Monday, 21 July 2014

Snow At First, Rain Later With A Chance Of Zombies : H1Z1 et al

Soon-come zombie survival MMO H1Z1 is going to have a "dynamic weather system". The intention is that changes in the climactic conditions will materially affect gameplay.

It's neither a new idea nor an unusual one. Many MMOs have dabbled with it but few, if any, have gone as far as to synchronize weather effects with changes in the broad mechanics of gameplay. FFXI has an arcane system of crafting and synthing that no-one really seems to understand, in which the day of the week and even the direction you face may, or may not, affect the outcome. That's coming from a similar direction but it's still not weather.

For the most part you can ignore the weather conditions in MMOs. If it rains your character won't get wet. The dirt track he's running along won't churn into viscous mud that sticks to his boots reducing his movement speed. Those thick eyebrows you were so proud of at character creation won't soak up rainwater like a sponge, dribbling it down into his eyes and knocking twenty percent off his Precision skill. That gleaming, two-handed spear he loves to carry strapped to his back like a flagpole won't attract a lightning strike that hits for 2k points of electrical damage.

I suppose it's a bit rich to expect environmental causality in a world where a three-foot high gnome can swim ten miles across a lake wearing a full suit of plate armor while carrying six backpacks full of iron ore. There's that oft-cited realism vs fun dynamic to take into account after all. Still, when asked, players generally seem to be in favor of some correlation between what they see on the screen and what's happening to their character and it doesn't seem to be beyond the wit of games developers to incorporate at least a modicum of entertaining cause and effect.

They certainly seem happy enough to include specific, localized environment-related gameplay when it suits them. GW2, for example, currently going gung-ho for sandstorms, has a number of places where crosswinds blow, strong enough to knock your character off a ledge to her death or at the very least the start of a long clamber to get back up for another try. Rift has a "dungeon" where white-out blizzard conditions form a major part of the final challenge. Many MMOs have lava pits and flows that cause burning damage (I seem to remember one that was instant death). Both Vanguard and WildStar have rivers with currents that will move your character against his will in the direction of flow.

All of these, though, are primarily environmental effects, not weather. When it comes to large weather systems that affect large areas or entire maps the only reliable impact on gameplay comes not from changes to the in-game mechanics but from a simple, practical fact: if you make it hard for the player to see what's on the screen the player will perform less well.

The history of blanking out the screen to make things more "challenging" goes back at least to Everquest. Back in 2000, when the rain came down in West Karana I used to have to go and hole up in the Centaur village 'til it stopped because I quite literally couldn't see far enough to know whether I was about to walk into a lion. When the Kunark expansion arrived and I ventured into Firiona Vie on the first day, the combination of thick forest, pounding rain and deadly wildlife meant my druid lost her corpse for good and all as did the couple of people who bravely helped her try and find it.

Rain, snow, mist, fog - they all work to disorient and constrain the player. Add in a proper day/night cycle and you can render many of your outdoor zones nigh-on unplayable more often than not. For some reason players didn't seem too enthusiastic about that so over the years night became twilight and twilight became a tint in the filter while rain, snow and fog ceased to be brutal gamestoppers and developed into delicate, beautiful visual haikus.

In so many ways this is a good thing. For a start, the sheer, breathtaking beauty of the weather in modern MMOs creates a weather-high barely less powerful than being outdoors in actual weather. On these hot, sultry summer days just looking at the Shiverpeaks drops the temperature in the room.
Then there's playability. The first few times I got caught in a rainstorm in EQ it was immensely affecting and immersive and the first time I got lost at night, an old story often re-told that I won't rehash here yet again, it created a deep and lasting memory that endures vividly to this day. Just a few weeks after those seminal experiences, however, impenetrable darkness and rain that reduced visibility to a few yards didn't seem so immersive any more. They just seemed irritating.

The pendulum swings. The roundabout turns.  Perhaps the days of meaningful weather are due for a comeback. On balance I hope so. I wouldn't advocate a wholesale return to the days of "sever weather conditions expected - stay indoors" but I think there must be ways to have our characters recognize the impact of cataracts and hurricanoes without making players rave like Lear on the blasted heath.

