirelings also did for me was to open my eyes to the far greater potential for completing quests with back-up. Within the space of a week, using hirelings had become not so much a norm as a necessity, and, though frustrated by their occasionally dodgy pathfinding and response times and restricted to one hireling per character, I began to ponder how much better a real human would be at providing such services; indeed, how much better it would be with a full-time rogue, another tank or melee build, a caster, an archer and a buffer, for example. Slowly, like the long thaw at the end of an ice-age, it was beginning to dawn on me that I should re-examine my seemingly baseless embargo on grouping. It was time to harden the fuck up, and I went out and bought a new top-shelf wireless headset. I was resolved that, the next time someone invited me to join their group, I would accept the offer.

It wasn’t long before I received a cry for help. A level 16 wizard called Kalsto, who was running quests on Elite difficulty for favour – ie. the cumulative reputation from quest completion which brings in-game rewards and privileges – needed someone to pull a lever for him in part 2 of the Delera’s Tomb quest chain. There were many quests that could not be completed solo because they required different characters being in different places simultaneously and, despite the fact that hirelings could now be utilised to perform such tasks, it seems this chap was fixed in his belief that the only way around this problem was to use a human player. Thus far my experience of the Delera’s Tomb quests was entering part 1 with Hallifax Bender and getting shredded by a spectre before I made it past the first major obstacle. What had impressed me, despite the rather relentlessly bland interior of this poor dead girl’s tomb, was that the Dungeon Master’s narration was done by none other than E. Gary Gygax, the father of Dungeons & Dragons. There was even a memorial shrine to him built just around the corner in Delera’s very large graveyard, added to the game after his death (Raise Dead spell pending, we hope). Not knowing the quest at all, I felt reluctant to join with this chap as I didn’t want to screw things up for him. When I explained this, however, he assured me it was all good and that he would tell me what to do. Thankfully, he was noob-friendly!

So it was that Badajon Yarnspinner, my 6th-level Bard / Rogue / Barbarian, found himself standing inside Delera’s tomb with a master of the arcane arts. At level 16, Kalsto would receive no experience for the quests whatsoever, despite them being on elite difficulty. I too would receive nothing other than favour, on account of Kalsto’s level and the fact that I was being power-levelled, as the game called it, because I was grouped with a player four levels or more higher than myself. Kalsto buffed me in a way I’d never been buffed before: Blur, Stoneskin, Haste, Displacement, Jump, Protection from Evil and all manner of elemental resistances, and my job was simply to stay alive and keep up whilst he torched all the undead with maximised, extended Firewall spells.

I followed in his wake, marvelling at how rapidly all the spectres, wights, ghouls, ghasts, skeletons and wraiths died in his walls of fire. Kalsto would simply dance around the undead, practically untouchable behind all his buffs, luring them all into the flames. It was an awesome display of power, and we quite literally ran through each area, often simply ignoring half the trash that was not of a mind to follow us. What really got me excited, however, was that, by virtue of these quests being run on elite, all the chests were dropping far better loot than I was used to and I quickly saw that if I should stick it out, I might get a nice piece of equipment or two.

When it came to my turn to pull the lever, however, I quickly ran into trouble. Kalsto stood by the iron gate he needed to access, whilst I stood across the way in an alcove next to a large metal lever. I pulled the lever and, suddenly, a bunch of skeletons spawned and attacked me. I tried desperately to pull the lever a second and then third time, as I had been instructed, for Kalsto had to progress through a series of gates, and just managed to do so before the undead swamped me. I put up my shield and defended as best as I could, determined not to die and suffer the shame and embarrassment. I hammered and pummelled with everything I had, but I was getting smashed to bits and was forced to flee. I must have run through half the length of the vast tomb we had already traversed, healing myself and fighting to stay alive. Eventually, I managed to get into a tight corner where I could fight against one attacker at a time and was able to beat down the skeleton horde that had set upon me. When Kalsto joined me a few moments later and blasted the last remaining skeleton to pieces, I was still alive and much relieved. He was very apologetic. “Sorry man,” he wrote, “forgot about those spawns.” We were all good, and I felt oddly pleased with myself. All that solo training had done me the world of good in keeping my sorry ass alive.

