Monday, 11 December 2017

A Hall Of Mirrors : EQ2, GW2

Pushing on into the Plane of Disease last night, it occured to me how exceptionally reflexive MMORPG gameplay has become. In 1999, as I peered at the dim shapes in the small window at the center of my 15" CRT monitor, shapes that were supposed to be bats but which looked more like kites flapping in a strong wind, I could hardly have been expected to imagine that two decades later I'd still be there, still in that same imaginary world, still killing bats.

The bats look a lot more batlike these days and I can see them much more clearly but they are, nonetheless, bats. Not precisely the same bats, it's true, but one imaginary bat looks much like another, twenty years of technological progress notwithstanding.

Rallius Rattican, protected by bats. Overprotected, I'd say.

The unchanging wildlife, the immortal parade of bears, bats, rats and boars, that's the least of it. More, it's the places and the characters, a litany of familiar names. One of the most striking features of both EQ2's Planes of Prophecy expansion and GW2's Path of Fire is the way every opportunity has been taken to remind us of the past.

There's the nostalgia card being played, of course. As the MMO genre ages, increasingly developers have come to understand just what a strong suit that is. But it's more than that. These worlds have history.

Gryme. He still holds the key.

Tyria may have seen two hundred summers and Norrath half a millennium but time works diferently there and so does death. The dead rise and walk again and the lifespan of a lich or a vampire or a god isn't measured in years but in centuries or millennia or eons.

Even without the supernatural the scant few hundred years across iterations wouldn't be enough to erode all evidence of the old regime. The rise and fall of empires leaves behind a residue of history, statues and cities that even cataclysms cannot entirely obscure. Everywhere you turn you see a face, a shape, a suggestion of the past.

Cubes. Seen one, killed them all.
There's all that and there's so much more. For weeks I've been hearing veterans of the first Guild Wars reminisce not only about the stories they were told but the legends that they made. It's an alienating experience, like hearing tales of a homeland that was never yours.

Well, now I'm getting that feeling all of my own. It's not just that I know the names, nor that I remember the landscapes. I was there. And more than that, I was there not just in one other life but many.

Puslings. Still the same annoying little snots they always were.

MMORPGs, if they last, all become palimpsests, their own iterations overwritten endlessly, but there are layers on layers. From every era memories accrue, lying one atop another.

When Planes of Power was new I spent evening after evening edging along the polluted dunes with five nervous friends, barely able to kill a fly - literally, since Malarian mosquitoes were about all we could handle. As the expansion aged and we grew in confidence we roamed more widely until we opened the doors of the Crypt of Decay. Then we died.

The original Plane of Disease, courtesy of Allakhazam.
 But we came back and eventually we tamed the zone and made it ours. Some of it. A room at a time. 

A couple of years later, on a different server, the Planes became a playground. With levels and the welcome accumulation of power that both blesses and curses MMOs, Crypt of Decay turned into "that zone that drops all the gems", the place Mrs Bhagpuss and I duoed when we needed some quick cash.

The new version, unmistakeably the same place. Only with added horse-goats..

A while later there was only me. Me and my mercenary. Me and my mercenary and my pets, a lone player and a clutch of silent, obedient allies, roaming fearlessly where once a full group cowered and quaked. I had good times alone.

I have such history here. Not just in this plane or this zone but across the world, these worlds. Worlds whose metafictional existence has become so fractionated, so crystalline that every shock splits a shard that reflects the whole.

Crypt of Decay. Now it gets tricky.

The two MMORPGs I play the most right now are each the second generation that's neither a copy nor a continuation. The new exists in tandem with the old, each refelcting the other into infinity. I can see all of those refelctions at once and behind them all the ghosts of what they were and who I was and what we may become.

It's something rich and strange. It's oddly like life.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Give The People What They Want : EQ2

So far, Planes of Prophecy has been an absolute joy and it looks set to go on that way for a good while yet. My Berserker is currently just under halfway through level 107 but he's hardly begun. According to the timeline at the invaluable he's barely a third of the way through Legacy of Power, the Signature quest that forms the backbone of the expansion.

On the way to 107 he's maxed the first of the three factions, House Yrzu. That leaves most of the main questline plus two more faction lines to complete, not to mention repeatables, dailies, weeklies, timed key quests and a standalone sequence in The Amphitheater of Song. It would appear there must be far, far more quest experience available than the journey from 100 to 110 requires.

