Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Call That Progress? : EverQuest

Yesterday, UltrViolet of Endgame Viable posted at length about his unfortunate experiences on the new EverQuest progression server, Coirnav. Many of the technical issues he experienced could be addressed and corrected with some research and a few tweaks to the settings but the probems he encountered with the gameplay itself are perhaps less tractible.

What struck me most was the way parts of his report could have been lifted verbatim from the complaints of a frustrated new player c. 1999. I suppose that could be seen as an endorsement of Daybreak's efforts to replicate the authentic, original EQ experience. What puzzles me a little is that  anyone would want to recreate it to begin with.

As someone who was there at the time I have long believed that the huge majority of the many, many changes that SOE and later DBG made to the game have been very much in the game's own best interests. The way the interface has evolved is a prime example.

Modern EQ (if that's not a contradiction in terms) has one of the most flexible, customizeable and comprehensive front ends in the genre. You can move and resize every window, change the font and the colors, create new chat windows and channels. The whole system is fully moddable.

Typical gnome. Even the mercenary has to pose.

Some aspects, like the loot system, are significantly superior to anything available in any other MMO I've tried. There's a fully fuctioning quest journal and a quest overlay to track objectives. In-game maps are standard and you can install custom maps like the ones Keen recommends from Brewall if you want even more detail.

Because of the age of the engine some of those facilities are a little...idiosyncratic but modern EQ has all the conveniences MMO players have come to expect over the two decades since the original game appeared, crushed into a small square at the center of your 14" CRT monitor. Why anyone would want to go back to basics when so much has been improved beats me. It's a bit like building a mansion and insisting on living in the basement.

If you read the MMO news sites and follow the blogs that still mention older games, you'd get the impression that my view was an anomaly. Apparently what everyone wants is a time machine to take them back to the dawn of the MMO era. Trion is only the latest developer to jump the nostalgia train - quite effectively according to some reports - and of course we have Classic WoW (Official) to look forward to, always assuming we live long enough.

Even so, I was somewhat surprised when I logged into EverQuest this morning. No, I wasn't making a character on Coirnav. Been there, done that, using the tee shirt for a duster. I knew DBG had been making a habit of starting new progression servers but I hadn't quite realized just how far it had gone.

Five of the six "preferred" servers use some form of Progression ruleset. There's even a sixth, the original Fippy Darkpaw, which is no longer preferred and sits below the line in "Standard", although, as I just confirmed by trying to log in my only character there, it still requires a subscription. It's also dead as dead can be, as I discovered when I created a new character using my All Access account to check.

I made a gnome, ran to the PoK book in Steamfont and zoned into Plane of Knowledge. I was the only one there. I'm not sure I have ever been the only one in PoK, not even after a server crash. I tried the Guild Lobby. Empty. The Bazaar. No-one. As best I could tell I was the only player on the server. Eventually someone else appeared and I asked them if it was always so quiet. Yep, they said, it is.

So that's the ultimate fate of the progression server, just in case were you wondering.  Is there really a market for six timelocked/prog servers, covering overlapping eras, all running at once? You wouldn't think so but then who'd imagine a 19 year old MMO would be able to support twenty-two servers in the first place?

Well, DBG, apparently. And it seems they're right.

Most of those servers have been around for a long, long time but even excluding the nostalgia circuit, a couple are relatively new. Vox started in 2012, when EQ went Free to Play (Your Way) and Brekt, a server whose name I had never even heard of until I logged in today, began just last year.

Fippy Darkpaw Guild Lobby. I own it.

I couldn't find much about Vox from this year but according to Reddit and the forums the server was still thriving in 2017. You shouldn't believe everything you read on the internet, though, and following my Marie Celeste experience on Fippy I thought maybe I should double-check. It so happens I have a character on Vox so I logged him in.

He was a level 1 Cleric, camped out in the suggested starting zone of Crescent's Reach, the newbie area from The Serpent's Spine expansion. I have no memory of creating him and he doesn't seem to have been played.

(Just for the record, it transpires that I have two more characters on Vox, on the account that used to be subbed. Both of them have been played somewhat, a Level 3 Paladin and a Level 6 Necromancer, both gnomes, of course. I have absolutely no memory of creating, naming or playing either of them. I have far more characters in EQ than I could ever hope to remember).

When I logged the cleric in there were sixteen people in the zone. Sixteen! I haven't seen that many people in Crescent's Reach for a decade. I ran him to the book in Blightfire Moors and zoned into PoK, where there were just under fifty people. Not bad for the time of day. The Bazaar had over eighty traders. The real shock, though, was the Guild Lobby. There were just five people there, including me.

The weirdly obscure PoK book in Blightfire.

By comparison, when I log into my regular server, Luclin-Stromm (if you can call a handful of times a year "regular") there are usually something like three to four hundred people in those three zones combined. That's down from maybe 500+ five years ago but it still feels very busy.

The key difference is, I think, in their levels. On Vox the levels in my Plane of Knowledge search result stretched from the low teens to the level cap, with a good representation across most of the range. On Luclin or Saryn or Tunare most of those would be max levels; in the dogpile in The Guild Lobby, virtually all of them.

The appeal of The Guild Lobby is that it's where everyone afks to get MGBs, because it used to be the only public zone where buffs didn't expire - although now they also last forever in Plane of Knowledge, I believe. That's very much an end-game thing, though, and it seems Vox is not an end-game focused server.

For comparison I also logged into a couple of servers where I have characters I haven't seen for a while. Bertoxxolous-Saryn and Tunare-Seventh Hammer. They were both busy enough - fifty to eighty in PoK, eighty to a hundred in The Guild Lobby. I didn't go in The Bazaar. There's only so much random zoning I can stand.

