Thursday, 26 November 2015

Black Citadel Friday : GW2

This is the greatest city in the world. And it's only going to get greater.
 Charr Citizen - Black Citadel

I count myself exceedingly fortunate that my first character in beta was a Charr. Nothing prepared me for the sheer impact of The Black Citadel. It hit like a fist.

The smoke-filled skies stink of sulphur and Armageddon. The polluted air shrieks and groans with the tortured cries of steel.

Every sunrise, every sunset, burns with apocalyptic fire. And it's always sunset or sunrise in The Black Citadel.

The iron walkways echo with the heavy tread of war. The legions spar and banter in the streets while citizens growl and curse. In the fretted shade of the Gladium Canton the lesser races sweat and trade. 

The craft halls of the Factorium whir with the spinning of looms as the smiths' hammers pound. Beyond the plated walls the scholars of the Priory pore over ancient scrolls among the vine-clad ruins of Old Ascalon.

This is The Black Citadel.

It stands.

It will stand.

It must. 

A fit from the House of Phoebe for #intpipomo 2015

Monday, 23 November 2015

Dragon Down! : GW2

Around teatime on Sunday afternoon Mrs Bhagpuss asked me if I fancied taking a run at the final chapter of the Heart of Thorns Personal Story, "Hearts and Minds". Well, actually what she did was type "Hearts and Minds?" in party chat out of the blue while I was off doing something important, namely fiddling about in my bank vault as usual.

At first I had no clue what she was talking about. The Personal Story kind of fell off my radar around the end of the first week after launch, by which time I had run one character to the penultimate chapter and half a dozen more through the Prologue and Chapter One. It's hardly surprising I'd let it slip my attention after that, at least not when you consider that, after three years and over a dozen Level 80s, I have yet to complete the original Personal Story on any of them.

I was highly skeptical of the need for GW2 to have a "Personal Story" in the first place but we are where we are, which appears to be in some kind of bizarro world where "personal stories" have become mandatory for MMOs and not even just for the pure theme parks either. Indeed, the supposed failure of SW:ToR's "Fourth Pillar" is beginning to seem more than a touch ironic, not least since BioWare re-tooled their ailing franchise into something that looks more like One Pillar and Three Stumps.

I'm by no means as down on the whole concept of story arcs within MMORPGs as J3w3l, for example, but neither do I worship them with quasi-religious fervor. Story is just another of the rides in the park. If an MMO offers me a take on narrative that turns out to be both entertaining and easy then I'll generally give it a run; those that fail on either count join the large pile of "things I might get round to some day if I have nothing better to do".

GW2 has a checkered history with story. Actually it's more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a chess-board. We started with an ambitious, hand-crafted version, where the responses you made to a series of gnomic questions in character creation decided your forking path. I always thought it was daft. It must have been hell for completionists.

Those paths came together somewhere in the middle and from there on we all followed the same plot to Arah and the Downing of Zhaitan. I did see the final chapter, tagging along in Mrs Bhagpuss's team back when you needed a full group, but the furthest any of my own characters has made it is, I think, the first step into Orr.

Anet changed mode once the game went live. They began to heap their all dragon eggs into one basket they called The Living Story. The first telling was a sprawling, chaotic, largely ill-received mash-up of open world zerg action, scavenger hunts, lore tidbits and instanced set pieces. I liked it at the time and in retrospect I feel we didn't know how lucky we were. I'd have that format back in a heartbeat now.

Operating on what appears to be their default mode of passive-aggressive reaction ANet gave us a very different iteration in Living Story 2. They chopped the whole thing up into tidy, re-saleable packages, front-ended in the existing maps but with the meat of the gameplay and story sealed neatly in instances.

They also upped the difficulty or, perhaps more accurately, the frustration, to one FFS! short of a ragequit. Although I struggled through it on one account I didn't much enjoy LS2 and I definitely wasn't looking forward to another, even "more challenging" version in Heart of Thorns. Luckily, for me at least, I didn't get one.

In what I guess we could call Personal Story 2 (unless it's Living Story 3?) ANet finally seem to have found a sweet spot. Bugs and gates aside the general response has been positive. I haven't seen many complaints about it being either too easy or too hard, too long or too short. I found most of it engaging and sprightly as far as the gameplay went, to the point where the prospect of repeating it on all my characters feels like a possibility not a penance.

