As Zoso so rightly stated, although we seem to play together harmoniously, we are chalk and cheese when it comes to our approach to characters in MMOs. If you imagine us walking down the quiet country road of MMO progression, he would be the calm, sagacious traveller, walking the straight path with unswerving focus. A look of determination mixed with serenity is on his face as he takes in all the sites and sounds whilst making good progress. I, on the other hand, would be a small yappy dog, running around his legs in frantic circles, bouncing up and down in a near coronary of delight and then dashing off into the hedgerow, distracted by some random movement or change in the shadows. Sometimes Zoso waits patiently for me to burst back out, all tail wags and plant-matted fur. Sometimes he carries on, knowing that I’ll catch up again, but that I’ll most likely be an entirely different sort of dog. Sometimes I come back as a cat.
And sometimes he has to wade into the undergrowth, wrestle a bear into submission, and then prize its jaws open so that I can sheepishly crawl out from its gullet, ears flat back and my tail between my legs.
In short, I like alts, and while Zoso and others are making steady progress on their main characters, I’ll be frantically trying to level-up my latest and greatest, this is definitely the one, I’m never playing anything else, character and catch up with them. On a bad day that character will be in an entirely different game.
So in the tradition of Zoso’s post I’ll have a go at exploring my motivations for my altoholism. *Reclines on the psychologists couch* I suppose it all started as a child, where I was raised in the wild by a pack of wandering miniature poodles… Hello?
Zooosssoooo, I think I broke the psychologist agaaaaaiiin.
A little confession: I don’t finish games. I can count the number of games that I have completed on one hand. Ok, two hands. Maybe two hands and half of one foot, but that starts to get a bit painful. Either way, it’s not very many in the grand scheme of my gaming life. In general the games that I have completed have been exceptional examples of their genre, original and have provided motivation for me to continue playing in the form of, and here comes the revelation, entertainment and enjoyment. Games need to have a challenging element to them, it’s in their nature: Pacman would be a pretty boring game if there were no ghosts in it. However, the challenges have to be such that you can achieve them through more than sheer luck, and the penalty for failure should not be so harsh that it makes you feel pain: golf would be a lot less popular game if the penalty for failure to reach par for a hole was that you had to go right back to the beginning of the course and start again. Therefore I see challenges in games as both enabler and potential destroyer of my enjoyment of the game, and MMOs provide a get-out clause when it comes to dealing with these challenges, namely the alternative character, or alt.
The thing with a new character is that you know you’re going to face encounters that are pretty easy, designed with the new player in mind as they are, and that there is going to be little challenge to them at all. The fun thing about this is that it leaves you free to set your own challenges, which you can make as difficult as you choose. The thing I enjoy about rolling a new character with respect to challenges is that I know the content slightly better and I can organise quests in ways that optimise their execution to allow me to achieve more in less time. It’s this dramatic sense of achievement, combined with the freshness of a new character class that is quite seriously addictive to me. It’s like I have my own drug dealer inside my mind “Pssst, hey kid, want a hit? I’ve got new characters here, never been played. Check out all the lovely new abilities on this class, should get you high as a kite for hours, that one”, “Ok, ok! Give me a hit of paladin, and a couple of baggies of new starter area quests”. Ahhhhhhhhhhhh.
I mentioned freshness in that last paragraph, and that’s a big one for me. After a while in your adventuring career you get to that point where you’ve achieved a new level, and as you enter town your trusted mentor is beckoning you with a smile that promises advanced training. Actually it’s the smile of someone who knows he’s about to fleece you for all your worldly possessions in exchange for a bit of crappy advice, but you’re still a young adventurer so you don’t know this. Anyway, you reach the mentor and after handing over every copper penny you’ve ever earned – you’re even made to strip down to your underwear to make sure you aren’t hiding a little purse of gold somewhere on your body, thankfully Bernard’s Body-Cavity Bag of Distinct Discomfort dropped for you earlier in the day, you just hope it doesn’t ‘drop’ now while you’re being searched – and finally you’re ready to receive your training, which turns out to be an upgrade to two of your existing spells. Oh, thanks. So what you’re saying is, my spells don’t naturally increase in power as I do, and they don’t naturally increase in power as I use them, you know, with practice, they only increase when I’ve paid some smug git in my home town a whole load of money. Yes, I can see how the process of evolution would develop that. Luke Skywalker never had this problem:
Luke: “Master Yoda, I have learned so much already, and I have come to learn further the ways of the Jedi.”
Yoda: “No. No new powers will you learn. Only slight and insignificant upgrades to powers that you already know.”
Luke: “But Ben said you’d train me…”
Yoda: “Sucker, you are. Grind womprats you will.”
Yoda: “Your money, give it to me now.”
With an alt everything is different and exciting and new! Not only do you gain new and interesting powers but because you’re blasting through content that you know about, you gain them at an even more accelerated rate than you do when initially playing a new character. It’s the crack cocaine of the alt world, a big hit and everything is ‘yeah’ and ‘wow’ and ‘I can take on the world’! But like any drug, the down is always just around the corner, and eventually one day you’re walking in to town and there’s your mentor with this huge grin on his face…
I don’t even need levelling rewards to be new powers necessarily, I would be perfectly happy receiving the odd ‘party trick’ power, where you are able to turn yourself into a stove, fire peanuts from your belly button at high velocity or blow smoke rings with your eyes. Just something that adds a little variety to the day-to-day game. I believe Everquest II has such powers (although perhaps not quite the ones described) and I also believe that they have a pretty constant stream of new abilities through a large part of your adventuring career, but I haven’t played it in anger so I can’t be sure.
So yes, in part it’s because I have a short attention…
Uh, where was I? Oh yes, to some extent I have a short attention span and constantly hitting the same buttons to activate the same powers without any chance of a change of pace really depresses me; I don’t know whether I’m fickle or if justified boredom is taking hold, but at some point I know that I am in need of a change or I will quit the game.
However, I’m not sure that I would be quite so ready to abandon a character if I could empathise with it in any way, but in general characters to me are just that, virtual avatars to allow me to interact with the game world. A lot of this comes down to the lack of customisation in many games. Never in any game have I been able to play a Yoda-like character, a cloth wearing class with melee skills and a few magic tricks up their sleeves, for example. Things are dictated so stringently when you create your character that it’s very hard to create a connection when most of the input into how that character is formed is out of your control, you get pseudo-customisation, but to fit in with the game world it is very much limited. Since you can’t create your character the way you want, because the race you want to play can’t take on the profession you want to play, you create alts to fill in the gaps and you play the single character you’ve always wanted through a mixture of ‘lesser’ characters. If I could create the character that I would like to be, I imagine that I would connect with it on a more fundamental level, because I do want to feel like I’m connected to the character in some way, I really do. It hasn’t happened yet in any MMO that I’ve played.
Failure to empathise, to want to make great, any character that I play is possibly the reason why I have joined the ranks of the MMO nomads at the moment, those players who wander from game to game, doing a little bit to save a kingdom here and destroy the evil empire there. Maybe it’s a symptom of the next stage of the disease that is altitus: new characters are no longer enough, now the game world and mechanics need to differ to stem the ennui. I’m hoping that it’s not the case, that I’ve just run out of steam on the current crop of games, and that the next wave of new talent will deliver games that give you characters that you feel happy about investing your time in, because you want them to do well, because their doing well is achieved through you having fun and being entertained, not because you had the iron nerves and enough caffeine on tap to grind your way to victory.
I live in hope that if not soon, then in the future, I won’t need to be a yappy dog anymore.
And if not, well, then there’ll be plenty more fuel for the Inferno.