Once upon a time, this blog was new, and I was just beginning write my thoughts for the benefits of posterity and anyone else who happened by.

Around the same time, something else was new to me: MMORPGs. I’ve been a gamer of various sorts for a long, long time now, but MMOs were something I avoided. And then a roommate got into WoW, and I fell into the trap a month later.

So, anyway, a lot of the early portions of this blog are posts talking about what was going on with me and WoW. As time passes, the number and frequency of these posts declines, until I stop talking about WoW at all. However, I didn’t stop playing WoW, or at least, not for years later. Meanwhile, the other major component of my posting, talking about the board games I’m playing, continues straight through to the present.

While I did not officially discontinue my subscription to WoW until December, I pretty much did not play it at all during 2011 (with some very limited exceptions). During last year, I did talk about WoW with Smudge a lot.

Both of us were unhappy with the game. This was probably harder on Smudge, who had invested more time and emotional energy into it than I had.

One of the things I wondered about was how much of what I liked about WoW had to do with novelty. For me, there will never be a ‘first MMO’ again. There will never be the process of discovery of how to go into an instance and be a productive member of a group. There are certain things where I can’t go back again.

A lot of that latter process is what my early blog posts on WoW are centered around, which is actually the second wave of enthusiasm for the game. The initial wave, was the general exploring the large expansive world, and all the different options the game presented. The wheels came off the wagon when my main hit about level 40. The world was too big, and I found myself struggling to remember where I was, what I was doing, or assimilate any new information, and getting very frustrated in the process.

Ordinarily, I would think that I probably would have backed off, and come back and poked at it as interest and spare time revived, and someday worked through it. However, Smudge and I were regularly playing together, and Dunain and Blanc were adventuring and questing together, and Smudge was pressing us on past my ability to keep up.

The arrival of some of our friends on the server, and the resultant activation of the guild, followed by steps into a lot more instances and group play, brought my interest back. Shortly after that, the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, came out. In retrospect, this was probably my favorite era. Some of the storytelling was coming together, the environments were great, and many of the dungeons were stellar (I still have fond memories of Sethekk Halls and ‘Fun Time!’, and heroics…).

After this, my enjoyment starts falling off. I spent a fair amount of time with Wrath of the Lich King, but I never got as involved. Dunain was there every week, he and Blanc spent forever going through all the questing (as normal). But I spent almost no time on my alts.

My primary alt for about three years at this point was Farmishi, a paladin who had always had something of a split build in back of her idea. Dunain had ended up as a Marksmanship hunter (even all through BC, when Marksmanship was largely ignored as not doing competitive damage with the other two skill trees—he still did well, and had the utility of various special shots), but with Farmishi I split between Protection and Holy, and found later that I had independently discovered what was being called the ‘Survivadin’: doesn’t do a lot of damage, but is extremely hard to kill.

I was proud of Farmishi. She could solo things that Dunain couldn’t consider. She soloed an instance boss once when the rest of the party fell over at the start of the fight. Really high damage she couldn’t deal with, but anything that relied on lots of low-level attacks was right up her alley.

And they pretty much killed Survivadin and, likely, all other reasonable cross-specialization builds in LK. Not directly, Cataclysm did that, with it’s insistence that most of the points you’ll ever have will be put into one tree before you can put anything anywhere else. So, I hardly played Farmishi at all. Everything that I’d spend years building up had been taken away. And I think it stopped me from doing much on the rest of my constellation of alts.

So LK was just the Dunain Show. (Or really, the ‘Blanc and Dunain Show’.) And there were a lot of good things in that expansion. But, it was harder to be happy with it.

Cataclysm ended up putting the problem into stark relief. Hunters were radically changed, which affected the last bastion of my WoW time. Now the general idea of creating yet another mechanism for how special abilities work (along with rage, energy, mana, and whatever it is that Death Knights use) is cool enough, and it is kind of odd that Hunters should be using magic… so conceptually, the idea is fine.

The problem is that Hunters went from having a system that required long-term management, to one that needed constant attention and management. If I wanted that, I’d already be playing a Rogue. Hunters went from a fairly satisfying class for me to a very unsatisfying class. Worse, my damage was awful, and I never did figure out why.

Not that doing less damage at higher level was much of a problem in most situations. Balance in Cata seems to be way out of whack, with world questing being insanely easy, tough dungeons being slightly tougher than world questing used to be, and heroic dungeons almost as tough as they used to be. The middle ground of challenging, but not insanely hard has disappeared right out of the game. This is a trend that started earlier, but really became egregious at this point.