I'm aware I'm being a little vague here. Jeromai asked recently how long we need to wait before we can discuss plot points without risking spoiling the experience for those who haven't yet gotten around to experiencing it first-hand. The answer to that is there's never going to be a point short of the game closing down or the content being removed when discussing it in open conversation won't risk revealing something someone would rather not have known. So I won't do that. Yet.

Suffice it to say that, now I've finally seen it through to the end, there's a lot I'd like to discuss where the lore and story is concerned but instead, I'll stick to a quick critique of the style and the gameplay. I'd rate the latter a big improvement but the former quite a disappointment.

In short, the fights were a lot better throughout. They were generally well-balanced, requiring attention but not expecting perfection. Crucially for me they were almost entirely gimmick-free. All my characters were able to play as themselves, using their own gear and abilities, making their own choices about how to approach and defeat each challenge. There were few coercive set pieces and those there were permitted a number of solutions. Compared to LS2 it was freedom city.

The final, big boss fight, which Mrs Bhagpuss and I duoed successfully yesterday evening without any major problems, is lengthy as you'd expect but not so much so as to outstay its welcome. It has been, infamously, some have found unplayably, buggy, to the point where I had until now deferred even attempting it, following the appalling reports of those who had.

Supposedly the worst of those bugs have been fixed but we still had to restart the final fight because one of the rifts spawned outside of the playable area. On the positive side, we had a bug in our favor where one of Mordremoth's AEs only stretched half as far as it should have, meaning as two rangers we could stand outside it and pepper him with arrows while our newly AE-immune pets hammered away in melee range, oblivious to all damage.

If the fights were, on the whole, an improvement the dialogs were at best lacklustre and the lack of player/NPC interaction was verging on the dismal. One of the strengths of the whole Living Story and, to a lesser extent, the original Personal Story, has been the considerable freedom player characters have to talk to both significant and incidental characters outside of the main narrative.

I spent a lot of time in both LS1 and LS2 chatting to NPCs, enjoying and appreciating a good deal of banter, witty repartee, moody background detail and lore snippets. I never left an instance or an area until I'd spoken to everyone. In the HoT Personal Story that just doesn't happen.

Most of the NPCs don't show any indication they have anything to say or indeed that they are aware of their surroundings at all. If they don't have a line of dialog they stand there, cycling their racial idle animations but otherwise inert. More disappointing still, even those who show the speech bubble icon when targeted, something that in almost all other circumstances indicates the presence of at least a line or two of incidental dialog, prove mute when approached.

I found that the most disappointing part of the expansion so far. It feels at best rushed and unfinished, at worst thoughtless and cheap. The scripted dialog itself isn't great, either. Without entering spoiler territory, much of it feels flat, some of it awkward. The storyline itself offers huge emotional potential but the presentation bleeds it dry.

Like a Hollywood movie, all the best bits are in the trailer. The moment where Rytlock appears for the first time, which we first saw back in the Spring, is unmatched anywhere else in the story. The hairs on the back of my neck were still, literally, standing up as late as the fourth play-through when the big Charr comes over the hill, returning like Han Solo just when he's needed most.

As for what happens next...well, that's the big question. I doubt it will spoil anything to reveal the whole thing ends with yet another cliffhanger, albeit an enigmatic one. Where we go from here I imagine we won't discover until well into the New Year, once Wintersday and perhaps another Raid are out of the way.

Whatever the future holds it's Rytlock as usual who cuts to the chase and sums everything up in a few words right at the end:

That's all we need to know right now. Bring it on!

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Forging Ahead : EQ2

It's been a while since I spent a Sunday morning prospecting for rares. It used to be kind of a thing Chez Bhagpuss once upon a time. Many peaceful and relaxing hours drifted by among the ore nodes beneath Cliffs of Rujark or the root crops of Kerra Isle, Mrs Bhagpuss and I passing each other in opposite directions as we scoured the sands for beryllium or toxnettle.

One down, one to go.
The move to Tyria largely put paid to that. While GW2 has gathering of a kind it's a pale and feeble version by comparison and not something you'd want to spend hour after hour on.

EQ2 has always been a gatherer's dream. The whole process is deliciously complex, with a full range of items, consumables and gear available to enhance your character's effectiveness. Harvesting even has its own epic questlines complete with signature NPCs.

The nodes spit out their highly desirable rares just often enough to make the whole process feel worthwhile rather than a waste of valuable leisure time. The chime of discovery when one pops is less the ringing of a pavlovian bell than the sound of a shot sweetly struck in the middle of the bat.