It's emblematic of the refreshing approach the Daybreak team have decided on for this expansion. Out goes almost every kind of roadblock, drag anchor and irritation: in comes convenience, user-friendliness and ease of access.

Mob models in Plane of Prophecy are really excellent. Full of wit and character.

In keeping with EQ2's complex hierarchy of systems things aren't always as obvious or self-explanatory as they might be but that's only relative. Compared to previous eras of Norrathian history this really is the smart, sleek, accessible version. From the Teleport pads in Plane of Magic through the Ascended Trainer in Coliseum of Valor (not to mention CoV itself) to the account-wide zone unlocks, no effort has been spared to make the whole experience as straightforwardly enjoyable as possible.

It's been a quiet revolution. The last two expansions, Terrors of Thalumbra and Kunark Ascending both cleaved in the opposition direction, removing a number of conveniences while adding a whole slew of qualifying conditions. I liked both ToT and KA but a lot of people weren't as happy about it all as I was.

There were continual rumblings of  dissatisfaction that occasionally rose to a dull roar and it very much seems as though someone was listening. Of course, not everyone is content. It wouldn't be EQ2 without a thread like this on the first page of the forum. Compared to most years, though, the number of positive voices chipping in to counter the gloom is noticeably higher:

" This is the best expansion in quite some time."

50k faction - that's the real achievement!
"The devs really listened to the problems with KA and have made it much easier to get started in PoP."

"I'm loving it so far."

"I feel like overall this is a very approachable expansion (unlike KA)."

"I feel it's a more accessible expansion than the prior one by a long shot."

"I like to say, this is a classical expansion, with increase of lvl, new armor, new quests and so on. We have seen this in the past many times and for sure it is much better than KA and much more alt and casual friendly."
"I am really impressed with this Xpac"
"I love how the dev's listened to feedback for this expansion."
"It's a great expansion. Great content"

There are a lot more like that, too, although there are some naysayers as well. The difference this time is that usually naysayers are all you get!

It's not just the great improvement in accessibility; the way you can get started on the meat of the expansion hour one, day one. It's also, as one of the comments above points out, that this is "a classical expansion".
Meldrath! Mith Marr! Druzzil Ro! All the nostalgia buttons Path of Fire didn't press for me are getting hammered hard here.

It's been a while since we last got new levels. Three years, in fact, in Altar of Malice, and that was only a five level increase. In fact - and I found it hard to believe this when I looked it up - the last time EQ2 players got a fix of a full ten level increase in a single expansion was all the way back in 2010, with Sentinel's Fate.

I remember the launch of Sentinel's Fate. It was so long ago it seems like another lifetime. Since then we've made do with AAs, Prestige Points, Ascension Levels and who can remember how many other quasi-leveling systems. We've had actual levels doled out in teaspoon-sized doses - two levels here, five levels there. We've had experience stretched out so that doing one 20% bubble of a level was meant to feel like doing the full thing.

Look out below!

We've had every kind of palliative and placebo but now we have the real thing and boy, does it feel good! I purely love having ten full levels to climb. I love the way that many new levels make my characters really very much more powerful. I love the way all my spells and combat arts get an upgrade. I love the way every new piece of gear is visibly superior to the last.

The whole thing feels solid, satisfying and right. This is the MMORPG gameplay I know, want and will stay around for as long as it keeps coming. I don't care about "power creep" or trivializing older content. I want to trivialize older content. If I want to play through the old content un-trivialized I'll make a new character and do just that. Meanwhile just give me those bigger numbers!

The difficulty level of Planes of Prophecy - the solo content at least - might as well have been tailor-made for me. It's nigh-on perfect. I would call it easy and I like easy. I come here for easy. That said, it's not remotely dull or tedious.

Several of the Bosses in Plane of Innovation are too big to get in a screenshot.
They're all fantastic to watch as they try to kill you!

There have been complaints about the number of "trash mobs" in the Heroic dungeons and there are certainly plenty in the solo instances of Plane of Innovation that I've done so far, but not too many for my tastes. I wish they'd drop a bit more loot - particularly some Adept spell books to upgrade my new abilities - but they die fast and they're fun to kill.

Thing is, I like that classic MMORPG gameplay. I like killing a lot of mobs before I get to see a Named or a Boss. I like stacking quests that ask me to kill five of this and eight of that and six of the other so I can roam around, pull everything and hear a lot of little dopamine bells chiming as they all die.

