Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Aradune At Sunset

I had other plans for what I was going to write about today but the news of Brad McQuaid's untimely and utterly unexpected demise put paid to all of that. There's no information yet on the cause of his death, which came out of the blue. By report he was working on Pantheon up to this week.

He was fifty-one, ten years younger than me. He'd been a professional MMORPG developer for a quarter of a century, almost exactly half his life, virtually the whole of his adulthood. Before that he'd been an independent games developer, starting his own company in 1989, publishing his first game, War Wizard, four years later.

He joined Sony Online Entertainment in 1996, where he brought Norrath to life, incorporating concepts and ideas from both his own tabletop roleplaying campaign and TorilMUD, the dikuMUD variant whose systems and gameplay formed much of the structure of what would soon become the most successful Western MMORPG of its era, EverQuest.

From there he went on to form his own, ill-fated company, Sigil Games, where he presided over the development of one of the best MMORPGs ever made, ironically also one of that genre's most infamous disasters, Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Vanguard launched in January 2007 but it probably needed at least another year of development and polish to meet the expectations of the quarter of a million eager fans who bought it. The launch had been brought forward by financial pressures, the game was full of bugs and just five months later Sigil was no more, its assets, namely Vanguard, purchased by SOE.

That must have been one of the lowest points in his life, his passion project floundering and failing, his name and reputation trampled underfoot. It looked for a while as though that would be the end of his dream but it turned out Brad was as unstoppable as his namesake, Aradune. After a spell in the wilderness he returned briefly to work on EverQuest in 2013 before announcing the following year his intent to create the spiritual successor to both EQ and Vanguard: Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen.

That project got off to an inauspicious start with a failed Kickstarter launch. At that point many observers thought it had to be game over for Brad but they'd reckoned without the unwavering dedication to the MMORPG cause which seems to have driven him throughout his all-too-short life.

Alternative funding was secured and over the last five years opinions on the game's prospects have shifted. Once thought of at best as wishful vaporware, at worst some kind of scam, Pantheon has risen to feature on many MMORPG fans' lists of most eagerly awaited new titles. It is, of course, too early to know how Brad's death will affect Pantheon's future but we can only hope it goes on to become the success he would have wished and the capstone to his estimable career.

Brad McQuaid was a worldmaker. Vision was what he famously brought to every project on which he worked. Management may not have been his forte but few disputed his power to see other worlds and bring them into being, sometimes, it seemed, by sheer force of will.

Brad's vision affected almost everyone likely to read this post. I expect the blogosphere to ring with tributes and memories.

Without Brad, the last twenty years of my life would have been radically different, as would the gaming experiences of even MMORPG players who never set virtual foot in Norrath or Telon. But for him, there might have been no EverQuest. Even if there had, the game that could have been made without him might never have achieved the success and attention it did.

Had EverQuest not been a hit there most likely would have been no World of Warcraft. And without WoW, MMORPGs might have been little more than a peculiar footnote in the history of gaming instead of the major sub-genre and pervasive influence they have become.

Speaking of influence, Brad McQuaid has probably had as much impact on my life as any individual I've never actually met. He stands in a select group alongside musicians, writers, film-makers and artists who have shaped the way I think, feel and believe.

I've spent much of the last twenty years living inside Brad's head, seeing things through his eyes, sharing his vision. So have millions of others. It's a legacy that will long outlive him.

Rest well, Brad. Your vision lives on.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

To Cooking School, To Cooking School : GW2

Like my new oven? Spiffy, isn't it? And all the pots and knives and cooking paraphenalia on the wall behind?  All new, too. It's my "home instance", the Asuran one in Rata Sum. Only fair, since an Asura did all the work to get it, although of course all the rest will get one, too, just for... well, just for nothing, really.

It took nearly four hours to get it. I hadn't planned on doing any such thing today. I can't even remember why I started, even though it was only this morning when the idea came to me.

ArenaNet added Ascended Cooking to the game sometime back in the late summer. It was the first (much derided) stage of the ongoing "expansion-level content without the expansion" project. I mentioned it at the time in a post called "It's All Happening", when I said, with incredible foresight, "Cooking was the first craft skill I took up in GW2 and the first I levelled to 400. I am going to be all over this! Oh, except I'll be playing WoW Classic. I'll get to it eventually."

"Decadent"? Are you sure that's the word you meant to use?
Well, looks like today is "eventually". I got that part right but the rest? It wasn't what I expected. It was better.

I was never a fan of them adding an "Ascended" tier of crafting to GW2 but of course no-one asked me. When it came, it was expensive to level and when it was done it was too expensive to use. I did it anyway, raised all the crafting classes to the 500 skill cap, some of them more than once.

I can't exactly say leveling those classes, Leatherworker, Tailor, Weaponsmith and the rest, was fun, exactly, although it wasn't not fun either. It was crafting. You either enjoy it or you don't.

The most interesting part was trying to close the 400-500 skill gap between Exotic and Ascended without going broke. On some classes, with a little judicious reading of the market, it was possible to break even, more or less. If you didn't count the cost of materials you already had, you could even make money. Took me a while to realize that.

He's a Norn. This is just an appetiser.

When I started working on Ascended Cookery this morning I expected more of the same. And that's what I got for the first few minutes. I took my Necromancer Chef (possibly not the most reassuring combination of classes) to my preferred crafting area in Black Citadel.

