Staying Ahead of the Curve

Over the past several months I’ve had computer issues, job issues, etc, and these almost always end up hitting just before a major content update.  This has gotten me thinking about a problem that has always plagued me: staying ahead of the content curve.  Specifically I’m referring to being able to complete all the available content I want to do before new content is added, and it’s an eternal pain in my side that has haunted me as long as I’ve played MMOs.

See, MMOs are essentially a living thing if done right.  Except for dying games, or some games pretty much on life support like Vanguard: SOH was until recently, the developers tend to release new content or updates for players to do.  Whether it be a new dungeon, new zones, or more quests, the point is to give more things to the players so they don’t get too bored and leave (a real problem for most subscription games).

Probably the biggest challenge here is that different types of players churn through content at different rates.  Some players can go through the tasks extremely quickly whereas others take years, and this reflects a wide range of variables such as time available, skill level, or just how much time they spend “smelling the roses” (ahem).  This means developers must strike a balance point on the amount of content to give enough to do, stereotypically between “casual” and “hardcore” players.  I refer to myself as more “time limited”, but that usually puts me in the “casual” camp.

I’ve always been behind the content curve, always playing catch-up.  It’s hard not to feel left out, which is a problem in what is supposed to be a social game. 

EverQuest

From the very beginning of my time in EverQuest, my first graphical MMO, I was already behind.  I began in 2001 shortly after the Shadows of Luclin (SoL) was released, while I was in college.  SoL was the third expansion for the game, so I not only had the original game’s content to see but also two whole expansions before I would be current.  That’s not to say I didn’t have fun.  Since it took so much experience to level, the lower areas were still populated a good bit more than later MMOs.  Those times were some of my more nostalgic memories, too: hanging out at the docks in Oasis to find a group, pulling gargoyles through the caves in Lower Guk, being mobbed by skeletons in Kurn’s Tower…the list goes on.

Even with my friends occasionally power leveling me and relatively large amounts of free time (to the detriment of my studies, perhaps) though, I think I only barely reached 46 before the next expansion came out…barely seeing most of the world.  With the experience in the new zones being much higher and therefore much more enticing, the previous areas were practically abandoned at level 46+, so it became almost required to play in the new zones unless you were with a guild group.  I wasn’t exactly a casual player either at this point.  I was researching equipment and visiting forums when I wasn’t playing, thinking up raid strategies, doing content with less people than others and with unusual group compositions, staying involved in research being done on the game systems, and relishing in the challenge the game had.

At one point the developers released an update to a zone called the Temple of Cazic Thule, a swamp-like temple with lizardmen foes I really liked.  A guild group of mine actually stepped foot in there to take a look at the updated zone, despite me being far too low level to really make an impact, and the excitement was palpable.  The update made the zone really hard, people were gathered at the entrance trying to break into the temple, and even the uber guild on the server was having to fall back to previous areas due to the difficulty.  I wasn’t able to really participate though, and by the time I was high enough to go in…no one really wanted to do it.  It was too hard and the rewards were not as lucrative as new areas.

Later other things caused issues:  My only guild I’d been in at that point disbanded, and I felt like my character wasn’t for me so I switched characters over time.  I gradually moved over to my now normal support/healing playstyle, which did allow me to cover the lower content I missed but prevented me from doing the high level content as I had to start over.  To this day there are several zones, even some in the old world, that I haven’t even entered much less explored.

I’m actually amazed by how much I didn’t really see, considering how focused on the game I was.  Back then my completionist tendencies were not nearly as strong, and the fact that I couldn’t see a list of all the quests and other content I hadn’t done helped out immensely.  I’d hear from others about going into Runnyeye, or the Gorge of King Xorbb, and not have any idea where it is nor what’s there.  Erudin is still a mystery to me, in fact.  I was eternally behind in EverQuest, never being able to see as much of the game as I wanted.  Eventually, due to various reasons, I quit EQ1 and left it behind.

World of Warcraft

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Around the time I slowed down and quit EverQuest, I remember having conversations with others about how it would be nice “getting in on the ground floor” of a MMO for once, especially since new and interesting MMOs (specifically EQ2 and WoW) were on the horizon.  I always attributed my being behind the content curve in EQ1 with the fact I started so far after launch, and felt if I began at launch or near it then I’d be able to complete the content and finally not feel like I was eternally behind (if you’re a completionist in these games, you’ll likely understand the feeling).

My interests leaned more towards World of Warcraft as the gameplay in EQ2 never really felt fun for me.  I took part in the beta for WoW even…but when it came time for launch my situation didn’t allow me to consider playing it so I couldn’t “get in on the ground floor” here either.  By the time my wife and I bought our own account, Wrath of the Lich King was out (second expansion) and we felt even farther behind than I was when I started EQ1.  The vast majority of players were in the new expansion so the game really felt like a ghost town.

Being that far behind means that in order to play with others, one of the strongest points of MMOs, we essentially had to rush through everything 1-70.  Honestly, by the time we hit 60 and could start playing in Outland we were already feeling burnt out and very lonely.  We only barely made it into Northrend, and started seeing more people… but we were almost completely burnt out and bored with the game and the repetitive quests.  We had rushed through everything as fast as possible and skipped so much that we quit right as we reached other players.  This is what being behind the curve has become in MMOs, in my opinion…constantly being left behind, and being by yourself until you catch up.  If you ever catch up, that is…

Guild Wars

I actually played in the open betas for Guild Wars as well, as all three of these games (EQ2, WoW, and GW1) came out around the same time in 2004.  A pseudo-MMO with a low level cap, limited skill bar, attempting a story, and an ACTUAL ENDING?  Color me intrigued.  After a little convincing my wife and I got copies and started playing sometime after Factions (first expansion/campaign) was released.  However, the game was actually too different for us at first.  The player base was more spread out, and we could only talk to them in outposts and cities.  We just couldn’t get into it, and stopped playing.

