I am not an MMO player.
I might go so far as to say my preferred play style is inherently incompatible with the mere idea of MMOs, never mind personality quirks that make spending time online with strangers sound more like torture than fun. I'm a solitary gamer, so when I fire up a console or turn on a handheld, I'm looking for a solitary escape. I want to get sucked in, be it flinging chickens in Harvest Moon or sinking into an RPG for hours on end. Generally, I don't want to share my gaming experience — sure, I do multiplayer games at parties, I've sat around with friends and watched them play or had them watch me as we discuss games. But in general? Please, please, please leave me alone.
But when an email from a Perfect World PR person popped up in my Kotaku inbox, asking if I'd like to take the new 'international' version of Wanmei shijie for a spin, I — against my better judgment — said 'Oh, what the hell,' booted my poor little Mac up into Windows, and downloaded my first MMO client. Because as solitary a gamer as I am, I do write a lot about MMOs, have friends who play MMOs and delight in telling me their latest exploits, am interested in the mechanics and social elements of MMOs. I'm generally fascinated by the dynamics of online communities, so wouldn't it be nice to be an observer from the inside for once? I marveled at the character creation options, selected the human melee 'blademaster' class (with a minimum of eye rolling), and ran with it.
An MMO with Training Wheels: the Test Servers
After killing a handful of squealing, carnivorous plants, I was on my way to the first big city. I stepped through the gates, and was greeted with ... absolutely empty streets.
Sign number one I was probably not cut out for this MMO thing: instead of being disappointed, my heart leapt with joy. The first time I ran into someone in the game — actually, a giant panda-headed person riding a snake sort of came out of nowhere while I was puzzling over a 'jumping quest' (dear Perfect World, if I wanted to have my accuracy skills tested re: jumping on stuff, I would've picked up a platformer, not an RPG) — I was so shocked I nearly dropped my laptop, and it's quite possible that I squealed in terror. As a friend drily commented, 'You're probably the only person who gets freaked out by running into people in massively multiplayer games.'
But other than a few people I ran into here and there, Perfect World was — as far as I was concerned — just about perfect, because it was wonderfully, blissfully empty. I was cognisant of the fact that I was theoretically missing out on the primary, very social draw of MMOs, but I was having fun despite myself. So much fun, actually, I managed to ignore the fact that my laptop gets very, very hot when running Windows and had put a nice, oval-shaped burn on my left thigh (which has yet to go away completely, a month and a half after the fact). OK, so maybe playing with my laptop in my lap wasn't the best idea. My revised setup was indication number two that I maybe wasn't taking this seriously enough: who needs a dedicated machine when you've got a laptop stand, some USB peripherals, and a dog who likes to lay right on the mouse? Not me, that's for damn sure.
'Empty,' though, does come with some problems. While it's pretty easy to march up the first forty levels or so by yourself, there are the occasional dungeons that won't let you in unless you're in a party. Lucky for me, the nice PR guy swooped in and offered his assistance, in the form of a maxed out cleric (Me: 'How in the hell did you just one-shot that thing when I'm doing no damage?' Him: 'Well, I am at 105.' Me: 'Yeah, having 80 levels on me would probably do that.'). I spent most of that dungeon flat on my back, and very dead, but it was at least a vantage point to see what all the fuss was about. I found myself biting my nails after the servers went down while we were still in the instance, afraid that a rollback would kill all my hard work spent dead and/or doing roughly zero damage, even with my fanciest moves. I breathed a sigh of relief when I logged back in and discovered that all was well and nothing had rolled back.
For an MMO newbie, and someone who wasn't too sure about that whole 'other people playing' thing, the test servers were a really nice chance for me to get comfortable with the game and things like 'using a keyboard' for gaming. We were given a ridiculous amount of cash shop currency, so I bought myself a nice, giant boa, which facilitated a lot of wandering — there was a certain je ne sais quoi about meandering around a massive, empty MMO. I wandered here, I wandered there, and there was no one to revive me if I died, and no one to foul up a nice virtual sunset.