She stood at the peculiar Charr cooking facility, popped a Crafting Booster, opened her recipe book, chose an orange dish (orange difficulty, not some kind of sorbet) and had at it. Everything ticked along nicely until she hit 425 skill and someone sent her a letter.

How Sous-Chef Seimur Oxbone knew what she was up to is probably best left on the back burner although I'm guessing it might have something to do with all that bloodstone dust he uses in his "special" recipes. However he'd found out, he'd heard about her efforts and wanted to encourage them.

The pretence that GW2 is a game without quests wore thin years ago but these days they really might as well cut the comedy and give us a Quest Journal. For the next three and a half hours I was questing and that's all there is to it. What more do you want? A symbol over the NPC's head? Oh, wait, he has one!

Don't think just because it's not a punctutaion mark that you're fooling anyone.
Whatever the developers want to call it, the Ascended Cookery Quest is pretty good. Not that I thought it was going to be when I first saw it. I read the letter and then I went straight to the wiki because experience has taught me that GW2 "quests" are a lot more enjoyable when you have a walkthrough up.

It looked pretty daunting. First you have to make a "platter" for Oxbone to assess to see if he wants to take matters any further. If you pass his initiation he sends you to see chefs from all five playable races and each of them has a similar set of challenges waiting before they'll induct you into the Tyrian Chefs' Hall of Fame (not an actual in-game award, sadly).

Along the way you'll need to make fifteen presentation dishes, most of which are made from subcombines, often several of them. It looked like a lot of work and it would have been if not for two things: a full materials bank and the click-through subcombine feature ANet added to crafting a few years ago.

Even so, there were a few recipes I didn't have in my book. I had to "discover" those. Worse, some of the chefs wanted more than just food. 

This is just an elaborate sales pitch for your latest amazing "invention", isn't it? This one had better work!

The Norn insisted on making me new cooking implements, for which he wanted a load of Ascended crafting materials, some of which can only be made once per day. Luckily I had all of them pre-made from a long time ago when I was making the things just to clear bag space.

The Sylvari sent me out to forage herbs before he'd give me a gardening plot for my home instance. I haven't been back to look at it yet. The Asura mostly wanted to sell me things. Dealing with him cost me fifteen gold but now I can deconstruct cooked food into essences for Ascended dishes. At least I think that's what he said the gadgets did. 

The Charr butcher showed me how to get high-quality meat from animals (they'll drop it occasionally when I kill them, now). All he wanted me to do was bring him some cows. The most awkward of them all was the Human, a baker who wanted a load of bloodstone bricks and three Heat Stones to make me an oven.

Heat Stones go for around twenty gold each on the Trading Post. Sixty gold is a lot of money in GW2. I thought I'd make them myself although the mats alone run close to fifty gold. Still, I already had those...
I needn't have bothered.
Only it turned out that what I didn't have was the recipe. Leatherworkers, Armorsmiths and Tailors can make Heat Stones but since they were added to the game as part of the Maudrey not-a-quest-honestly and I was never interested in doing it, I'd never bothered to buy the stupid thing.

Which would be fine, except that you can only buy it when the meta-event chain in Dry Top raises map faction to tier 3 or above and when I went to Dry Top it was empty and faction was flatlining. Never mind! I had to wait two hours for the Norn to finish making my cooking implements anyway, and I'd read the walktrhough carefully enough to know the optimum order to do the sub-quests, so I got on with those and came back to Dry Top half an hour later, by which time it had magically reached Faction Three.

I got my recipe and made a Heat Stone but you can only make one a day. By then it was the only thing left that I needed to finish the whole non-quest. I thought about it. Waiting two days to make my own Heat Stones would only save me about seven or eight gold. I have eight and a half thousand gold on that account alone. Sometimes you have to take a step back and look at yourself and wonder.

So I bought two more Heat Stones, gave them to the guy in Divinity's Reach and went to my Home Instance like he told me to. When I got there a delivery man had just arrived. He carried my new oven across the grass and into the cooking area, where Sous Chef Oxbone was waiting. 

Over here, by the wall. Careful! Don't drop it, man!
Oh, did I not mention that? He lives there now. He's volunteered himself as my own personal cooking supply merchant. With him and the new oven installed I have home banking and my own personal shop. And all from cooking!

Each of the cooks I impressed gave me ten skill points. Making the various combines along the way gave me a few more. While I was twiddling my thumbs waiting for Chef Reimar, the Norn, to finish making my pots and pans I found a super-cheap recipe in my book that used nothing but vendor mats and I got a dozen skill-ups in the 470s and 80s from that. (It's Glob of Gelatin in case anyone needs it and since it's a 450 skill combine you could probably do twenty or thirty points on it for almost no money at all ). 

All of that left me annoyingly topped out at a cooking skill of 499. I could have made various things for that last point but I chose to make... a backpack. Not just one, either. Each backpack uses the one from the tier below as a model so first I had to make all the other backpacks going right the way back to the beginning. I had all the mats so it didn't take long.

And there I am. Or there my Necro is, proudly wearing her very weird backpack (pictures don't do it justice) and her new "Gourmet" title, leaning on her smart new red brick oven, looking out at her freshly-turned garden plot as she thumbs through her recipe book to see all the amazing Ascended dishes she can make.

I found the whole thing to be a well-judged piece of content. It took a solid amount of time but it went quickly and there was always something to do. There was a good deal of travel involved but all the NPCs were close to waypoints and in sensible places. 

