The Existential Gamer

I’m away from DDO during the season of Lent. This is a saved post I’ve compiled while I’m away. This post may or may not contain sensitive subject matter unsuitable for some minds (specifically, religion).

Reader discretion advised.

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One mob? One quarterstaff, then.

This is a spoon.

We all know of many veteran DDO players that have completed mighty deeds. They’ve beaten almost everything in the game, and on the highest difficulties or with some clever tricks.

But once you’ve made yourself the best killing machine you can be in DDO and have conquered all, what else is there?

Maybe a week of being away from DDO is making me stir-crazy, but I don’t think so.

Going Deeper

Games are escapism, yes. But what if it becomes too real to your mind?

We know of the story in The Matrix, a near-perfect virtual reality of the world, built to placate humanity. But, as the story unfolds, we learn that the Matrix works like any advanced operating system. You can’t leave it up forever before errors accrue and the system must be restarted. And the stabilizing element of the Matrix, the ability to choice, ultimately causes the system’s slow degradation. An Anomaly appears, who becomes Choice Incarnate, that destabilizes the system even more. That’s Neo. And he wasn’t the only One, as the story goes.

For those who choose reality, you may wake up and challenge the unreality.

A similar notion is found in the film Inception, where some people go to sleep for hours because they accept the dream as their permanent reality now. In that story, some go to sleep to wake up.)

But the dreamers in Inception can’t take anything back from their experience. And the escapees from The Matrix are fighting a cyclical battle they have been fated to lose, definitively, five times before. And only One man knows the secret and can break the cycle. Else, mankind  is locked in a continuous state of imprisonment. The people of Zion don’t realize that the Machines has always kept them under a form of control and have destroyed them each time the Matrix had to be restarted.

For many that escaped, the real world is so frightening that they regret leaving that virtual cage, that virtual life. They felt they could accomplish or feel more safe — or at least seem to feel more accomplished and safe — in the Matrix than in the real world.

The Search for…Something

I connected this notion to the easily found complaints on the DDO forums about the quality of the game.

  • When is there going to be an “end-game” battle?
  • I should be able to solo any raid.
  • This game is too easy.
  • Why are they nerfing (insert item here)
  • It’s time to (insert appallingly tough suggestion/monster/quest here)

Now, I’m neither the worse nor best player in the game. But I question about the ultimate motivations of some players. I’ve toyed with these motivation before with a player character type test.

If you are trying to attain “ultimate power” in a game, being able to crush any challenge you find (by yourself or with compatriots), then what is left for you to do?

These players are asking for their world to expand with them. But is this a natural way to think about life?

Game worlds aren’t true worlds. Even if you had the combined intellects of Einstein, Leonardo, Hawking, Sun-Tzu, Eisenhower and Alexander the Great in a perfect fighter amalgamation of Hercules, Legolas and Aragorn, Luke Skywalker and Steven Strange, combined with the wealth and equipment of Bruce Wayne, Tony Stark, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Reed Richards, you could not possibly find and beat every challenge that the real world can present to you.

The real world is an infinite battle because it continually evolves, whether you want it or not, or whether you’re ready for it to do so.

A game world has a start and an end. There is repetition and respawning and reincarnation to simulate a cycle of life. But life in DDO, WoW and every other MMO can only present a static bubble of a world in need. A game, by definition, is a form of simulation. Ultimately, you can predict its behavior, and anticipate most events. An experienced gamer becomes quasi-omniscient. That’s why many players become bored, especially if they have a one-track mind in terms of playing only one tactical avenue of a MMO.

And even if a game could better simulate reality, there are plenty of new, confused and disoriented players in the game that strongly implies that games should have a limit in size. Else, the game world would be just as terrifying as trying to make your way in the real world, and would discourage you from coming back.

For this and more logical reasons of coding and server size and bandwidth, there are a finite series of challenges to a game. There are difficulties to turn up the challenge level of these quests and raids, but it is quite possible to beat every single one of them. Doing that gains you a +6 tome of your choice. Sir Geoff of Hanna and Gamer Girl pulled this off recently.

But…after you vanquish everything and at the highest level of play, what is there left to do?

Maybe a better question for the Gamer That Beats Everything is “What are you searching for?”

Meditation

I’m not going to be so arrogant as to presume that I know the psychology of these people who ask for more from DDO on the forums. So, I’m not going to try to answer what these players are truly seeking as they play.

But I can ask myself this question.

During this time away from the game during the season of Lent, I’m asking myself why I played DDO in the first place. Is this the only place where I feel like I “accomplish” something, especially if my work or home chores don’t yield a real, genuine accomplishment that I get paid actual money for completing?