Is it my imagination or has Meldrath put his Frostfell lights up?
Plane of Prophecy gives me all that in spades. I'm playing every chance I get and I wish I could play more. I want to get the Berserker to 110 and finish the Signature quest but I'm already looking forward to taking my Inquisitor and my Warlock and my Necromancer through as well.

No convenience spared.
I have two Level 100 boosts to use, which I might give to my Beastlord and Channeler. My Bruiser is leveling up the hard way. I might even buy another character slot and roll someone new; there are plenty of classes I've not played at this level yet.

Overall I have to say I feel enthused. I have an order of magnitude more desire to play EQ2 right now than GW2, which isn't to say I'm not enjoying GW2 as well - I am, but it just feels like there's so much more to do in Norrath than in Tyria this winter.

In fact, if I could persuade Mrs Bhagpuss to make a return to EQ2 I would probably take a break from GW2 for a while. Far from that happening, though, she's just begun to make inroads on the Path of Fire storyline in preparation for starting Living Story 4 so it looks as though I'll be splitting my time between the two games for now.

Enough of all that. When I stopped to write this post I'd just finished up the storyline in Plane of Innovation. PoI was a real treat. It evoked the original wonderfully and Meldrath was a hoot. I'm itching to see what they've done with Plane of Disease.

Erm...maybe "itching" wasn't the best choice of words there...

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

How To Do More With Less : EQ2

When I wasn't slogging through GW2's Living Story yesterday I was ambling amiably around The Plane of Magic, getting some levels done while working on my Yrzu faction. For some reason the Daybreak Games team chose to gate most of EQ2's latest expansion, Planes of Prophecy behind a substantial faction grind. It's an odd move. I mean, I like a faction grind as much as the next twenty-year veteran but I wouldn't choose to start an expansion with one.

You might imagine this would be both an unpopular and a controversial decision, especially given the mixed reception given to last year's Kunark Ascending, which came with any number of pre-requisites and requirements - obscure languages, long-forgotten quest chains, several faction minimums. Apparently, it's not.

Far from it, in fact. If anything, the vibe around PoP has been noticeably less frosty than the usual stone-faced stare all new content engenders from EQ2's famously hostile home crowd. I'd go as far as to say that General Chat has been positively perky, with most of the tantrums reserved for family spats between long-timers over issues that have nothing to do with the expansion's quality or lack thereof. Certainly no-one seems to be complaining about the faction grind. From what I could glean, people seemed to be relishing it.

Among those giving PoP the benefit of the doubt is Kaozz at ECTMMO. She was less than impressed by Kunark Ascending but she's been covering her progress this time around with a good deal more enthusiasm than she did last year. I was taken aback at first by the speed at which she leveled to 105 because my own progress, while entirely enjoyable, was glacial by comparison.

Over the years SOE and DBG have experimented with any number of ways to stop players burning through new content, few of which have been well-received. This time they seem to have come up with something that hasn't driven the usual sales of tar and feathers through the roof.

What they've come up with is rather simple. They've made each new level from 100 to 110 cost many millions of experience points, while leaving the xp per kill just about where it was. Then they've added absolutely huge XP rewards to the main storyline and faction quests, most of which are very straightforward.

With full vitality and the pre-order bonus running, completing a single quest can award close to a third of a level in experience. Even the repeatable faction quests chime in with a large chunk. This approach would be all well and good if it wasn't for the exceptionally slow TTK (time to kill) which quite a few people have been bemoaning.

Quite a few but not everyone. General chat offered a number of discussions on this during the week and it was clear that not everyone was suffering the same slowdown. A common mistake turned out to be that some people hadn't taken advantage of the free armor, weapons and jewellery that lie around in a box at the zone-in just waiting to be picked up.

The lack of that major upgrade to efficiency explained many people's issues but not mine - I was wearing it all and had been from the beginning. Even so, after a couple of sessions, where it took me literally half an hour to kill the necessary eight mobs to finish each single, repeatable faction quest, while I could see other players ripping through the same mobs in seconds, I decided I must be making some other basic error. I was.

A few years back SOE realized that Berserkers were getting all the benefits of being both a DPS class and a Tank with none of the drawbacks of either, at which point they withdrew a number of the perks from the Offensive stance. Since that unhappy day my Berserker has soloed exclusively as a Tank, since even before that, although I may never have grouped with him, I always thought of him as a Tank and geared and specced him accordingly.