'Maybe if I just stand still, they'll leave me alone!': Closed Beta
My laptop conveniently died right before the closed beta started; after it had been returned from wherever the Mac 'Geniuses' sent it, I signed up again, managed to create a reasonable facsimile of my first character, and girded my loins to brave people.
While getting used to the fact the game was no longer empty, I also had to get used to the fact that other people have different standards for online communiqués. My basic standard is simply that I want to know what you want; a year and a half of working for Kotaku and having a published IM account has made me rather adverse to people trying to get my attention thusly:
Hey. Hey. Hey. Hey. HEY. ??? Hey. Hey Maggie. Are you there? MAGGIE. Hey MAGGIE. Hey. Hey. Hey. HEY. MAGGIE.
Really, I just want some basic courtesy instead of someone spamming me while I'm trying to get other work done, otherwise I'm going to click 'close window.' It's not hard. Still, I wasn't terribly surprised (nor enthused) when my first MMO interaction with random people happened in much the same manner - I was swarmed by a group of people, all babbling at me. If there had been a character action for 'crawl under nearest object,' I would've made use of it. Instead, I took the dog out for a walk, hoping by the time I got back they'd be gone and would stop sending me 'So-and-so would like to pick you up' requests.
Despite anxiety over actually interacting with other players, I did watch the goings on with some interest. From the people who wanted to tag along with higher level groups because 'I'm too lazy to level via quests *lulz*' to the clerics who hovered around and buffed everyone who came through to the occasional temper tantrum over kill stealing, it was my first real taste of playing around — if not with — a pretty wide spectrum of people.
'Just call me Lady Xu, bourgeois impediment to class struggle': Open Beta and Beyond
Closed beta didn't last very long, and with open beta, there was no threat of a character wipe - so I set out to create a second facsimile of the character I'd started with and the character I'd be sticking with for a while. All was well up to the point where I needed a name — because my name was unavailable. This was irksome — because it's my Chinese name, so I'm rather attached to it in the real world, too, and besides, I'm terrible at coming up with names. I drummed my fingers on my keyboard and contemplated. Something akin to 'CutiePie004' isn't really my style. 'KotakuMaggie' was a l ittle too literal, and even though I picked a PvE server to play on, I worried about outing myself and being too obvious. Casting my eye over my bookshelf, I hit on a well-loved volume, and with an apology to my favourite Chinese poet, I jacked her name. In an ultra-rebellious act of defiance against the Wade-Giles hegemony imposed by whoever translated the game, I used pinyin, lodging my own little protest against 'Shih' and 'Hsi' and 'Tao.' Just call me Maggie, Pinyin Guerilla — saving the world, one 'hsu' at a time.
Before open beta opened, I meandered over to the Perfect World boards to see what people were talking about. Community doesn't end when you log out, at least that's the theory. A little naively, perhaps, I was expecting some warm fuzzies and a bit of excitement about having an English version of the game that wasn't piggybacking on Malaysian servers, but was quickly disabused of that notion. I was fascinated to discover the hysteria over PWI's decision to offer a PvP and a PvE server. Not being sold on this whole 'MMO' thing in the first place, the PvE server seemed like the best choice for me — other people clearly enjoy the whole PvP experience, and they had a server for that, too. Surely that couldn't be cause for consternation, could it? Of course it could, this is the internet we're talking about. I'd always associated MMOs with slightly more sandbox-type play than my preferred console titles, where you're locked into a specific play style because the designers said so, so why would people stress about someone choosing not to play the game in the same way? Open beta wasn't even open, and battle lines were already being drawn.