Enough with the research. Since I'd logged him in, I thought I'd give my old Ogre Shadow Knight a run. When I talk about my glory days in EQ, plenty of them were spent playing that SK, although nowhere near as many as on my Cleric or Beastlord. I grabbed Franklin Teek's task for level 60, so as to give myself an easy ride, and headed to Undershore.

Adds. We can handle them.
The SK was about three-quarters of the way into Level 65 when I got there. When I left, about ninety minutes later, he was 12% into Level 66. By EQ standards that is lightning fast soloing. I was very pleased. Undershore is a Hot Zone, there's 1.5x XP running on the server for the Anniversary and I popped my Lesson of the Devoted for another half hour of +100% but even with all that I wasn't expecting to ding, let alone get safe, as we used to say.

It was nice to find I still remember how to play an SK but not so much to remind myself it's still as slow and repetitive as it always was. Some classes are a good deal of fun to solo but I never felt SK was one of them. It's kind of like being a Necromancer with the power switched off.

Tanking for a group I always enjoyed, even if it was often stressful, but soloing or even duoing as an SK tried my patience back in the day. It's much, much safer with a Cleric Mercenary alongside but it doesn't get any more interesting. At least he doesn't have to fear-kite so there's that, I guess.

All things considered, I had a lot of fun dipping back in, visiting some old characters. Partly it was the investigation. I've been watching a lot of Scooby Doo: Mystery Incorporated recently and all that looking for clues about population density really hit the spot. The gameplay itself was something of a bracer, though.

I'm not at all surprised UltrViolet found it hard going, particularly on Coirnav. As Gnomenecro observes in the comments, Progression servers really are only suitable for veterans who already know the ropes or people who have a willing vet on tap to hand-hold them through the difficult early stages.

Medding still a thing, I see.
Wilhelm is also correct that for most people it all hangs on whether you find a group you enjoy hanging out with before it all gets to be too much trouble and you quit. It's that shared experience, often first encountered at bandit (or dervish or orc goblin or kobold) camps or in one of the first open dungeons like Crushbone or Blackburrow, that turns a few confusing, frustrating, lonely hours into an exhilarating, amusing, entertaining session you can't wait to repeat.

For anyone new, hoping to have the kind of good times devotees like Keen can apparently turn on at will, I would advise staying well clear of Coirnav and the rest of the Progression servers. I'd suggest making a character on Vox, where you can play for free. Do the Mines of Gloomingdeep tutorial (I loathe it but I don't for a moment question its worth for a genuine first-timer) and then head to Crescent's Reach, where on the evidence I saw today there will be enough new players to make the place feel lived-in.

From there, follow Almar's excellent guides or just use the in-game Zone Guide to find level-appropriate hunting areas. Solo if you enjoy it - I always did. I recommend playing a pet class - necro, mage or beastlord - for solo fun but with a mercenary anyone can solo these days.  I guess if you really hate other people you could always sub and play on Fippy. Pretty much have your own private EQ right there.

As Wilhelm says, though, if you want to make friends fast you can't do much better than a druid. Everyone loves SoW, even in 2018. If you find going it alone tedious or difficult, start grouping. It's never too soon, although not a lot really happens before you hit double figures. You can have a lot of fun at a kobold camp at level 5 if you run into the right people, though.

Give EQ a chance to get its claws into you and it will never let go. Nor will you want it to. Just don't make it harder than it needs to be by throwing your lot in with the "it was so much better in the olden days" crowd. It wasn't. It's better now.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Integrated Systems : EQ2

When I sat down at my PC yesterday morning, after a Sunday morning walk in the snow, I hadn't planned on writing about EverQuest's 19th anniversary. I was going to mention the new holiday events in the EQ2 Producer's Letter, then go on to use the soft reveal of this year's expansion to segue into a post about Planes of Prophecy.

EQ2 expansions have fallen into something of a pattern for me over the past few years. I pre-order the standard edition as soon as it becomes available then, when it launches, I take my Berserker through the solo Signature storyline. That usually lasts me two or three weeks, playing maybe a couple of hours some evenings and a few longer sessions at the weekend.

My Berserker is also a Weaponsmith so once the Adventure line is complete I turn to crafting. There's always a Signature tradeskill quest of roughly equal length although I tend to find that I can finish it in half the time or less. After that I usually take a little break and log in less often, although that's not really in my own best interests.

Over the years, Daybreak has become quite clever at including content with attractive rewards for logging in regularly. They are much more subtle about it than most developers. There's a perfunctory set of dailies that give Veteran rewards but mostly there are a whole lot of well-integrated, lore-appropriate tasks that increment every day or so, along with some that take days or weeks to mature.

Oh look, it's the ghost of Meldrath's hitherto-unknown twin brother! I think we must be in the Brazillian soap opera dimension!

Every day my Weaponsmith and my Sage get to harvest a bush they received at the end of the Signature tradeskill quest from the expansion before last. That gives them each a load of crafting materials including a guaranteed rare. Crafting rares in EQ2 are genuinely rare and genuinely valuable so a free one is not something you want to miss.

Each day every character can visit a trainer to get a scroll that goes towards leveling up their Ascension class. There are four of those classes and they currently go to Level 15. The abilities they provide are immensely powerful and there's an even bigger synergistic bonus for leveling them all.

Then there are the spell assistants from expansions deeper in the past. Both my high level crafters still visit the badgers living in their houses to check on the progress there, although these days those recipes probably aren't of all that much practical use or value.

Those are just the ones on my personal "to-do" list. I'm sure there are others. It's a big game and I don't by any means know all the ins and outs these days.

When the wiki tells you not to bother with Track Materials for this stage, ignore it. This stuff is hard to spot.