Satisfying is what it is, frankly. There's nothing in MMOs quite like it, not at least since Vanguard shut up shop. Consequently, when I completed my Research on Containing Magical Gemstones and discovered that I'd need not one but two Arcannium (Arcanniums? Arcannii?) I found my heart flutter more in anticipation than anxiety.

My ore! Mine!!
Checking the broker quickly took the lazy option off the table. At the time of writing Arcannium is selling at close to 500 platinum a piece, which, for comparison, puts it in the same bracket as a successful SLR auction for a max level piece of Fabled gear. Ignore the jargon - just take it for granted that means it's a lot of money.

I confess (and it is a guilty confession) that the relatively recent addition of instant access to the Broker from anywhere that comes a perk of All Access Membership has led me into bad habits. To save myself a few minutes travel time I have been buying mats that previously I would at least have taken out of my own bank, mats that even if I hadn't mined or lumbered or gathered at the direct behest of the questgiver would at least, at some time in the past, have been dug or chopped or picked by me, personally.

Shopping was not an option this time. I had no choice but to flap my wings and go prospecting in Thalumbra. Because it was a Sunday morning and I was in no kind of rush, for once I took my time, stood back and had a think about the best way to go about this potentially time-consuming project. That was how I came to discover my AAs were up the spout.

EQ2 lore. It's an acquired taste.

A little out-of-game research reminded me I should have access to an AA ability that tracks harvesting nodes. Couldn't find it. Also I supposedly own a goblin that goes foraging for me, and unlike my old, trusty pack pony, he can forage rares. Couldn't find him either. And I should have at least a 6% bonus to rare harvests. Only had 1%.

How did we ever manage without?
Something was clearly awry. It took me twenty minutes of fiddling about in my AA window, reading tooltips and swearing to myself before I found the problem. I'd set all my AAs and spent all the points but I hadn't pressed the Commit button. They were notional not actual.

A key-press, a long channeling animation and a smart blow to my own forehead later and everything was as it should have been all along. I also received a string of suffix and prefix titles, almost all of them relating to adventuring, and had to re-cast all of my combat buffs so I wonder if I've been fighting without AAs all this time? If so I can't tell the difference!

My AAs now correctly set and working, a couple of +harvesting items swapped in for adventure gear and having swigged one of the Bountiful Harvest potions provided long ago by my much-neglected Othmir apprentice, I was running a 37% chance at a second pull per strike and an 8% bonus chance on pulling a rare. Nothing more I could think of doing so off I went.

The current, excellent, signature crafting questline for Terrors of Thalumbra is the work of Domino, EQ2's recently-returned Crafting Queen over the Water. Unlike some lesser lights, Domino has always been scrupulous in ensuring that a pure crafter, maxed in her trade but with next to no adventure experience or levels, can still complete the crafting quests safely.

Always knew this would come in handy
With the ablity to fly and carrying a variety of crafted stealth, invisibility and speed totems, plus the invaluable option to turn into a rock for twelve hours, granted by an earlier crafting reward, I'm sure that's possible even in the caverns of Thalumbra. It very much helps that the great majority of nodes are carefully placed out of agro range of the level 100+ creatures that skulk or squat or hover all around.

Even so, I'd rather be doing it with a full set of level 98 plate and a level 100 Mercenary to back me up. There were some disputes between my Berserker and a few cave locusts that came to blows. Also there was that time with the named one. Stinger, he was called, not entirely originally I feel, but entirely appropriately as it turned out. Had a nice upgrade for me, he did. Would kill again!

We're going to need a bigger swatter.

The RNG in EQ2 is no better than any of them. Everyone always thinks the odds are set against them when it comes to playing the numbers in MMOs. There are even people who believe that different characters (or classes or races) have different luck. Even if that were true, which it isn't, there's nothing you can do about it. You just have to get on with it.

It doesn't help when the particular ore you need comes from the sort of node that has two different rares, of course. That really does halve your chances of getting the one you want. Factoring that in I was expecting a few hours work but the RNG gods must have had a good breakfast because in less than an hour I had the two rares I needed. I also had three Lucites and a Glittervein. Pretty good for around fifty minutes work.