It's never been much of an issue. He's been able to kill quickly and take a beating all at the same time. Well, not in PoP, it seems. In Defensive stance he's so safe that fighting mobs five levels above him doesn't put a visible dent in his hit point bar but he doesn't do a lot more damage than that in return. When I swapped him into Offensive stance all that changed.

Boy, how it changed! Suddenly every attack was knocking chunks off the mobs and when I cast my big Ascended nuke for the first time after the refit I couldn't believe what I was seeing. A single cast reduced the target's health by the best part of 75%! No wonder people say the Ascension class system has turned everyone into Wizards.

Once I took my self-imposed brakes off everything sped up by an order of magnitude. Literally. I'd been timing my TTK and it went from three minutes to thirty seconds on the same mobs. With a few more refinements I improved on that some more. Now I'm back to the usual situation, where the limiting factor on progress is how fast I can get from the quest-giver to the target and back.

That can take a while. Plane of Magic is big. Or it seems big. I'm not sure it's actually any bigger than the open world maps from the last two expansions but it somehow manages to give the impression of vastness by being surrounded by the void. Actually, make that The Void. I think it used to be a zone in it's own right.

Compared to the Path of Fire maps in GW2, Plane of Magic is an absolute pleasure to explore. Mob density is nigh-on perfect: always enough to complete a quest, never so many they get in the way. What's even better is that most aren't aggressive, the ones that are have very small aggro ranges and nothing I've encountered so far snares  me, roots me, stuns me or knocks me down.

You wouldn't believe what a difference that makes. Or perhaps, if you've struggled to explore PoF, you would. DBG may not have either the engine or the artists to compete with ANet but with maybe a tenth as many developers (and that's being optimistic) they manage to make gorgeous environments that positively encourage exploration - and reward it richly, too.

Then there's the storyline. It's just as much cod-fantasy nonsense as GW2's but it's coherent, comprehensible, well-structured nonsense. It's the same plot as every other EQ2 expansion - some mysterious force/god/demon is messing with the natural order/rules of magic/structure of the universe and only you, the player, can help some very important NPCs Put a Stop To It. The difference is in the language.

EQ2 has an odd house style - there's a stiff formality to it that I love. Of late it's not as relentlessly polished as it once was - infelicities and colloquialisms do slip in form time to time - but it still rolls around the reader's palate like a rich Rioja.

I thoroughly enjoy reading EQ2's quest text. Every word. I also find the NPCs and their odd quirks and personality disorders endearing and amusing. As I quested through the storyline of the first of the three factions I'll need to complete I found myself not dreading the grind but looking forward to it. If I'm going to play a quest-based MMO then these are the kinds of quests and quest-givers I want.

After around four hours on Sunday I'd gone from level 101 to 105 but that only tells part of the story. In that time I also went back to Obulos Frontier in Kunark several times to visit Najena, my Elementalist Ascension Trainer and Miragul, who  looks after my Ethereal Ascension needs. Nothing like being trained by two of the greatest mages of all time.

I also spent a good while sorting my banks - not just for the fun of it this time but because I noticed that crafting mats now stack to 800, a fourfold increase. The entire session was an unalloyed pleasure. So far I've scarcely touched the content of the expansion - I'm not even out of the first zone - but I've enjoyed every moment.

As well as questing I flew all over the place, gawping. I took a lot of screenshots and I found a lot of shinies. I never once felt as though I was "playing a game"; I was in the world, immersed.

After all these years I still can't find an MMO to compete with EQ2 when it comes to settling down in a virtual world- at least not since Vanguard went dark. GW2 looked good for a while but now it just looks like a moderately fun game. Where else, after all, can you step out of your front door and walk into a party fighting a dragon on your doorstep?

I'm sure Planes of Prophecy won't be a perfect expansion. I doubt it will even match the extremely high standard set by SOE's swansong, Altar of Malice, which was twice the size - albeit the work of a much larger team.

But for an MMO in the autumn of its life, tended by a skeleton crew working for a company with an uncertain future? Given that background, Planes of Prophecy is a small miracle and I'm going to enjoy the heck out of it while I still can.

Monday, 4 December 2017

The GW2 Living Story 4 Review or "Just Die, Already!"