The really smart design here isn't just giving us so many plates to spin. It's the way all these activities draw you into the world. You can't just log in, grab the instant reward and log out, the way you can in so many MMOs. If you want the good stuff you have to go to a specific location and intereact with an NPC or an object. You could consider that an irritation and I'm sure many do but it also grounds the player in the game. You don't get much unless you play for it.

That said, there are some timegated activities that can be handled directly through the UI, wherever you happen to be. Training your Mercenary, for example. It's a simple process - just click on their training schedule then forget about it until the training is done.

Only, that can take several days and the clever part is that it doesn't automatically move on to the next level. You have to manually select the next step. It's fire and forget except you have to remember to reload. The system that allows you to upgrade your spells and abilities works the same way.

EQ2 nowadays has a ferocious depth and range of spells and spell-like powers. When the game started the upgrade path for each individual spell or combat art went Apprentice/Journeyman/Adept/Expert/Master. (Actually it was a lot more complicated than that but all the interim sub-levels were removed so let's just pretend they never existed).

Don't look at me, I didn't break it. Him. Them!

These days there are two additional grades - Grandmaster and Ancient. If you want the very, very best spells you'll need a raid drop but everyone can have all their abilities at Grandmaster...if they log in often enough. Taking the time and trouble to keep all your free spell upgrades ticking over on all your characters makes a very signifcant difference to their power levels and effectiveness. It also saves you a ton of money when compared to just buying upgrades from other players via the Broker or crafting them yourself.

A player who logs in regularly and attends to his or her background tasks will be richly rewarded  for doing so. It might sound like busywork but I find it engaging and entertaining and even those who don't will certainly find it a valid and justified use of their time.

Of course, if all you really want to do is solo or play with friends, none of this is essential. Those Signature lines gear a character up perfectly well for the content and of late the developers have taken to handing out catch-up kits for free so returnees or newcomers can keep up. Still, if you can maintain your routine it really helps.

When the Path of Prophecy expansion launched last year the signature tradeskill quest wasn't ready. It finally arrived in game a couple of weeks ago but I didn't get round to starting it until this last weekend. The walkthroughs were daunting. It's a five part quest, with each part reckoned to take a few hours.

Sure beats grinding writs.

I did part one on Saturday afternoon. It took me a couple of hours but a lot of that was cross-referencing back to the wiki or EQ2Traders to make sure I was doing it right. There was a lot of cut-and-pasting of locs, too, which always slows things down.

It was a lot of fun. All those times I harvested my bushes helped a lot. I had all the necessary materials ready. The combines didn't seem to be anything like as long and troublesome as I'd heard. The zones were easier to navigate than expected. The puzzles were straightforward. The unkillable mobs were easy to avoid. I did die twice but both times it was because I hadn't paid sufficient attention to the instructions.

My Weaponsmith had full vitality (100% bonus xp) when he began and the server was giving another 100% bonus for the weekend. I went from Level 100 to Level 105 just on part one alone. I'm very confident now of being able to take my Sage through without worrying about leveling his Adventure class to 110 first.

Getting his crafting up to speed is quite important. As a level 110 Sage, he'll be able to make Expert spells using the free rares from the bush. Having Expert spells scribed then allows him to upgrade straight to Masters using the free, time-gated system.

Oh, very amusing. An actual "time gate".
The whole thing fits together seamlessly. It's a very satisfying, elegant arrangement. The only problem is, I no longer have access to a max-level Alchemist to make the Expert combat arts for my Berserker. I used to rely on Mrs Bhagpuss's Alchemist for that, which worked fine even while she was no longer playing, so long as the level cap was stuck at 100. Not any more.

This is where that mildly controversial Level 100 Tradeskill Boost could come in handy. It's pricey at 3500 DBC but I have plenty of funny money saved up. The alternative would be to buy the expansion for Mrs Bhagpuss's account and level her Alchemist up but that would mean spending real money.

Or maybe I'll just level up the old-fashioned way. It's a grind but every writ gives status and status levels the guild. Another clever integrated system.

It's almost like someone knows what they're doing. Not me, obviously, but someone...

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Meant To Last - EverQuest Turns Nineteen

This month marks the nineteenth anniversary of the launch of EverQuest. Unlike Wilhelm, I can't claim to have been there on day one. I turned up fashionably late to the party some eight months later, just after the game's first major live event, Bloody Kithicor.

At least, I think that's what happened just before I got there. It's surprisingly hard to find the details nearly two decades on. Even the invaluable patch archive at Allakhazam is, well, patchy when it comes to that first year.

When you come to think of it, maybe a few gaps in the record aren't so surprising after all. I vaguely remember reading an interview with John Smedley that he gave not long after launch, where he estimated something like a three year lifecycle for the new game. Five years if things went even better than they dared to dream.

Certainly no-one back in 1999 was expecting the game would still be around nearly twenty years later, far less that it would still have enough traction in the marketplace to justify the production of annual expansions and the creation of new servers. And yes, Daybreak is celebrating the anniversary with yet another Progression server; Coirnav.

Just how many retro-fitted new beginnings can one game stand? DBG have taken so many bites at this particular cherry they must be gnawing on the stone by now. You'd think there'd come a time when diminishing returns would kick in, especially with the quasi-authorised Project 1999 always available for an even more authentic old-school buzz. If so, it seems that time is not yet.

Getting kinda meta.

I have no plans to play on the new server. I barely play EQ at all at the moment but if I did I'd probably do a bit on my 94 Magician while the bonus anniversary xp is running (until the end of March). I was briefly tempted but it's not even double xp, just 1.5x and that's not going to make a huge difference at the glacial leveling speeds of the mid-90s.

Even Keen, possibly the purest EQ loyalist still blogging, almost had to talk himself into starting over yet again - but there he is, heading back to Crushbone once more. He commented a while back, when he was debating with himself whether or not to return to Norrath for the umpteenth time, that his brother was less than impressed: "...when I told Graev I was going to play again he gave me the sourest look of disgust and said, “Isn’t it time to move on? After 20 years don’t you think it’s time to play something else?”"