Remember, I'm a professional crafter. Please don't try this at home.
All that remained was a short flutter back to Maldura, the new city-zone that deserves a post of its own, and a session with The Forge of Brell. Brytthel warned me to be careful. You don't mess around at the forge of the god of smelting. When the reactions there say "Lethal" they aren't kidding. I'm ashamed (again) to admit I let my attention wander for a second. It's lucky I always have Visions of Madness up, that's all I'm saying.

I guess it'll have to do.
I took more care over the equally risky ritual conducted by Elenluelle and her coterie of moths. When it said Lethal that time I reacted appropriately. And fast. Turned out I should have been faster but that's another story and a spoiler too so let's not go there.

Let's go back to Mara instead and the distinctly unempathic Captain Ethan Dariani. He pays well, I'll say that much for him and not much more. Speak to him and that's the crafting signature quest completed.

Took about five or six hours all told, a good deal of which was traveling and gathering and all of which was excellent entertainment. Next comes the Adventure version in which I am betting I get to do what the trade-obsessed Captain wouldn't. I hope so, anyway.

As I was leaving another player arrived to hand in the quest and an achievement popped (for him, not me - we don't get Achievements for seeing other players hand in quests - well, not yet...). Out of curiosity I clicked on it and saw it was for completing both the the Craft and Adventure lines and now I know that comes with a gift I know I could put to good use.

Onward and downward for glory and reward! And fun. Let's not forget the fun.

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Going Underground : EQ2

As Wilhelm noted in his capacity as Blogger of Record, EQ2's twelfth expansion, Terrors of Thalumbra, went live yesterday. I'd pre-ordered it a while back and yet somehow it still managed to sneak up on me. I thought we had a few weeks to go.

The Author as a Young Roekillik
The unexpected all-round playabilty and high fun content of GW2's Heart of Thorns expansion has all but pushed every other MMORPG off the table over the last few weeks but the drive to Do All The Things in Tyria is beginning to abate at last, leaving at least a little space and time for other worlds. I had planned to wait until today, when I'd have time for a good, long look at the new underlands but in the end I couldn't resist.

Within a few minutes of the servers coming back up last night I logged in, expecting the usual immediate post-launch chaos of bugs and emergency patches, but no, everything seemed remarkably calm. Coming so soon after HoT's exceptionally smooth launch I'm beginning to wonder if, after getting on for two decades, maybe MMO producers might be starting to get the hang of how these games work.

Nah. Couldn't be that. Must be a fluke.

Anyway, I can hardly talk. How many expansions have I experienced now? Thirty? Forty? More? And yet I still begin by rushing straight to the portal and jumping in with both feet. Do I read the in-game mail first? Do I go and find the NPC with the briefing notes? Do I have any kind of understanding of what I'm getting into or why? Of course not!

Somehow, probably from EQ2Wire,  I'd picked up as much as that I'd have to go to Neriak first. Why is it always Neriak for us evils? No-one wants to go to Neriak. and in any case, since when did Queen Cristianos usurp The Overlord as Grand Poobah of Badness?

At least the portal was right there at the docks next to the World Bell. Hard to miss, too, great, whirring mechanical monstrosity that it is. Gnomish work, I fancy. They should have got a ratonga in. Just sayin'.

It works though. Got to give the gnomes that much. It spat me out somewhere in what I took to be The Underfoot until Al'Kabor corrected that misapprehension much later on, when I finally got around to doing some of the questing spadework.
I'll just chip off a little bit.

The whole expansion, in a really excellent play on words, is set in Subtunaria. I believe the region went by that name in EQOA although I can't be sure. I was never fortunate enough to explore that version of Norrath, which is why I'm so excited to get this unexpected, late opportunity.

It really is the connection to the Lore that lends impact to these extensions of the franchise. You can hear it daily in GW2 as players laud or lay into aspects of Tyria's transition from the elder game to the current version. Over in Eorzea Square Enix are milking player recognition for all it's worth, setting longtime FF devotees like Syl "squealing like a fangirl" (her words!). As the games (and the gamers) age so the emotions deepen.

None of that was apparent last night as I flew around the underground sea of Thalumbra the Ever Deep. It looked entirely unfamiliar. And weird. The level 110 Triple-Up Arrow guards at the gates of what I took to be the city were scowling in my general direction so I stuck to the "countryside", such as it was.

Hmm. Now that I look more closely I'm not sure that is a fairy. Might be a moth.

After a while I found some very big fairies. Tallest fairies I've ever seen. They were willing to speak to me or should I say willing enough to send me on a Kill Ten Foozles quest to let me speak to them. And it was 22 Foozles if you're counting.