I didn't count the cost of the mats I already had but I imagine they were worth a good few gold. I spent fifty-five gold on items. I could have shaved five or ten gold off that if I'd been willing to wait another two days. All in all I would guess, if you had to buy everything, it would come in around a hundred gold or so, which is less than some classes cost to Ascend and you get a lot more for your money.

And it was more fun than just standing at the crafting station, banging out stuff and hoping to sell it at not too much of a loss. Nice way to spend a damp, cold Sunday, too, in front of a warm stove.

Plus I have bags full of food now because most of the chefs just took a taste and left the rest. Omnomnom, as the Charr say. At least I think that's what they say. It's hard to be sure when they have their mouths stuffed full of meat. Which they do, all the time.

If anyone's thinking of doing it, there's a great write-up at Gaischioch Magazine and the wiki walkthrough I used is here. Take care with the hot stuff and remember, Inventory Full is not responsible for any weight gained. 

IntPiPoMo running total: 77

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Slip Sliding Away: WoW Classic, EQII

So, I kind of stopped playing WoW Classic. How did that happen?

I certainly wasn't planning on stopping. Up until I wasn't playing any more I'd been enjoying myself. Sort of. Self-evidently, not enough.

The thing is, Classic had slowed down. A lot. In a reply to a comment I made on his post about the fifteenth anniversary of EQII, Wilhelm said:
"I think WoW was really the sequel to EQ. It was an obvious upgrade/development of EQ and even the Blizz team has recognized this up on stage at BlizzCon. It was EQ without the suck, to borrow the phrase from DAoC. It has changed a lot over the years, but WoW Classic has given us a glimpse of how it took the EQ idea and ran with it. Even things people complained about in WoW, like instanced dungeons, were lifted straight from EQ."
And that, really, is the problem. What I always enjoyed the most in EverQuest were the early and middle levels. The starting areas, Qeynos Hills, East and West Commonlands, Steamfont Mountains, Butcherblock, Oasis, The Karanas... all those amazing, atmospheric, immersive open zones, where you could roam and explore and lose yourself in another world.

The expansions managed to extend that experience, re-making it, fresh and new, keeping the impetus going for years. Rise of Kunark was almost literally another EverQuest added to the first. Shadows of Luclin was a third. They could quite easily have been released as sequels, not expansions.

By the time EQII arrived in late 2004 it might as well have been EQ4 and WoW could have been EQ5. And all of them had the same fundamental drawback, at least as far as I was concerned: the fun came in inverse proportion to the number alongside your character's name.

As was discussed at inordinate length around this corner of the blogosphere back in August and September, WoW Classic reminded us of the reasons many of us fell in love with the genre: the worldbuilding, the pacing, the immersion, the need to think and plan and consider. The satisfaction of setting and meeting achievable goals in a manageable timeframe.

At the beginning of the journey, all of those pleasures and more come thick and fast. Every session is a round of markers met; improvement is continual and ever-present.

As the levels tick by, things slow down. Plenty of people found it slow going from the start but in the forties and fifties time crawls. Also, the exhilarating freedom that so exemplified the early game begins to dissipate. The choice of zones in which you could adventure narrows just as the time you need to spend in them increases.

Meanwhile, the invisible hands of the game gods begin to pull on your puppet strings. Where once your destiny was your own, now it seems written in code. Quest after quest directs you on where to go; the slow-going travel that once seemed natural and organic when it was your choice becomes onerous and artificial, imposed from above.

Every second quest seems to involve travelling halfway around the world to speak to someone who then sends you on to the next stop on what feels like an increasingly arbitrary journey, mostly in circles. Where early on you found yourself tasked with taking messages to the next village, now everyone you need to speak to seems to have vanished into the forests or the swamps of a faraway land. Every item so vitally needed for the next step of the ill-understood errand you've foolishly agreed to run for a stranger is only to be found on another continent, in some obscure corner that they can only describe in the vaguest terms.

Meanwhile, the game gods have become increasingly impatient at your lack of interest in the tests they created for you. Quest after quest seeks to send you underground, into dungeons filled with vicious creatures far beyond your capacity to handle. Only by banding together with others can you hope to survive, let alone prosper.

As you approach the level cap, both games ramp up in similar fashion, each level requiring palpably more effort, time and patience than the last. The difference I perceive is this: in the original EverQuest and for its first several expansions the game's developers really didn't care what you did while you played. They laid out the buffet: it was entirely up to you what you chose to consume.

Some of the "suck" Blizzard endeavoured to cut from the fat of EQ was that lack of direction. WoW Classic starts out feeling wide-open but in fairly short order, certainly by the mid-30s, it becomes apparent that there are expectations. There's a path you're expected to follow and the quests you take provide the map.

It is entirely possible to side-step all of that, should you wish. Many people choose to level their characters mostly or entirely by running instanced dungeons. It's equally feasible to ignore both quests and dungeons altogether, roaming the world like a one-person Golden Horde, laying waste to all before you. Grinding mobs to level, more prosaically.

WoW Classic, though, doesn't have the infrastructure that made mob grinding such a pleasurable pastime in EverQuest. As we discussed at length, the communities of the two games, springing as they did from the same rootstock, grew in very different directions.

There are no camps in Classic. You can't roll up at a handy spot, start killing and expect to have others come join you, settling down for a full session of chat, banter and occasional thrills as new acquaintances and old friends drop in and out. Everything in WoW is much more functional.

Before I stopped playing I spent several sessions in Felwood. There are a number of quests there which require you to kill twenty or thirty mobs of specific types in specific locations. These are all quests that would go much faster if people grouped up to do them in the way it was widely reported to be happening, routinely, in the game's starting zones.