Well, maybe. In Keen's case it's not even a case of going back to play through the whole game, just a very, very small subset of EQ's vast and sprawling empire of content. Really, though, as Jeromai said in a comment to yesterday's post, "I like comfortable, thank you. It makes me happy." If you find something that works for you then work it, why not?

Even though I don't want to level another character uphill both ways in the old-school snow or grind more thankless upper-tier tasks for Franklin Teek, I might just pop my head around the door anyway. Looking at the Producer's Letter, there's quite a lot going on besides the new server and the bonus xp. I note, for example, there are four new Anniversary-themed missions, "Depths of Darkhollow and Mayong Mistmoore-themed!".

Just a few of the many items available from various anniversaries. There's some very useful stuff here, from food and drink that would offer major twinkage at low levels to 30 and 34 slot bags that would be welcome at any level. Also, up in the top right corner, a new window with clickable icons that promote a whole raft of Anniversary events.

I have fond memories of the Depths of Darkhollow expansion; it was, I believe, the last one Mrs Bhagpuss and I played together, at level and at time of release. I wouldn't mind poking around in those subterranean caverns again. And anyway, there's so much more to EverQuest than Vanilla/Kunark/Velious. Some of the mid and later content is a match for any of that Golden Age stuff. I mean, you don't keep thousands of players for almost twenty years purely on nostalgia...do you?

With expansions in mind, there was some welcome news in the most recent EQ2 Producer's Letter. It may only be March and everyone playing may still be heavily invested in the most recent expansion, Path of Prophecy, but EQ2 Producer Lauren “Mooncast” McLemore confirms Daybreak is already working on the next: "Last, but not least… expansion! It’s already in progress, but you’ll need to wait a bit longer for more details!"

I'm not sure I can remember an EQ2 expansion being confirmed quite this early in the cycle. It makes me wonder, with the crash-and-burn of major DBG moneymaker H1Z1, whether some more resources and attention might not go the way of the two Norrath titles this year. DCUO seems to be humming along very nicely but other than that the EverQuests might be where Daybreak's fortunes rest right now.
He wouldn't give me his quest. None of the 19th Anniversary NPCs would, although they were all quite willing to chat to me. It seems this year's offering requires ownership of the current expansion. Never mind - I still haven't done most of the quests from the last half-dozen!

As well as confirming the expansion, the Producer's Letter contains another surprise: EQ2 is getting two more holidays. As I may have mentioned before, EQ2 already has more holiday events than just about any other MMO I have ever played. Niami Denmother made the point when she observed only a few days ago, as she prepared to test three upcoming Norrathian holidays, Beast'r, Chronoportals and Bristlebane Day, "Lots and lots of event overlap this year!".

Well, we can add two more to the calendar. This summer sees the addition of The Oceansfull Festival and the Scorched Sky Celebration. Which is wonderful. I'm always up for another holiday. Just so they don't clash with Tinkerfest, that's all I ask!

EQ2 turns fifteen this year, which is one heck of a milestone for an online game but next year is the big two-zero for EverQuest. The media absolutely dote on round-number anniversaries so it could offer a major P.R. opportunity. It might even earn the game some coverage outside the gaming press if DBG play it smart.

And wouldn't the twentieth anniversary be the perfect time to announce a new EverQuest title? Something a little more realistic and pragmatic than the wish-fulfilment fantasy that was EQNext. Something that might actually get made. And played.

Well, we can dream, can't we?

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Drive, She Said

Azuriel came up with an interesting analogy that found approval from Gevlon, which might be the first time the two of them have ever agreed about anything. The gist is that "action gaming" is more like driving to see a movie than it is like seeing the movie itself:

"The action of driving somewhere is much more involved than watching the screen – there are thousands of more individual choices and reactions necessary to drive somewhere safely. But is it more engaging? At the end of the night, which do you remember more?"

At first blush I thought this summed up the situation brilliantly. For many people, learning to drive is a complete pain; stressful, difficult and sometimes it seems to take forever before things click into place.

Once they do, however, there's a surprisingly swift and often sudden transition to thoughtless facility. Almost without noticing, you move from concentrating ferociously to the whole thing happening almost automatically. Even more so if you do, in fact, drive an automatic.

It's an appealing metaphor for the experience of learning to play a game that uses "action rpg" controls - usually a combination of hammering left/right mouse button and a handful of Function keys. The more I think about it, though, the less sure I am of its fundamental truth.

I should admit up front that I'm hardly in a position to judge as far as action games are concerned. I have never reached that autonomic stage, where my conscious mind no longer has to deal with the controls. I know exactly how that feels in driving, though. I can even pinpoint the specific moment when the transition occurred.

My brain in an action rpg.
I had two goes at learning to drive. The first time was when I was eighteen. Unlike  many teenagers, I had no interest in driving, but my mother was positively evangelical about it, believing driving to be an essential life skill. I let her pay for me to have lessons, mostly to get her to stop chewing my ear off about it.

I took my test, failed, told her I'd done my bit, then went off to a University whose rules dictated that students were forbidden to own or operate a car anywhere in the city. That suited me fine. I forgot all about learning to drive for a decade.

Ten years later, aged 28, I found myself going out with someone who believed it was a cardinal rule that anyone who rode the bus after age 30 was a failure. It was the 80s - what can I say? I didn't subscribe to that theory, then or now, but I did once again subscribe to not having my ear chewed off if there was something I could do to stop it. I took some more lessons, took my test and this time I passed.

Very soon after that the relationship ended. With no more motivation to drive, the day I took my test was the last time I sat behind the wheel of a car for about five years.