Working in a bookshop as I do, this is an awkward time of year for gaming. Longer hours, disrupted work patterns, not to mention my own preparations for Christmas all make it hard enough to find time to game without gaming companies deciding to release major updates on the same day.

Last week was frustrating. I came home late in the evening, tired, wanting to play but lacking either the hours or the energy to throw myself wholeheartedly into either EQ2's latest expansion Planes of Prophecy or Daybreak, GW2's fourth installment of the Living World storyline.

My frustration was evident in the short post I slapped up on Friday. It wasn't until Sunday that I finally found time to settle down and really dig in to the new content in both games. I was determined to make the most of the opportunity and in the end I managed to play for around eight hours, split roughly evenly between the two.

I thought of combining my impressions of the two very different sessions into a single post but there's more than enough to say about each of them separately. This is the GW2 post and I preface it with the above to set my reactions in some context. There will be spoilers so beware.

Met office amber warning for crystallization.

I was at home and playing when the GW2 update arrived, around tea-time on Tuesday. The EQ2 servers, down in preparation for the expansion, weren't due to come up again for three hours, so I was ready and able to give the fourth installment of The Living Story my full attention.

It began well, with a most impressive "Brandstorm" over the desert city of Amnoon. There was a very brief moment of calm at a farmstead and then all hell broke loose - lightning, screen shake, a road filled with terrified refugees - then action, action, action.

Once the fighting started it pretty much never stopped. ANet's new method with solo instances seems to be to throw every thing at the screen at once and keep on throwing until the player stumbles out the far side and collapses. The forum feedback thread is unusually positive about the chapter as a whole but the main negative criticism focuses on the extended boss battles and the long, tedious fights.

Canach? Rytlock? Where did you guys go?

My Friday post may have inadvertently given the impression that I found the first instance boss - a wyvern - difficult. Not so. Having now finished the whole of the Daybreak story I can confirm that nothing in it is "difficult", not even the final boss fight, which has drawn a lot of flak.

"Difficulty" would suggest a chance of failure. There is no chance that anyone, whatever their skill or gear level, will fail to complete any of these fights. Not, that is, unless they get so bored they quit before the end, which is an entirely possible outcome. Otherwise, providing you have the patience, if all else fails it's possible to death-rush any fight, re-spawning and running back as many times as required.

I was very, very far from needing to do anything of the kind. Playing as a druid, I didn't die once during the entire thing. Other than a single time in the wyvern fight, when I was standing around trying to figure out the mechanics,  I don't think I was even downed. In the final "epic" boss fight my health never went below about 80%.

Scruffy's just warming up. Wait til you see him at full stretch.

That fight, however, took around forty minutes and the instance of which it formed the climax, almost all of which was non-stop fighting, took about an hour and a half. The reason it took so long, other than my druid's low DPS, is that the whole thing is composed of set-piece fights that are either multiple waves of twenty to fifty trash mobs, always including a large number of high hit-point Veterans, or mini-boss Champions with repetitive phases and a shed-load of HP.

Fights that would be fun at maybe two or three minutes and bearable at five are stretched out to ten or fifteen. Even between the set pieces every step of the way involves clearing more trash. It is dull. It's also consistent with the relentless, unavoidable, tedious combat that characterizes Path of Fire in general, so there's that.

As a design ethos, giving every set-piece fight one or two specific mechanics, which then repeat two or three times at set intervals, stinks. Anet have been doing it for a long, long time and it's become utterly predictable.

As soon as we moved from the huge open world events of LS1 to instances that could be packaged and sold to latecomers through the Gem Store it became apparent that the problem would be length. Without these artificially extended borefests the average LS episode would probably last 90 minutes, tops. Padding was needed and padding is what we got.

Geez, that must have been some party.
This time, the whole story took me around five hours in total. Not counting the new map, which I still haven't fully explored. I enjoyed some of it. I would have enjoyed all of it if it had taken half as long. Even then, I wouldn't have believed any of it.

Combat aside, the story is just nonsense. There were a number of "Wait, what?!" moments, when I genuinely had no idea what was happening. The plot was so incoherent it seemed as though there might literally be scenes missing.

The sequence where the player-character, manacled, is knocked unconscious with a single blow is one of those "really?" moments. I suppose in a world where The Commander (that's you) can literally tell an NPC, from personal experience, that death is overrated, there can't be any genuine threat any more. Even so, this was pushing it.

Nothing makes much sense any more, though. If there's an explanation of how Taimi came to be captured, either before or after the fact, then I missed it  - and I talked to everyone.