The hysterics reached a higher pitch over cash shop pricing. I think the free to play model is an interesting one - Perfect World actually started life as a subscription game and swapped to FTP - for a number of reasons. I certainly have the disposable income to spend on a monthly subscription — or several — if I so choose, but I generally dislike spending money on things I'm not using. Since my gaming goes in cycles as time allows, there are many months were I just don't have to time to make ample use of a subscription, which (in addition to aforementioned general unease in regards to multiplayer games) has stopped me from taking friends up on offers to join whatever subscription game they're playing.
With a lot of free to play models, that concern is tossed out the window. Not playing a lot? Don't spend any money. Hell, don't spend any money if you don't feel like it, period. There are games that lock off certain features, dungeons, and the like if you're not paying what amounts to a subscription fee, but PW just charges you for premium, and sometimes frivolous, items. I've come to the conclusion the game is certainly easier in a number of respects if you're willing to pay real cash for certain items, and probably makes grinding your way to the end a lot easier. But in my low level existence, I've somehow managed to struggle on without paying real money for virtual fashion, which costs a lot more than my boring regen charms I replace every couple of weeks. People also resell cash shop items in game for regular (virtual) game currency, so pinch your virtual pennies long enough and you, too, can buy cash shop items — without spending any real money.
I can see how it would be easy to blow past what you'd spend on a monthly subscription, but a lot of people seem to be quite cognisant of how much they're actually spending in FTP games, and PW is no exception; angry foot stomping about how 'free to play' is 'free to pay' is silly at best. Apparently, sign number three that I maybe don't take this stuff as seriously as I should is that I'm not burning through consumable cash shop items like there's no tomorrow, thus have no reason to foam at the mouth about pricing, since a couple of bucks a month is doable. It gets too rich for my blood, consumables get too necessary? Simple solution — I'll stop playing.
Many players coming from the Malaysian version of the game were shocked that higher prices were being charged for the International version, where the hypothetical gaming population probably has slightly more disposable income (sadly, guys, my lunch also costs me more in San Diego than it does in China). Mass hysteria ensued, and topics sprung up that would make a Marxist proud. I said 'OK' to the somewhat fixed pricing and shelled out a few dollars for a couple of useful items that I knew I wanted from my previous forays into the game, and based on a lot of posts on the forums, I think this qualifies me for a couple of labels: 'bourgeois' and 'capitalist roader' being tops. I think it would probably be a smart decision on the part of the Perfect World overlords to knock down pricing for a variety of reasons, but the palpable despair of people is certainly something to behold - and a bit odd when one is talking about a game where you really don't need to spend anything to just play the game.
Despite topics — mostly related to the cash shop — that made it sound like the entire gaming population was going to up and leave, bound for Malaysian servers, the open beta is crowded. Well, it seems crowded to me, the non-MMO player, so take that for what it's worth. The first time I came face to face with server lag, I also came face to face with a veritable army of little cats (player shops), which made packed Taiwanese night markets look empty — and made me question the wisdom of setting up shop in such tight quarters that you can't even see what they're selling. I'm still learning how to navigate my way around hordes of people in the field, have yowled in frustration a few times when someone launches an attack on a monster right before I have a chance to land the opening blow, and am getting used to role players doing their thing and sending lines of text swooshing past my 'common chat' window.
I still haven't gotten over some of my neuroses — my pathological shyness has hindered me in going out and, say, finding groups to run dungeons with on the fly — but I have run into couple of fun people to play with, lured some MMO-playing friends in to at least dabble in PW as an addendum to their subscription-based MMOs (the general response has been 'It's like WoW with the serial filed off and some Asian flair -- and hey, it's free!'), gotten a lot more in the swing of things than I ever thought I would. I'm still baffled by some of the more social options — like selecting and joining a guild — but I figure like everything else I've gotten used to the past month and change, this too will come with time.
And I've gotta say ... I kinda like it. So much so, in fact, I'll probably take up those friends on their offers to join in subscription-based fun, having eased into the whole idea without actually being tied to a subscription. Until then, I'll just be hanging with the Rhinodrakes.