Fast forward to the early 90s and my first ever foreign holiday with Mrs Bhagpuss. For reasons that are now lost in the mists of time we decided to fly to Lisbon and hire a car to drive into Spain. I had, at this point, never driven a car for any other purpose than taking a lesson or a driving test, far less driven a strange car on the wrong side of the road in a foreign country. It was the 90s, what can I say?

It's all so much easier in the sky.
I took a few refresher lessons before we went, just to remind myself where the steering wheel was, and then off we went. It's quite surprising we're still around to tell this story, I guess. Actually, it's quite surprising I got the car out of the airport car park.

What did happen was revelatory. Somewhere on the long, straight, quiet multi-lane highway that runs along the south coast of Portugal into Spain, I became a Driver. I left Lisbon in a sweat of concentration and terror and crossed the border in a state of calm control.

Ever since then I have been able to drive. I'm not recommending it as a method - it's from the "throw them in the deep end and they'll learn to swim" school of thought, I guess - but it worked for me.

My action gaming has never enjoyed such an epiphany. When I play DCUO or Neverwinter I still have to concentrate on the controls. I never get to experience the game directly, only me playing the game. I'm comfortable enough with DCUO in particular that it's not offputting or unpleasant, but it's a good way from Azuriel's "just like with driving, I kind of zone out the experience when I’m killing enemies in Action games."

So, I can't really speak to the accuracy of the analogy from personal experience. But even if I could, I see another flaw: I really, really love driving. From the moment those pieces fell into place back on that Iberian highway I have found the process of controlling and moving a vehicle to be a pure joy.

I'm one of those people who sees every minute behind the wheel as an opportunity for entertainment and pleasure. I drive for the sake of driving. I go the long way just so I can have more of it. Almost every holiday we take is a driving holiday and while the scenery and the exploring are a huge part of the attraction, so is the opportunity to just get out there and drive.

A little trouble with the exhaust on that broom...
I can unironically affirm that for me driving to see a movie is often more engaging than watching the movie itself. It doesn't even have to be a bad movie for me to feel that the best part of the evening was the drive there and the drive back.

Given all that, how can I know how I'd feel about action game controls if I ever mastered them? Maybe, as Azuriel and Gevlon contend, facility would lead to ennui. Or maybe I'd just be so thrilled by the process I'd want to keep doing it and doing it and doing it...

My time with GW2, which is sometimes considered to use a hybrid of traditional and action rpg controls, gives me reason to believe it would be the latter. One of the main reasons I have stuck with GW2 so loyally and so long is the way it feels when I'm driving my characters there.

I find the controls wonderfully fluid and intuitive. I love the constant movement and especially the dodging. I fling my characters around as though I'm driving at speed - all the sensation with none of the danger. (It's also the main reason I so dislike GW2's implementation of mounts. It turns my elite sports cars into clumsy, awkward trucks).

Whether Azuriel's analogy has universal application or not, it's been very useful to consider. I'm now wondering whether, rather than veering away from games with action controls, I should steer into the learning curve instead. If I could push through the membrane that separates thought from action, would I find myself zoning out in boredom or riding the crest of an ever-breaking wave of exhilaration?

Okay, now we've gone surfing. Time to stop. Suffice it to say I recognize that it might be me that's missing out here. Whether I'm even capable of making the transition is another matter. And while we're on the topic of driving, how ironic is it that the one MMORPG whose controls I literally cannot master, even to the minimal level required to finish the tutorial, is The Crew?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Lost Time Is Not Found Again: Rift Prime

Rift Prime launched last Wednesday, with the traditional log-in queues and lag. Or so I read. I wasn't there. I'd forgotten all about it.

It wasn't until Wilhelm posted the day after that I remembered one of the things I was supposed to do on my week off work was decide whether or not to give Prime a try. I was leaning very strongly towards not bothering until he pointed out that the required Patron status is purchasable with Trion's funny money rather than real cash.

Like Wilhelm, I'm still sitting on a huge pile of credits from the F2P conversion years ago. In what was the most ill-judged purchase of my MMO carreer, I pre-purchased the first Rift expansion, Storm Legion, in the version that came with a full year's subscription. When Trion later decided to drop the sub they gave refunds...in cash shop credits.

That wasn't the ony reason I felt I'd made such a bad decision. There was some odd background to it that I'd like to record here for posterity.

The Background Story

Mrs Bhagpuss and I played Rift for around six months from launch in 2011. We had a good time for a while but only a year later we were already playing GW2.

Although we took to GW2 immediately, at the time the first Rift expansion was announced, GW2 was having huge - really, really huge - problems with bots. Just a couple of months after launch those issues were so pervasive and unavoidable that we discussed our options and decided that, if ArenaNet couldn't get things under control, we'd quit and go play the Rift expansion instead.

So I bought two 12 month packages, which seemed like the best deal. Then we went on holiday to Spain for a week. When we came back ArenaNet had cleaned house. The bots were gone. All of them. It was like magic.

I never heard exactly how ANet did it but overnight they either removed the entire population of bots or made it so we never saw them. In a matter of weeks it went from being the number one issue that threatened to destroy the entire game to something no-one even mentioned. Now the whole episode is utterly forgotten.

So there we were, with a year-long sub to a game with a new expansion and no real desire to play it. When it launched we didn't even log in. We probably never would have, only a friend, who was also in both our GW2 guild and our old Rift guild, left GW2 for Rift so she could build houses with the new Dimensions feature.

Her positive feedback eventually convinced Mrs Bhagpuss to go take a look at the housing there, which happened to co-incide with the F2P conversion in 2013. I went along to try Storm Legion. It was dour and dull. I lasted less than two weeks. Mrs Bhagpuss spent all her free cash shop credits on fixings and furniture, stayed for about a month , then left, never to return.