Don't mind the traumatized teen on the floor there.
So, how have you been?

As for the part where Braham and Rox literally appear out of thin air, talking about an Awakened invasion of core Tyria, I felt I'd missed not just a plot point but an entire Living Story episode. Has this actually been happening? If so, why did no-one tell me? I wish they had. It must have been like one of the old, good, LS episodes.

The voice acting is a little hit or miss in GW2 but usually the main characters are solid. This time Taimi sounded so weirdly unlike herself that I seriously expected a denouement where, when we finally prized her out of her battle-cruiser-grade tin can, we'd find it wasn't her at all.

As far as I can tell that didn't happen, although given the bizarre coda, where everyone stands around chatting instead of rushing the traumatized child to intensive care, she may as well have been a disposable mesmer clone or a clever simulacrum. If she doesn't end up with PTSD then Asuran recuperative powers must be off the scale.

As for the rest, Rytlock and Canach managed one or two half-decent lines but in general the dialog throughout is uninspired. Too many weak one-liners and while I'm used to my own character sounding like an ineffectual afterthought, the addition of an irascible, sarcastic edge isn't helping.

The rewards for plowing through it all? I don't think there were any. Not material rewards, at least. With gear upgrades off the table and all the cosmetics attached to the new map the story instances seem curiously purposeless these days. If it wasn't that a certain degree of progress through the story was required to open the new maps I think I'd start skipping them - let someone else do the hard graft and catch up later on YouTube.

In the end I wouldn't say the story and related instances were terrible. It's just that none of it is very good. It seems ridiculous to say it would have been better if it was shorter, because even as it stands it amounts to just a couple of play sessions to tide us over for a couple of months. It would have been better if it was shorter, even so.

Thanks for your input, Rytlock.
Of course, the story is just a small part of the update. There was also a new Fractal and a new Raid, both big deals to their respective audiences. And a new map which includes a large, popular and much-needed meta-event for the PoF region.

What's more, my downbeat reaction is very much out of kilter with the wider response. The official feedback thread suggests this is the best-received LS chapter for a long while. It's an indicator that the game is, once again, moving in a direction that doesn't appeal to me as it chases a demographic of which I'm an outlier, at best.

I don't much like Path of Fire. I liked Heart of Thorns a lot. I guess I've had my fun. Now it's someone else's turn.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

Harmonic Feedback

Keen posted a short but revealing analysis of one of the most intriguing aspects of MMORPG gameplay (and, I guess, video game gameplay in general) - repetition. When I started blogging one of the very early posts I wrote was "Again! Again!" because I've been fascinated by the role repetition plays in entertainment for far longer than I've been playing MMORPGs or even video games.

Immediately before reading Keen's post I'd just finished Pitchfork's retrospective review of Lou Reed's "Metal Machine Music", a masterpiece of supposed repetition. The experience of first hearing that album in the week it was released haunts me to this very day.

At the time I was merely mortally terrified by it although I came to love it later but I did for a long time believe the narrative that explained the double album away as four identical 16 minute slabs of noise. It's not. It's not anything like that.

Mark Richardson's review gives away something of the paradox whereby the same surface, penetrated, reveals different depths. Keen brings the same insight to MMORPGs with his EverQuest "hold a room and pull to it" example. It's one I have often called upon to try and explain why doing the same thing over and over is different from doing the same thing over and over.

Keen is searching for the line between good and bad repetition. It lies in chance. In chaos. in serendipity. If you read the Pitchfork review it refers to the way that Lou Reed placed two guitars with open tunings against amps so that they would not just create harmonic feedback but "with two guitars occupying the same space, the interactions between the instruments [would] create additional harmonics".

This is what happens in MMORPGs as they were originally designed. Specifically, it's what happens in the classic EverQuest play session, where a number of individuals are clustered in a fixed location around which mobs spawn and roam, to and from which a single player ventures and returns.

On the surface the situation appears extremely static. Having "broken" the room or the camp the players huddle in a corner and wait for a puller to go out and come back. They then unleash their spells and attacks on whatever comes along with him until it dies, whereupon they wait while he goes to get more. This they do for hour after hour.

Like Reed's unpredictable harmonics, however, the dynamics in play at the EQ camp are beyond the players' ability to predict. There are too many variables and too many of them are unknown. There's always the possibility that something will spin out of control.

