Sparking my Lost Love for the MMO Genre
I think this is going to be a difficult post to write. There’s a lot to unpack here for myself, before I can hope even to begin articulating it to you. You see, for the most part, my gaming preferences appear to be an enigma wrapped in a mystery even to myself. How I could ever expect someone else to understand them is beyond me. What I can plainly say though, is that for the most part, the modern crop of MMOs leaves me cold.
Sure, there are aspects I enjoy. I still love raiding and I love the initial challenge of a new set of dungeons, for instance. I can get really engrossed in build and gear optimisation. But this is such a narrow focus. If I spent all my playtime on only these things, there are whole rafts of gaming elements and needs that go uncatered for. Ignoring those other elements, aspects I love, for too long can lead to a resentment of the commitment toward the game. A desire to ‘escape’ from it. Over time, those feelings became dominant for me.
And not recently, either. I found something I wrote1 back in 2013 around the then-revealed Everquest Next and The Elder Scrolls online as potentially rekindling my love for what an MMO could be.
For both those games, the draw was an impression that there was a vision to create a world. A place to be, which just incidentally allowed for adventure to take place when the mood struck.
This is perhaps the main trait of the MMOs that have managed to capture my imagination in the years since. The MMOs that have created more than just fun — they’ve created joy. Joy and a sense of wonder that is as close as I imagine I’ll ever get — short of amnesia — to ever recapturing the experience of being in an MMO for the first time.
They’re places to be, not just games to play.
For me? Lost Ark is one of these places to be. Why this is might not be evident if all you’ve seen is the extremely on-rails game portion that guides you from one end of the starting continent to the other, and hell — I acknowledge my opinion is just that. It might not even be a particularly common one. From the Blaugust Discord earlier today, for example:
“I don’t hate it but it’s nowhere near as interesting as some other games I’m playing right now.”– UltrViolet
“To put forth a third option – I’m not sure how I feel about Lost Ark, but I keep playing it.”– Krikket
I mention this because this post may well wax lyrical about how I’m feeling playing the game at the moment. It isn’t really meant to be an impressions or review piece but even so — balance and perspective is never a bad thing.
I’ve already touched on some of the things that resonate with me, but I’ll see if I can bring a little order to the proceedings now.
Themepark vs. Sandbox
I like both of these game design styles. Often discussions on the topic assume or at least prefer one style to the full exclusion of the other. Hold a gun to my head and ask me to choose in this manner and I’d say ‘sandbox’ to be sure.
But I feel like this is a space where we can actually have our cake and eat it too.
Lost Ark shows this is true, in fact.
This isn’t immediately apparent however as there is absolutely a lengthy stretch of being ferried from quest to quest, held by the hand all the way. And worse — you can’t meaningfully get off this ride if you wanted to. (No doubt Bhagpuss is going to prove me very wrong here whenever his eye turns in Lost Ark’s direction.)
However, there comes a point where you’re given a ship and let loose on the world at large. And, it is indeed, a large world.
You can carry on with the main story if you like, and yes — there are progression points that unlock key systems or ‘things’ you need throughout, so it doesn’t become optional… But nor is it in your way any more.
Want to spend some time on the high seas, exploring islands? Fine, do it! Locate ghost ships or other co-op sailing missions? That’s cool too. Go back and complete your collections or continent reward tracks? Alright.
Making numbers get bigger is fun and all — I can, when the mood strikes, spend altogether too long in researching (i.e., reading the research of others) on how to eke out a few more and what to chase next.
But as much as I love that stuff, in a vacuum, it can be pretty… dry.
The vertical progression aspect of the game is strong though. There are new heights to reach, new things to unlock. New tiers of Chaos Dungeons, into Abyssal Dungeons, the Guardian Raids through to Legion Raids — always driving upwards. Bigger numbers. Neat!
Even within the realm of gear — there is more to it, with various trait-type systems like your Tripod levels, Engravings and various means of upgrades.
But there’s more, too. Less gear focused and more horizontal in nature. You can upgrade your ship. Unlock bonuses that apply to all characters on the server. Work on finding and earning various songs or abilities that act as almost a Metroidvania-style means of unlocking areas previously inaccessible.
Go collect things, you’ll be rewarded for whatever it is. Find the myriad of currencies and what they’re for. Then there are the life skills, your Stronghold (Garrison)… And on it goes.
It’s the expansiveness of the game. It has it all. Lifeskills? Game has you. Stronghold/base building? Same. Difficult progression content? Sure. Let loose and explore a whole world? OK.
Whatever particular aspect of my gaming mood is currently dominant, and Lost Ark can probably offer something to sate it. And this expansiveness forms into something more than the sum of its parts and gives me a sense of place.
As something of both a pro and a con — Lost Ark does an inconsistent job of explaining itself to you. Some things never getting a mention at all, e.g., the Bifrost which allows you to store your own recall points. I put this as a pro as well as a con because it does contribute to the desire for discovery. Both self-found discoveries and room to research and dig into the game outside of the game.
I can’t say with any certainty how long this sense of joy will last. The spectre of P2W is certainly on the not too distant horizon, with opinions running the gamut on how serious it is. I’ve barely touched the end game so don’t feel confident to say how much P2W is a thing in our Western release of the game. What I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt though is that you absolutely can buy power for money. There is no question. You can.
For a completely F2P game, this isn’t necessarily a deathknell in my opinion. What will make or break this is, can wallet warriors exceed the power obtainable by F2P players? If yes, that’s lining itself up on the chopping block. Assuming ‘No’ for the time being, the next question becomes, ‘How long does it take for a F2P player to catch-up?’ and here it becomes a bit more complex. This will interlink with things like, ‘Is the game actually fun in this catch-up period?’ but ultimately if that period is too long or has meaningful impacts on play then this also starts to remove the lustre from everything else the game offers.
This is absolutely a concern for me, and hopefully I’ll have a clearer picture on this very soon.
I reached Chaos Dungeons — the start of the end game gearing process — just yesterday, and so far? It’s super quick and it feels good. I know people willing to drop money can be ahead of me, absolutely. But there are also plenty more F2P players ahead, too. I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this later.
For now, the honeymoon stage is very real and I’m keen to jump back in. :)