Thursday, March 13, 2008

Byte: Progress

As I predicted last week, my WoW-wiles have shifted focus and lured me away from my new Rogue and back to my primary Alt, Yonn. He's now (relatively speaking) within sight of Outland, as I've put four levels on him in the last week, and with another few evening's work, will get beyond level 50, after which the progression up to level 58 (and Outland) is surprisingly swift, thanks to the huge amount of places in which a level 50+ character can effectively quest: Azshara, Un'Goro Crater, Blasted Lands, Felwood, Western Plaguelands and the Burning Steppes... you're positively spoilt for choice once you reach level 50.

Luckily, this week I've pretty much been left to my own devices, as Fleur is away on the second half of a school exchange, back in her native France, so I've invested a few evenings getting Yonn up to the level 50 mark and beyond. Corleth, my new rogue, is still progressing quite nicely, however, as he's now able to use poisons, and got a nice weapon drop at the weekend, that will help up his damage-per-second to more useful levels. But now that Yonn is also progressing nicely to the more interesting zones in Azeroth, I may leave Corleth languishing with my other three mid-20s Alts, to gain a full level of 'Rested' state (i.e. double XP for mob kills), so he can rush through a couple of levels even quicker. Levels 20 to 30 are really kind of where you make or break a character. I didn't find them a problem for my Druid or Hunter, and I imagine that it will be okay with the Rogue thanks to being able to Sneak (plus I'm doing pretty well with a Mage, purely due to sheer spellpower), but the 20-30 quests for Alliance characters are really pretty sucky. It's not much better with the 30-40 stretch, either, given that you've either got to make a choice between the gank-fest that is Stranglethorn Vale, or the utter boredom of Desolace, but post-level 40, the game really opens up and the grind doesn't get to you so much any more (if for nothing else than the design of the zones; if you've never seen Un'goro Crater for example, visually, it's a treat). It's just a shame that they make you wait the best part of 100 hours (or more) before things start to get really interesting (barring the first flush of love you get in those first 20 levels).

I can't really see myself playing much else at the moment, barring the odd foray into the equally divine Audiosurf, even though I did pick up Sins of a Solar Empire from the Stardock site last Friday. It's reviewed rather well and does look good, but I'm mildly intimidated by how complicated it looks. Five or ten years ago I would have eaten up that complexity like the Cookie Monster faced with a pack of Oreos, but these days, being the time-pressed, high-stressed professional that I am, my tastes are veering more towards the so-called "casual" side. That might seem like quite an odd statement coming from someone who's put over one thousand hours in to World of Warcraft over the last three years (and that's a fairly conservative estimate), given that MMORPGs especially have a "hardcore" reputation.

"Casual" appears to be a bit of a dirty word for gamers these days: if a game is appealing to an audience of people who don't normally play videogames, somehow it's not worthy of the classification. I think this is snobbery of the basest order, and it all stems from the mass marketability and appeal of The Sims, which has become a poster boy for the casual-hating gamers, when in fact, it's arguably the best game of the last ten years. Though again, arguably, it's not even a game, but rather a toy, so therefore the self-labelled "hardcore" dismiss it out of hand, because a game can be "adult" whereas a toy "is for kids"*. It's all a part of this contemptible rush to apply labels to everything, so that they can be neatly categorised and pigeonholed by people too lazy or too stupid to do any real analysis and gain a proper understanding or insight.

What's wrong with people playing casual videogames in the same way most "hardcore" gamers would watch TV? You don't have to do something obsessively for thirty or forty hours a week to gain enjoyment or value from it - the notion that 'unless you're playing games for fifty hours a week, you're not a gamer' is faintly ridiculous, and frankly is the type of attitude that puts people off playing videogames in the first place. Rather than sneering at people who don't play immediately on the hardest difficulty, the "hardcore" should instead try and remember why they started playing games in the first place: to have fun. The problem with the people who label themselves "hardcore" is that they've turned gaming into work. WoW is a pretty good example of this: I consider myself to be an atypical WoW player, because I don't really give a damn about reaching the level cap. I'm more enamoured with the journey of getting there. I don't really care too much about the high-end game at level 70, raiding, instances and PvP. This is in complete contrast to people who rush to the level cap in a quarter of the time it would take me and spend thirty hours a week in the battlegrounds to get enough honour for the Epic armour items. They think this makes them a "better" player. Piffle, I say. It just makes you more committed, and turns what should be fun into a joyless grind, chasing higher numbers. Fun should be fun, not like a second job...

* While we're on the subject, when did the word "toy" become a pejorative term? You "play" with toys just as you "play" with games, so why are games "good" while toys are "bad"? It seems to stem from the misconception that adults don't (or can't) play with toys. Again, this is a ludicrous attitude. Of course adults have toys - they just don't like the label (unless it's a "sex toy"). When you see a guy about to have his mid-life crisis go out and buy a Caterham 7 or Aston Martin DB9, it's not because he needs a new car, it's because he needs a toy to play with. It's just one heck of a lot more an expensive a toy than the plastic Optimus Prime or Millennium Falcon you prized as a kid.

Toys are fundamentally important to the way in which a person develops skills (hand-eye co-ordination, spacial perception, analytical faculties, etc) - and also their personality; have you noticed that people who didn't play with toys as kids are the most sour, humourless bastards you've ever met in your life? There's no unwritten life rule that has to say you've got to stop playing with toys the moment you pass your 13th birthday. So I'm going to make a distinction and apply a couple of contemptible labels of my own, because people seem to like that kind of thing: if a computer game has no specific objective and is designed to be played alone, I'm going to call it a videotoy - because, like The Sims, that's what it is. A videogame is something with a competitive or social element, or where the rules of play are more formalised or explicit, such as an RPG or an online shooter, like Unreal Tournament. I'm sure a lot of people won't like the idea. but that's what you get when people develop more hang-ups about labels than a Parisian fashion boutique...

There's something very broken about a society which can look down on things that are meant to give people enjoyment and pleasure. What difference does it make whether you play with a toy or a game? Both are equally pleasurable and equally valuable, and lest we forget...

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