Which is a shame, because the writing can still be pretty good.

While off of WoW, Smudge and I talked some. I have plenty of gaming interests, and spent some of last year catching back up on some of my primary interests in computer gaming. However, we were trying to find something to play together. There were a few possibilities, such as Trine, but there does seem to be a lack of multiplayer RPGs out there. (We tried playing Baldur’s Gate that way ages ago, but it started having blue screen errors where it was not recognizing that the disk in the drive was in the drive. I was tempting to try it again with the GoG version, which being pure download, should not have that problem.)

Over the years, we had tried out various other MMORPGs, mostly the free-to-play ones that have come over from Asia. None of them were very satisfying, and all tend to have okay combat engines, no real effort in plot or role. Kitsu Saga (the last we’ve tried of that sub-genre) was kind of interesting, since you generally pre-planned combat by setting up combos that would automatically cycle, and the crafting was done by giving little fox-spirits (Kitsu) jobs to do in gathering and crafting. You would also choose one to accompany you and provide bonuses in combat. For someone who doesn’t want a bunch of key-mashing (like me) it was somewhat attractive (and the fox spirits helped that!). The writing, however, was… not present.

Age of Conan went to a free-to-play model in 2010, and it did turn out to be surprisingly good. The art style works, the environments felt right, the writing was good, and the quest giving was especially nice, since it was all fully voiced, and you’d go through a conversation where you’d get plenty of choices on where to steer things, dig for more information, be rude, whatever. It really made the world come alive. Sadly, this is only true for the early part of the game (which I have yet to get beyond), after that, the voice acting stops, and the writing goes downhill. Also, the combat can be pretty button-mashy, since in melee you have to decide what direction you’re attacking from; surprisingly, I gelled with it fairly well (at least the lower level versions, it gets more complicated later).

Rift had a free weekend to celebrate the six-month mark of the game. They also offered the game for $5 that weekend. If I hadn’t been in the middle of the really tight part of the financial cycle, I might have bought a pair as a “just in case” measure. As a game it was very good, resembling a very polished and worked-over version of early WoW with extra options. The writing was ‘ehh’ at best, the quests were nothing new, and the monster design never got above ‘beaten with an ugly stick’. But, we were very tempted to switch over to Rift purely on the strength of the game engine.

And during much of the last year, Star Wars: The Old Republic was getting closer, and promising to be wonderful. Of course, we’ve heard those promises before. So, Smudge was staying cautiously excited, and I was looking on with a large dose of cynicism.

The best marketing campaign I’ve ever seen is BioWare’s open beta stress test. People got to play the game for free, and see just what it was going to be like. Smudge got in on it, enjoyed the early parts, hit the first instance and immediately said, “I’m getting this!” She got me in on the next (final) weekend, and yeah, it was good, it was fun.

I ran out of money at the end of the year, so I was a bit late getting the actual game. It’s not perfect, by any means, but it is very good, and I’m certainly going to get my money’s worth out of it.

Part of what makes it interesting is that it is an RPG first, and an MMO second. Much of the experience is very plot-driven. Each class has it’s own story, which you follow through to the endgame (or so I assume, I don’t know anyone who’s gotten there yet). You’re guided through the same locations (at least on a particular side), so there’s a lot of content that is the same, unlike some JRPGs where if you’re given a character choice at the beginning, each one probably only intersects with the others instead of paralleling them. This causes some trouble for going through several different characters (and their stories) at once, but it allows for you to group with friends (this is an MMO afterall), and experience it all together, which is one of the places where TOR shines.

Almost all the quests are given in voiced conversations, and I have to say the amount of work for various cues is impressive. There’s a lot of ‘yeah I see where this decision tree is going…’, but at the same time, NPCs will (occasionally) react to the character’s gender, or will acknowledge that he’s talking to a group. It’s some very impressive work, the bulk of the voice acting is quite good, and unlike AoC, it continues all the way through the game.

There are a number of places where the game is ‘just another MMO’, but at the same time, there’s a lot of ‘fun’ in the design. Going around with lightsabers is fun, playing a smuggler is fun (I understand that Sith/Jedi are the predominant classes, but whenever anyone talks about the classes, it’s ‘smugglers so much fun!’), the conversations are fun. Watching someone else’s combat from a distance is visually interesting (as opposed to just an exercise in recognizing the special effects going off).

So, I’m spending more time and thought on TOR than I’ve spent on WoW in years…. And I might talk about the ride some from time to time again.