So I did that. The foozles were easy enough (they were ooyogs and poxfiends according to my journal but I know a foozle when I see one). I died to some flower that got caught in an AE and didn't see the funny side of it but other than that it all went swimmingly.

Even so it was clear I wasn't going about things the right way. Pootling around running errands for oversized fairy-folk  wasn't going to get me into the city. I called it a night and ported home to Maj'Dul.

Don't just stand there, Raffik - pull! And why are you in my bedroom in the first place???

When I reconvened this morning the day didn't get off to the best of starts. I couldn't get out of bed. Not metaphorically; literally. I'd logged out on my bed for a good night's sleep as I'm wont to do and I woke up wedged into it. Couldn't move. Had to use my handy portal thingummy to port me to the dock in Tranquil Seas just to get free.

From there it was off to Mara, where all tradeskill quests tend to begin. I usually start an EQ2 expansion by doing the crafting Signature questline before I get round to the adventuring version. There are several good reasons for that.

Of wee. Tee hee!
Firstly, it takes a fraction of the time because although the crafting line often has as many steps there aren't any fights and it's all the killing that pads things out. Secondly, it will open up a whole lot of areas, set the necessary factions to Don't Kill On Sight, and provide you with anything you might need in the way of flying permits, teleports and so forth. Thirdly, and most importantly, the crafting quests in EQ2 are almost always entertaining and well-written.

Explain to me again how these bushes grow on solid ice?
This one's no exception. It's meaty, too. I spent nearly three hours on it this morning and I'm just at the point where the new guards don't want to rip my head off any more. The lore was really interesting, with plenty of background about the Dwarves and the Roekillik.

Ah yes, the Roekillik. For a ratonga they are the racial nemesis. They are the anti-ratonga in fact. I still remember vividly the ratonga racial quest line that was added when the old villages were revamped in Freeport and Qeynos. Ratonga are terrified of Roekillik. We left our lovely underground home to escape from them but they followed us to the surface world.

The high point of the expansion thus far has been getting my old mate Al'Kabor (aka The Duality) to make me a Roekillik illusion spell so I could prance around in their secret lair, talking in their silly accent and feeding fish rolls to one of their Elders. Don't ask what I put in those. He didn't, more fool him.

Me and Al'Kabor, we're like *that*, we are.

That got me a truly excellent map of Old Tunaria which is in my mansion right now and looking great. Another prime reason to do the crafting quests is all the house items you get.

That's where I've left it for now. I have a suspicion that compared to some previous expansions this one might turn out to be a little on the lean side. Only one open-world map instead of the usual two, for example, and that one doesn't look all that big.

Excuse me, I think your mushrooms are on fire.
Size isn't everything, though. I enjoyed the previous expansion, Altar of Malice, as much for what I learned about the fate of Luclin and the history of the Far Seas Trading Company as for the loot or the fights. I'm even more interested in the history of the lands below Tunaria so as long as I get my lore fix I'm more than happy I'm getting my money's worth.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Why I'm Not Playing Fallout 4 Like Everyone Else

My absolute favorite thing in Fallout 4 so far, and perhaps will remain so forever, is the base building. I spend hours scrapping crap, planting crops, making water collectors, decorating houses, etc. This is just SO COOL that I can take parts of the world and make them my bases.

One thing I’m not looking forward to is the sub-game of base building. I don’t know what it is about single-player RPGs these days and the need to cram in a base building system, but I do not care about such things outside of persistent worlds. I’m not going to spend 30 hours building up a base in a game that has a “Game Over” screen, and it’s not important to me here.

Many of the blogs and reviews I've read make Fallout 4 seem like something I'd really enjoy. The descriptions and screenshots of the autumnal New England setting were almost enough in themselves to trigger a purchase. And then, when I first read Syp's observation on the sheer futility of base building, diametrically opposed to Keen's gushing delight in the exact same game system, it was as though the clouds had opened and ray of pure light was shining directly into my mind. Here, in a nutshell, is why I can only play MMOs. 

All these long years, going all the way back to that fateful late November day in 1999 when I first installed EverQuest and increasing strongly the further away from that watershed I travel, I've struggled to express just why it is that I find even the best solo RPGs a bleak and unconvincing an experience. By comparison the prospect of even a poorly-translated, unimaginative piece of MMO shovelware positively glimmers with possibilities. 

Well, there's the answer: persistence.

