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7:15pm on Monday, 13th October, 2014:

Bye Bye, WildStar


I've just cancelled my subscription to WildStar.

Normally when I start an MMO, I'll play it all the way through to the level cap, so people can't accuse me of "not playing enough to get it". With WildStar, I've given up at level 26 (out of 50).

The game has a lot going for it. The world itself is engaging and utterly joyous, which is reflected in its happy, lolloping animation and quirkiness. I really liked the atmosphere. That's what I'm going to miss most about stopping playing: it had a great sense of world.

I didn't, however, like the interface. It was finicky and I couldn't tell what things did what. Some world items were just there as furniture and others were really important. There were also things that were really important to other people but not to me, so when I tried to interact with them I couldn't do anything. At the HUD level, my bag was hard to organise, my skills annoyingly hard to swap between, and when things didn't work it tended to tell you that they didn't work but not why they didn't work. Text on the map would overwrite itself, the quest log went out of its way to show me quests I'd picked up a while back that I wasn't intending to do .. bleah ! I could go on, but as a general rule any MMO that when you want to log off makes you hit three separate buttons each saying "exit" on three separate screens has issues, and WildStar does just that.

There were other things I didn't like, too...

Combat is all about dodging telegraphs. These aren't traditional telegraphs where you get a circle or a circle segment or a rectangle that slowly fills up and you have to move out of the way or suffer the consequences. No, these are multiple telegraphs that appear all over the place, flicking their harm and safety areas in an instant, with little opportunity to get away. You basically have to eat them, interrupt them or learn the pattern for every type of mob so you can pre-empt them. It's not a fun core mechanic. Some times, you can't even tell which mob is producing which telegraph, they're so chaotic. Now this does play into the game's overall design aesthetic of controlled off-the-wallness, but until you've learned where not to stand you get slammed, and once you do learn it's a doddle. Either way, it's unsatisfactory.

Oh, and there are stuns. In a normal MMO, getting stunned is a pain because you can't act. I was quite pleased when I read about WildStar's approach, in which you get to break the stun yourself. I was less pleased by what happens in practice. You get stunned, it takes a split second to realise it, then you have to look at the diagram on the screen and read which key it is you have to press to break the stun. It's one you have your finger near, but to me my fingers aren't on WASD, they're on forward, rotate left, backward, rotate right. I actually have to read the S as an S and then type it in order to escape. This does not give me a feeling of empowerment.

The economy: I was broke for ages. I didn't have enough money for repairs, let alone for buying gear upgrades. The world was awash with vendors, all trying to sell me things I couldn't afford. Crafting was useless to me: by the time I'd accumulated enough components to make something, I was too high a level for it to be worth using. Now I knew there was something wrong, because when the fee for getting reincarnated in situ after a death is more than 10 times what you have in total it rather implies that. I sold stuff to vendors but got little back. It was only when I discovered that the auction house was an NPC, standing around among a bunch of other nondescript NPCs with click-me functionalities, that I could sell stuff for meaningful money. I got a hoverboard for faster transportation. Yay! I didn't have enough for anything else worth having, though. I'm sure that if I'd read the right craft guides or experiemented in the beta I could have made a mint, but I like to come at new MMOs straight. It wasn't at all obvious what I should be making, who would buy it, nor what parts I would need to make it. So, I made some clothes; I took them to pieces for the parts so I could make some more clothes; I repeated until I ran out of cloth; I took apart drops from mobs or quests to make more cloth. Eventually, I couldn't make any more clothes because the cloth I was getting from dismantling the items I found was too high-level for my skills, but I didn't have enough money to buy lower-level cloth to level my clothes-making skill up. When I tried to sell the higher-level cloth, no-one wanted it. It was as if I was the only lo-level tailor around. For my other skill, I made some components that were useful for buffing items with the right slot on them, but I only ever saw two such items (from group quests) and no-one else seemed to be in any great need of them either.

I do have to say, though, I really liked the way that the auction house allowed buy orders as well as sell orders. I moaned about the fact that WoW didn't have it the whole time I played that game, so I was very pleased to find that WildStar does. On the design side, WildStar does so many things right where other MMOs do it wrong; I just wish the interface was cleaner so I could tell what the blazes they were...

One of the new ideas in WildStar involves letting players choose from a number of paths based on the Player Types theory developed by some guy named Bartle. Sadly, they didn't ask Bartle about it, otherwise he would have told them that actually they were pandering almost entirely to achievers (although the socialiser path was a clever idea for those who like a healing vibe). For my character, I chose the explorer path as that involved grabbing lore boxes called datacubes. I was aware that this would involve tedious jumping puzzles (because apparently there's a belief among developers that there's nothing explorers like more than tedious jumping puzzles), but as it happens I'm actually good at tedious jumping puzzles. What I didn't realise was that some of these datacubes were in areas that you can't realistically get to unless you're in a group. I don't know where the idea that explorers like to group came from, but it meant some of these datacubes were inaccessible until, I suppose, explorers get to high enough a level that they can solo low-level group content. What's that? Why didn't I find a group? Because it was so hard to find a group that on several occasions I levelled up twice while waiting, that's why. If I did get a group, the quest was worth nothing to me and the blue gear I received was worse than what I'd picked up at random from a higher-level mob.

Oh, so why didn't I join a guild? I never saw a single invite. I guess I could have spammed "looking for guild", but if a guild's not proactive about recruiting then it's either full or on the way out...

At the purely practical level, I found the game very tough to play. The quests were on the whole too difficult for me. Why? Well, I'd made the mistake of speccing myself as a healer in the hope that this would get me into groups. That didn't work out, because at low levels you don't really need healers for groups and as I rose in levels I could have been a self-healing tank and still not found anyone with whom to group, people just weren't forming them. Anyway, what it meant was that I'd spent skill points on healing abilities that were of little use in solo play. I had to change to more of a ranged DPS and do quests two or more levels lower than my own (easier, but the XP gains are much reduced so progress is slower). As for quests, well there were some fun chains, and refreshingly many were quite charming and original in their narrative. I did find doing them in the right order a challenge, though: as with Rift, I came across some quests that only really would have made sense if I hadn't already done later ones.

All the above complaints are par for the course, though. I find similar things in most MMOs, so although it looks as if I'm slagging off WildStar, actually I rather like it. It's pretty well a modern take on WoW circa 2004, so is harder-core than most MMOs and it has appealing self-consistency. I looked forward to my play sessions. Why, then, have I decided to cancel my subscription?

There are two reasons.

The first reason is that when you die and resurrect, the resurrection device says something to you mocking your demise. This is not what you want to hear. It gets old very quickly. Normally, player-level complaints don't get to me as I look at things as a designer; this is why I'd have been fine playing despite the other annoyances that I mention above. This particular feature, however, was too much. It's bad enough being killed through no fault of your own, but having your nose rubbed in it repeatedly and repetitively is a jaw-dropping misreading of the player experience.

The other reason I decided to stop was that I had an instanced quest to do. Now I'd actually liked the earlier instanced quests I'd done, even though it wasn't always apparent what I was supposed to do in them and it usually took several attempts because they were hard for someone specced as a healer. This instanced quest, however... It told me that it had automatically adjusted its difficulty level to take account of my level and the level of the rest of my party (if I'd brought anyone in with me, which I hadn't). I couldn't get past the first trash mob. It beat me to a pulp every time. Now in a normal quest, I'd have gone away bruised, levelled up, come back and tried again when I was in a better position to win. That wasn't going to happen here, though, because whenever I levelled up, so would the instance and so would the mob. I would never be able to beat that mob. I'd have to restart as a new character and spec as a heavy DPS or tank not to get stomped into the ground.

I loathe dynamic difficulty adjustment. I don't want the MMO deciding for me what is or isn't a challenging experience. I don't want to have to game the AI to get past it. That's not gaming, that's meta-gaming. That's not immersion, that's immersion-busting.

No no no!

So that's why I cancelled. Sorry, WildStar, I did like almost all of you, but what you said with your design there was just too much.

Bye bye.

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Copyright © 2014 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).