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Fast forward to later after many patches to functionality and I tried it again.  This time things started clicking, and I began playing it more often.  Since there was no subscription and a low level cap, I’d take breaks when I got a little burnt out and come back to it later with no issue.  My wife called it the best investment she ever made, as it kept me busy off and on for 4-5 years without paying an additional cent.

I was still always behind the content curve though.  I was picking up one expansion as they were releasing the next one, getting Nightfall as Eye of the North was being released.  However, with workable AI henchmen, heroes, and the no-grind philosophy, as well as story-based missions to work on, it didn’t matter to me as much.  I could take my time and not worry about it, and the low level cap meant players were still around me.

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Even here though, when new content was released I still had an issue.  In particular, the Winds of Change content was released almost a full month before I was able to get into it.  Most of the conversation about it already happened, and when I posted on forums about it now that I’d been able to actually see it, there was little activity like there was back when it was new, and a good amount of the response felt like they were rejecting my criticism, mostly because there’d been a discussion about it already and they already had a conclusion that I didn’t agree with, but no one honestly cared anymore.  At least that’s how it felt.

Despite this, Guild Wars allowed me to do the one thing I really wanted: to see or know about everything.  There were some elite missions I didn’t run, yes, but I was able to complete all main missions and even got the Cartographer titles (requiring 100% exploration of the maps).  Not only that, but unlike EverQuest and EverQuest 2 the fanbase for Guild Wars is almost fanatical about documenting as much as possible on the wiki.  Even if I didn’t see something, I can still read the dialogues and strategies.  Despite being behind the curve, Guild Wars allowed me the chance to catch up, and gave me far more fun than it should have for the price.

Guild Wars 2

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That brings me to Guild Wars 2.  Unlike all other MMOs, I actually got in on the ground floor on this one.  I had a decently powerful computer, a few people I knew were going to play, and a real excitement for the world and the lore.  Hell, I’ve even considered replaying Prophecies in GW1 to refresh my memory on the small things.  In EQ1 I spent so much time on Kunark learning about this ancient Iksar civilization that I explored as much of it as possible.  That’s the drive I feel in Guild Wars 1/2, this urge to learn about it.

So coming back to the very first line of this post, do I worry that I might fall behind?  A little…okay, it’s pretty clear I will.  I started during the head start, but as I stated earlier I have many more responsibilities now than I did when I first started MMOs.  With little time in the evenings to play, and needing/wanting to also do other things besides play GW2 each night, it takes quite a while to get even one character to level 80, much less see and do all the content.  There are advantages, though, such as the fact that Ascended gear, Laurels, and Guild Commendations are all time gated, so I don’t fall as far behind as I would otherwise.  I actually had so much karma from daily/monthly achievements by the time I hit 80 that I was able to just run out and buy a full set of karma gear immediately, even the trinket slots.  One particular item had a very significant upgrade.

Now THAT'S an upgrade...

Now THAT’S an upgrade…

However, with new content updates coming in monthly, it definitely leaves me a little concerned that even getting in on the ground floor won’t allow me to complete the content before too much more comes in, especially if more issues with my PC or time continue to come in.  I pretty much have to focus on each piece of content in turn to get through it all.  Right now I’m focusing on the Super Adventure Box so much, in order to complete the achievements and get the skins I want before they go away, that I’ve actually been kind of ignoring the Flame and Frost content, which in turn is keeping me from even completing my Personal Story.

What does it matter?

Okay, I know I don’t HAVE to do everything, and honestly I won’t be.  sPvP is likely to see very little involvement from me, if any, and WvW only a bit more.  I’m already limiting my focus to mostly PvE stuff.  To me, it’s more the exclusion from the conversation among others because you can’t do the new content yet.  It’s worrying that you’ll finally do the content, start talking about it, but find everyone did that content months ago so no one cares about your statements now that you finally did it… or they’ve accepted the way it is at this point so you don’t feel as involved.  It’s the worry that you’ll be so far behind that they’ll change a map due to some world event before you can do the content there, and you won’t get the same experience.

Stuff like this is what concerns me.  When you have conversations with other fans and they know more than you not because they had a sharper eye but because they were able to experience content that you missed and is no longer in the game due to updates, it changes the dynamic and makes you feel left behind (which sucks). I don’t care if it’s something like lore about the Mad King Thorn, since that lore is really only relevant during Halloween and that’s when the content is available anyway, but solid lore events would suck to never be able to experience ever.

Early EQ2 players might remember this guy, who is no longer in the game but was linked to the early story arcs.

Early EQ2 players might remember this guy, who is no longer in the game but was linked to the early story arcs.

Unfortunately, with the new Living Story, ArenaNet seems to be heading in the way of having content slowly be removed from the game.  The Flame & Frost arc will be removed sometime in May, it seems, although I’ve seen hints that they may add the content back in if they can work out a way to get it in.  Perhaps a storybook mechanic that allows you to see previous content.  Thankfully, the content seems to be around for a while so I do have time to get it done.  Let’s hope things get even better in that area, or more ways to see old content are implemented.

Maybe I’m worrying too much though.  Surely there will be PvP or WvW only updates happening that won’t always add more content to PvE and allow me more time to complete the existing stuff.  It’s just that after so long of always being behind even at the beginning, I’m finally here when it starts…and I don’t want to get too far behind again.

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