For a while good players can shape the room. A good group will know the spawn times of the static mobs and the pattern of the roamers. A good puller will maintain consistency and avoid coming back with more than the group can handle, even if that means dying alone, out of aggro range.

A very good group will keep an accurate record of when each mob they kill dies, allowing them to predict the staggered and changing pattern of their respawns. With sufficient knowledge and a huge amount of concentration the process can be rendered predictably repetitive.

But not forever. No group, however skilled and experienced and attentive, can predict or control what happens outside their sphere of influence. They hold the room or the camp but the old EverQuest is a shared world. There are outside factors.

Another group or a single player may at any time disrupt the flow. Roamers can be killed, or held in combat, at far points of their range, out of sight, disrupting their patterns.

Different kinds of mobs with different strengths and abilities may spawn, randomly, unpredictably. In original EverQuest some of those unforeseen spawns might even have the ability to Charm players or their minions, turning the party against one another mid-battle. And of course, there are are the players themselves, always subject to unusual outside forces from a momentary lapse of concentration to a spilled drink to a kitchen fire.

EverQuest and MMORPGs like it were never truly dynamic, changing virtual worlds. Left to run with no players they would exhibit predictable patterns that would settle into stasis. Well, probably, although like the tree falling in the forest, who would know? Even between the faction-controlled NPCs and mobs there was always a modicum of randomness.

With players, though, nothing was ever the same. Nothing could ever be the same.

For weeks - months - around 2002/3 Mrs Bhagpuss and I would spend several nights a week in Velketor's Labyrinth. We liked Back Wall if we could get it. We'd clear and set up there with four other people permed from the pool we played with back then.

Mostly it was the same names. The spiders were always the same spiders. Every session was much the same. Every session was wildly different.

This is the good repetition that built MMORPGs. The repetition that replaced it, the kind Keen can't warm to, isn't bad. It's just different. Or rather it's not.

Instancing changed everything and yet it didn't change things all that much. I was happy to see it. Lost Dungeons of Norrath, which brought instances to Norrath, is up there with my favorite MMORPG expansions ever.

In LDoN dungeons there is only your group. It's a closed circuit. And yet, every session is still different. The parameters for change may be constrained but there's no such constraint on human behavior. 

You can zone into an instance you've done a score of times before and have someone do something you never imagined anyone would do. We once had a Necromancer respond to the first pull of the evening with an AE fear that sent everything the puller had brought scurrying deep into the dungeon, only to return with every mob they passed along the way. Things like that happened more often than you'd imagine.

Instanced dungeons with pick-up groups can be more repetitive than open dungeons with a static group. Or not. There's a hierarchy of predictability but the hierarchy can be unpredictable.

Nevertheless, as we move from the sprawling, uncoordinated virtual worlds of the late 20th Century into the silos of the early 21st the opportunities for chaotic revelation decline. As the genre pushes towards predictability, even-handedness and, most of all, solo-friendliness, the likelihood that if you do the same thing the same thing will happen continues to increase.

The tip of that knife is what Keen describes; repetition without dynamic gameplay. Which is fine in itself. As he says, his wife likes it. Lots of people like it. I like it. If what you're doing feels good each time you do it why would you not want to keep doing it?

I spend a lot of gaming time nowadays doing things whose outcome is relatively assured. Playing overpowered characters alone in closed instances I know well. It's relaxing. It can be satisfying when it leads to acquiring something desired; experience, faction, loot.

It's ironic in the extreme, though, to hear the gameplay of old MMOs described as "repetitive" when compared to that of the new. Were any developer to try and re-introduce the old kind of gameplay to an unfamiliar audience, raised on the MMOs of the last decade or so, I suspect that complaints of repetitive gameplay would be the very least of their worries.

Friday, 1 December 2017

The Wrong Daybreak : GW2

I only had time this week either to play or post. I chose to play.

For the first time, I think, since The Living World began, I haven't finished or even attempted to finish a chapter right away. In LS3 I usually finished the story in the first session and the map in the first week.

This time I played through to the end of the first instance on the day it became available but I haven't touched  the story since. The first "boss" fight was long and tedious and reading that there were several more like it was enough to put me off going any further. They need to stop doing this or I need to stop bothering with the story. One or the other.

I did open the new map, which is spectacular in places. I explored that for a while but the mob density is so overdone and the mobs themselves so tedious and annoying it sucks most of the fun out of exploring. I didn't finish opening the map and I haven't been back. If I don't want to do the story and I don't want to explore the map it makes me wonder if I still want to play at all.

Unsurprisingly,  the most fun to be had by far was in the parts where nothing and no-one was trying to kill me. The Astralarium was particularly impressive. I could do with a lot more non-combat content in GW2. It risks turning into a quasi-ARPG these days.

Whether I'd be more enthusiastic if I didn't have the EQ2 expansion to explore at the same time, who can say? What I can say, though, is that since they both arrived on Tuesday I have rushed through my dailies in GW2 and then logged out to spend all my available playing time in Planes of Prophecy instead.

Anyway, enough of that. Off to Norrath I go!

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

A New Dawn : EQ2, GW2

I'm sitting here twiddling my thumbs right now as I wait to see who will be fastest off the mark - ArenaNet or Daybreak. As Telwyn has already observed, it never rains but it pours and today is launch day for both EQ2's 14th expansion, Planes of Power Prophecy and the first episode of GW2's fourth season of The Living World (or whatever they're calling it these days).

The EQ2 servers went down a while ago, advertising a scheduled downtime of five hours with license to add. If they hit their marks that would see the first incursion to The Plane of Magic, PoP's supposedly vast open-world map, beginning sometime around 8pm GMT - which by pure co-incidence is the time that 90% of GW2's patches land.

Once in a while someone at ANet will decide to come in early and we get an unexpected kick around the middle of the afternoon or tea-time. I'm logged in right now after doing my dailies hoping to get the old heave-ho but no joy so far. 

I'm in Tyria now but only because Norrath is closed. I spent all morning working through the solo quest-lines in Everfrost for no better reason than I wanted to. As I said in general chat to another player, who was waxing lyrical about how much fun he and his guild have been having, going through older content at their own pace, it's just nice to have all this great stuff to go back to, whenever the mood takes you.

It may not be a fair comparison because GW2 has just had a full expansion while EQ2's last one was a year ago but I'm far more excited about going to the Planes than I am about finding out what happens next in the God-Dragon War. It's that nostalgic feeling that DBG are so deft at tapping into.

Planes of Power was an epochal turning point for EverQuest. The game changed with the Shadows of Luclin expansion in 2001 but it was PoP a year later than spun the whole world on its axis. After PoP nothing was ever the same again. Many older players hated that but I'd left and come back once already and I was ready for something different.

Even though I was never a raider, and Planes of Power raised EQ's raiding culture to its zenith, I was fully and deeply engaged with the culture of the game at that time. I was in both an active guild and an even more active custom chat channel. The channel had half the guild in it as well as friends from several other guilds, including some very serious raiders looking for a more relaxed crew to kick back with on slow evenings.

It wasn't until much later, when the addition of Mercenaries and a lot more levels made duoing old raid content a fun thing to do, that Mrs Bhagpuss and I saw most of the higher Planes of Power. She'd seen quite a bit more of the expansion, while it was new, than I had because she applied and was eventually accepted into one of the larger raiding guilds, only to hate it there and leave almost immediately.

There were some parts of the Planes that we did come to know very well indeed, though, even when they were current content. We spent many evenings holed up in some corner of Plane of Nightmare or Plane of Disease, quaking as we waited to see if the puller was going to bring more than we could handle - which could be a single treant if it was a feisty one...

Later we spent long hours in Plane of Storms and Bastion of Thunder but probably my fondest planar memories are of the Sunday lunchtime runs through Plane of Innovation as a full guild group escorting our resident tinker to the vendors at the end of the zone. I can hear the whirring and clanking as I write...and the swearing...

Seeing screenshots of the upcoming EQ2 version of Innovation brings it all back. It won't be the same but it doesn't need to be. All it has to do is remind me of those good times. I might even have to level my tinkering up again.

I never got round to copying a character to the Beta servers so when the expansion finally goes live it will all be new to me. I have, however, been browsing the beta forums, where the tone has been relatively positive, for a change. Last year's Kunark Ascending, which I enjoyed, had a mixed reception at best but the feeling at the moment seems to be that lessons may have been learned.

As Kaozz, who didn't appreciate the direction DBG took last time, says "It sounds like a great expansion for those who have been gone, easy to jump in on any 100, easy access to get rolling not depending on gear."

I hope she's right. And I hope I get to find out for myself before it's time to go to bed!
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