Have I become some kind of attention-whore with this blog and compiling the guides?

As I said, it’s important to know the real world from the game world, and not to put too much energy into the unreal if it doesn’t benefit the Real.

I know one reason why I play, and it leaves a little chill in me when I contemplate it.

The real world is scary. The real world is harder than any adventure any game can dream. The game worlds are safer. Yet I have the power to avoid things I don’t want to encounter while inside that world.

But while the game worlds provide a little adrenaline and satisfaction in puzzle solving or strategy, it’s still ultimately unsatisfying because game worlds cannot come close to reaching the level of complexity and difficulty that the labors of the real world throw at us everyday. I don’t have to worry about mundane things such as eating, or sleeping, or shelter, or taxes.

But then, the game world doesn’t leave you with soul-crushing events that can persist until you die and/or are penniless.

The game world, if used improperly, can be a temptation that makes you try to avoid the “game” of the real world. Temptations rarely lead us to fortunate results.

Nietzsche said “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  Is that really true in the game world? Generally, yes. Dying requires you to examine your strategy and gear, and to adjust them to fight and win the next time. But the real world often doesn’t provide a second chance. It’s a true “permadeath” challenge. No wiki. No “developer” or “game master” to call up when you’re stuck.

(Or is there a Game Master? For me, yes, there is. But like Turbine’s GMs, I don’t always get a direct answer with Him, and what answers I might here back may be quite cryptic.)

If you win at objectives in the real world, satisfaction is certainly more fulfilling, I think. It’s the difficulty levels we often can’t handle. There’s some training you might get in the quest “Changing the Diaper of Despair” if you had younger siblings or cousins. And there are guides to buy for many of life’s challenges, and some may get you by.

But who wants to get into an Epic Elite version of “Divorce Dungeon”? How can you train for that? I did that once. I barely came out of it with much of anything. Certainly didn’t feel victorious. French-kissing a kobold would’ve been more pleasurable than that experience.

Gamers place themselves in a strange existence. Game worlds may be ultimately too easy, while the challenges of the real world are ultimately too hard. And game worlds can provide an unhealthy realm of escapism. Human weakness tends to pick the path of least resistance.

Do we choose to live in the Matrix? Do we choose to go deeper in the dream? Do we prefer the worlds of the simulacrum? And at what expense?

While I believe in the Resurrection of the Body and an after-life, as a living person today, this belief sometimes presents only a hollow and terrifying consolation. That’s a natural, human reaction. We are conditioned to seek a foundation, an assurance, a result whereby our reason can feel pleased. I simultaneously reject the reality of the unreal, the simulacra, while trying to enjoy the panacea while inside it.

In the case of the after-life, I think I’m only freaked out because I think I’ve not studied my “class” game manuals sufficiently or listened to enough advice from veteran players in the Game of Life.

The real world does have similar broad objectives that parallel game themes.

  1. Enter the world.
  2. Learn how the world works.
  3. Help others as you would like to be helped.
  4. Don’t let fear stop you from doing what you can.
  5. Die well with a list of things accomplished.

But the real world adds one objective that the game world won’t do.

  • Don’t expect to take any accomplishments or worth with you as you go to the next world, or even think that your efforts gained you “points” in the next life.

I think this Lenten season, of being away from the game worlds and playing the game of Reality alone, is training me more horrifying well than I imagined.

There is a spoon, in reality. We only fake not having a spoon as gamers. You haven’t chosen the red pill, as Neo did. You’re choosing to stay in the virtual world, where all you accomplish disappears when the last servers are powered down, someday.

We’re far from superhuman in the real world. Yet we have to face every encounter with ratty gear (if we’re lucky), limited skill, expensive alternatives, limited praise, staggering odds, and sometimes only one shot at success.

I submit that my Diety gives me power and strength as I level up. But anyone with faith can tell you that you’re often given skills and gifts for which you can’t immediately identify, much less have any idea how to wield.

I choose Lent to force me to take the red pill.

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Schrodinger’s DDO and You

What's inside Dungeons & Dragons Online? Only that which you take with you, I believe.

What’s inside Dungeons & Dragons Online?
Only that which you take with you, I believe.

“DDO is dying!” some forum member may exclaim in a poorly written thread that clearly shows that the forum has rolled a 1 in mastering their own mother tongue.

“DDO is alive!” retorts another forum member in reply.

“DoOOOOOoooom!” says another.

We’ve all seen these threads. The phrase has almost become a meme.

Some have tried to document the volume of players per server to prove their point, often pleading the devs to merge servers. This post isn’t going there. I’m going to talk more about the behavior of players, no matter how few or how many, on any server. Nor am I dealing with sexism in gaming that could foster such issues. I’ve written poorly enough on that before.