I followed Kalsto through the remaining quests of the chain in search of loot, and surprised myself by being useful here and there in disarming traps and opening locks. I don’t think Kalsto was very fussed about the loot himself, but I certainly was and enjoyed picking the locks on the two extra chests after the boss fight in Thrall of the Necromancer. When it was all over and we parted ways, I was buzzing like never before. Not only had the experience been brilliantly good fun, but it also showed me just how much more of the game I could explore and enjoy with proper support. I sold and auctioned my loot, went to the tavern to rest and repair, logged out and hit the sack, exhausted but thrilled. I couldn’t get the game out of my mind and dreamed of what I might do next time I logged in.

Despite my enthusiasm, it wasn’t until two nights later, on a Tuesday, that I had the chance to play again. I was checking the post on Bethanie Brinsett, when I received a tell from a barbarian called Kazorn asking for help in running the quest Gwylan’s Stand. Again, this was a quest I did not know at all and replied stating that I was unfamiliar with it. They were desperate for a healer and said not to worry, so I agreed to join the group and met them in the city’s Elven ward, House Phiarlan. Now that I was with people my own level, and now that I was expected to heal the entire party, I found myself in a very different situation. I had no experience playing a healer in a group and soon found that I was not only running desperately short of mana, but that I had insufficient wands in my inventory. Gwylan’s is a sprawling quest, set amongst ancient ruins overrun by bugbears, minotaurs, hobgoblins trolls and evil elves, and I struggled to stay with the group. It didn’t help at all that the tanks were zerging all the time, ie. charging ahead and not waiting for everyone else, so I soon got completely lost and separated from the rest of the team. Fortunately, however, the group’s rogue, Quinthel, a nice American woman, took me under her wing and helped me find everyone else in the rather confusing collection of entrances and exits. She also gave me a bunch of healing wands to assist in my job, as I had come into the quest both low on equipment and not really understanding what was required.

Once I caught up with the other players, I devoted my efforts to healing them, but they weren’t especially happy with me. I was annoyed at this reception because they had urged me to join their group anyway, despite my reservations and despite my having told them I was unfamiliar with the quest, but I was also disappointed with myself as I wanted to do as good a job as possible. In retrospect, having later had a great deal of experience as a healer, I understood that it was entirely their fault for zerging. As many clerics write in their Bios, “I can’t heal stupid.” If you want heals, don’t run away from the healer.

What did please me very much, however, were the rewards of the quest. Not only were there six or seven good chests in it, but it paid roughly 8000 experience points, which was vastly superior to the sorts of returns I was used to. If I could make so much XP in half an hour, compared with several hours of more stressful solo slog, then surely grouping was the way forward.

After Gwylan’s I switched to Badajon and rejoined the same group. I now had the pleasure of listening to one of the other group members  slate my efforts as a cleric, unaware that I was the same player! I took it on the chin, knowing he was being unfair, but also knowing that, were I placed in the same situation again, I wouldn’t be unprepared. My worst fear of grouping had always been looking like a noob, and sure enough, I had done, but I had survived. Not only that, I had learned from the experience in a way I wouldn’t forget. No amount of solo play could have taught me as much about being a cleric.

Now, having switched to back Badajon, I looked forward to playing a character who was not quite so pivotal in the group. The chap who had slated me soon left, along with Kazorn and a couple of others, and Quinthel took over the party, recruiting further players as replacements. The plan was to run the Waterworks quest chain on elite next; something I’d solo’ed repeatedly, though not on elite, and which had taken me a hell of a long time to master. Now, again in a full group of six, with a rogue, ranger, wizard and surplus bard, though forced to use a hireling cleric owing to the difficulty of finding a real one, I finally felt as though I had arrived.

The time tag on the above screenshot says 04.57AM, Wednesday morning, May 20, 2009, and it is indicative of how utterly immersed I became on this occasion. It also shows Badajon topping the kill count by a considerable margin; not surprising considering I was the principal melee character in a group with no real tanks, but still impressive in my books for being my first group venture as a fighting build. Countless hours of solo play had taught me how best to use what I had at my disposal and now, with decent back up, I found that, when it came to fighting, I was quite formidably fast at doing what needed to be done; faster than many others. I wasn’t such a bad player after all. Woot!