If H1Z1 gets it right perhaps that will pave the way for meaningful weather in EQNext or even Landmark but as Renee Machyousky, Community Manager for City State Entertainment, producers of the upcoming Camelot Unchained, observes in reply to a question about the influence of "day/night cycles, weather, seasonal influences on game play", it's a balancing act that all developers have to perform with extreme care:

" ...we need to find that sweet spot where we implement just enough of them to keep people engaged and entertained, without feeling overwhelmed or worse, frustrated".

Agreed, but I think that sweet spot is somewhere a little saltier than where the genre is right now. 

Sunday, 20 July 2014

When Can I Hit Something?

Tobold has a post up about the new, 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, a topic that's popped up in a number of my Feedly feeds of late. There's clearly a commonality of interest between the two hobbies, pen and paper/tabletop roleplaying games and MMORPGs, and most people reading this have probably tried both at some time or another.

My own introduction to traditional role playing games was slightly muddy, oddly mirroring the stages by which I later found myself playing MMOs. I came late to AD&D compared to most. I don't believe I'd even heard of it when I was at school. Certainly no-one there played. We did have a wargaming club and indeed my two closest friends belonged to it but I could never see the attraction.

When I went to university one of the first friends I made there shared rooms with an obsessive D&D player, who used to hold all-day sessions that drove my friend to find something, anything to do elsewhere until the madness was over. That was my introduction to the concept of "roleplaying games" and it wasn't one to inspire further curiosity.

It wasn't until about two or three years after I graduated that another friend, one who had never previously shown the slightest interest in either RPGs or the surrounding subculture, told me he was DMing sessions at his house on Sunday afternoons and asked me if I'd like to give it a try. Come to think of it, I have no idea why he started and he's dead now so I can't ask him. Some things we're just never meant to know...

I was, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic but for various reasons I found myself at a loose end one weekend so I thought I might as well give it a try. After a shaky, self-conscious start, something bit and stuck. I ended up spending most Sundays there, gaming, for something approaching five years. Everyone in that group was in their twenties, all but one of them married. Perhaps it's no co-incidence that when the group eventually broke up every one of us, bar the guy who's house we met at, was divorced.

Tobold opens his piece with an intriguing proposition:

"I have a very simple model of games in general: They usually have one core activity that is frequently repeated, and then some shell around it that gives structure to the sequence of core activities. In role-playing games, both on paper and on the computer, the core activity is usually combat"

I think that's a very useful and illuminating way of looking at gaming in general and RPGs in particular. Because my introduction to the hobby came via a relatively mature (in both senses of the expression) group, my conception of what it was all about probably evolved in an atypical fashion. We gamed once a week in a session usually lasting around twelve hours. I would guess that, on average, about eight or nine of those hours were spent on things other than combat. Nevertheless, combat did indeed represent the undeniable core of the game, around which we wrapped a shell of both in and out of character chatter, banter and storytelling.

There were rare occasions when we went an entire session without any combat at all but when that happened I think we all felt unsatisfied. Mostly we'd go for a couple of hours of amateur dramatics, argument and general chit-chat and then we'd all be ready for a fight that lasted a couple of hours more. Then we'd all stop for tea with MTV or WWF wrestling on in the background (our host had cable, very unusual back then, and he never missed an opportunity to show it off) before repeating the cycle until it was time to call for taxis and slope off home.

By the time I decided to buy Everquest in 1999 I hadn't played a tabletop RPG in over a decade but by then I had played a lot of CRPGs. Indeed, I was drawn to the scary, unfamiliar, expensive world of online gaming largely because Mrs Bhagpuss and I had run out of new offline RPGs to try.

Now with added highlighting. Didn't have that in my day...

It would be neat if I could say it was a direct, linear progression from AD&D to offline CRPGs to Online MMORPGs but it wasn't quite that tidy. Before I ever played D&D, going all the way back to when I was at University, I played a lot of computer games. One of my favorite genres of the time was the Text Adventure.

