2019 is the year of the online RPG, at least for me. Whether that’s the countless hours I’ve spent in Final Fantasy XIV or my curious wandering through WoW Classic, digital worlds have offered me grand adventures and dear friends. But a few experiences are still out of my reach: the toughest challenges, meant for the most elite players. So I’ve learned the strange joy of watching it all second-hand.
I’m not a complete stranger to raid content in online games. When I played SWTOR I participated in “progression raiding,” which is the act of tackling difficult battles without knowledge of mechanics and trying to complete them as quickly as you can. Even with Final Fantasy XIV, I’ve snuck in a few battles against “extreme” versions of certain bosses that were, for a time, some of the highest tier fights available. However, MMOs tend to have a difficulty curve that increases sharply as expansions progress. If you’re not devoting yourself to grinding gear, you eventually find yourself locked out of certain battles. I’m a social player. I like to make time for crafting and for player-made storylines. I might like the idea of tackling WoW Classic’s Molten Core, but my job also requires me to play a lot of different games, sometimes for extended periods of time. You can’t really be a social player, a games journalist, and a top tier raider. At some point, you let go of the notion that you’ll see everything a game can offer. At least for huge MMOs.
Thankfully, I live in the era of Twitch and YouTube. It’s never been easier for players to share their experiences. Where there used to be a wall blocking you off from content, there are now windows through which you can peek in and see what’s on the other side. In some cases, like with World of Warcraft Classic, you can even look back in time to see what something was originally like and compare it to how things are now. The most exciting process is to follow raid groups as they race to beat content. Final Fantasy XIV’s last major patch advanced the story and added a Nier Automata raid with a “normal” difficulty level, but it also added “The Epic of Alexander.” It is an “ultimate” level raid, the most bananas difficult content imaginable. You need to be geared up with the best possible loot and organize with your pals to spend days or even weeks figuring out fights and completing them. If you’re not among that elite number, too bad. Still, I’ve gotten to watch those fights unfold as the first players to complete them have posted videos of the battles from numerous perspectives. (Lately, I’ve been enjoying Goldentot’s streams.) By watching these streams, I get to learn the fight and then vicariously enjoy whatever victories different players pull off. Better, I can enjoy these fights as they happen along with thousands of viewers. It is communal, an experience that’s somewhere between being in an esports arena and actually playing the game.
These viewing experiences make it easier for me to accept that there are simply going to be things I will never get to play, even in the games I love and devote countless hours to. There’s a bit of a lesson in that. With time, you can learn to accept being a more casual or mid-tier player. Competitive zeal fades away. You don’t crave your own victory, you cheer on as other people win their own fights. It’s brought a new depth to my own experiences and pulled me into an even wider community where being a spectator feels just as good as being on the front lines.