What I loved most of all was the camaraderie. Never before had group play in any game been so visceral or so much fun. In a game that was played completely live, with no re-loading of saved games possible, let alone any saving of the game, everything was played out in real time. It was thus important to act fast, to act together, and to communicate. My Gwylan’s Stand experience had taught me what happened when players didn’t communicate, but this second group looked out for each other, stuck together, and no one died. There was friendly chat, jokes, exchanges of advice and information and, in the space of a very short time, I felt sentimental towards the other players. If someone fell behind or got into trouble, we went back and helped them. We praised each other’s efforts, laughed at our mistakes and were generous with things we looted and did not need. When the session finally finished at around 0530 AM, I was exhausted, but completely high on the game. Computer gaming had just achieved a level I had never really dreamed of, and it had been staring me right in the face for so damned long.

That evening was the beginning of a long, long period of sleeplessness. Once I started grouping properly, I could not countenance going back to the old ways. Being in a party made everything easier, quicker, and a hell of a lot more fun. It was a brilliant thing to talk to people over the voice-chat, or to communicate by typing. My stagnant learning curve took off like a shot and I found myself developing an intimate knowledge of quests, dungeons and wilderness areas that I never could have dreamed of achieving solo. I soon found myself chatting with people from all around the world, though the Sarlona server was largely populated by American players. I made friends with several players and ran with them repeatedly; started to recognise other player’s avatars around town, in groups, on the social panel, and thus began to feel like part of the community; a true resident of Stormreach. I was surprised by the demographic make-up of the players. Most people were in their twenties and thirties, and there were many players who had, like me, been playing Dungeons & Dragons since first edition. As totally and utterly nerdy as it might seem, it was a dream come true for a D&D tragic like me to find so many other people like-minded people, who shared the nostalgia for the game.

I soon learned that it was pointless trying to role-play in a game like this. Apart from the fact that many players had limited English, it was rather too much to expect everyone to get on board and in character, especially when parties often broke up after a single quest. To role-play would require a dedicated group of players who met regularly, and anyway, it was interesting enough meeting such a wide variety of personalities.

It wasn’t long before I saw my chance to take Hallifax forward and switched to running on him as often as possible. He was, perhaps, my strongest build and most groups liked to have a bard along to enhance their combat prowess with songs, and to buff and haste them. When Hallifax began to level rapidly, I was thrilled. He had been at the coal-face for so long; the true pioneer of most of the challenges I had faced in my solo days. After the first runs on Bethanie, it had been Hallifax who experienced most quests first and he had died countless times, finding himself hopelessly outgunned. Now, at last, surrounded by good people, Hallifax began to shine like a true champion. Other players warmed to him and would express their delight when Hallifax joined the group. No doubt this was because I was enjoying the game so much that I was always laughing and joking. Hallifax was always ready with a quip, just like all bards should be, and, just as a bard is supposed to do, I felt I regularly lifted the group’s morale. It was on Hallifax that I met one of my longest running online comrades, another Bard by the name of Holz Amboss. Holz was an Australian like myself, and a relatively new player. He was intelligent and well-spoken and always good company and we teamed up for many consecutive nights, playing well into the wee hours, laughing and joking our merry way through quests. Holz and I taught each other a lot; we filled in the gaps in each other’s knowledge, exchanged money and equipment where necessary, and always made sure that people in our group were happy and well looked after.

For the rest of that month of May and halfway into June, I played DDO at every given opportunity. I no longer cared about sleeping at all and stayed up until dawn almost every night, when there were many more players online. I advanced Hallifax to level 12, indulging in ever more challenging and interesting quests. The game was far more colourful than I’d ever imagined, with some truly classic quests and beautifully rendered areas to explore.

There were so many quests that even after six weeks of continuous group play, there was still a huge number I was yet to run. Very rapidly, the game began to consume my entire life. I doing no writing whatsoever, slumping my way through the days in a dream-like state of chronic exhaustion, keeping myself awake with killer doses of coffee and sugar, codeine, ibuprofen and paracetamol, and then trying to make up for it all every Saturday night when I stayed at my girlfriend’s house and slept for about twelve hours. I kept up running and took no time off work, but I was just making it through my lessons, teaching English as a second language. I was a walking wreck, and we were about to go to South East Asia together for a five-week holiday. I began to have terrible withdrawal fears, in advance of the coming break. Would I really be able to live without DDO? There was  only one way to find out…

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