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Around ten years ago, myself and a bunch of my mates participated in an experiment. As our lives had developed, we had become increasingly split up throughout the UK, to the point that keeping in contact, never a strong point of the adult male, had become increasingly infrequent. To try to combat this, we all started an online game together, with the intention of regularly grouping up once a week, so we could socialise over the internet.

The game we chose was called Everquest, which had just had its first expansion pack Ruins of Kunark and was available for a pretty reasonable price. Being pen and paper role-players, we joined the unofficial RP server, Tarew Marr. We all took out our subscriptions, rolled our first characters, and logged in to discover that just to meet up in game, one of us would have to run from Steamfont to Qeynos… which was a very long and dangerous way indeed. This was by no means the only hurdle: eventually differing play times, personal ambitions and sheer ability to cope with the horrifically uncompromising game play of EQ meant the experiment met limited success. On the other hand, most of us ended up in the same EQ guild, which still survives today, ten years and probably even more online games, later.

Despite the fact that it did not really work, I still held onto a sense of nostalgia for the idea, the problem was probably Everquest itself. The unfriendliness of it drove people away, the sheer time commitment simply broke people’s willingness to play and honestly, it probably was not a very good game anyway. In short, the fault was in Everquest, not in us.

Around ten days ago, myself and a bunch of my other mates participated in an experiment. As our lives had developed … well you probably get the idea. The game in question is Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO), which has been running for around three years now. Being all pen and paper role-players in the UK, we joined the official UK-RP server, Laurelin. Unlike EQ, meeting up in game is very easy in LotRO, moving around the starter zones is a short run and a mouse click away. So grouping up is easy, when we can all find time which aligns in our schedules.

However, scheduling is not the main problem; the main problem is the disparity in experience. One of the main mechanics of almost all online games is harsh penalties for grouping with people who are a different level from you. If you take your level 50 barbarian and group him with your friend’s level 12 Nightblade, then the game will take active steps to prevent you doing well as a group. It’s one of my least favourite features of the genre: it is divisive and I thought, unrealistic. However, it’s not in-game experience that is disparate in our case, but real-world experience in actually playing these games.

Out of the five of us, three have never played an online game before, tempted into the genre by the fact that the subscription model is on the decline, leading to the rise of games that are (almost) free to play. One friend has some experience of Everquest and some experience with Dungeons and Dragons online. I, on the other hand, have been playing online games since Everquest. This is causing considerable tension.

The new players think in terms of role-playing: a group of five hobbits leaving the Shire for a big adventure. I think in terms of needing a Tank, Healer, Crowd Control and DPS for the optimal group.

They think it would be cool to own a house someday. I think it would be optimal to grind gold for a house close to the Superior Craft Stations to take full advantage of the extra travel location.

They think about getting fully immersed in their character. I think about making sure I have alts that cover full crafting interdependence and a spread of characters that allows me to maximise any loot drops.

Of course, I say think but that is not really true, I just did it by learned rote: it took no thought whatsoever, simply reflex. Everquest despised the weak, and it hardened me to be as optimal as I can, because otherwise you could not progress at all.

It’s not just optimisation which separates us however; there is also the wider social aspect of the game. To the new players, other players are invaders in their private role-play sessions, unwelcome outsiders with whom contact should be minimal. Everquest on the other hand forced me to interact with other players.

I am not simply nice to people because I am a nice person, but because deep down, a part of me suspects that at some point I will need something from a Balrog, which requires gathering seventy-two people prepared to spend a night helping me out in the face of horrific odds or mind-numbing tedium. In this way, perhaps, Everquest did me a favour. People who have not spent five days of real time camping the Ancient Cyclops in shifts for the JBoots drop perhaps can never truly understand what true camaraderie and friendship is.

Of course, I could be wrong, and it could work. Certainly it would cause a lot of distrust and strife if I sat there trying to force them to play the game my way. So, for the moment, I am playing the game with my main at level 38, and my hobbit at level 15 with the others.

With my main, I will bring every ounce of experience I have in playing these games.

With the hobbit, I will try to follow in the newer players’ lead, letting them make the mistakes I did. Because… who knows? In this new more friendly world, they may not be mistakes at all.

Read on: The Balrog is in the Details


1 comment

  • Culture wrote:

    Just wanted to toss out an alternative that overcomes those kinds of problems that are so common in the standard RPG for socializing with RL friends. This isn’t really an “RPG” in the traditional sense, but Puzzle Pirates makes it trivial to get people together in game. Also, the game doesn’t force the separation of people of differing experience. A hardcore puzzler can go out with a noob at any time. The drops you get from battling will be lower because of the new player in your part,y but there is nothing stopping you from having fun together. The hardest part is probably just making sure everyone signs up on the same server (called “Oceans” in the game). Oh, also, if you play on a green ocean like Viridian or Hunter then it is free to play.

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