The widely offered and even more widely accepted rationale for the grip MMORPGs exert on us is that we become reliant on the social ties they foster. Supposedly, it's the communities that coalesce around and within them that bind us: our Guilds, our friends, the people we meet and the people we have met. 

Well, that explanation has never flown for me. In sixteen years I have remained in touch with precisely one person that I met while playing MMOs. With the exception of a short period when WoW was trending outside of the MMO niche I have never met a single person in real life who plays them or even recognizes the acronym. I have very few ties to any people who play the games I play.

It wasn't always so. Yes, there was a prolonged period, more than five years, when my MMO play was intensely socialized and most sessions were as much about conversation as they were about gameplay. That, however, had at least as many downsides as up and the succeeding years in which those social connections have atrophied and fallen away, far from leading to disengagement and dissatisfaction, have, by and large, brought a deeper and more satisfying enthrallment with the hobby.

The explanation I usually end up with for the deep and often irrational sense of commitment I feel toward certain MMOs is that I care about my characters. This is true. I care about them in the way I care about characters in books or, more precisely, about characters I have created and written and imagined for myself. Nevertheless it's equally true that I am fickle in my affections and unsteady in fidelity when it comes to those characters.

There are characters that were important, vital, to me scattered across a dozen, a score and more of the MMORPGs I've played in a decade and a half. Many I lived with and through for hundreds, thousands of hours of real time. I can name them and describe them in detail, their looks and their adventures, their likes and dislikes. But I don't play them.

The characters are key to the unbroken connection to the games, it's true, but the real cord is that persistence Syp finds so lacking in Fallout 4 and which Keen doesn't need at all. It's a particular kind of persistence because aren't all computer games "persistent"? Assuming you have the hardware to run it and the saved game files, could you not fire up a game you left half-finished in 1997 and find your character still standing exactly where you left her, fresh and ready to begin where you left off?

Before I found MMOs I played a lot of offline RPGs and loved them. I didn't stop immediately either. It always throws me that Baldur's Gate, which both Mrs Bhagpuss and I played intensely and which is the only RPG I have ever played all the way through twice, came out after we'd been playing EQ for over a year. 

I went on to play BG2 and finish that as well, although just the once. On and off, I picked away at a few others across the years, but by the time we got to Dragon Age: Origins a decade later it was apparent that the magic had flown. The explanation for the change of heart has proven elusive but now Syp has nailed it for me at last.

What matters is not that the worlds are still there, waiting, when I come back to them. No, what matters is that they won't wait. With me or without me these worlds move on. Even my characters change in my absence. Those infuriating flurries of pop-ups and tool-tips that greet the prodigal player, informing him of the myriad changes to systems and processes and items and expectations that have happened behind his back are evidence of history, of existence, of a kind of ethereal solidity that mirrors life.

The persistence of the worlds in which our characters exist, its malleability, its flux, represent a quality of conviction that, for me, no offline RPG can offer. What's more, the mere understanding that this is a persistence shared with thousands, even millions of other players around the world, compounds and magnifies that conviction to the point where it becomes indistinguishable from the sense of sharing our actual world itself. 

Persistent, virtual worlds, no matter how trivial or baldly realized, have an innate existence denied to the discrete, unconnected islands of offline RPGs. Actions, even inaction, in them matter, somehow, in a way no action in an isolated, unshared instance that ends with powering down can match or hope to match.

In a way it gives substance to my unshakable, if whimsical, feeling that all my characters carry on with their lives whether I'm there to guide them or not. They do, measurably, change and alter, even while I'm away. Much, much more vividly and unarguably do their worlds grow and change. 

Norrath, Azeroth, Tyria, Telara, Eorzea - none of them wait on my word. Dragons shake the cliffs into the sea, new continents open up to trade and discovery, caves to the underworld yawn wide. These worlds don't just persist, they live. And whenever I return, while I may have missed the events, I'll yet live with the consequences.

That's why, to me anyway, making a mark in any one of them seems to matter in a way that building a base that only I can see in a world that only I can change cannot. And why it's such a true loss when any of these worlds comes to an end.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Too Much Of A Good Thing? : GW2

Ravious has an excellent two-part overview up at Kill Ten Rats covering, in detail, the meta-events on the four new Heart of Thorns maps. These form the spine of the kind of open-world content ANet seems to expect to provide for us over the coming months and years.

Next week sees the introduction of the first, instanced, raid "wing", Spirit Vale. Living Story 2 was heavily instanced and naturally the new Personal Story is too. Much of the game seems to be tending that way, taking it in a rather different direction from the one many of us probably imagined it would go, but still a huge amount of development time and effort is also going into large-scale, open world mega-events like the ones Ravious examines.

Unlike raids, which seem to have come out of nowhere, this was always the plan. Back in 2012, pre-launch publicity suggested two kinds of end-game equivalent for the famously end-gameless GW2: a PvE version where long, complex chains of Dynamic Events networked entire maps and open-world PvP in World vs World. It was a plan that quickly went awry.

Yada yada. Where's the loot?

The PvE end game, based entirely in the three southernmost maps covering the drowned lands of Orr, was not well-received. Since it was content that relied on large numbers of players it had to be heavily and repeatedly tweaked, mostly downwards in difficulty, to attract any kind of critical mass. WvW largely fell into a holding pattern as a niche activity, beloved and bemoaned in equal measure by a dedicated but not very substantial following, booming occasionally when "Seasons" attracted large swathes of PvE players looking for Achievements and material rewards.

There's much more to be said about that, and where WvW goes next, but it deserves a post of its own. Suffice it to say, with neither of the expected late-game, ongoing content models living up to expectation, ANet moved on to iterate (their favorite pastime) on a number of other means of holding onto their audience and bringing in the dollars.

There was a lot of talk about Cadences and Feature Packs and a Living World. We had overarching narratives that few had the patience or interest to sit through. The Scarlet storyline, which even makes some kind of sense now, was widely reviled and derided while it was with us although with hindsight and the rose-tinted spectacles of time it's beginning to look like some kind of Golden Age.

They also serve, who only stand and ping.

We had a stream of one and two time special events. The Karka Invasion, Super Adventure Box, Bazaar of the Four Winds, The Queen's Gauntlet and the rest came and went with a mystifying disregard for player interest or reaction.

Finally we came to Dry Top and a workable pattern emerged at last. The end game, at least as far as open world PvE was concerned, would, as always envisaged, come from map-wide event chains only, unlike Orr, there would be a clear, visible framework with prompts and a timer. No longer would it be left to players to initiate and organize the chains; the system would do it automatically at set, regular times.

The seeds of the concept had been planted long ago, in the scheduling of World Bosses, in the changes made to the Tequatl event and subsequently in the even more organization-dependent Triple Trouble. The move to Megaservers and the rapid development of the Taxi system on LFG largely undercut the need for the odious, elitist specialist cross-server Event guilds, allowing ad hoc PUG raids to form and organize with relative ease.

There's always one.

Dry Top and its neighbor, Silverwastes, the last two, new overland maps introduced before Heart of Thorns, moved the meta on from discrete events that took fifteen to thirty minutes every three or four hours to a never-ending sequence on a rolling 24 hour boil. It's a format that's proved both popular and manageable with a sizable proportion of the playerbase and in HoT it's been refined and codified for clarity and coherence.

In all four maps the meta rolls in and out like a tide. There are peaks and lulls but the waves never end. It's an ocean; you can dive deep or dip in as you will. You can surf events with the zerg or solo in the shallows but almost whatever you do you'll find yourself in the water somehow, making ripples that merge with the flow.

One of the problems of GW2's major event chains has always been players not knowing where to be or what to do. With the size, scale and ambition of the new sequences ANet have made it so that almost anything a player does contributes to the grand design. They also made a decision to take some of the responsibility for organization upon themselves.

Is this the fail state? It all blurs into one after a while. Oh well, chests either way.

There are frequent prompts and instructions, from NPCs in voiceover and in large bars of text across the center of the screen. The game itself gives direct instructions on what to do and when to do it. It's unsubtle but in the hurly burly it's surprisingly effective and welcome.

There are moves afoot to remove much of GW2's signature visual clutter - the blooming neon spell effects and explosions that often make it impossible even to see the larger boss mobs let alone the ground markers you're supposed to not be stepping in. The cross-screen text is visual clutter of its own but it seems like like a necessary evil right now.

Players are a lot better at spontaneous organization than some of the elitist hardcore elements like to give them credit for but nevertheless there are always plenty of people at every event who haven't been there often enough (or at all) to have a clear understanding of what's required of them. Surprisingly, not everyone reads Dulfy's superlative guides. A good Commander (or now a good Mentor) can do a lot with a map that's willing to listen but good Commanders are a finite resource. System messages are always there, they're indefatigable and they can't be trolled.