Too often, a look at the Group LFMs show “BYOH”, short for “bring your own healing”–that is, be self-sufficient in case you’re damaged. That’s different from “bring your own healer” as many PuGs don’t want a hireling to take up a player slot nor cause them to have to expend resources on keeping it alive, much less waiting for a player to keep up while tending to the hireling’s errant behavior.

And once invited into said group, most players just do what they want.  A scant few might go off on their own. Many may surge ahead–even if you’re not actually in the quest yet.

I feel this behaviors reflect my hypothesis that most players do not play DDO with a D&D game style. Either they aren’t aware of the game’s synergistic use of classes and have never played that tabletop or similar games before. Perhaps they also don’t care to know. Or, they’ve come from another game that fosters parties for convenience only, and less by tradition or necessity.

There’s also a psychological factor with the nature of the modern gamer.

There are occasional LFMs with “All optionals” in the comments. It may also still say, “BYOH.” That party leader is going to see everything in the quest. They still might not wait for you to see or read what they saw.

I’m not omniscient and cannot prove much of what I cite here, but only note what I’ve read and seen as anecdotal evidence. You can fill in your own to draw a conclusion.

I don’t see the game itself as the problem, but the manner in which many players tackle it. I break down the issue in two ways. These might seem familiar.

Too Many “Heroes”

D&D offers you to create a character, give it a class, and then have it join in with other characters on adventurers. If you win, great. You (and perhaps your party) are hero for the day. Tomorrow may be different.

But a live combat MMO such as DDO tries to combine this party role gaming system with the nature of modern MMO gaming, which allows and even encourages character builds that are more self-sufficient and more solitary. You can play most of DDO as if the world’s fate literally revolves around you, never grouping with anyone. As GamerGeoff opined earlier today, the fact that your sole character can face down a dragon–nay, dragonsleaving mounds of dead wyrms behind you, is a bit anticlimactic.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of the game itself. DDO offers raids and other adventures with mechanics or objectives that absolutely require a party, which infers a certain level of cooperation within it for the team to complete their goal.

However, the mindset of many typical gamers today seems to contradict a cooperative nature. In fact, it seems that many powerful players gravitate towards being the most heavily geared, the most lives lived, or the most powerful. Such achievements do not necessarily require a party. And if they do, it’s less a matter of having friends than of using your friends wisely. In short, players are less communal but still less akin to mercenaries, even if affiliated with a guild.

The tabletop camaraderie isn’t an etched-in-stone requirement. Such player characters might not want to be permanently affiliated with a party as part of their role-play shtick. Emphasis on the tactical use of the word “role” here, not the fantasy behavior.

So what happens when many, many players are “lone wolves?”

Too Little Role Play

As I said, I see most players in DDO have a very low RPG background. This may be by choice in that they may have played some tabletop games before but are here to slay, slay, slay. It may also be that they know nothing of D&D cooperative gaming but to kill for fortune and glory.

Some of DDO’s versions of the D&D character classes are better at going at things alone than not. All have a specific synchronicity for many quest types. None of them were meant to work completely alone. Why is this?

The answer is simple. D&D melds you (as your character) into a story, along with other players. You’re not only a character in a game, you’re a character in a story.

Be it a mystery or other quest, your personal interactions with the world–and even each other as player characters–are both non-combat and combat. DDO mimics a bit of the conversational. “A Study in Sable” comes close to this mechanic, where a bit of exploration yields a hidden secret that will prove helpful at the quest’s end. The start of “The Crucible” requires strong non-combat skills to make your combat (and XP) more rewarding.

So does it make sense that only you become the sole protagonist in a large story? No more so that seeing a movie where Luke Skywalker or Riddick or Indiana Jones are simply interacting with objects. A story is about people, not a person. D&D doesn’t try to portray adventurers as superheroes, but heroes. Heroes do the job despite limits. Their true power is bravery, not gear or brawn.

MMO gaming allows a solo player to emulate a party in some ways for convenience, of course. We can’t all find someone living to group up with at certain times. In DDO, hirelings can fill this out, but they are generally automated combat drones. They cannot interact with other NPCs and the dialogues they show the player character.

So, what’s up with the player psyche nowadays? Why is there a perception or reality that no one wants to group with others anymore? Are the quests a “one-and-done” thing where, once played, the story doesn’t matter to some? Does the story even matter to the modern online player? Does the fate and loot of other players matter to today’s typical player?

There’s some fact to my personal observations–and perhaps your own. Let’s give props to an early gamer that begin to study gamers before gaming was less cool than it is now.

The Bartle Test

Back in 1996, Richard Bartle, a scientist and creator of the very first multi-user dungeon, or MUD (the progenitor of today’s massive multiplayer online role-playing games such as DDO) wrote a paper that studied how a player tends to play inside a MUD/MMO.

Two other scientists built an online test based on this paper. The test’s questions were based on Bartle’s work on character theory. In the case of gaming, how does a player tend to play their character? Bartle broke it down into four categories.

  • Achievers (preferred to gain “points,” levels, equipment and other concrete measurements of succeeding in a game)
  • Explorers (preferred to be discovering areas, creating maps and learning about hidden places)
  • Socializers (preferred to be interacting with other players, and on some occasions, computer-controlled characters with personality)
  • Killers (preferred to depart from the norm of being “the good guy” who comes to save the day and play on the side of evil or conquest)

Now, while there are only four categories, this is actually a wider dichotomy that’s commonly classified by DDO players as “zergers” and “flower-sniffers.” To me, the Bartle character theory breaks down the gamer psyche to a finer nuance. The theory may still not satisfy for those who believe Bartle’s characterizations are still too narrow (creating a false dichotomy). For purposes of my discussion, however. this test is a good start to study the DDO player today.

What better way to examine the test, still available at GamingDNA, than to try it out?

Thus, I did. For long-time readers, the results shouldn’t surprise you.

Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology   Explorer

I tend to explore while gaming. That’s not to be confused with “flower sniffing” but to learn what in the world offers or opposes me. Since the DDO world is generally out to get you outside of public areas, knowledge is key to completing a quest without trial and error in the brutish “let’s kill stuff to see what happens” way that others do.

One subcategory in the text probably fits me perfectly. I’m the “Explorer Socializer.” It says: “Explorer Socializers are the glue of the online world. Not only do they like to delve in to find all the cool stuff, but they also enjoy sharing that knowledge with others. Explorer socializers power the wikis, maps, forums and theory craft sites of the gamer world.”

(You’re welcome.)

Now, what kind of gamer are you? I wonder if more people play DDO because there are more people who want cooperative play rather than individual play with very limited and self-serving cooperative means (“I’d rather play alone but we need a healer.”) Perhaps there’s also the breadth of versatility in the DDO game mechanics that allow full use of many D&D traits that other games may not offer that make cooperative play more fortuitous than burdensome.

I see nearly 40% of today’s DDO players as Achiever-types. About 35% are Explorer-types. But I feel Achievers as opportunistic. If some new update drops some complex loot, that percentage rises as some players feel more like an Achiever to get that new stuff.

Thankfully, there’s always a few people who enjoy exploring. They don’t say no to loot, either, but completion, even creatively doing so by stealth, unusual combat or other non-combat skills or abilities, is their priority.

I can’t really say if Explorers are necessarily the party-type, either. I know that I don’t tend to find groups willing to get on  sneaky runs into the Underdark or the Storm Horns. And perhaps the Achievers are moving too fast and with too strong a drive for some players to follow along.

Makes me wonder how good (or bad) does DDO have it in terms of cooperative play versus other MMOs?

Take the Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology at this link and share your results here or on the Fansite thread for this blog post. If enough people post their results, I’ll compile them for review later. Or, talk about your experiences. Do you notice some guilds favor one of the four Bartle characterizations? (Don’t name names, please). In what way do you foster a particular game style?

Epilogue

I did additional research with one presumption: That players are offered MMO worlds which deliver a poor RPG environment from the outset. How can you learn RPG synergy if the games you play don’t bother to try to illustrate the advantages? If everyone can pick a lock, who needs the Rogue? If everyone can help themselves, why add the Cleric to the party?

The recently released Neverwinter world by Cryptic always smelled funny to me for this reason. My guild has an affiliate presence there and it satisfied the young and curious in the guild with lots of shinies. But now, I hear very little talk about it.

Reviews from reputable gaming websites and magazine slam Neverwinter for a design that concentrates more on player power (often by monetization) and less on the storyline. With just a bare five D&D classes offered, none of them the Monk class, I’ve never bothered to try it.

If games such as these don’t encourage other facets of RPG gaming other than slaying (which is a valid component, but not the only one), how will RPG gaming endure, I wonder? Is the Millennial generation’s isolated individualism being reflected in RPG play? Since human interaction seems to be less direct than indirect (electronically), how can RPG as a whole survive?

Despite the individualistic challenges of society that are becoming more reflected in general gameplay as a more isolated entertainment form, there’s still hope. The nature of the guild forces introverted folks like me to work with others and be sociable. DDO itself, through its D&D roots, provides the framework.

Is DDO alive or dead? Look inside the box. The answer you’ll get depends on what you expect to see there.

As a wise man once said, “When we cease expecting, we receive all things.”