By the forties, no-one is doing that any more. Not on Hydraxian Waterlords at the hours I play, they aren't. Instead we have anything up to half a dozen individuals all competing frenziedly to tag each required mob as it spawns. Occasionally a small group might roll in, usually a trio for some reason. They will proceed to monopolize the area until all of them are satisfied, while the ungrouped players who were already there make do with any odd spawns the incomers miss. Then the mini-group will leave and we all carry on as we were.

Only once in several hours over several days did I get an invite from anyone to join them at one of those hunting grounds and that, as sod's law would have it, was when I was just running through on the way to somewhere else. And, of course, I didn't send out any invites either. We are all culpable for the culture of our servers. And it seems we're all either socially inept, bloody-mindedly stubborn or just plain lazy.

The upshot of all this is that although I was still enjoying myself when I played, I was increasingly finding my enjoyment frustrated and obstructed by the mechanics of the game, by the behavior of others and especially by my own lack of desire to engage with anything remotely uncomfortable.

Still, I would have carried on logging in every day, chipping away at the levels in pursuit of my declared intent to get my Hunter to 60 before cancelling my subscription, had it not been for EQII's fifteenth birthday and the Dragon Attack event.

I only popped over to see what it was all about and to get some background and some screenshots for a blog post. I had no intention of staying. But I played EQII all last weekend and then every night this week after work, killing dragon after dragon after dragon.

In seven days I've taken so many characters through the required four kills to get the mount/illusion I've lost count. I think it's eight but it could be more. I've logged in characters on different servers to do the event and last night I even logged in my old account, put my level 95 necromancer on follow and two-boxed my way around the spires until she, too, was able to fly as a dragon.

For the first few days I was aware I wasn't playing Classic. I'd played it almost every day since launch so I felt the lack like a chore not done. By Tuesday, though, I wasn't pretending to myself that I'd do "just one more dragon" then go level up some more in Azeroth. I was at a point that I've reached so often, where I stop playing a particular MMORPG long before I'm bored or frustrated with it, without ever really deciding to leave.

After a full week of nothing but dragons I think I might have burned out on that event for a while. But I have a huge pile of dragon parts piled up waiting to be crafted and I know that while I'm doing that I'll hear "dragon up!" in chat and the cycle will begin all overt again.

It's hard to resist a call to arms, especially when it's framed with such inclusive, dynamic urgency. Chat is buzzing with common purpose in the way Classic's was six weeks ago and isn't any more. In WoW, last week when I was playing, I regularly went the best part of an hour without seeing a single person speak in general chat.

Few people need to call out to random strangers any more. Almost three months in, social networks are established. Everyone's guilded. Everyone has a friends list. Surprisingly, I'm in a guild. Actually, I'm in two. I had loads of speculative invites, all of which I turned down until I got one from a gnome-only guild and another from one for banker-alts. I accepted both. I even talk to people in them.

Even so, I don't want to take it further. To get the most out of Classic now those wonderful early levels are done I know I'd need to move into group content and I'm just not interested at the moment. It would be the worst time.

Most of my gaming is happening after work, when I'm usually tired - sometimes very tired indeed. The prospect of locking myself into sessions where other people will be relying on me to stay for a couple of hours or more, doing things that might require real attention and care, seems deeply unattractive.

Especially when compared to a place where I can come and go at will, with no penalty and no guilt. Where my presence is welcome (every EQII public event always wants more people) but not missed. Where I can feel sufficiently active to be engaged but not so active as to be unable to relax. And, crucially, where every battle ends with a genuine chance of a worthwhile reward.

After the Dragons and the puppets (didn't mention them but they're still in play, too) comes Frostfell and the expansion. It's a lot of competition for a game where my horizons seemed to have narrowed to grinding mobs for xp and materials that my crafters can't even use unless they, too, grind more levels.

This is almost exactly what happened on my original WoW run back in the Wrath of the Lich King. era. I began to run out of steam in Un'Goro Crater, struggled through Burning Crusade and tapped out at 72 in the first or second zone of the third expansion. I lasted six months there but if it hadn't been for Battlegrounds it might have been less.

Which doesn't mean I'm done with either WoW or Classic. I am still going to get to 60. And I will certainly be back when Battlegrounds appear. Whenever that is.

For all its many merits, though, I don't think Classic is going to be a permanent home. More like somewhere I visit now and again. EQII, it seems, has triumphed once more. No matter how many times I drift away it always pulls me back.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Would That It Were So Simple: EverQuest II

The crafting quest that comes with EverQuest II's 15th Anniversary Dragon Attack event turns out to be both straightforward and confusing. I've read two walkthroughs and there's still stuff I don't get. And yet I've been happily doing the quest anyway.

The wiki version is perfunctory but the EQII Traders write-up is much more comprehensive. Even that doesn't answer all my questions, though, or smooth out some of the wrinkles.

The basics couldn't be simpler. There are two new NPC camps, one in The Commonlands, the other in Antonica. Each has an NPC that gives a repeatable quest, asking you to craft items for the construction of a monument. The materials needed come from the corpses of the dragons killed in the spire attacks and from another NPC at the camp.

All you need to do is go to the spires and gather mats from the dragon's corpse until you have enough, then back to the camp, buy the fuel and the item from the NPC, craft the finished product and hand it in. Rinse and repeat.

The problems come in the detail.

The first thing that threw me was the way the recipes are granted. EQII already has several ways of handling quest and event recipes but naturally someone had to come up with a new one.

As far as I can tell, the recipes are automagically granted when you first speak to the NPC but they are also automagically removed when you do the hand-in, so you can only see the recipes when you have the quest.

I only ever saw them on the crafting table drop-down. I'm not sure if they appear in your recipe book at any time. I went to check on the mats needed for one of the items after I'd done the quest and it had vanished. That confused me for a minute or two.

When you take the quest you get three recipes: a generic one that everyone gets, a second for your crafting archetype and a third for your specialization. Counter-intuitively, the less specialized the combine, the more progress it gives for the project. Also, although you can make all three items and hand them in together and the NPC will accept them, if you do that you only get one reward instead of three.

Each recipe uses a number of standard and rare materials from the dead dragons plus one item from the vendor in the camp and some fuel that the same vendor also sells. The purchased items and fuel are as cheap as they possibly could be at one copper piece each.

All characters on the account can harvest five times from each dragon every time one dies. There doesn't seem to be any skill requirement. There are something like a dozen possible mats that can be harvested, some rare, some normal. You get can multiples of each and "rares"  are rare in name only.

All the dragons die conveniently right next to wizard spires so crafters of any adventure level can go rummage around in the remains. That said, as I already reported, the event offers a great opportunity to grab some adventure level, so why not take advantage?

There are several crafting tables at the camps and any item from any specialization can be made at any of them. I wouldn't really call it crafting. If you want you can just stand there and counter the potential errors and the items pretty much make themselves. I couldn't really see any significant difference in success or speed between my max-level Weaponsmith with all the AAs and my 70s Carpenter with very few.

Other than the xp itself, the rewards aren't that great compared to the dragon kills. Just handcrafted or mastercrafted mount items. Useful but not very thrilling. Maybe they'll improve in later phases.

Also unlike the dragon-killing and corpse-ransacking, there do seem to be some restrictions or requirements on who can get the quest. After my Fae Conjuror, also a lowish tailor, did her eighteen adventure levels in two kills last night she flew off to Antonica to craft something with the bits of dragon in her bags.

When she got there it was night time and very, very dark. At first I couldn't even find the questgiver, which seemed odd as there should have been a big, blue, glowing feather over her head. When I eventually made out her shape in the gloom, not only was there was no feather but the NPC wouldn't even speak.

This morning I tried it with my Channeler, who has has barely any crafting levels. He's a Qeynos-based goodie but he happened to be near the Commonlands camp so I went there first. The NPC had no feather but he did ask the Channeler if he'd like to help. I was very surprised to find the only reply I could give was a flat "Not interested". I can't remember seeing that before.

Thinking it might be faction-related, I took the Channeler to Antonica. The NPC there was happy to ask for help and explain where to go to get the mats but she wouldn't actually offer the quest.

My high-70s Carpenter, however, was able to take get the quest and complete it. Each turn-in was giving her about 80% of a level, making me wonder if there's a limitation at lower levels to prevent people from raising crafting at an overly-accelerated rate. Daybreak always seem a lot more protective of tradeskill progress than they are over adventuring so that wouldn't be a surprise.

To make things even more complicated, it's possible to think you have the quest when in fact you don't. At the end of the dialog there are two options. I didn't screenshot it and the servers are down right now so I can't give the exact phrasing but one has you asking where to get the mats while the other looks like you're accepting the quest.

You need to take the option that asks about the mats. If you don't, you don't get the quest. I took the wrong one and didn't notice. I was able to make the item, which is why I'm assuming it's granted at an earlier part of the dialog, but when I came to hand it in, nothing happened except that the item disappeared and I had to re-take the quest properly and make it again.

All of this could be individual bugs I experienced, of course. Maybe after today's patch it'll all work like gnomish clockwork. Actually, that's how it's working now...

Either way, I'm good with it. When the servers come up I plan on collecting the dragon mats from all the characters who have them and letting the Carpenter level up on the construction quest. It would certainly be faster than doing writs or regular crafting quests and I could do with a high-level furniture-maker.

Progress on the monuments themselves seems to be going attritionally slowly. Usually on events like this it's common to see hordes of crafters buzzing around the crafting tables like bees around the hive, but at the moment everyone seems to be out killing dragons instead.

We've got until Thursday, December 5th to get the statues (or whatever it is we're building) up, which I am guessing also means we won't be seeing the expansion until December 10th at the earliest, since that's the first Tuesday after Dragon Attack ends and everything in Norrath begins on a Tuesday for some reason. Although now I think about it I believe expansions sometimes do begin on a Thursday...

On Skyfire the Monuments are currently somewhere around 0.3% of the way to completing Phase One. I think there are three phases, with new rewards for each. Supposedly progress speeds up in the later stages. It'll have to. At this rate we won't have the things done in time for the thirtieth anniversary, let alone December.

Not to mention that Frostfell will be arriving about then, too. It's going to be a busy old winter in Norrath.

IntPiPoMo count to date 62.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Growing Up Fast: EverQuest II

This week I have mostly been killing dragons. I've done my dailies in Guild Wars 2 but I haven't logged in to WoW Classic since Saturday. Instead I've been cycling all my max levels through the four dragons currently attacking wizard spires in EverQuest II to get the dragon mount/illusion on all of them.

This is not normal gameplay for me. I lean towards being a once-and-done player in events like this. Quite often that might stretch to twice if it's a fun event but six times? Unheard of! And that's not the end of it, either.

At the Nektulos Forest spires on Monday night, someone announced in general chat that they'd brought their fresh Level One character to the fight. When the dragon died they gleefully informed us all that the character was now Level Fourteen. And after the next dragon they were somewhere in the mid-twenties.

Now, there's a peculiar phenomenon in MMORPGs that I've discussed before. Even players who don't find levelling too slow or tedious will often jump through hoops to have that process go faster. I've read plenty of posts where people with a history of supporting slower leveling talk about jumping back into a game because there's bonus xp being handed out. I've done it myself, often.

I think it's the satisfaction of getting something for nothing. More reward for less effort and a frisson of somehow "beating the system", even though it's the system that's giving you a pass. Also, these events are always of limited duration, so it's a case of making hay while the sun shines rather than a slide into acceptance of a new normal, as happens when xp gain is raised permanently.

Dragons are big.

Also there's the perennial question of alts. Something that's fun the first time, or even the first half dozen times, may not be so much fun when you hit character number ten - or twenty. That may sound like a self-made problem (because it is) but there are reasons why a player might have a stable of characters that big.

EverQuest II has twenty-six classes and twenty-one races. Even after fifteen years of semi-continual play I have only played half of those classes to any meaningful level and there are nine races I've never even tried. And the differences aren't just cosmetic. The classes play very differently and the races have some substantial variations.

Last night, after I got the dragon mount on my fifth Level 110, I swapped to my Level Fourteen Fae Conjuror on the Antonia Bayle server. She was someone I'd levelled a few years back on one of the Progression servers which was then either rolled into Ant Bayle or we got free transfers off. I forget which.

I took her to Loping Plains, a zone intended for the level 75-80 crowd, back when there was a crowd in that range. That's where the next dragon attack was due.

Because the Dragon Attack event involves dragons attacking Ulteran Portals, one of Norrath's main transport hubs, getting there wasn't a problem. All I had to do was go to a portal in a zone in my level range and click on it. Or if that seemed like too much trouble, as an All Access Member I could just open my map and use the Fast Travel option, which is what I did.

The Nektulos Forest dragon doesn't just have a knockback. It has a knock up.
When I got there the dragon was already in play. I stood at the edge of the combat zone and started casting my kindergarten spells. The dragon lashed his tail and sent me flying (the event features some spectacular AE knockbacks). The trip didn't hurt me. The level seventy-something wolf that happened to be standing just where I landed did.

I revived in a graveyard halfway across the zone. There was no possibility of running back through a gauntlet of mobs sixty levels higher than my little Fae and since you can't Fast Travel to the same zone you're already in I took the scenic route. I opened the map, fast travelled to Moors of Ykesha, where there's a nice, safe wizard spire, used that to come back to Loping Plains and carried on where I left off.

The dragon was still fighting. The crowds are thinning a little, a few days into the event and in mid-week. There were "only" about fifty people there. More to the point, quite a lot of them were well below max level. Word on the xp has gotten out.

The reduced numbers and levels means the dragons are taking longer to kill. This fight lasted fifteen minutes or so. I positioned my conjuror with her back against the spires so she couldn't be knocked back and this time the dragon hit her with an AE and poisoned her to death.

The Everfrost dragon is kind enough to appear on a nice, open, flat ice field. Makes for easy zerging.
Another trip around the maps and back she came for round three. This time nothing killed her although it was a close thing once or twice. The dragon died and a deafening multiple DING! told me I'd levelled. Thirteen times. My conjuror was now Level 27.

I took her through the spires to the next dragon, already up in Everfrost. Everfrost isn't as high level as Loping Plains but it's still out of a Level 27's league. Even so, I managed not to die this time. I only got five levels though. Diminishing returns but then you have to factor in the increased time those five levels would have taken. Still a bargain.

At that point I stopped. I wasn't really intending to start playing on a different server, although I do have a Level 90+ character on Ant. Bayle. I was mostly just testing the waters.

Today and for the rest of the week EQII enjoys double XP (and double status) for All Access Members (and double Familiar xp for everyone) as part of this year's "Level Up Gear Up" preparations for the expansion. I'm keen to see what that does to dragon-kills. I have a few characters left to level on Skyfire including a Beastlord I might actually play one day.

And this wasn't the post I meant to write. I was going to do something on the Tradeskill side of the Dragon Attack event. Maybe I'll get that done between dragons.

IntPiPoMo count to date 59.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Keeping The Dream Alive

A few days ago I was reading a post at How Not To Write About Music about a London-based band called Hurtling, variously described as alt-rock, shoegaze and dream pop. There's some considerable Venn Diagram overlap in that but I thought Everett had the right of it when he name-checked Madder Rose. I can hear those echoes.

They're currently picking up some wildly enthusiastic reviews for their debut album, Future From Here, although not everyone is going nuts about them. I like what I've heard well enough, although I wouldn't go putting out any flags quite yet.

But I didn't come here to talk about Hurtling. Not today, anyway. I'm more interested in what happened after I read about them.

For some reason, rather than just watching the embedded video in the post, I clicked through to the YouTube source and found myself falling down a dream-pop rabbit hole. (I had a joke here but it was so labored I had to take it out. You can thank me later).

Anyway... I watched three or four of Hurtling's videos, each of which I liked a little bit less than the one before. So I started browsing the suggestions to see what else might be new.

YouTube's recommendation algorithm is notorious flaky. It comes up with some jaw-dropping non-sequiters but I love it all the same. I've found so many great bands and performers through that sidebar. 