Since then I have dipped in and out, now and again, on a new F2P account and on my old one with all the perks. I never spent any of my store credits, all 19,290 of them. On Saturday, I logged in and blew a couple of thousand on the shortest period of Patron Status available, two weeks.

Two hours would have been plenty. One, if I could have skipped the tutorial.

The "Review"

Rift always had a terrible problem with its opening act. The tutorial is numbingly tedious, full of technobabble and lore twaddle that makes no sense, plus a lot of shouting and yelling and explosions. It's supposed to create a sense of excitement and urgency but it just makes for an extremely annoying roadblock to the game you came to play.

A few years in Trion added an option to skip the Tutorial but that seems to have been removed for Prime. Unless I missed it. Anyway, I slogged through the tutorial for the umpteenth time, rolling my eyes. I think they might have shortened it a bit. It only took me half an hour.

All the time I was "entertained" by a perpetual stream of moaning, complaining, swearing, boasting and arguing in the default chat channel, which seemed to be set to Level 1-29. To call it disheartening would be a major understatement. It was grim.

There appeared to be a very large number of players with nothing better to do than talk incessantly about what a bad time they were having, how Trion could have done it better or what great things they would do when they got past all the annoying leveling stuff to the Raids they came for. That stream of collective consciousness continued unabated for the entire two hours I played. If anyone who was actually between levels 1 and 29 ever spoke about the content in those zones I must have lost it in the static.

Rift's scene-setting problems don't end when you get out of the tutorial. The game dumps you at the wrong end of the starter zone and throws a whole lot more lore nonsense at you before offering you the first of what will be a seemingly endless series of the most mundane, trivial quests ever seen in a major MMO.

At root, Rift is a very old-school quest-hub theme park MMORPG, extremely closely modeled on WoW but with absolutely none of WoW's elan or imagination. I honestly think I have never seen so many lacklustre quests in one game. Even the dullest of imported F2Ps has more to offer in terms of wit or imagination than this.

That doesn't matter as much as it should because no-one comes to Rift for the questing or the lore or the story. These days they might come for the Raids, I guess, or the Dimensions. Back at launch everyone came for two things: the Rifts and Invasions and the flexible, innovative"Soul" class system.

It always took too long before you found your first Rift or got run over by your first invasion. This time I almost logged off in frustration before - almost an hour and three-quarters after I left character creation - I heard the familiar blast of brass that signals a major invasion.

I'd found a couple of Rifts by then. They were disappointing. I did one with two other people and one in a duo. Both failed. There were scores of players all around but no-one seemed interested. Rifts, apparently, were giving really terrible xp when Prime launched and everyone had immediately learned to avoid them. Trion buffed that xp but from what I was getting it was still very poor.

The invasion, when it came, was better. People did join in to do that and I got a very brief and faint reminder of how exciting it used to be. Even so, there was none of the genuine thrill we used to feel, no hint of players co-ordinating defence or working towards a common end. There were no call-outs in chat, no-one organizing groups, none of the desperate racing from Rift to Rift to close them down before the event failed.

By the time the Invasion ended I was just shy of Level 8. I finished a couple of quests to ding just out of a sense of tidiness. Then I logged out. I haven't logged in again.

For me, the lure of Rift in those first few months was always the Rifts and Invasions. For as long as the community was focused on those, taking them seriously and responding to them enthusiastically, I remained involved and committed.

As the months passed, Trion made numerous changes to both Invasions and Rifts that made them less appealing, less exciting, less essential. By the time we had Raids and Crafting Rifts and PvP Rifts and Lures the whole point of the exercise had been lost, for me anyway.

ArenaNet took the concept that Trion had borrowed and expanded from Public Quests in Warhammer Online and blew it up into an entire gaming eco-system with GW2. Going back to Rift now, even a highly populated Rift Prime with actual Rifts and Invasions is like going back to watching television on a 12" B&W portable when you're used to a 48" plasma screen.

I still would play Rift again, if the game could guarantee a steady stream of those zone-wide Invasions along with a population of players ready and willing to do battle with them. And that might happen - for a while - in the mid/end-game zones, Iron Pine Peaks, Shimmersands and Stillmoor. I'd love to see that but I'm not going to grind through forty levels of brain-sappingly boring quests to get there.

Whether Rift Prime will be a commercial success for Trion the way Progression servers have been for SOE/DBG I very much doubt. Rift simply doesn't have the depth or breadth of content of either of the EverQuest games, nor the nostalgia factor. Trion, as Brasse's comment on this Massively OP thread confirms, are well aware that interest in Prime may not be sustained.

Mine certainly wasn't. I might log in again before my two weeks Patron access expires. I won't be buying any more. Not even with credits.

P.S. For a much more detailed and considered review, try this at Endgame Viable. It wasn't up when I wrote my post or I'd have worked it in!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Up The Hill Backwards : GW2

Sometimes, I wonder if I'm playing MMOs the wrong way.

It all started the day before yesterday, when I finally hit exasperation point with the state of the inventory on my primary GW2 account. No matter how many bags I give my characters they will insist on filling them up.

I'm used to working with limited storage space in every MMO I play. My playstyle involves acquiring much and using little. I like to do the activities that get you rewards but I don't like to use those rewards unless I have a very good reason. I'd rather tuck them away for when they might be needed.

That causes an inevitable storage problem that I always deal with first by acquiring bigger bags. Sadly, that doesn't work forever. You can only upgrade your bags so many times and then all your bags are as big as they come (or, in the case of GW2, as big as you can afford).

The next stage is more inventory slots, if the game allows. Games with cash shops always allow. ArenaNet have made most of what little money they've seen from me on bag and bank upgrades.

I'm not a fan of wearing things when they're still on fire but this seemed to fit the look.

In extremis I make more characters (mule is such an unfortunate word), start new guilds, buy extra houses - whatever the MMO in question lets me get away with, but once again it can't go on forever (except in EQ2, where it really can...). In the end, whatever the upgrade path, however generous the storage options, if I play long enough there always comes a time when there's nothing left for me to do but clean up the mess I've made.

It takes a while. Hours. Sometimes days. Honestly, I never finish. I just get to a point where I can breathe again, then I call it done. With luck a good spring clean might buy me another three months.

This time, when I hit the wall, my first idea was to buy another bank slot. I thought I'd clear some bags, throw in a whole load of stuff, slam the door and forget about it. Only it turns out I've bought all the bank vaults ANet is willing to sell me. You'd think they'd want more of my money but apparently they have standards. Unlike me.

So many new stat combos. I can't keep track of them all.

Next I thought about buying more bag slots. Those come per character not per account and I have plenty of leeway left there, but the idea was to get this stuff off my characters, not enable them to lug around more. Also bag slots cost too much.

So I buckled down and started tidying and that was when I had my bright idea.

This might not sound conected but earlier in the week I'd finally decided to put my Elementalist, the character I play in WvW most of the time, into full Ascended. She was nearly there already. I just needed three more pieces of armor.

I got her sorted out quickly enough. It seemed easier than I remembered. And cheaper. That tends to happen when you already have all the mats lying around and the mat economy has tanked due to oversupply.

With her finished, I turned to my Charr Guardian. A few days ago, playing my Elementalist (Tempest, technically) as usual, I was following a Commander I like when something happened. After several highly embarassing wipes he began begging someone - anyone - to swap from DPS to Heavy Support. No-one did. Eventually the Commander tagged down with one of those "I'm not angry I'm just disappointed" sighs that always leave you feeling it was somehow your fault.

Lookin' good after a trip to the bank.
I rarely play a Guardian; never in WvW (due to complete incompetence), but I have all the classes. So ,why not? Well, I can think of two reasons: 1) I may have the classes but I don't have the skills and 2) I am so far from the meta these days I'm not sure I could find it with a map. Learning is fun, though, isn't it? Or if not it's at least supposed to be good for you. And (here comes the connection, at last) I thought maybe if I geared up my Guardian for WvW I could clear some inventory space doing it.

It's at times like this when a tendency to hoard really comes in useful. I've been doing dailies in WvW for years and when Living World Season 3 started, giving us a new map every chapter, I did those dailies too. I did them for months until I gradually fell out of the habit.

My bank is full of unopened gear, loot and currency boxes from all aspects of the game  I have most of the armor and weapon boxes from various story stages and major events, along with stacks and stacks of LS map daily chests. I even  have separate stacks of some of the various map currencies from when I used to potter around there doing stuff just because. I spent some at the time but I saved a lot more.

What's more, because I spend at least some of my time in WvW every single day, I have stacks of Skirmish chests and over a thousand unused "Potions of WvW Rewards". It only takes 80 of those to complete a WvW Reward Track and there's a reward track for every LS Map so if I ever need more of anything in a hurry...

Speaking of WvW reward tracks, that's how I came to have a dozen or so Triumphant Armor Boxes lying around unopened. Each of which can be used to obtain the Precursor pieces you need to buy ascended Triumphant Hero armor, assuming you have enough Skirmish tickets, which of course I do because I've been getting them for months just for enjoying myself and I've never spent any...

And, well, I won't go into excruciating detail about how it all works. I play the game and it took me hours of reading to understand it all. The point is, I've spent the last two days working on kitting out first my Elementalist (Tempest, going to swap to Weaver soon) and Guardian (now a Firebrand) in full Ascended gear, then swapping my Ranger (the one that's not a Druid) into a mix of Exotic and Ascended using the new-fangled Marauder stats.

All of this came about just because I wanted some space. I've ended up with one bank vault cleared and a much better understanding of how the gear system works. In the game I've been playing every day, several hours a day, for five and a half years, that is. You might have thought I'd already have known. I did, kind of. I just never felt it until now.

This turned out handy.
Instant travel to all the vendors I needed for my Ascended accessories.
I'm starting to see that there is some point to doing these dailies, farming these currencies, running around taking towers and keeps, generally doing all the stuff I do every single day, beyond the sheer fun of doing it. This stuff is actually for something! Who knew?

Well, I guess, everyone but me. That's why GW2 has gained a reputation as a super-grindy game, where everything revolves around doing repetitive activities to earn currencies to spend or materials to craft.

It's no wonder people get fed up or burn out. Who'd want to go round the same set of bushes with ten characters every day, picking berries? Who'd want to play a game mode they don't enjoy for hour after hour just because it's a bit faster or cheaper than the alternatives when it comes to getting upgrades?

Not me. But maybe that's how I'm supposed to play. It seems that's how the people creating this "content" expect me to play. It's how plenty of people do play.

Now I've worked out what it is that I'm supposed to be doing - at last - I think I'd rather carry on as I was. Bimbling along doing this and that and letting stuff pile up, then having a big clear-out and a spending binge every few months seems like it would be more fun than chipping away at the gear mountain a piece at a time.

Of course, the only way I've been able to come to this realization is because I've been doing the grindy stuff all along without even noticing. I wouldn't have had all those boxes and chests ready to open if I hadn't. Imagine if I'd finally gotten around to reading it up and discovered I was two years behind...

Two days work...

Then again, you have to ask, would it matter? I'm not "gearing up" because of issues with content. I'm still one hundred percent certain that, outside of Raids and high-level Fractals, no-one needs anything more than Exotics to play GW2's "end game". I was only doing it because I needed the bank space and I only carried on doing it after that because, like a lot of other things in GW2, once I'd started it turned out to be fun.

In the end, I guess there's no "right" way to play. Just so you're enjoying yourself. It's supposed to be entertainment, after all.

I might be a bit more focused from now on, though. I read up the path to WvW Legendary Armor while I was doing my research and it doesn't look as impossible as I thought it was. Maybe, if I carry on playing the way I do, in another six months I might be able to binge-make a whole set of of that on a whim!

That really would be something.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Trash (Go Pick It Up)

Telwyn wrote a thoughtful post a week or so back on new uses for junk items. It's one of those perennials that come up periodically in discussions about MMORPGs. I seem to remember arguing about it back on TNZ, the old EverQuest Newbie Zone forums, around the turn of the century.

There's always been a strong body of opinion that believes MMOs should have no "trash drops" . Things with no reason to exist other than to be sold vendors for cash have no reason to exist, period. The lobby for nothing but coin drops existed even back when when dropped coin had weight.

In this post-F2P world there's a conspiracy theory that claims vendor loot has a secret purpose - to create demand for the inventory slots and bag expanders on sale in the cash shop. There may even be a grain of truth in that one.

I recall very clearly how surprised - shocked even - I was by the extremely limited inventory space in one of the earlier F2P titles I played, Allods Online. It did seem that part of the financial plan there included making things awkward enough that you'd want to buy your way out of a bind.

The theory doesn't really hold water, though. Trash drops long predate the F2P concept, let alone the dominance of that particular payment model. What's more, just about every MMORPG I ever played uses inventory space as a form of character, account or guild progression.

Yesterday I wrote about my excitement over having the opportunity to quest for a 32 slot bag. I completed it last night and it was one of the more satisfying things I've done in GW2 for a while. ArenaNet funds itself primarily via cash shop sales (between expansions, at least) but you can't buy bags for gems. You can buy extra inventory slots but if you want big bags to go in them you have to "quest" for them or craft them.

EQ and EQ2, post F2P, both have active cash shops. They'll sell you bags but it's not the best way to get them. Each game has a wealth of baroque and complex in-game paths for both adventurers and crafters to obtain large containers. Bag quests are a staple and a new tier of slightly larger crafted bags and boxes forms a regular, expected and essential part of the offer in any expansion that also comes with a level cap increase.

So, no, I don't believe trash drops are there just to pad cash shop sales. There must be other reasons why they exist. Someone has to sit at a desk and design them all, draw the illustrations, come up with the names, write the little descriptions. It doesn't just fall out of the sky - or out of a wolf's gutted corpse - without a little help from someone being paid good money to make it happen.

I have a vague memory of reading a developer interview once that discussed the use of vendor loot as a social engineering mechanism. By filling your bags with things that have no use other than to be sold to vendors you can ensure that players return periodically to set points, the places where those vendors stand. With the addition of other services like banks and auction houses you can create social hubs where players can meet and bond and the game can come to life.

Something like that did used to happen, back in the day. Still does, in new MMOs, for a short while. Indeed, if you could travel back in time to the dawn of the 3D MMO, you'd find players forming relationships with other players based on transactions that centered purely on trash loot. A whole evening's gameplay might amount to one player waiting just inside a dungeon to buy vendor trash off other players who felt they were too busy to run all the way to the next zone just to sell. There were people who really did want to be known as "that guy that'll sell your crap for you".

Then there's the realism argument. It might be convenient to have every animal drop a few silver coins but where would a wolf keep his wallet? Wouldn't it be a little more convincing for a rat to drop a tail or a set of whiskers rather than 70 copper?

Nice idea, seldom thought through. Clearly someone was thinking along those lines when they designed and created all those animal body parts that have no function other than to be sold to vendors (we'll leave the question of why those vendors want to buy such utterly useless items for another time...).

Unfortunately, someone else must have had oversight of the final loot table because those rats and wolves often ended up dropping weapons and armor and spell components anyway. Depending on the MMO, there might be some attempt at consistency, with gear drops limited to the kind of creature that could use them - bandits, orcs, goblins - but as often as not the drop table seemed to have more to do with the level and the zone than the creature you were killing.

Over time there's also a retro-fitting effect, whereby things that used not have a use acquire one. Sometimes developers will incorporate existing trash drops into new recipes and something that no-one wanted suddenly finds a demand. Mostly, though, trash is trash and stays that way.

Which makes it all the more surprising that someone behind the scenes puts so much effort into it. In many MMOs I've played the tiny spot illustrations for vendor loot have been exquisite. In EQ, back before SOE added housing, I used to hoard some of the more attractive vendor drops just to give my characters the illusion they owned something beautiful.

In GW2 right now, there's someone sitting in an office writing piquant, delicate prose about coffee pots and buckle prongs destined for nothing better than the "Sell Junk" button. I always used to wonder who drew the short straw when it came to writing the "thank you" notes that came in the mail after you completed a Heart. This seems almost a step below that.

It has to be the office junior or the intern, doesn't it? Or maybe someone really just loves doing it. Maybe some dev sits there writing this stuff in his lunch break or begs her boss "it'll only take me a few minutes". Once again, just about every MMO I've ever played is stiff with flavor text. That deserves a whole post of its own.

Whatever the reasons behind its existence I would really miss vendor loot should it ever disappear. It adds granularity and context. Yes, it can be annoying when it fills the last few spaces in your already overfilled bags but without annoyances like that I'd maybe start to feel I was playing a game, not living a virtual life.

I wouldn't be adverse to some of Telwyn's suggestions, all the same. Just because you can't equip something doesn't mean you should have to sell it to a vendor. I'm not wedded to an infinite series of trips to the store for a few silver a time.

What I'd really like is the equivalent of an in-game Panini sticker album, where I could collect all those little icons and captions to browse and enjoy at leisure. Add something like that and suddenly those vendors might find themselves in competition with players willing to pay a whole lot more than a few coppers - for the rare stuff, at least.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide