Sunday, 22 January 2017

First Impressions : Revelation Online

Something no-one seems to mention about MMO blogging is the way it affects both your perception and your choices as you play. There's always a script running the background, prompting you to screenshot this or make a note of that, all with a view to posting about it later.

The upside is that every MMO, even the most generic, uninspiring knock-off becomes more interesting and rewarding than it has any right to be. The downside is that you rarely get to experience the pure, unadulterated immersive feeling of being lost in another reality.

When that does happen, when you forget about recording and reframing what you see and hear, when you lose yourself entirely in the moment and let the ocean of new possibilities sweep you up and away, that's when you know you've found something true, something that will last.

I think the last time that happened to me was in the beta weekends for GW2. In Revelation Online Closed Beta 3... not so much.


Which is not to say I didn't have a good time playing RO for several hours yesterday, or that I wasn't fully involved, intrigued, occupied and amused. All of those things but most of them as a blogger not a player.

Without any exaggeration I could get a week's worth of posts out of just those first two sessions - long, detailed posts, too. Every minute I was playing ideas were sparking off the screen - the similarities, the differences, the little twists and wriggles in the form. Almost nothing failed to remind me of something else. The entire game might as well exist as a primer for discussion of the genre.

I just mention that as context to the First Impressions Bullet Points that follow. And also as a warning. This could go long...


Character Creation

  • Sliders
RO has one of those immensely detailed character creators with sliders for everything from the size of your hands to the slope of your eyebrows. Unfortunately I couldn't find any way to zoom in on my character's face so all that detailing was completely wasted. I picked the stuff I could actually see - height, build, hairstyle - and left the rest at default.

The resulting character was pleasing enough if a tad bland. I wouldn't be happy with it long term but there will be a character wipe for Open Beta so it's a non-issue at the moment. There needs to be an obvious way to get close-ups of your character's face by then, though. I mean, I'm sure there's one now but the problem is that I couldn't find it and I've seen a  lot of  these systems...

  • Races
The other problem, about which nothing will ever be done, is the utter blandness of the "races" you can choose. You can be a human or a child-like human and that's that. Unlike Western MMO players, a significant subset of whom like to play non-human and even - *gasp* - ugly races, the Eastern market apparently demands humans, humans and more humans. RO doesn't even the usual option of "human with cute animal tail and/or fur" or "human with pointy elf ears".

  • Classes

 The game does a bit better when it comes to Classes. There are six - Blademaster, Vanguard, Swordmage, Occultist, Spiritshaper and Gunslinger. There's a decent explanation of what you might expect from each in terms of gameplay and there's also a difficulty rating.

I went with The Spiritshaper (Difficulty Rating 3* out of five, equal easiest with Gunslinger). It had possibly the most confusing description, which I think I may have misunderstood. I was expecting a pet class but although there is a tiny, floating creature that hangs around near your shoulder, that turns out be your "weapon" rather than a traditional pet that tanks for you.


UI and Controls

This is where I give RO a huge thumbs up. The UI is easy to follow and to alter and adjust. Yes, it's busy, with too many pop-ups, but I've seen a lot worse. Most impressively, the developers have chosen to do what I believe all developers should, namely offer a wide choice of controls to suit a wide range of tastes. As a traditional MMO player I strongly - very strongly - prefer traditional MMO controls. I like WASD movement, Hotbars and tab targeting.

As soon as you step out of character creation you're offered a choice - the system I prefer, the traditional Eastern "click to move" or the action MMO option with reticule targeting. I didn't try the latter options so I can't vouch for their implementation but the regular version, called "Keyboard Control" in the game, works perfectly.

Graphics 


This is a hard one. Having played a number of Eastern MMOs over the last few years there's a particular graphic quality I've come to recognize. I don't mean the settings or the environments or the architecture (although all of the usual cliffs, waterfalls, pagodas and flower fields are present as expected) so much as the textures and surfaces.

There's that odd flattening and stretching you never seem to see in Western MMOs, where surfaces close by seem to be almost featureless but scenery far away looks lush and detailed. As usual, screenshots of the game look very much more impressive than the same views seen from within the game itself. I found it somewhat jarring.

Before you arrive in the game world itself there's a really impressive intro in gorgeous pastel washes and that style continues for the inter-zone screens. If only the whole game looked like that. Most of the cut scenes use gameplay graphics but there are also some very unsettling variations which seem to use treated live action footage or something that at least suggests a form of realism that feels quite alien to the game you've been playing.

All in all a bit of a hotch-potch but generally pretty enough to make a favorable impression.

Gameplay

Where to start? Is there any? Perhaps it's a bit early to judge. After about three hours or so I hit level 21 but I'm not sure I've actually "played" the game yet. I've watched a lot of it being played by my character but I don't feel I had an awful lot to do with anything that happened.

I've played "on rails" Korean MMOs before but RO is on another level entirely. There is a single throughline Main Quest sequence that grabs you by the hand at level 1 and doesn't let you take a breath until you ding 20.


The game gets a huge plus from me for having no tutorial whatsoever - from the moment you begin you're in the full gameworld and every tip and explanation is integrated into the questline. On the other hand it never stops! I can't remember ever playing an MMO that felt so unrelenting, breathless, urgent, even when all I was doing was serving pies or raising a flag.

A lot of that was my fault. RO has the ever-popular Eastern option where you can click on a UI feature and have your character run to the next quest junction. It also pops up a clickable icon in the center of the screen whenever you need to speak with anyone or interact with anything. All of these automated systems work flawlessly, which means that you can play almost the entire game with nothing but the left mouse button. So I did.

Combat

The first twenty levels of Revelation Online features perhaps the least active combat I have ever seen in a mainstream MMO. There were long stretches, during which I leveled up several times, when I didn't have to fight anything at all. When I did it was mostly so the game could explain some mechanic or other - dodging, combos, special attacks - none of which was ever remotely necessary to defeat the incredibly weak opponents I was facing.


Eventually there were a few "proper" fights, including an all-combat instanced dungeon that the game confusingly insisted on calling a "Raid". At first I tried to follow the instructions, build my combos, dodge the red squares and circles, all the usual rigmarole. Then I realized I could just as easily stand still and drum my fingers on keys one to three and not just have the same effect but actually kill things faster!

There were a couple of "bosses" that I did dodge, although whether I needed to or not is another matter. I died once in twenty levels purely because I had misunderstood an instruction. A couple of times the game auto-defeated me so an NPC could leap in to save the day and move the plot forward but other than that nothing slowed me down or threatened me at all.

All of which means that at level 20 I have no more idea how to play my character than I did at the start. Leveling does change pace at 20 and there is now more combat but so far the fights aren't any harder. Presumably there comes a point when you do need to know what all the buttons do but I'm not there yet.



Gear and Progression

Another very big mark in RO's favor, from my perspective at least, is the relatively traditional approach it takes to weapons and armor. I'm almost certain there are some complex upgrading options I haven't been introduced to yet (Dulfy will tell you all about those) but so far it's been a straightforward case of get item, equip item, see item show up on your character.

  • Slots

The paper doll also has a regular number of gear slots - head, chest, hands, legs, feet, various jewellery - familiar from umpteen other MMOs. As for basic stats, there are only five, all with recognizable names and understandable explanations. I felt instinctively that I knew where I was with RO, which is something I never really felt with Blade and Soul or Black Desert, where appearance, stats and items all seemed to drift independently around each other in a rather awkward and unsatisfying gavotte.


There are also Appearance slots that seem to work just like the ones in EQ2. That's how come my character is wearing a cat on her head and comedy spectacles in the screenshot above. Trust me, those weren't even the silliest choices. I was very pleased to get them as quest rewards. That sort of stuff is too often kept for the cash shop. Why shouldn't tightwads look every bit as gormless as spendtrhifts?


  • Skills
 
As for progression there seem to be a lot of skill systems to work on. There are multiple UI windows with lots of tabs and skill trees, not a one of which I even begin to understand yet. From experience it generally takes me weeks of play to get the hang of things like that so they stand outside the scope of a first impressions piece.



  • Levels

Leveling speed is also hard to judge at this stage. I dinged Level 2 just from walking from spawn to the first NPC and it doesn't really slow down all that much for the first twenty levels. It's very fast indeed - much, much faster than any other triple-A import I've tried, including Blade and Soul. On the other hand, you could, and probably should, look at those twenty levels as an extended tutorial. There was a very noticeable step-change when I dinged 20 so I'm guessing it slows down a lot. Still fast compared to the traditional Western leveling pace though, I'd bet.

Movement and Transport



RO has been compared to Blade and Soul and having played it for a while it's very easy to see why. It looks quite a lot like it and the storyline is not dissimilar but the real clincher is the movement. There's all that jumping and rushing and gliding busywork that I got to be quite comfortable with in B&S, only here it seems perfunctory, bolted on.

I'm guessing that's because, unlike Blade and Soul, RO is an MMO that offers full, free flight (albeit with a stamina mechanic called, amusingly, "Levity"). You get to see yourself in wings in Character Creation and there's a point in the narrative when an NPC lends you his so you can have a bit of a fly about. It feels pretty good, too, although somewhat fiddly in places. At twenty-one my character still doesn't have a pair of wings to call her own, though, so how it feels to fly as a primary action I'm yet to discover.


At one point I acquired a horse, which increases ground speed as you'd expect, but once equipped my character seemed completely capable of deciding when to mount or dismount without my intervention so it became more of a visual representation of a speed buff than something I thought of as My Mount. Mostly, though, I just plodded along at normal speed because once you give yourself up to the auto-run function that's what it does. Boosting run speed or leaping about just tended to disrupt the flow so I didn't bother.

Story and Narrative



Storytelling is supposedly quest-driven but the "quests" are really little more than a means of getting you from one cut-scene to the next. I swear I have never watched so many cut scenes, read so much dialog and absorbed so many minor, pointless, trivial stories in such a concentrated timeframe in any MMO I have ever played. In RO the story literally never stops. On and on and on and on and on like the world's most relentless teen drama, all sibling rivalry, mysterious threats, unexpected reversals, hidden secrets...like every single other Korean MMO I have ever played, only on amphetamines.

  • Cut Scenes

The quality of the story and of the set pieces varies wildly. The scene where the main NPC and (probably) love interest makes his entrance is staggeringly overdone. He literally drops from the sky to a blaring pop-metal soundtrack that's insanely inappropriate and out of context, ending up with his face pressed flat on the floor and his body jacknifed in a supposedly comic pose that just looks ridiculous.

On the other hand, the whole strand featuring your character's short-tempered, somewhat arrogant friend and her diffident boyfriend has a nuance and gravitas I wasn't expecting. I found the cut scene with her on the cliff top surprisingly emotionally affecting, to the point where I won't describe that part of the plot in any detail in case it might spoil things for someone else.

One innovation I can't recall seeing elsewhere is a specific reward for watching cut scenes. If you make it to the end without clicking out you receive "Storyteller Favor" for being a good listener. I got a lot of points for that. No idea what they are for but I like the idea.

  • Translation

In common with most, although  not all, Eastern conversions the quality of the translations is, to put it politely, variable. I've noticed that quite a few imports begin with solid translations that then quicly diffuse and warp as the levels rise and that's exactly what happens here. By the time I'd left the starting village some of the NPCs were barely making sense.


Even at its best this is not one of those genuinely quirky, odd, amusing translations like Digimon Hunter or (according to Syp) Twin Saga. It's mostly bland although it does have the odd spark. As for the audio, there seems to have been little or no revoicing as yet. There isn't all that much speech but everything there is comes in Korean. More awkwardly so do some of the in-game help screens. That'll have to be fixed.

Final Thoughts

Lengthy though this post is it barely scratches the surface of all the things I might have considered or talked about. I found RO fascinating in the way it both closely resembles and significantly diverges from other MMOs I've played. I also feel that although I have a level 21 character currently camped out several zones on from the starting area, I know about as much about the game as I'd normally know by level five without leaving the starter village.

I need to make another character and play through at my pace rather than the hyperactive pace the game dictates if you allow it. I need to go off rails and play the explorer card. I know you can because, briefly, right at the start, I ran out of the village, climbed a cliff and dived into the sea, ending up somewhere seemingly impossible to reach. I couldn't get back other than by hitting the "I'm Stuck" button so the game definitely permits more freedom of action and movement than I've chosen to take advantage of so far.


There are also crafting, gathering and housing options that I haven't even found yet, along with some kind of (mandatory?) PvP. Which reminds me...this is an MMO, right? Because so far my experience is almost 100% that of playing a single-player RPG. If you're on the main questline, which I almost always was, the game hides all other players by default. I've barely seen anyone!

I can say with some certainty that Revelation Online is not going be my Next Big MMO. I doubt it will for anyone reading this, unlike Black Desert or even ArcheAge, both of which made a fair fist of drawing people in and holding them for months rather than hours. There is, however, plenty going on that deserves closer attention. It's not a once-and-done flyby either.


I'll probably keep my powder dry for Open Beta if only because progression is likely to be very linear and I doubt it will hold my attention for more than a couple of pass-throughs so I'd prefer to wait for a character that isn't going to be wiped.

It's a step up from Riders of Icarus, on a par with Blade and Soul, and definitely worth a look if you like this sort of thing. If you don't like this sort of thing though I wouldn't bother. It's not going to change your mind.

Saturday, 21 January 2017

Next Cab On The Rank: Revelation Online

One of the admittedly less than thrilling selection of "new" MMOs on the horizon for 2017 is Revelation Online. Like Dark & Light or Bless, RO is only new for a given value of newness.

According to a somewhat sketchy Wikipedia entry ("This article has multiple issues"), Chinese developers NetEase began working on the game over a decade ago, all the way back in 2005. George W Bush was in the first year of his second term. It all seems a lifetime ago.

If these dates are accurate it took a full decade to bring revelation Online to market, which seems a long haul even by the slothly standards of MMO development. It wasn't until 2015 that the game entered Open Beta in China.

I thought I remembered reading that things hadn't gone so well for RO in its home country but as I look for evidence to confirm that impression this morning it seems I may be misremembering. Maybe that was some other would-be global MMO heading this way from the East. The official website describes Revelation Online as "tremendously popular", but then they would, wouldn't they?

Mail.ru, Russia's second-largest internet company and owner of My.com, which publishes Allods and SkyForge among others, is now also the global home of RO, "global" here being defined as Russia, Europe and North America. Whether their remit extends further I couldn't say.

Their press release affirms "the game has already become a success in the market in China", where it operates under a F2P mandate and is, apparently, often compared to Blade & Soul, although whether in terms of commercial success, style or storyline is not clear. Unclear too is the business model under which RO will release when it comes out of beta. As the FAQ gnomically has it, "We are not ready to reveal the details of our business model just yet."

If you can't stand the suspense you can, naturally, buy in at an early stage by way of the now-traditional Founder's Packs. The cheapest comes in at a fairly accessible $17.99  and the highest at a Landmark-challenging $79.99, although for that you do get an "exclusive" Flying Cat mount that can carry five people, which I have to admit is tempting - just not eighty dollars worth of tempting.

If you'd rather keep your money in your wallet but you'd still like to kick the tires before Open Beta and the confirmation of that mysterious payment model you could do what I did: keep your eye out for one of the many giveways that pop up every time another in the ongoing series of Closed Beta tests is announced.

For CB1 and 2 most of the handouts seemed to come via streamers and social media, none of which I was prepared to change my habits to pursue, but a couple of days ago, when I checked my Feedly, Massively OP had a basketful of keys to Closed Beta 3 to give away, first come, first served. I grabbed one and went to my My.com account (handily, I already have one, what with being a longtime Allods fan - great MMO...must actually log in sometime...).

After some kerfuffle with expired email accounts that I won't bore you with I got that working and entered the promo code...which didn't work. It came up as already used. A glance at the M:OP thread suggested I wasn't the only one having a problem. I emailed Bree at M:OP and within a few minutes she sent me another code that worked - thanks again Bree!


That just left the 15GB download. I was playing EQ2 at the time and Mrs Bhagpuss was playing GW2 so I thought I'd let it chunter away in the background and maybe get it all tidied away in time to play the next morning. My.com had other ideas.

I'll say this for them - you can't fault their patcher for efficiency. Or thrust. It ramped up to 4mbps and held. Everything in  Norrath turned to treacle and Tyria gave up altogether. It was late anyway so I paused the patcher and left it until a convenient moment, which happens to be right now. I began the download just before I started this post and it finished about two paragraphs ago.

I'm off to make a character and take some screenshots. There's no NDA so first impressions when I have some.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Bitter Turns To Sugar

Armathyx posted a recipe for a great MMORPG that started me thinking about how and to what extent my own MMO wishlist might have changed over the years. The game Armathyx proposes would have fitted me like a bespoke chainmail shirt back when I began thinking about braving the unknown waters of online gaming around the turn of the century.

Even now several of those bullet points hit the target almost dead center. Yet when I consider whether it would be a game I'd settle down and live in the way I have in GW2 these last few years I'm not so sure.

In another thoughtful post, Jeromai joined the ever-lengthening line of about-to-become ex-MMO players. He wisely nuanced his resignation notice with an essential qualification, saying "I think I’m done with MMOs for the time being". And that's the thing, really. The time. And being.

It's not just MMOs that have changed. Our involvement with them has changed too. For some of us they've long since ceased to be just something we play, if they ever were. As the hobby and I grow older together I find myself not only playing Massively Multiple Online Roleplaying Games but writing about them, thinking about them, picking over their minutiae endlessly. Here, on this blog, in the comment threads of others, on forums and in conversation at home.


And if I really think about it, I've been doing something similar almost since that day late in 1999 when I installed EverQuest and took my first, terrified steps into a virtual world. I never could just shut up and play the damn game.

You might think, then, that after more than a decade and a half, after hundreds of thousands of hours of game time and what must certainly by now amount to millions of words of argument, declaration, pondering and plain gossip, I might at least have begun to come to some kind of concerted, considered position on what, exactly, it is that I want out of it all.

Well I haven't. I have, if anything, less of an idea now than I did when I began. A lot less, if I stop and think about it.

Looking back, for the first two or three years my views on what made for a good MMO were somewhat rigid. Unbending. You might say harsh. Yesterday's post on exploits alluded to it: zero tolerance. And not just for cheats. If I'd had my hands on the controls back in 2000 people would have been kicked from game not just for exploiting but for talking out of character or dying their armor the "wrong" color.


Anything that broke the fourth wall was entirely unacceptable. I switched the /ooc channel off in EQ as soon as I discovered what it was. I was confounded that such a thing could even exist. It seemed to me to  be the antithesis of the immersion I sought. And if I wanted it, everyone should want it.

I was an extremist in other ways, too. For the best part of a year I played a Druid who was so in thrall to the teachings of Tunare, Norrath's Goddess of Nature, that not only would I not attack any animals at all but if animals attacked me I would root them then camp or zone to drop aggro rather than cause them any harm. At one point I was so gung-ho about following Tunare's mandates (none of which I had actually read, if indeed they even existed, but all of which I had, somehow, intuited and made up) that I refused to kill any living creature that did not attack me first.

You can imagine how popular that made me in groups. And how slowly I leveled.

So, eventually, I stopped doing that. Of course, I'd been having my cake and stuffing it down all along, playing other characters that allowed me much more freedom of action. My Necromancer, for example, who killed anything he pleased even if it didn't look at him funny. But after a while, as I began to get really good groups with my druid, main-healing at back door in the Sarnak Fort in Lake of Ill Omen or outside The Tower of Frozen Shadows in Iceclad Ocean,  I felt those self-imposed restrictions beginning to chafe. So I dropped them.


Slowly, piecemeal, bit by bit, all my lines blurred. Twinking, for example. There was that time I was in Riverdale and some halfling asked me to hold an item for him then he sat down and disappeared and a diferent halfling popped up a minute later and asked for the thing back. I felt like I needed a shower after that one, yet a few months later, there I was in the upper back rooms of an inn in Freeport, dropping my valuables on the floor and camping out to log in another character to pick them up. Just like the twinker I'd become.

Sometimes it hasn't been moral slippage towards self-interest that's changed the way I think or play. Armathyx  suggests that, in the perfect MMO,  "trading should be done between players and not via some server wide auction house". Been there, done that, ripped up the T-shirt and used it as a duster. When EQ introduced the Broker to Norrath with the Shadows of Luclin expansion I thought it was about the best thing that could ever happen to the game. I still do, or at least one of the best.

Daily quests, when I first heard of them (which, I think, was probably in EQ2's Desert of Flames expansion) seemed to me to be the very definition of a terrible idea. Nowadays I live for my dailies in GW2. I look forward to doing them and I feel happy when they're done. I don't want or need the rewards they give but they form a ritual in my daily routine and I have always loved ritual. And routine.


I could go on and on. Fast movement, flying mounts, in-game maps, achievements...you name it, I was against it. I thought it would ruin the game, spoil the world, wreck immersion. Maybe it did. Maybe it did and it didn't matter.

Either way, all now things I want, even maybe need, in any MMO I'm thinking of giving serious time. Modern, convenient, casual : good. Traditional, challenging, hardcore : bad. Right?

If only. At the same time I relish all those new, fast, automatic contrivances I yearn for sloooow leveling, meaningful death penalties, falling damage that hurts. I want vast, open worlds that take forever to explore, distances that take hours to cross. I want crafting that requires dedication and commitment, dungeons that need nerve and forethought, quests that make you think and reflect not just click and collect.

Yet at the same time I want to auto-path to the killing fields for my ten rats and have my reward automagically delivered to my bags. I want to shop in a window for things I can't be bothered to chase down in game. I want my log-in freebies and my xp pots and my fireworks and silly hats and and and...


I want it all. There's no point asking if MMOs are better now or were better then. They were best, they are best, they will be best. There is no right way to make an MMORPG. There are many ways to make an MMORPG right.

And that, I think, is about as close as I'm going to get to understanding how I feel about the genre and what I want it to be. The possibilities are endless. MMOs can hold all the variations imagination can conjure.

Individual MMOs, alas, cannot.

If I have a wish for the future of the form, then, it's for more focus. For developers to contour their enthusiasm and direct it towards a specific audience. I want more MMOs that are more different one from another, developers who concentrate on what to leave out as well as what to include.

As a player I can decide whether I want to log into GW2 and have free-form, no hassle fun within seconds or into EQ, where, even in 2017, it will take me twenty minutes just to get set up before fun can begin. I can decide to give half an hour to the craziness and color of Digimon Hunter or three hours to the psychodrama of The Secret World. That's where my choice lies, not within each game but outside them all.


Pantheon does not need to take account of every modern trend and I very much hope it never does. The audience it's seeking to attract shouldn't balk if there are no dailies, no flying mounts, no achievement leaderboards. Crowfall doesn't need an overarching narrative that twists and turns and grows year after year.

And I don't need to beat myself up over why now I twink with glee and kill with abandon. Each MMO world needs to lay out choices, codify what is and isn't permitted, expected, required, then serve whatever audience those decisions attract. I'll fit myself in.

At least, that's how I see it today. Tomorrow I may think very differently. I have very strong opinions and I often violently disagree with them.

The perfect MMO doesn't exist but as the wise man said, nobody's perfect. We'll get by.

Sunday, 15 January 2017

I Say! That's Not Cricket!

There's something untoward going on in Star Wars: The Old Republic and Shintar and Ravalation both have something to say about it. I don't play SW:TOR but that hasn't stopped me chipping in with a couple of lengthy comments on Shintar's thread because the issue at hand is that universal bugbear of the genre - exploits.

The problem with pontificating on exploits in MMOs, as I rapidly found while arguing myself into a corner in the aforementioned comment thread, is that it's far too complex a topic to deal with meaningfully in anything short of a PhD thesis. Even that would be selling it short.

My attitude over the years has varied from "Ban 'Em All!" to "Who Bloody Cares?" Any time I stop and think about it my head starts to hurt so mostly I try not to think about it.

At root, an exploit depends upon the existence of a rule to break. If it isn't "not allowed" it can hardly be an exploit, can it? Except, of course, most MMOs don't have rules, or at least not in the parts where the kind of exploits I'm concerned with arise, namely the progression of your character.

There's the EULA, which we all click through and almost no-one reads. Actually, I did used to read them. I read the full EQ EULA before I decided to subscribe back in 1999. In those days and for several years I wouldn't make a character before reading the EULA in full but in those days EULAs were shorter.

The issue of the legality and enforceability of EULAs is another topic entirely. Suffice it to say that they are filled with catch-all clauses intended to provide fall-back positions for the game companies should they ever be needed. We have similar "Terms and Conditions" where I work but we are explicitly instructed not to apply some of them in normal day-to-day trading. They exist to be called upon in need, not to be rigidly followed regardless of commercial good sense.

MMOs exist in a strange hinterland between Product and Service. The game you buy and its updates are clearly Products, albeit digital ones, but the continued provision of servers on which to play them is clearly a Service. There are very different obligations on Producers and Service Providers and MMO developers need to maintain balance between them , especially when those needs conflict.

In the olden days, when the worlds were young, all players in a given MMO were obliged to share the same virtual space. Whole cultures arose within which players were socialized to varying norms. An EverQuest player would need to learn the etiquette expected - respecting camps, joining lists, refraining from kill-stealing.

When players stayed in one MMO that was manageable. It was never comfortable because, as in real life, people chafe against restraints even when those restraints are communally imposed. As the genre exploded and players moved from game to game, trailing their acquired and often conflicting social and cultural expectations behind them, however, it became harder to agree on what constituted acceptable conduct.

Over these many years, in numerous MMOs, I've observed more exploits than I could hope to remember. I can, however, very clearly remember those in which I have participated. There are two reasons for that: firstly, I very, very rarely indulge in "exploits" and secondly, when I do I always feel I've done something naughty and doing something naughty is always a memorable experience.

A strange thing has happened to me over time: I have become increasingly less likely to take advantage of a glitch in the game to accrue personal benefit at the same time as I have become less concerned about doing so. The less likely I am to do it myself, in other words, the less I care whether other people do it.


In part this derives from my increasingly convinced belief that, outside of formal PvP or organized PvE competitions, MMO design and MMO developers should in no way encourage or endorse any form of competitive activity between players. Competition and comparison with other players has and should have absolutely no role in the leveling aspect of the games, which I love so much.

With almost all character progression in almost all MMOs now being tied directly either to solo play or to group play that takes place in instances I can't see it as any valid concern of any other player what goes on in another player's or group of players' play sessions.

This, I appreciate, puts me in a minority position that derives from the solipsistic outlook on life I've had since my teens. I am, simply, not competitive at all in most aspects of my life. I don't benchmark my progress by the progress of others but by standards I set for myself. When it comes to leveling characters in MMOs it means any "Win" conditions are in my head and my head alone.

I began this piece by observing that the topic is far too extensive, nuanced and ruminative to fit a quick blog post so rather than even attempt to fit an ocean into a wine glass I'll leave things here, scarcely reviewed let alone resolved.

One thing I do know for sure. Exploits are going to be with us as long as we have MMOs and no consensus on how they should be handled is ever going to be reached.


Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Making The Cut

I've been meaning to take a look at my Blog Roll for a while now. It trails down the right-hand side of the page like a wild vine slipped loose from the penthouse garden of a skyscraper. Or, more aptly and less psychedelically, it totters like a pile of old fliers, current offerings resting precariously atop a stack of adverts for attractions long past their due dates.

A swarm of Chinese referral spam (over 7000 page hits yesterday alone) sent me to Google Analytics for an overview of the traffic I might actually be getting at the start of this brave new year and I ended up digging around for an hour or so in the Acquisition results. That was interesting, particularly the Referrals section, which featured a number of familiar blogs - Keen & Graev, The Nosey Gamer, Kill Ten Rats, MMO Gypsy, MMOQuests - the usual suspects.

It was interesting to see Atherne's Adventures in the top 10 while several I expected to find there, TAGN chief among them, were nowhere to be seen. There were also several I didn't recognize. Analytics doesn't make it especially easy to click through to referrals, probably intentionally, but with a bit of cut and pasting I found a few familiar names from the comment threads of other blogs. I didn't know Scopique had a blog, much less that the blog he does have is Levelcapped, which I have often heard mentioned. Neither did I know that Dàchéng trades under the sobriquet Casualnoob.

I added both to the Blog Roll along with Mersault, who I thought I'd added in the past. Most likely I did and forgot to hit "Save", something I've done embarrassingly often, only usually I notice my mistake. Armathyx Does Gaming was in there too but I'd already added that one last week, when Armathyx dropped a comment here.

My general rule is that if someone comments on a post and their name is back-trackable to a blog then I add that blog to the roll. Occasionally, if it's something that seems completely inappropriate, I might demur, but that would be exceptionally rare. I don't always remember, though so if anyone's commenting and wondering why I'm ignoring them please do poke me about it.

If people put me in their blog roll but never comment, of course, I remain blissfully ignorant. Perhaps "blissfully" isn't the best choice of words... If I hadn't been truffling through Analytics I would never have known Inventory Full was listed on a blog prosaically titled World of Warcraft and Other MMOs, for example, or on another blog by the same Blogger, Andre, the magnificently-named  ...through wiping, we learn.  

I love everything about that second blog name: the way it begins with an ellipsis, the lower case, that comma... It's a shame Andre hasn't posted on either since last summer but I've added them both anyway. 

I might as well because dormant blogs certainly still get eyeballs. Analytics shows traffic still coming from Player vs Developer, Nils MMO Blog and Werit among others, although none of them has posted anything in months.

Thinking it over, I couldn't see a good reason to remove anything, at least not as long as the links still work. Blogger handily sorts the list by order of most recent activity so the ones that sit beside my most recent posts are the ones that ought to be flagged up, while the older ones remain a useful resource, neatly shunted out of sight unless you scroll down. 

Until you hit the very bottom of the stack, that is. Right down in the depths, beside yesterday's post, is where you'll find the blogs that aren't just dormant but dead. Blogger is smart enough to spot defunct links and to put them into quarantine lest whatever killed them infect the merely sleeping. 

Well, it's where you would have found them, until today. Not any more. Hosting links that go to 404s or available domain listings is taking archival responsibilities a smidgen too far, I feel. So I culled them. If Scree or Jaedia are still blogging somewhere, speak up, send a link. I'd love to reinstate you.

I didn't take a note of the others I excised before I brought down the knife but if you know you were there and you want back in then the same applies.

Lastly, the other thing I did was move "Previously on Inventory Full" to the top. Now you can wander through my back pages to your heart's content without having to wear out your mouse's middle wheel. Go nuts and you're welcome!

And let's hope that's it for blogging about blogging at least until NBI 2017.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

All For One : EQ2, WoW

Telwyn posted recently about the dubious attractions of repeating the same content you just completed with one character on a second...or third...or fourth... This was something of a theme throughout 2016, from Legion leveling in World of Warcraft, through the Dark vs Light event in SW:tOR to the pre-reqs for EQ2's Kunark Ascending expansion.

There's nothing strange about repeating yourself while playing an MMO, of course. We all know the MMORPG genre was built almost entirely on repetition from the very start. Indeed, all the way back in 1999, when I was doing a little research before deciding whether to plump for Ultima Online or EverQuest, I remember being struck by the extent to which the anecdotes I was reading centered around doing the same thing for what sounded like a very long time. Chopping wood, mostly, as I recall.

In the early years there was, by and large, a distinct division between that sort of repetitive rote activity, required to raise levels, skills or faction, and what we might loosely call story-related content. Quests tended to be a once-only affair, often relevant only to a particular class or race.

There were also, usually, many classes and races in an MMO and many starting points for the leveling journey. Add to that the length of time it took to take a character from creation to cap and the problem of finding yourself doing the exact same thing on a new character you'd done only the week before on another rarely arose. By the time you did get round to doing something for the second time, chances were it was so long ago you'd pretty much forgotten it anyway so it might as well be new content.

Wait a minute...haven't I been here before?

One of the innovations that WoW brought to MMOs, many of which swept through the genre like a forest fire in the years following Blizzard's unforeseen runaway success, was The Quest Hub. It established The Quest as the basic unit of currency for both progression and narrative and that has caused problems ever since.

Certain activities, it seems, can be repeated ad nauseam by many players, with the nausea not appearing for thousands, tens of thousands, millions of iterations. We call it "grinding" and whether it's good, bad or neutral has been discussed, debated and battered into the dirt as a topic for as long as there have been MMOs, without a consensus ever being reached.

Still, people will do it, if grudgingly. Over the years there's been a move by many developers to hide or soften the grind to make it more palatable. Daily quests, weekly quests, bonuses, points systems, you name it, someone's tried it. Perhaps the most dramatic of all these shortcuts has been the move from character-based play to an account-based focus.

When MMORPGs began they were very strongly rooted in the RPG tradition. The idea of characters being interchangeable bits on the drill-head of the player's account, slotted in and out to fit a specific purpose, would have been an anathema to the core playerbase of the era. There was an expectation that the player would have done at least some minimal imaginative homework in preparing the character. The Paper Doll often came with a space specifically for that background to be entered so that it could be perused by other players in the longueurs between pulls or in the fashion parade in front of the city bank.

No, but I have.

WoW changed that not by any intentional move away from its roots but by the sheer, runaway success with which it mainstreamed the genre. With an overwhelming influx of paying customers for whom "RPG" had a very different meaning and with every developer scrambling to re-bottle Blizzard's lightning there was a race towards convenience and ease of access that led directly away from the granular nature of character-based progress towards the inclusive, smooth integration of Account play.

At the same time and for much the same reason, leveling and progression paths were flattened, focused and accelerated. Starting choices were restricted, divergent options were culled and bottlenecks through which all characters had to pass were created. Players arriving in a new game would learn to ask "Where do I go to level at 20?" and expect to get a simple, unequivocal answer.

With each new character taking a fraction of the time to level up and with the progression path taken by a healer, a tank or a scout looking very much the same, player resistance to going through the same content was considerable, exacerbated by the indissoluble connection with narrative through the Quest Hub mechanic. Some developers dealt with this by mono-focusing their design to encourage players to stick with just the one character but, since it's presumably commercial good sense to encourage players to keep making more characters, the more common approach was to make doing so simpler, easier, more convenient.

And then that stopped. Last year several major MMO developers seemed to decide that the trend towards encouraging large stables of characters should come to an end. I'm sure that's not what happened but reading back from the decisions that were made it does look a little like a gentleman's agreement. However it came about the outcome doesn't seem to have been entirely what was expected.

At least it gives me a chance to admire the amazing Art Nouveau interiors.

As Telwyn and others have pointed out, basing a major selling point of your expansion around diversity (Class Halls) and then implementing mechanics based on unity is not an entirely coherent through-line. At least that all involved new content. In EQ2 and (as I understand, not being a player) SW:tOR, the requirement included going back and re-doing (or doing for the first time had you chosen to dodge it first time round) older content.

Since Kunark Ascending was announced and the pre-reqs revealed there's been a continual grumbling about it in the EQ2 community (although when isn't there, over everything, he grumbled?). A few months after release the positions seem to have hardened to "It sucks but suck it up", "Well it's your own fault - you should have done it the first time" and "Stuff this for a game of soldiers - I'm out". Naturally, because all MMO communities are in the end, a self-selecting group of "willing" volunteers the consensus is settling on "Suck it up".

Whether this is a valid or sustainable design decision in commercial terms I guess we will have to wait and see. Wilhelm has an excellent analysis of the current prospects for the remaining DBG MMOs and as he observes the litmus test is whether these games continue to get expansions. If development money continues to be spent making expansions then the least unlikely explanation must be that those expansions make money.

DBG has a year to assess whether taking this particular approach has made more or less money than they expected or hoped. Only a year because for all the troubles and tribulations of recent times SOE/DBG have always managed to knock out full-size expansions for the EQ titles at least once a year and they have already confirmed that work on the 2017 EQ2 expansion has begun.

And I'm still too short to reach the pestle and mortar. #ratongaproblems

Blizzard takes a lot longer. They may not even announce an expansion this year and certainly no-one on the planet expects them to release one. With those longer gaps between them WoW expansions tend more towards game resets anyway so it's always likely that each will see a sharp change of emphasis, direction or approach.

I'm in two minds. Emotionally I'm a fervent backer of character-based play so I see enforced requirements for each individual character as a positive. For that reason I back the return to content that needs to be completed by each character individually, not just by the player as controller of the account.

Which is fine in theory. In practice I have become soft just like everyone else. I've become used to convenience. Having to do the same thing on my Warlock that I just did on my Berserker and thinking while I'm doing it that I'll have to do it on my Inquisitor next week is not necessarily firing my pleasure centers.

Then again, I don't dread it, either. When all's said and done, this is entertainment. I am choosing to do it. If I decide I don't want to click through another fifty screens of overwritten fantasy twaddle or click on another fifty glowing ground spawns there's no-one making me but me. When I stop having fun I can stop trying to have fun.

The stage awaits. Who's on next?
The current approach to progression, narrative and character that developers seem to be taking in many MMOs, especially the ones that have been around a while, is a muddy, messy compromise but when wasn't it? MMOs are messy.

Trends and fashions in game development come and go and we as players live through them. This, too, will pass. For now I'm probably going to set my focus a little more narrowly and try to run a smaller team in most of my MMOs than I have been wont to do. Something closer to The Legion of Super Pets then The Legion of Super Heroes.

Which, come to think of it, is an analogy that's more apposite than I'm likely to admit.

Saturday, 7 January 2017

It's Not Easy Being DBG : Landmark, EQNext

In a move that surely surprised no-one Daybreak Games yesterday announced the intent to sunset Landmark on February 21 2017. Why this particular date, who knows? It's a Tuesday, which is DBG's regular patch day, so I guess it's just convenient. Everything has to end sometime. Why not then?

The announcement has stirred up the inevitable, expected and by now immensely tedious flurry of schadenfreude and faux-rage from people who most likely never played Landmark or indeed any other SOE or DBG game. Not, at least, in the last decade or so. Tyler F.M. Edwards at Superior Realities has the best take on the hand-wringing, fist-shaking echo chamber that passes for a community in some quarters these days:

"To be blunt, I think the blame for Landmark’s end rests squarely on the shoulders of the MMO community. When EverQuest Next was cancelled, the community turned on Daybreak, apparently not understanding that sometimes new concepts simply do not work...the community, however, chose to demonize Daybreak as some sort of ogre. They took EverQuest Next’s cancellation personally. And a lot of that hate spilled over to Landmark.

People hated Landmark because it wasn’t Next. People hated Landmark just because it was made by Daybreak. People hated it because they had misinformed or unrealistic expectations of what it was supposed to be".

Read the whole of Tyler's post. It catches the tone exactly, how Landmark meant a lot to those who loved it, how much it will be missed, and how galling it is for anyone who actually spent real time in Landmark to see the almost self-congratulatory bloodletting unleashed by those who never did.

An even more instructive read is Feldon's excellent post-hoc analysis at EQ2Wire. Feldon, as always, knows more than he's able to articulate openly but here you scarcely even need to read between the lines. The numerous quotes from ex-SOE devs, who worked on Landmark and EQNext during what must have been some very miserable and disturbing times in the dying days of the ancien régime, are devestating.

These are just a few of the highlights:

"…the decision to publish Landmark was not driven to sell something to players. It was done to show that SOE had a pipeline of products so it would be more attractive to prospective buyers"

"Landmark was a disaster. It should have remained a toolset for building EQN and nothing more."

"Landmark was Dave’s (Georgeson's) obsession, and there simply was no way to convince him otherwise about it being a game. I believe this ultimately killed EQN."

"Dave approached the project with the wrong assumptions and when the market pushed back he doubled down on his mistakes. EQN was his responsibility and he blew it, and Smed should have removed him sooner when it became clear what was happening."

 All from people who worked on the project. And there's a lot more. Go read it if you haven't already.

Feldon himself has some choice observations, the headline among which is probably this one:

"The EverQuest Next “combat demo” shown at SOE Live in 2013 was entirely smoke and mirrors, with developers back at the home office “playing” NPCs."
 This one won't surprise anyone who plays EQ or EQ2:
"Feedback from the existing EverQuest and EverQuest II teams was largely ignored. Instead, credence was primarily given to outside feedback from recently laid off 38 Studios staff and other outsiders in the industry."

And, perhaps most tellingly of all:

"Sony Online Entertainment took a $62 million writeoff in 2013 for development costs associated with EverQuest Next and H1Z1". 

I hold my hand up. Dave Georgeson, John Smedley and the rest of that whole, sorry crew fooled me the way they fooled the industry, the media and the rest of the fans. I wrote pieces in praise of EQNext even as I understood it would be an MMO that wasn't being made for me or for the millions of former and current EQ and EQ2 players but for a whole, new, much larger audience. I understood the compromises that would require and I knew and wrote that the game would not, in all likelihood, be one I'd enjoy very much, yet I wished it well and hoped it would succeed.

What I didn't realize was that there would be no game, no matter how long we waited, because no-one who was making it had any idea how it could be made. I didn't realize the Smed and Smokejumper dog and pony show was just that - a carnival huckster operation linked to some of the widest-eyed, most naive wishful-thinking ever seen outside a pre-school playground.

The very first comment on the EQ2Wire piece sums it up nicely:

"I am just speechless as how much Georgeson fucked over this franchise."

Aren't we all?  And yet I don't "hate" him for it. I don't believe anyone in this whole unholy mess was acting maliciously. Like so many other games development stories it's a tale of people who think they know more than they know, who think they can do more than they can do, and above all, who believe if they say something often enough and loud enough it will become true by the sheer force of their wishing it so.

Well it doesn't. It won't. It can't. EQNext always sounded too good be true and it was. Or rather it wasn't and never will be.


As for Landmark, far from being the full-fledged MMO Dave Georgeson claimed, promised and finger-crossed it would be, it never even managed to be the toolset it should have been. As Feldon's investigations plainly discover, even the tools didn't work and when they did no-one knew how or why.

And yet for all that we had fun. I had funAywren had fun. Tyler had fun. Even Wilhelm, who's keeping a list, had a few moments. Hundreds, thousands of amazing structures were built, projects started, memories made. I had good times in Landmark, some of which I've written about here. I spent many happy hours noodling around there and if I regret anything it's only that I spent too much time.

Far from feeling ripped off for paying some $150 for two alpha packages I feel I got my money's worth and then some. Between us Mrs Bhagpuss and I spent hundreds of hours in Landmark and almost all of those were good hours.

So, will I miss Landmark? No, not really. I'm glad to have experienced it but if I'm honest I was done with it a while ago. All my houses eventually fell down, including the final one I built after the game officially went Live. The main he reason was I couldn't ever remember to log in often enough to keep them standing. When you have to remind yourself to log in you can hardly claim you'll miss it when it stops.

And in the end, what was Landmark? It wasn't quite a game and it certainly wasn't a virtual world. It was supposed to be those things and a toolset too but the best description I can come up with is that Landmark was a toy.

Like a toy, I played with it now and again, when the mood took me, but as soon as I put it down I forgot all about it. If I miss it, ever, it will be the way I miss my old Hot Wheels set, vaguely and with a mild, warm nostalgia. I wouldn't go out and buy another.


I understand that's not how many will be feeling right now, although you'd need to define "many" rather specifically, since these days peak population across the entire game falls short of a couple of hundred people. The builders and creators, working on some of those stunning projects or just puttering around, like my old gaming friend who was busy building his own take on The Shire with some guildmates from LoTRO, those folks will be angry, upset, hurt, bereft.

Some will feel tricked. Some will feel betrayed. They will curl in or lash out. Inevitably, the blank slate of Daybreak Games and the faceless corporate monolith that is Columbus Nova will take a splattering of paint while the real perpetrators of this outrage not only escape condemnation but even reap the deeply undeserved rewards of misplaced sympathy: Dave Georgeson, who appears to have left the industry and Smed, who the industry appears to be leaving behind, not to mention the ever-anonymous Russell Shanks, who presided over DBG while more poor decisions continued to be made, as well as the rest who slipped away quietly while the sign-painters were changing the names on the doors.

Yes, Columbus Nova and the current Daybreak management could have finessed the end of both EQNext and Landmark with a softer touch. It was foolish to claim EQNext was being canned because "it wasn't fun". They should have said "because it won't run and never will". Because "we bit off more than we could chew, we had dreams bigger than our ability to realize them, because we made promises we couldn't keep".

They might have adopted a warmer, more empathic tone. They might even have resisted slamming the door on any remaining hope quite so fiercely, although that in itself might merely have compounded earlier errors of judgment.


They should have said sorry and meant it but by the time there was no putting off the inevitable any longer all the people from whom an apology would have meant anything were nowhere to be seen. I imagine the main thing Columbus Nova is sorry about is that they ever got involved in this farrago in the first place. Like the rest of us I imagine they were mesmerized by smoke and mirrors and sold a handful of beans. When they rubbed the fairy dust from their eyes the carnival was gone.

I'd love - I'd love -  for the closure of Landmark to draw a line under this whole sorry episode. I'd love for late-period SOE to slip away into the history books taking its ill-conceived, ill-fated, ill-humored EQNext project with it, never to be mentioned again. I'd love for the current management team at Daybreak to be allowed to get on with day to day operations and business as usual.

Yes, I'd love that but this is the internet. This is gaming. No grudge is ever forgotten. No wound is ever allowed to heal. The very best those of us who love the franchise can hope is that Daybreak under Columbus Nova finally becomes so boring that no-one remembers it's there.

Fat chance. Next up, some necessary but controversial decision involving LotRO or DDO. Or an announcement of some new game that everyone can project their fantasies and fears onto without ever needing to see let alone play. The caravan rolls on.



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