Text adventures seemed to have almost no correlation to tabletop gaming and precious little with most graphical CRPGs, which soon pushed them into the wilderness of extreme hobbyism. It was a surprise, then, even a  shock, when I stepped out onto Norrath for the first time, (eventually) found myself face to face with my Guildmaster and discovered that he expected me to communicate with him using the exact same, gnomic hint-and-guess routine that had so cardinally failed to lead me to The Golden Apple all those years ago..

In Everquest all these things, along with a host of others I don't have time to mention, seemed to come together as a gestalt. Rather than the Frankenstein's Monster it might have been the whole edifice grew inexorably to become something very much more than the sum of its disparate parts.

The chat channels, the groups and the guilds all emulated and expanded on the socializing of those Sunday afternoon sessions;the deep, rich, mysterious Lore of the game world matched and easily surpassed the narratives of the CRPGs; the seemingly endless arrays of NPCs willing to hold conversations eclipsed the limited, linear options of the classic text adventures. Once I fell down that rabbit hole there was no climbing back out.

And yet, despite all that richness and complexity, despite all the subsequent innovations and improvements that have burned through the MMORPG genre over the succeeding years, the core of the game remains as it ever was: combat. The shell that surrounds that core now is vast, a Dyson Sphere around that dense, central star. The shell contains all the socializing, questing, character growth, narrative, storytelling, exploring, homebuilding, collecting, sorting, codifying and just plain hanging out that make up the majority of the time many, probably most of us spend in these imaginary worlds but without that core glowing steady at the heart all the rest of that frenzied, fervent activity would slowly ebb and die.

When it comes right down to it, even I can only sort my inventory for so many hours before I really, really need to hit an Orc with an axe.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

It's Gonna Be A Long, Hot Summer : GW2

It's horribly hot and humid and I have a head-cold. Not ideal conditions either for playing or posting but I plan on doing both all the same.

It's still too early to begin to disentangle GW2's Entanglement without spoilage and in any case I've only finished it on the one account so far. I'd like to take another pass and maybe fill out some details while I chip away at a few achievements before I get into any full-on textual analysis.

Ravious gives a good account of the type of activities on offer in the ever-expanding Dry Top region. Mrs Bhagpuss wasn't all that interested in the first set of rewards (the ones Jeromai decided must all be his) but this installment several of the skins caught her eye and she's rarely been anywhere else all week.

A Charr can look at a Queen - if it's a T4 Map.
After the initial day-long session she was distinctly under-impressed with the amount of geodes she'd collected and had some choice words to say about ArenaNet's increasingly elitist-without-the-infrastructure-to-support-elitism development ethos. When I came home from work the following day, however, she'd discovered the LFG tool (something I quite literally forgot GW2 had) as a direct result of which she'd been in T4 maps most of the day and, once, even T5. Domestic harmony restored.

Much though I like the new events and the area that contains them I haven't spent all that much time there doing them. After getting multiple Light and Heavy versions I gave up on trying to get the Medium Cleric's Spectacles and Medium Adventurer's Scarf the honest way by opening chests. I just bought them from the Trading Post since prices have dropped. Finally, headgear for a Charr Ranger that doesn't look positively awful.

Snout hankie with attitude
That was the main thing holding me back from playing the new character I started last weekend (that makes eleven). Other than that, when it comes to a choice between repeating new content for currency to buy new stuff I don't especially want and repeating old content to acquire old stuff I don't particularly need, well it's no contest.

That's a very unfair and inaccurate description of what's going on, though. Every time I level a new character, regardless of having played through the maps many times before, I see new events, fresh content, extra detail. Despite having map completion on Metrica Province, for example, and having, as I thought, meticulously combed every corner well beyond the required tick-box map items, my new Asura warrior hadn't been there more than five minutes before he found a whole underwater cave I'd never seen. On top of that, within half an hour he'd done several unfamiliar events, one of which had me squawking with laughter.

I'm not saying Dry Top isn't good. It's really good. Moreover, rather than just appreciating any new content I welcome this particular, visually spectacular, entertaining, highly re-playable new content. It's more that I'm not going to let this much-needed rain, after the long, long drought, trick me into mistaking Dry Top's focused, purposive drive for the kind of deep, nested, organic complexity of the original maps. But, hey, I'll take what I can get, especially when what I already have is still there and still doing such a great job too.