I tend to go for odd names and boy, were there were plenty: Wayne's So Sad, Mary See The Future, Hello Nico... plus a whole boatload I couldn't even read, like 大園國際高中 熱門音樂社 期末成果發表 and 万能青年旅店. (That's "Dayuan International High School Popular Music Club Final Results " and "Universal Youth Hostel" according to Google Translate).

I started with Wayne's So Sad but I didn't take to them. Say Sue Me sounded like an odd name for a non-Western band even by the high standards already established so I tried them next and that went down a lot more smoothly.

While they played I glanced at a few of the things people had posted about them. I may have mentioned before how much I enjoy YouTube's much-derided comments. I generally find them not only entertaining but useful, too. You can get a lot from them, one way or another.

What I got this time was an idea for a blog post. There was a comment by someone called Jimmy Stetler that got me thinking. It read, in full, "HELLO Dream Pop. Glad young bands are keeping it alive. These guys are excellent."

It's odd, isn't it? When you stop to think about it. The way musical trends and movements just keep going.

Dream pop is what C86 grew up to become but the C86 phenomenon, such as it was, began and (you'd have thought) ended over thirty years ago. What is it that makes people who weren't even born until a decade after a movement peaked decide, when they discover it, that it's their sound? If I'd done that when I started a band in my late teens, instead of punk we'd have had to play... what? Swing?

Even more puzzling, why does it keep happening, all over the world, in countries that never had any connection to the original scene? Say Sue Me are from Korea. The rest of the bands in this post are Taiwanese except the last lot, who come from Japan.

Okay, Japan probably did have some C86 -influenced bands in 80s but the others? I kind of doubt it.

I picked all of them pretty much at random, going mostly by the names and the thumbnails. YouTube animates those now, like they were GIFs. Not sure how I feel about that...

It's not as though there was much else to go on. Almost all the text other than the names was in Mandarin. Well, I'm assuming Mandarin. Google Translate just says "Chinese". I had Translate ready to make some sense of the various Bandcamp, Facebook and similar sources that came up when I tried to check who these bands might be, where they might come from and whether they were still going.

It was kind of the point that they were still going - or at least had been until very recently.  I was trying to prove to myself that, as Jimmy suggested, the dream really was still alive, so I was focusing on videos from the last twelve months or so. And while I was doing that I thought of the post title and knew I'd have to write the damn thing.

Choosing the bands took less than an hour. It could have taken a lot less if I hadn't spent so much time googling as I went. Honestly, I could have thrown a dart at my monitor and hit a dream pop band almost every time. And broken my monitor and possibly set the house on fire. Good thing I didn't do that. But there are hundreds of them.

Not that I'd really call all everything I ended up going with "dream pop". Say Sue Me and DSPS seem to be heartland twee/C86. The Fur and Super Obvious (or Obviously - the correct translation seems to be in dispute) are dream poppy for sure. Hormoneboys seem to shade from dream into some kind of woozy, 80s indie funk, with just a hint of whatever it is that Rex Orange County calls that thing he peddles. I've never been exactly sure what that is.

Astro Bunny is more just "pop" than dream pop, I think, although quite ethereal and very lovely but by the time I hit Deca Joins I'd clearly lost the thread. Are we at chillwave, now? As for No Buses, that's 90s indie with a strong post-Britpop vibe, surely?

All musical categories are notional, of course, although I do find it entertaining, trying to keep up with them. In the end all that matters is whether something sounds good. I think everything I've linked here passes that test admirably.

I picked the videos on Sunday after I got the EverQuest II dragon illusion/mount for my second character on Sunday and I put the post together in the gaps between dragons on Monday and Tuesday evening. Combining three separate hobbies (obsessions if you prefer) - MMORPG gaming, music and blogging - makes for a potent and satisfying cocktail.

I've linked the various social media and related sources at the end just in case anyone's interested, which I sincerely doubt. Not really bothered about that. I had a lot of fun doing this and it's my little contribution to...

Keeping the dream alive!

Monday, November 11, 2019

Underpromise, Overdeliver: EverQuest II

When I first read the official announcement  outlining the events Daybreak had scheduled for EverQuest II's fifteenth anniversary celebrations I was underwhelmed. Granted, anniversaries that end in five generally carry less significance than those that end with a zero - and fifteen is definitely neither ten nor twenty. Still, fifteen years of continual operation is a notable achievement for an MMORPG. It deserves recognition and respect.

For what was described as "our big 15th Anniversary event" we were promised something called "Dragon Attack": dragons were scheduled to attack the Ulteran Spires in four zones, Thundering Steppes, Everfrost, Loping Plains, and Nektulos Forest. Backing this up came a tradeskill event, in which we would be tasked with "constructing permanent, impressive statues commemorating the 15 years that have passed since the Age of Destiny".

Is he looking at me? He's not, is he?
The list of rewards from the crafting quest looked a tad thin and there was no mention of the pay-off for protecting the spires from dragons. The press release also tied the annual Heroes Festival, which falls at this time each year, into the anniversary celebrations as if it was part of them. That seemed a bit cheeky to me.

It didn't help that there was a 15th Aniversary Celebration Bundle in the store, stuffed to bursting with really tempting treats including a crafting table that works for any tradeskill, a 66-slot bag, a 100% fee-reducing, 100 slot broker crate, speed-enhancing boots, a mount and lots more. Very good value at $34.99 but perhaps a little galling when compared with what I thought were rather lackluster in-game rewards.

