Twinks, Heirlooms, and Morality

Yup, it’s a morality tale for Friday.

Gordon opines that twinking is a form of cheating in his We Fly Spitfires blog. His reasoning is that supplying other characters with cash or equipment is not in the spirit of MMOs. Nope, they are like the American Frontier – you go in with nothing but the sweat on your brow and the shirt on your back and see who has the guts, luck and moxie to live off the land (ie. the low level mob drops). Also it drives up the prices of low level gear and gives experienced players an extra advantage over newbies.

Andrew rebutts this at Of Teeth and Claws, and asserts every player’s right to twink out their alts. He comments that aside from the fact that anyone can twink an alt, it’s also a metagame that a lot of people enjoy.

It’s hard to really argue that supplying alts with gear and cash is against the spirit of the game, when the game lets you do it. People like treating their new alts like spoiled children with lavish gifts and treats. Not only that but sending along some good items and gold adds  interesting replay value to alts – you can power through all the quests that were really annoying when you did it the first time, see how the class plays at low level when it’s well geared, for example. And we love to do it.

I’ve also played games where you couldn’t easily send money and gear between alts and we all found ways around it. Get a trusted friend to hold the items while you swap alts and then trade them back to you. Get a second account. Drop items on the floor and quickly relog so that the alt can grab them before they disappear.

Is it cheating? Nope. Although it does have the effect that newbies have a much rougher game experience than alts. We can call this the school of hard knocks. At least everyone had to do it once.

Twinking for PvP is an altogether more interesting metagame. MMOs aren’t usually designed to be balanced below the level cap, you’re intended to make your way through the levels and then do whatever it is that the devs have planned for max level characters. (Or roll another alt if it’s CoH.) So if players choose to make a project out of finding out how powerful a low level alt can become for use in level capped battlegrounds, it’s an interesting challenge. It could involve farming for drops, buying expensive items and enchants, getting boosts through instances and finding clever ways around game mechanics that weren’t really designed to be given out at those levels. And the rewards? Becoming a virtual god amongst men when fighting non-twinks.

Because the game isn’t balanced at low level, twinks can be monstrously powerful in comparison to new players at the same level. I’ve fought twinked out hunters in Warsong Gulch at level 19 whose pets had more health than my alts. It may not be cheating, but it doesn’t entirely feel fair either. At that point you hope that your team has as many twinks on it as the other side so they can keep each other occupied.

What I do like about twinking is that it feels anarchic, as though you’re somehow fighting The Man by insisting on playing the game by your own rules. It’s also controversial and guaranteed to stir people up – no one enjoys a PvP fight where they literally don’t have a chance.

But is it really the twinks who are to blame for that, or the game design that lets gear give such a huge advantage?

How Heirlooms are changing the twinking game

Heirloom items are the new big thing for alts in WoW with this expansion. They are bound to the account not the character, their stats scale with you as you level from 1-80, and they are roughly equivalent to good blue items of their level at all times. You can buy them either with daily quest rewards from the Argent Tournament, with badges that  you get from running heroic instances, or with the tokens that you get from PvP in Lake Wintergrasp (for the PvP heirlooms).

That has both encouraged twinks and taken the wind out of the market at the same time. No one pays high prices for the old favourite twink weapons any more, they just use heirlooms. There is some grinding involved to get the tokens together but once you have, you can just keep passing the gear from twink to twink. All your alts who use the heirlooms are effectively twinked.

So at this point, it’s really hard to argue that passing nice stuff to your alts isn’t an accepted part of the game, at least in WoW. And PvP twinks can face off against other PvP twinks in battlegrounds by turning their xp off. Again, hard to argue that it isn’t now an accepted part of the game.

I do wonder if some of the charm and challenge of twinking has gone from the game with the introduction of the heirlooms – specifically designed for twinking alts and relatively easily available to max level characters. Don’t get me wrong, I like the heirlooms and I think they’re an interesting experiment in removing gear dependence completely in the levelling game while leaving it in endgame. They also nudge endgame players towards alting as an alternative to raiding or PvP.

More than ever, the new player is disadvantaged in PvP. And not only the actual newbie, but anyone who rerolls on a different server where they have no high level sugar daddy to feed them gold and heirlooms.

But guess what, for an immodest RL fee to swap servers (and possibly factions too), an alt from the same server as your high level character can wing its way to the new guy, bearing gifts of heirlooms from afar. There’s going to be a lot of money in this for Blizzard if they don’t do the decent thing and implement cross-server mail.

A lot of people will pay for the fun and convenience of battleground twinkage and faster, smoother levelling. And the old twink playstyle of working out how best to pimp a lot level alt may be gone forever – because the answer will always be ‘use heirlooms’.