It's only while I'm playing up a new character that GW2 goes back to feeling like an MMO, or what I expect and want from an MMO, at any rate. It's fortunate, then, that it's so remarkably replayable. I've often said that I wouldn't consider that anyone could claim to really know an MMO until they'd played all the race/class combinations available to maximum level but it's always been more of a thought experiment than a blueprint for gameplay. I think even I would lose patience and affection for EQ or EQ2 if I tried to enact that principle there.

Who you calling shorty, fatso?

In GW2, however, it almost feels like a realistic proposition. Leveling's so very fast and easy; each class plays radically differently from every other; there more than enough paths to max level to keep the journey fresh and fun; all of that is true, but there's more. The races genuinely play very differently one from another even when playing the same class, more so than most MMOs I've played at least since Vanguard half a decade ago.

It's not just the size differences and the radical shift in perspective those supply. It's that each race has an entirely different set of animations and voice samples and boy are there a lot of them. I never particularly warmed to the Guardian when I did eighty levels as a Sylvari but going the distance as a Charrdian was a hoot. She's now one of my favorite characters both in personality and gameplay.

 You might say that was predictable given my predilection for the Charr race but I never really got on with my Charr warrior, who has languished after reaching eighty, skulking around the low-level World Boss circuit wearing the same Rare gear she was wearing a year ago,. My new character, an Asuran Warrior, bounces around like a superball, looking like the rough sketch for an Animaniac that got thrown out at the script meeting for being too ridiculous. I can already tell he's not only going all the way, he's not going to stop there, either.

Time is tight. I still haven't used the generously-donated WildStar guest passes, I haven't signed up for the ArcheAge closed beta, I probably won't find time to pop back into FFXIV on the "come back, all is forgiven" weekend offer. I haven't managed to visit The Secret World for the Gaea re-run even though I really like those big events. I still can't find a window for The Hammers End. I barely manage an hour here or there in CoS:Arkadia, Everquest, EQ2 or Landmark. That's not even mentioning the dozen or more other MMOS on my desktop I kinda, sorta want to play.

All of that stuff's not happening and yet I can come home from a long, hot, day at work feeling very under par looking forward to an evening of leveling up yet another Asura mostly just so I can watch him jump about. Either they really nailed the things that matter or I'm easily pleased.

Probably a bit of both.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Blimey, Charlie! : GW2 "Entanglement"

Just finished Living Story 2, Chapter 2. Blimey, Charlie! Really, that's all I can say although stronger words were used, out loud, several times. No, really, spoilers and all that. Suffice it to say things happen. A lot of them.

It took two, two and a half hours, straight through. Storyline, that is, Not touched the open-world content except for a couple of events I had to pass through along the way.

Did it solo, never died once, important to me for immersion reasons. Means everything that happened really happened, in real time, not in some fudged save game hinterland of suspended disbelief. Things got pretty hairy a few times, some close calls. Downed and rallied on kills from earlier AEs as the NPCs chipped in while I lay throwing dirt. My advice, tag everything, never know when you might need the credit.

Loaded a lot of CC and it paid off. Recommend it. Overall, found the fighting easier than chapter one. I think solo is easier in general for this stuff. Only one particularly annoying fight but no worse  (or better) than Aerin. No jumping required anywhere either - good news, that.

ArenaNet art department outdid themselves yet again. New maplet looks amazing, looking forward to exploring it. Going to be jumping there I fear and plenty of it. Instances large and packed with interest. Great to roam around after everything's dead. Some new mob models or new to me unless they turn up elsewhere in content I haven't done (Sylvari personal story, maybe?).

Took over 100 screenshots. Can't use hardly any. Spoilers. For now, here's some scenery. Later, when we've all been through it, we'll talk. Form a support group. We may need counselling.

Time Will Crawl : EQNext At SOE Live 2013 and 2014

It's exactly one month to SOE Live, a fact I was already aware of from news sources like EQ2Wire and Massively. Had I not known, I would have found out the moment I logged back into EQ2 this weekend after my long layoff (130 days since my last log in - shameful!).