And then I logged in and discovered I was wrong on every count. The event is excellent and so are the rewards. I spent most of yesterday killing dragons and having a rare old time. As I sit here now I'm alternating between writing this post and killing more. Whether by good fortune or good design, EQII's fifteenth birthday party is turning out to be one of the most enjoyable I've attended for quite a while.

Note bunny and shovel from previous events. Cloak too, probably.

Dragon Attack and Heroes Festival mesh a little chaotically but work well together. Structurally very similar, they each consist of a series of public quests in which very large creatures with quadrillions of hit points appear at easy-to-access locations on a fairly predictable schedule.

All the mobs are raid-level so it relies on a good turnout if things are going to go smoothly. We certainly have that for now. Heroes Festival is a little more forgiving on numbers, although not by much.

It features "clothwork" puppets representing famous villains from the lore. They're notionally operated by a theater troupe of NPCS and are nothing more than giant pinatas. I'm not sure if they even fight back. Dragon Attack features guess what? Dragons. They do fight and there are even some tactics required, as outlined in the wiki.

You can't fool me. You're not a real dragon!
All of the dragons and most of the puppets appear right next to a wizard spire, meaning anyone can get to them with the minimal of travel time. There's a ten minute warning before they arrive and once they're in place there's a nominal timeframe in which they have to be killed, something like 90 minutes.

Each dragon has a one-hour respawn time and right now they're taking five or ten minutes to die. With people doing them in a fairly strict rotation that means the next is along in about the same time it takes to kill one, if not sooner.

Indeed, because the two events are on different schedules, there's frequently a dragon and a puppet up at the same time. It's possible to chain-kill with no more than a few five or ten minute intervals now and again. I did that for about four hours at a stretch yesterday and it was a lot of fun.

Everyone lines up along the crater rim for this one. People are weird.

There's a real carnival atmosphere at the moment, on this first weekend. Every dragon and puppet draws a crowd, even on my low-pop server, Skyfire. Yesterday afternoon and evening there were sometimes enough people to spawn second instances of the zones. I crashed twice because of the strain a hundred players, their pets and minions put on my graphics card.

General chat is busy with people asking which dragons or puppets are up and with people who are killing them reporting the progress. We even had someone roleplaying a TV reporter for a while. I've heard no complaints save one - someone was moaning that having these two events plus the expansion beta all at once meant there was too much to do!

My haul from Saturday,
not including the stuff I equipped.
As for the rewards, which I turned my nose up at when I read about them, I was completely wrong. They're great! Very generous and sufficiently desirable to bring people out of their usual instances to get them.

The Dragons drop very good gear for Mercenaries (every piece I've had has been a major upgrade), Illegible Spell Scrolls (needed for spell upgrades and something I virtually never see drop as a solo player), and Infusers for gear (which I'm saving to use on the inevitable upgrades from questlines in the upcoming expansion).

The most important drop for me, though, is Mount equipment. Levels and gear for mounts was a keynote feature of last year's expansion, Chaos Descending, but it was one that I spent most of the year ignoring. Until this weekend none of my mounts had a single piece. Now I have a saddle and some barding equipped and more than a dozen more mount items in my bags.

Last, and very much not least, there's an Achievement for killing all four dragons. I'm not much for Achievements in general but it's different when they come with one of the best "mounts" I've ever seen in the game.

It may seem odd that I'm sounding so enthusiastic about a mount when only a few weeks ago I was bemoaning their very existence but the name of the mount in question should go some way to explaining why that is: Reveal Inner Dragon.

Technically an actual mount, this is really an illusion. You place it in your Mount Appearance slot (you can put it in the main Mount slot if you want but it doesn't have very good stats) and you become a dragon. A really good-looking dragon at that.

Look at me! I'm a dragon!

I want one for all my Level 110s. The Berserker has one and the Warlock will before I finish this post. That leaves four more. I may well get it for the lower level characters on other servers too. While the dragons are Level 110 Epic X3 raid mobs, you get credit for just being there when the kill happens so any level can complete the achievement provided they don't mind dying now and again.

That's the adventurer side of Dragon Attack. To keep this post to a manageable length for once I'll cover the crafter's version separately. Suffice to say it's pretty good, too.

As for the returning Heroes Festival, which I so glibly dismissed on sight as "more of the same", I'd completely missed the part of the press release that mentions the five new collections added this year. Even if I'd seen it, I wouldn't have known that the rewards for those include three new mounts.

Not really! Don't kill me!
As for the new items added to the Heroes Festival vendors to be bought with the currency you get for doing the event, if it wasn't for the invaluable EQ2 Traders I wouldn't have known there were some wonderful old school paintings (the ones without the horrible new frames) and one of the best sets of appearance armor I've seen in the game for years. The PR team might have mentioned that...

Dragon Attack runs until December 6th and Heroes Festival to November 19 so there's plenty of time to get everything done. At the moment everything is buzzing and it's easy and fun but as people run their alts through the cycles and get all the rewards they want I imagine it will quieten down considerably.

I wouldn't leave it too long - all the targets are raid mobs and I can tell you from experience that even with the puppets that don't fight back it takes a handful of players an awfully long time to whittle one down. I imagine that's why the event allows an hour and a half for the kill.

All in all I give this anniversary celebration a hearty cheer. So much better than I thought it was going to be. Thanks and congratulations to the dev team once again. Maybe someone needs to pop round to the PR department and have a quiet word...

(IntPiPoMo count 55)
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide