I know, I know, terrible pun. Let’s just move on from that, shall we, because I’m about to make a point that I never thought I’d make.
I have long hated MMOs. No, I’ve never had a subscription to that WoW thing that so successfully ensnared so many people, and maybe that makes me unable to truly judge, but the point of the matter for me is that I’ve never wanted one. I’ve watched people play, and I’ve watched people play other MMOs, and at the end of the day, they have always seemed massively unappealing to me. The dual points of the game seem to be a) get as high level as possible as quickly as possible, because that’s where all of the fun things are, and b) to get yourself as deeply burried in a guild as possible, because those fun things often end up being really hard to do alone. Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those notions, especially if you’re the sort of person who’s looking to put hours upon hours into his or her game of choice.
The problem, for me, is always what each part implies: levelling, to the best of my observation, tends to involve a lot of monotonous repetition of mundane if not utterly tiresome game elements, all leading up to the chance to actually access the interesting parts. Do people really enjoy killing porings that much? Did porings traumatise you as children, that they must now be hunted down and slaughtered to a head? It reminds me of Pokemon, and how you’d have to spend hours walking around this one little square of grass to get your entire party from level 2 to level 49 — only at least with Pokemon, there were no other trainers walking around, laughing about how long it was taking you to do it, and whether your pokemon were 5th level or 55th, in the end you were still just a kid.
And as far as guilds go, it has always seemed to me that they make gameplay much more restricting than they do freeing, from a (vaguely) objective point of view. Those guild-attached players who I have had the pleasure of witnessing (anecdotal evidence is 90% of the law?) always seemed concerned, if not downright obsessed, with how their guild would perceive their actions. Gameplay now had to happen Just So, and at such specific times because of in-guild actions of various sorts that even the least obsessive people I know tended to start treating it like a job. A job they really enjoyed, but a job nonetheless, with the fear of being fired if you don’t perform to the boss’s standard.
Which is why I resisted as hard as I could, when I was offered a month’s subscription to play Star Trek Online … and why I’m surprised as all hell to have ended up enjoying it thoroughly. The premise, for those who haven’t encountered it, is reasonably simple — you are a lowly Starfleet Ensign in either the Science, Engineering, or Tactical division – probably with an unnaturally small waist and enormously exaggerated breasts if you’re played by 90% of the players out there – and you have for one reason or another been given command of your ship by virtue of just how awesome you are. The universe is a troubled place, though, so rather than losing your ship as soon as you get it, you’re instead immediately asked to start helping restore balance to the known worlds.
And that’s really how it goes, from there on. You advance the game by accepting missions from various admirals, commanders and diplomats, missions which can involve anything from escorting an important emissary to a conference, to beaming down to scan strange readings on unknown planets, to wiping out five squdrons of Klingon Warbirds who are out causing trouble where they have no business being. Each enemy you destroy earns you skill points, as does each completed mission, and by investing skill points in various skills you can make your away teams better, your weapons more effective, your ship more efficient. Earn enough of them and you can rise up through the ranks, earning new and better ships and new and better crewmen as you do. Your options change slightly depending on which type of officer and which type of ship you choose to play – Science officers are the priests of the universe with healing and debuffing skills, engineers can break ships and put them back together again, while tactical officers play the role of tanks, with increased firepower and thicker hulls to match.
Admittedly, figuring out the optimal combination of officer-type with ship-type and bridge-crew-type takes a bit of figuring out, and the difference between Amazingly Effective officers and Generally Useless ones are … deceptively minor. When you add in the fact that there are multiple weapon types for your ship, which work better or worse with different impulse engine types and different deflector types and different shield types, it takes a bit of work. There’s no real punishment for building a bit of a useless ship, though, and as long as you’re willing to spend a bit of time with trial and error it’s not too hard to find the right combination for your playing style.
And that, for me, is part of the big difference between this and every other game I’ve seen; the only negative consequence for making beginner mistakes is that things take longer – and the only downside to being low-level is not having access to high-level skills, which is as bit of a given in any game ever. In many ways, STO feels more like a single-player game with optional co-0p or multiplayer than it does an MMO. Your first-level missions aren’t just throw-aways, but instead tie in to a global plot that is revealed slowly in increments as you access the right story missions. Your ship, while not as epic as it will one day be, is still more than good enough to tear through a squadron of Klingons. And yes, there is an element of grind to it as there always is — but grinding consists of taking on more swarms of Klingons, exploring less plot-significant quadrants, saving more people from their on-world problems.
In effect, no matter what you’re doing, and no matter what level you are, you’re still taking on missions that are worthy of a Star Trek episode. You’re exploring new worlds, fighting familiar bad guys, and creating miniature black holes to crush your enemies into cosmic dust!
And with a level cap of 50 (ish?), enough experienced players have started taking on low-level characters again that the hierarchy between Noobs and Vetrans doesn’t turn the world into an oppressive, level-as-status gruel-fest. You have no way of knowing whether the person five levels below you has in fact been in the game for a year longer than you have, which tends to breed an environment of friendliness and helpfullnes. Call me a happy fluffy wimp if you will, but that makes the experience of playing that much better.