It wasn't a pop-up or an in-game advert or anything crass like that. It was something much warmer, something that felt almost comfortingly familiar. There's this excitable fellow in one of the chat channels I belong to in EQ2, you see, and for him this particular fan convention is the highlight of the year. Every year.  For almost as long as I've been playing, he counts down the days, tells us his travel plans, what he's going to eat, the things he's going to do when he gets there. He starts anticipating his next trip sometime around Christmas and he begins reminiscing about the last one from the day he gets home so it's pretty much a year-round commentary.

For the rest of the less, shall we say, committed fans, the best part of Sony's annual festival of backslapping is the opportunity it offers for some real, firm information about the games we play and, especially, the games we hope we will be playing soonTM. On that front 2013's event appeared to deliver big-time. Not only did we get a metric tonne of info about EQNext including videos of something that appeared to be gameplay, we also got to learn for the very first time of the existence of some new, previously unmentioned project going by the name of EQ Landmark.

For a couple of weeks all the MMO world wanted to talk about was The Everquest Franchise. Excitement verged on hysteria. I put up five posts on the topic in six days. And then. And then...what, exactly?

Over the next twelve months EQNext quietly drifted off into the background. The much-hyped Roundtable turned out to be not much more than a talking-shop for the fans. The polls, which covered a bewildering range, from core gameplay issues to bizarre trivia, were confirmed to have no binding effect on development whatsoever. A cynic might well suggest their main purpose was to amuse the people making up the questions.

No more "gameplay" footage of EQNext appeared. Indeed there was precious little of anything. Have we even had a new screenshot since SOELive last year? I don't believe we have. Certainly can't see any here. As for those Beta sign-ups we all frenziedly scrabbled for a year ago ( I believe this household alone has seven accounts registered, although most of those were with PSS1 so will need to be re-submitted), well I'm glad we got in there fast. Would have hated to miss out, what with only having another twelve months and counting to get those applications in...

Landmark was promised by "the Winter" and long before Christmas Landmark was just about all SOE wanted to talk about. The alpha was delayed until February but made it out the gate before the end of the appointed season by a whisker. For a while Landmark was hot news but as alpha morphed into beta and development ground on with a truly magisterial ponderousness all but the dedicated lost focus and wandered off.

Somewhere along the way Landmark lost its EQ prefix and then Smed whipped back the curtain on yet another "unknown" MMO, the strangely-named H1Z1 and then no-one was talking about The Everquest Franchise any more, anywhere.

When attendees fill out the forms for SOE Live they have to nominate which game they are registering for. There are eight represented titles from SOE's portfolio to choose from: EQ, EQ2, EQ Next, Landmark, DCUO, Planetside2, H1Z1 and Dragon's Prophet. According to Linda "Brasse" Carson, ex-superfan turned Director of Global Community Relations, by far the highest number opted for...fifteen-year old Everquest. Not-so-closely following but still in second place came the ten-year old sequel, EQ2. Together those two titles comprise well over half of all the interest shown.

Concluding my series of pieces on EQNext after last year's reveals I suggested that the third installment wasn't being aimed at the existing fanbase but rather at the incomparably greater demographic that had managed to resist Norrath's charms for fifteen years straight. That was certainly how it appeared at the time and for a while, not least with the reveal of H1Z1 and Landmark choosing to distance itself from the EQ brand, everything seemed to confirm a company set on outgrowing its trademark High Fantasy genre roots.  

And then we're back with competitions in Landmark to "create the Foundation Museum for the dark elf style guide in game!". I'm confused. Everyone's confused. If anything's clear, though, it's that a gathering of your most hardcore fans is probably not the ideal audience for your New Direction.

When Sony Online Entertainment decided to go with the current open-door, open-arms, we're all devs now approach, inviting everyone with the odd twenty, fifty or hundred dollars to spare to come on board before the the first coat of varnish had even dried on the deck of the new ship, I don't think anyone realized just what a long, slow, tedious voyage they were letting themselves in for.

Triple-A MMOs seem to have a development cycle of around three to five years and in the traditional, old-school beta process a few, hand-picked players might have gotten their hands on the partly-finished product somewhere around a year out but most beta testers saw no more than the final few months. Now everyone is jumping in on the adrenaline rush of hype and promos only to find the game they imagined is just that - imaginary.

All there really is to look forward to is month after month of iterative system-building laying the foundations for gameplay that might, someday far in the future, offer something approximating entertainment. John "Smed" Smedley seems to have picked up on this, if a little belatedly, with this observation on the pending release of a playable version of H1Z1 on Steam's Early Access program : "We just realized ... it would be smarter to announce it after our feature list was complete".

Talk about your epiphanies! I wonder if he feels the same about EQNext? A year on from SOELive 2013 a lot of us are starting to feel like Ashgar of Ash's Adventures, whose "very strong suspicion that EverQuest Next in the previously demonstrated form is vaporware" was re-blogged to a larger audience by Syp as yesterday's "Quote of the Day".

There are five panels on EQNext scheduled for this year's convention. There's a "Keynote", which if previous keynotes are anything to go by will be a lot of hot air and some "concept art". Then there's "The Tech Evolution of the World", during which we'll no doubt hear a lot about voxels, most of which we'll have heard in countless Landmark discussions already. Speaking of which, third up is "Landmark and EverQuest Next — how they relate", a question a lot of people have been asking ever since we heard of Landmark but to which I very much doubt we'll get a definitive answer.

Finally we come to two panels that might, just might, offer something solid to get our blogging teeth into: "EverQuest Next: Combat & Classes" and, saving the best for last, "The Content of EverQuest Next". Well, thanks. That's really what we'd all like to know, isn't it? That and the release date, of course.

I'll be following SOELive as best I can from 5,000 miles away but I'm not going to let my enthusiasm run away with me this time. Here's hoping we just get some real, confirmed, hard facts for a change; not least an idea how far away the damn thing is. Right now even my worst estimate, a full launch in 2016, is starting to look wildly optimistic.

Monday, 14 July 2014

Cleaning House or Gordon Doesn't Live There Any More

One of the best features Blogger has to offer is its real-time updating Blogroll. Find a blog you like, slap the address in the widgit and presto! Every time that blog updates the link refreshes and floats to the top of the list.

It has its idiosyncracies. If Syp ever wondered why I post on his blog and quote and link to him here and yet he doesn't feature in the blogroll, it's because I've added Bio Break a number of times and it magically vanishes. I just added him yet again - maybe it'll stick this time. Not that he needs the traffic...

Then there's Scree's The Cynic Dialogues . Blogger allows that to stay on the list but will have no truck with updates, so it sits stubbornly right down at the very bottom where, presumably, no one ever looks because, well, it's a very long list. Even with the epic-length posts I churn out, the blog roll often descends well beyond the start of the previous rant and whether anyone ever gets as far as "Previously on Inventory Full" I sometimes wonder.

It's been almost a year and a half since I last culled the roll. Back then in January 2013 I was pretty aggressive about it, rooting anyone who hadn't spoken up for themselves in the previous three months. Of the seven sites that were dropped back then a few did post again, sporadically, but all are dormant now as far as I can tell. Darren who used to be The CommonSense Gamer morphed into CatholicGamer for a while, which in turn seems to have vanished into the great blogging beyond.

Even so, three months was certainly too short to tell whether the signal was really down. This time I'm raising the bar to one year, give or take a couple of weeks. Any blog that hasn't let out a peep since August 2013 is out.

The list includes a couple of Big Names, which reminds me of a term that was common currency in comics fandom back in the 80s and which I believe derives originally from science fiction fandom - BNF or Big Name Fan. I'm not sure MMO blogging has the same hierarchical structure but if it does then both Spinks of Welcome to Spinksville and Gordon of We Fly Spitfires would qualify.

Both blogs are still up, if inactive, and Spinks pops up on comment threads occasionally. They could rumble into life any day and I hope they do. Until that day, however, I am retiring them from the list of Places We Go along with the following :

Stylish Corpse
In Character
The Egg Baron
Get The Girl, Kill The Baddies
Braving The Elementalist (which became Chainmaildress, also now defunct)
Noob Raider
Trippin Tyria

Do you think? Could it be...?

I'd love to see any or all of them judder back to life like a re-animated corpse...erm, possibly not the best of similes... but the one I'd be most excited to welcome back from limbo would be The Egg Baron. So much fuel in GW2 now for the kind of Lore detective work in which he excelled.

If there are any miraculous revivals I should know about them because all of the above are safely ensconced in my Feedly feed. If any begin to show signs of life they shall be restored.

Wilhelm pointed out in the comments last time that removing old blogs and adding new ones to a blogroll is just part of the job and I wholeheartedly agree. I tend to be a lot better at adding them then taking them away. New ones trickle in unannounced all the time, which is why there's no list of new additions this go round.

I'd like to say that I'll keep on top of this and remove inactives on a rolling 12-month guillotine. That's my intention and if I manage it then from now on silent blogs will simply vanish from the list unanounced. Chances are I'll probably forget all about it, though, and there'll be another post of this nature along in a year or so. Until then, happy blogging!

Saturday, 12 July 2014

The Chelsith Hotel : EQ2

Off we go, into the wild yellow yonder. Hmm. That doesn't scan very well, does it? It was how this morning started, nonetheless. Another short trip through the lurid yellow skies above the Danak Shipyard, another landing on the crown of the submerged iksar statue that serves as a marker for the entrance to Chelsith. We've been here before. So many times.

Ah, Chelsith. How we love to hate you. Once your sunken, cathedral-vaulted halls were whispered, feared, dreamed-of, dared by none but the greatest, the bravest, the hardiest of Norrath's adventurers. I still remember my first, terrifying trip there, when a single bad pull or missed add meant Evac or Wipe, usually Wipe. A Chelsith run back then required an evening cleared of other commitments and complete concentration for several hours.

That seems like such a very long time ago. Over the years the ancient Iksar city, now home to a tribe of deluded, worm-worshipping fishmen, slipped sadly down the ladder of respect. At the launch of the Kunark expansion Chelsith was cutting edge Heroic content but from there it followed the predictable path: playground for well-organized guild groups, then a suitable setting for PUGs to squabble around, then on downhill from there.

Now all I need is a really big frying-pan...
After the groups moved on, in came the confident duos and the powerleveling pros, knocking off instances for fun and profit, ticking Chelsith off their lists. There's nowhere left to go from there but solo and once a dungeon can be run safely and easily by one person who's ever going to take it seriously again?

It ought to mean perpetual obscurity, especially given its location not just at the back end of nowhere but at the back end of nowhere underwater, save for one thing : ever since it fell from grace with the Elite, Chelsith has been one of the go-to zones for fast leveling.

For some arcane reason presumably wrapped up in zone experience modifiers and other behind-the-scenes shenanigans, certain zones and dungeons in both remaining versions of Everquest offer much better experience than others. Better xp, I should say. The play experience, the fun or entertainment value if you will, frequently correlates poorly, if at all, with the practical reward.

When it comes to efficient power-leveling, whether it's been paid-for in advance or it's just among friends or, most commonly of all, by-the-bootstraps solo-molo, some of EQ2's huge, sprawling open dungeons manage to match amusement with satisfaction almost as well on the hundredth visit as the first. There's probably never going to come a time when another jaunt through Sebilis or Chardok won't sound like a jolly good wheeze.

Another trudge round Chelsith, though, that's a whole other story. There was a time when I'd very gladly never have seen the dripping, cavernous vaults ever again. So, why go there, then, if it's such a chore?

Aw, no, Boss! Not this place again...

Well, Tipa covered the reasons very thoroughly a while back. After Kunark, SOE turned the xp hose off. Post-Kunark, when you measure it in chunks, by far the biggest xp in EQ2 comes from quests. Complete a task for an NPC in Odus or Velious and he'll reward you with more xp than you could get from killing a dozen mobs or maybe even a hundred.

Now that shouldn't necessarily be such a problem. After all I like questing. I like to read or listen to all the dialog, follow the stories and think about the implications, perform a little mental practical criticism on the prose style, write a notional review of the performance in my head. I don't even object too violently to doing some of the better sequences a few times on different characters. 

The problem is this: quests take ages. Not only that: they can be pernickety. They often involve a lot of traveling, frequently backwards and forwards over the same ground, multiple times. You find yourself fiddling with gadgets and widgets and doohickeys, training animals and rookies to do things you could do better and faster yourself, escorting idiots who don't know how to look both ways before crossing an orc highway and generally taking about ten times longer to do anything than you anticipated.