Aghhhh! He's looking at me!!

So, iteration seems to be doing its job for now. The framework, at least, is up and stable. Whether a larger edifice can be constructed around it seems less clear. That is, however and presumably, the plan. ANet have said they intend to develop GW2 indefinitely rather than work on a sequel. Presume they don't plan on going out of business so that means a lifetime for the game measured in many years, perhaps decades.

After three years and one expansion we have (looking just at open world end-game content) over a dozen 5-15 minute World Boss events, all on fixed timers of 2-3 hours, running 24/7. There are two longer World Boss events that take 15-30 minutes, Tequatl and Evolved Jungle Wurm. There are three open-ended full-map events, Dry Top, Silverwastes and Verdant Brink, which cycle endlessly through a sequence every couple of hours or so. Finally there are three maps that run a never-ending rotation of two hours duration, culminating in a major event or sequence of events.

That's a lot of action and most of it overlaps. Other than the original World Bosses little of it scales well; or at all. All of the newer, iterated, end-game, open world content requires fairly large numbers of players to succeed. Not always a full map but sixty or so at the low end.

Rangers! Go South!

Megaserver technology (when it works, which it still does not, reliably, in the new maps, despite supposedly having been fixed) and a substantial population due to the slowly fading shine of a new expansion, mean that things are bumping along not too awkwardly for the moment. Imagine the picture in a year, though, with that year's worth of new things to do added. Imagine it in five years with (let's hope) two more expansions in place.

There are only so many hours in the day and only so many players to play them. Funneling the available population into a series of five-person instanced dungeons and ten-person instanced raids is one thing: filling six, twelve or eighteen whole maps with sixty to a hundred players for an event that lasts two hours? We're going to run out of either players or hours or both and soon.

So, self-evidently, this is a model that will require further iteration. Ravious suggested some events could be moved to a longer frequency - once a day or even once a week. That would certainly work logistically but I doubt it would fly well with an audience trained to expect a much faster cadence, to revive an old buzzword. Better scaling would be another option but then, no doubt, the rewards would have to scale too and, frankly, many of them are not all that encouraging even as they stand.

I have no idea what's going on. As usual.

It's a problem, for sure, but in many ways it's a good problem to have. Bhelgast recently posted an excellent introduction to EQ2 in which he gives a very accurate impression of what an MMO with almost too much content looks like. I agree with everything he says except for one observation: he thinks they don't make them like that any more. I think they do and I think GW2 is one of the ones they've made.

Come back in eight years, when GW2 is the same age EQ2 is now, and take a look. If there isn't a "separated at birth" thing going on by then it will only be because of ANet's ruthless willingness to remove content that SOE/DBG would allow to accrete. Of the two approaches, ANet's is probably the wiser but I prefer the alternative. In the end I'd rather have the content there and not be able to use it effectively than have it removed altogether.

Then again, this is ANet we're talking about. Come back in three years, leave alone eight, and we might be looking at something different entirely. That's what happens when you can't stop iterating. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

A Sense of Scale : GW2

Everything in Heart of Thorns is overgrown, overblown, overloaded. The heights are higher, the depths deeper, the undergrowth thicker, the monsters bigger than anywhere else in Tyria.

And, let's face it, Asura aren't big to begin with. We have trouble climbing the steps in Hoelbrak. Of course, so do the Norn, but only because they're always drunk.

Then again, whoever built these cities, the ruined and the golden alike, worked on a scale that even a Norn would balk at. If it wasn't for the endless stairways this would be a fine place for a stilt-walkers' convention. They'd never have to duck going through an archway, that's for sure.

This is country that demands heft in all things. No wonder the cities are the way they are. The trees, the cliffs, the canyons, you could hardly put up a bungalow and call it home. Shhh. Don't mention Bongo. We're not talking about him. Whoever he is.

Even Rata Novus is oversized for an Asura settlement. Then again, so is Rata Sum. It's Dwarven Architect Syndrome all over again.

In the end all you can do is embrace, go with the flow, cast yourself to the winds and trust them to bear you up. And if they don't, well, if an Asura falls in the jungle, who's going to hear?

Chin up. It's not like the Charr have it so much better. Although they do have that always landing on their feet thing going. I wonder how that's working out for them?

Ah well, at least we're not Sylvari. That's a thought to keeps you warm at night. Sweet dreams.
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