Even with all the modern-day paraphernalia of glowing trails to follow, big blue spots on the map and the UI in general doing everything but teleport you to the exact spot, questing still takes f o r e v e r. And that's absolutely fine - the first time. But not on a double XP weekend with full vitality and a 110% xp potion burning.

Another old bootstrapping favorite

No, when your bonus to Kill XP is running at over 400% you don't want to mess around with quests, you just want to KILL! You want to kill fast and you want to kill often and you really don't want to find yourself running down the hallways of Sebilis fifty paces behind a level 95 Shadowknight and his lower-level sidekick as he proceeds to pull and AE every Iksar in the godforsaken place, leaving you with the odd chokidai pup if you're lucky.

So, instances it is. First off I tried the top solo power-leveling option the Dungeon Maker had to offer. Nearly a thousand "Likes", hundreds and hundreds of awards, flagged as "best solo xp" and available instantly at the click of a button. It wasn't bad either. Nicely paced, simple, no frills. There was no storyline whatsoever nor any attempt at one but the mobs were sensibly named and it didn't rub your nose in the desperation of the act.

The XP was crap though. I was on my 91st Beastlord (that's level 91 not the 91st beastlord I've played although that's not perhaps as unlikely as it ought to be). The mobs all scaled nicely. Most were the same level or a level above and towards the end a few came in conning orange. As I said, the whole thing was nicely judged but it took about fifteen minutes and gave about 18k XP, which barely moved the bar.

There was a recent bug, received with traditional hysteria on the official forums and reported on EQ2Wire with Feldon's usual sanguine equanimity, in which every mob in  every dungeon-maker dungeon was giving just one point of xp. Reading the comments thread there is instructive - apparently the Dungeon Maker is the preferred power-leveling route these days, at least up until level 90, at which point the way XP is calculated changes radically.

Nice lighting. Decor's a tad minimalist.
Well that's as may be but it didn't do anything for me, which is how a ratonga and his bear found themselves on the dock of Danak Shipyard a few minutes later. In the olden days that would have meant a bell followed by a few griffin rides or, for anyone lucky enough to have one, a few flaps of the Jarsath Hammer with its very handy teleport proc. Today it's a direct destination right there on the Freeport World Bell or, for those who can't bear the thought of even a few wasted seconds, a pay-by-SC option on the map itself.

None of this would have been necessary at all had SOE not played the Double XP card for the second weekend in a row. Boy, does that work on me. Even if I end up not logging in and taking advantage I have it in the back of my mind while I'm off in some other world, nagging away at me and making me not enjoy living in the moment the way I normally would.

Some argue that the very existence of improved XP as a reward or encouragement in MMOs is proof that the entertainment they offer is fatally flawed. After all, the logic goes, if you welcome the opportunity to spend less time on the activity then the activity must be unappealing. That logic is false. We welcome the opportunity to spend more time on the activity by compressing that activity so that we can do more of it in the same amount of time. Well, I do, anyway. Also, it's a bargain and everyone loves a bargain.

There's a particular reckless pleasure in seeing a lower-level character fly upwards as though being hauled on a rope.That's what I really like to do best when a double XP weekend rolls around - bang through thirty or forty levels on a new or barely-started character so fast it makes his nose bleed. Unfortunately, the higher levels in both Everquest and EQ2 are so abominably, attritionally slow that I feel compelled instead to grind away on those characters in most desperate need of a leg-up.

Since I'm playing neither game as my main MMO these days what tends to happen is that one or two of the high-level characters get one or two sessions each. Small but satisfying progress is made; another small step chipped in the mountain ahead of me. It's fun in itself but by no means is it the best fun I could be having. As an incentive to log in to an MMO I haven't played for a while, double XP definitely does the job. What it doesn't do is incentivize me to stay there for long after it goes away.

Still, getting me through the door is the hardest part. I just wish that once I was there I could find something as productive but more entertaining than Franklin Teek's Tasks or yet another lap of Chelsith. It's no wonder everyone hankers after starting fresh.

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