Saturday, 23 July 2016

Gnome Is The Hunter : WoW

When Blizzard announced the forthcoming sixth expansion for World of Warcraft almost a year ago it occurred to me that I might, for the first time ever, buy in at the beginning. The whole package sounded attractive, much more so than either dull Draenor or potty Pandaria.

There was going to be what sounded like a very welcome shift in gameplay to a more modern, less directive approach, borrowing from the trend begun by Guild Wars 2. The whole enterprise had a looser, more relaxed, less intense vibe than the war-torn drama and earnest work ethic of WoD, yet without crossing the credibility barrier into cartoonism that so tried the patience of the hardcore prior to the release of MoP.

Admittedly, a lot of the tent-pole features didn't do much for me. Order Halls sounded eerily like yet another way for Blizzard to wriggle out of offering real housing (something that, were they ever to take a proper run at it, would probably bring back literally millions of their missing subscribers and hold them, not for months but years). Demon Hunters didn't catch my fancy any more than Death Knights had. Artefact weapons are a thing I actively avoid in any MMO that has them.

There were ten new levels though, and although I tapped out at 69 on my original run, the expansion was set to arrive with the now-traditional boost to the previous cap, meaning I could start at 100 and go on from there. The half-dozen new zones of The Broken Isles sounded interesting. The new scaling mechanic meant they could be approached in any order and I've always been a sucker for an archipelago.

Move your ears, can't you? The reception's terrible..

There were, however, two standout features of Legion that made a re-up more likely than ever before: a real appearance system and Gnome Hunters. Add the super-sweetener that gnomes get clockwork pets and really, what more is there to say?

My highest character in WoW is a Dwarf Hunter. I found the class eminently playable and very enjoyable. As a rule I like dwarves in MMOs but playing a dwarf does have a certain effect on my demeanor and in-game personality. I tend to joke less and act more soberly. It's still more fun than playing most tall races but noticeably less amusing than playing a goblin, a ratonga or, yes, a gnome.

For this last year the prospect of being able to roll a gnome hunter at launch and take him or her clothes shopping as a career has kept the possibility of an early purchase of Legion alive. It was never a done deal because I have a lot of MMO pots on the boil right now and the end of August might not turn out to be the best time to commit to a subscription, but on balance I would have said it was more likely than not.

And then came came patch 7.0, forever to be known, around here at least, as The One Where They Gave Away The Farm. Not the Pandaria farm (anyone remember those?). No, just the very parts of the expansion that I would have been most willing to pay for.

The patch largely removed my need to buy the expansion but it gets better still (or worse, from Blizzard's point of view). As someone who has always tended to enjoy the ultra-low level game in MMORPGs most of all, I don't even need to subscribe to indulge my whimsy. Both gnome hunters and the new transmog system are fully available in the free starter edition that lets you play WoW with few restrictions up to level 20.

With that, I dusted off my old log-in details and gave birth to a new gnome. Thus far (level nine) it's been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The character creation screen seems to have changed a little since I made my Goblin nearly three years ago. It seems slicker and shinier than I remember, with a nice sliding-panel that shows off the limited selection of looks. It was easy to get a face I was happy to look at in screenshots and a hairstyle I could stand to look at from behind for hour after hour.

The Gnome Hunter arrives fully petted up - with a mechanical rabbit. It's an odd choice. I realize "rabbit" says "small woodland animal suitable for a newbie" but it's a machine not a mammal. I didn't have to go out at level one and tame it. If you're going to make a mechanical animal to fight for you, wouldn't you choose something more intimidating than a bunny?

None of which logic affects the simple fact that the rabbit looks great and fights like a tiger. Oh come on, you know what I mean...

As a major addition to the game, Goblins get what amounts to an entire ten level RPG of their own. Gnomes, being ever the Unlucky Alfs of Azeroth, probably need to count themselves fortunate to get even a very short introduction. I did initially take it to be something new for Gnome Hunters but on research it turns out to be merely the general post-Cataclysm reboot for the race, which I hadn't seen before.
Gnomes don't really do elegant, do they?

It's a short, tight tutorial with a couple of nice set-pieces. WoW does tutorials as well as MMOs tutorials can be done - in the world and not in your face - and Dun Morogh is one of the most aesthetically pleasing of the starting areas, so the first few levels passed very pleasantly.

I'm currently playing a ratonga bruiser on EQ2's new Race To Trakanon server, which has reduced leveling speed and higher difficulty settings, akin to those on the Time Limited Expansion servers. The difference between that experience and the one I'm having in WoW is instructive.

Neither is clearly "better" than the other - they are just different. There's a lot said about how incredibly fast leveling is in WoW these days but I suspect that's mostly hearsay, based on the accounts of players who burn through the levels using Heirlooms, Recruit-a-Friend and other leg-ups. With none of that, leveling is sprightly but no sprint. On RTT, by contrast, it's definitely a marathon.

It's also my feeling that the actual difficulty of the encounters and quests has changed a lot. I leveled through the pre-cataclysm Don Morogh several times back in 2009 and I remember it very clearly. Some of the quests haven't changed much, if at all. When I was killing Wendigos last night I had flashbacks to the frequent deaths I had in their caves in the past. I'm about certain that with one character I had to postpone that entire sequence and come back a level or two later because I couldn't solo it. Now it's a cakewalk.

Hunter's Moon. So it's told.

Even so, I managed to die twice. The first time was on the quest where I was meant to call on High Tinker Mekkatorque for "orbital" strikes to help kill sub-boss Crushcog. I was so busy enjoying the mayhem I forgot to notice Crushcog's many minions had killed my rabbit and were finishing up the job on me.

The second time I died while AFK looking up how a quest worked. For all its much-vaunted slickness and simplicity, I have always found WoW to be at least as fiddly and unintuitive as any other MMO and more so than many.

The quests use a myriad of systems that are often explained only vaguely if at all. In this particular one my admittedly perfunctory scan of the quest text led me to believe the gears I wanted were ground spawns when in fact they were drops. Close reading of the text could have cleared this up but so could the quest helper - which was no help at all!

Acquisition of gear and abilities at low levels is a  slow and steady process at best. At level nine my gnome is wielding a Poor (grey, vendor trash) bow rather than the Uncommon (green, quest reward) rifle because the grey one has better DPS. Same happened with two pieces of armor.

Gnomes come from Sunderland, apparently. Who knew?

The quest rewards can be odd. At level eight a quest gave me a choice of four items, the only one of which I could equip was a cloth robe. Since the patch also gave Hunters the right to wear Chain from level one (they previously started in leather and had to wait until 40 to equip chain) doing half a level in a dress seemed an idiosyncratic option at best.

Still, at least the frock didn't expose her bare, pale gnomish skin to the wicked Don Morogh wind. At level nine she replaced the robe with what appears to be a chainmail sports bra. Here's hoping something better drops before she gets frostbite.

 It's a racing certainty this gnome will make twenty. I like WoW. Every time I play I have fun. There's a vast amount of content I've never seen. It's highly likely that at some point I'll buy Legion and resubscribe.

For the moment, though, any sense of urgency to grab the digital download or buy an actual box in a real-world store has ebbed away. I still might jump on board at the end of August - the new expansion buzz is always a draw - but it all depends on what else is happening at the time.

For now I'm happy pootling about in Don Morogh. I always liked it there but it's even better with a robot rabbit.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The Broken Mirror - Now Available For Bottle Caps : EverQuest

I was just logging in to EverQuest this morning, planning on letting my Magician soak up some MGBs in the background while I worked on a blog post, when I spotted the above. On click-through the detail is precise.

As Wilhelm has chronicled over the years, SOE's poor decision-making over what to offer for funny money at times came close to giving away the farm but  selling expansions for SC/DBC seems to straddle the common-sense fence.

Expansions are a big earning opportunity for any MMO company so allowing customers to claim them by cashing in credit seems like a bad idea. On the other hand, there are supposedly some difficult accounting issues wrapped up in all that unspent Daybreak Cash - and there's got to be a lot of it out there. I have over 30,000DBC accrued across various accounts, for example. Almost enough to buy ten copies of The Broken Mirror (Standard Edition of course).

I doubt I'll be be taking DBG up on their generous offer all the same.

With my highest character still trudging towards 92, more than a dozen levels shy of the cap, there's not much appeal right now in seven zones where I wouldn't even dare to set foot. If they scaled, the way the Raids in TBM scale, now that would be a major selling point, but they don't. And the single quality of life sweetener, a "keyring" to store Illusions, is something I might pay 500DBC for at most.

I am curious as to what the target market for this change might be. It's obviously not meant for potterers like myself. It was only yesterday that I took my first, nervous steps into The Underfoot, EQ's sixteenth expansion, released in 2009.

Welcome to The Underfoot
Although I have already visited a couple of later expansions, House of Thule and Veil of Alaris, that was no more than a quick shuffle round the opening zone of HoT and a shopping trip to the safe city in VoA. There are three expansions between those and The Broken Mirror that I have never even looked at - Rein of Fear, Call of the Forsaken and The Darkened Sea.

Who, I wonder, has characters capable of progressing through the max-level content of last November's expansion and yet hasn't yet bothered to buy it? That sounds like a very specific demographic - people with a lot of time to play, plenty of friends to group with, but insufficient disposable income to come up with a spare $30 over six  months.

Under the prevailing plan, each new expansion lifts the velvet rope on the expansion two boxes back, so The Broken Mirror won't join the F2P offer until the release of the 2017 expansion - assuming there is one. At current rate of play I would expect to begin to get interested in TBM somewhere around 2021.

I think I'll be keeping my DBC in my wallet for this one. All the same, it's nice to have the option and I suppose I'll have to spend it sometime, on something...

Addendum: This just in from EQ2 Wire. I do thoroughly recommend Terrors of Thalumbra for anyone with an interest in playing EQ2 at the top end. I thought the solo content was worth the admission price and it will be even more so for some old Station/Daybreak Cash you might have lying around.

Here's hoping this is in preparation for an announcement of details of this year's expansions for both games.

Second Addendum: Now they're all at it! FFXIV? You're up next. Anyone would think there was a WoW expansion about to appear or something...

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Where Is Everyone?: GW2

Guild Wars 2 is currently suffering what has been perceived to be the worst content drought in the four years since launch. The situation is so dire that even head cheerleader Mike O'Brien felt compelled to acknowledge it in his recent "Don't give up hope" forum post.

Thanks for your patience through the recent content draught. 

Well, I assume he meant "drought" although since the spelling error has gone uncorrected for nearly a week, who knows for sure?

I'm very familiar from my working life with managerial doublethink. People who used to be in charge of something turn around and rubbish the way it was managed even though they were largely responsible either for the decisions or the implementation or both. It seems that changing seats is often enough to absolve a person of any responsibility, at least in their own minds.

Even so, it's not often a senior official will openly acknowledge the failings of the company that pays their mortgage. Not to the customers, anyway. MO, as he is generally referred to nowadays, seems to want to make a virtue out of hair-shirting.

The post itself is vague and ill-defined but that seems to rest more on hasty construction than any intent to obfuscate. Even as the post was acquiring a comet-tail of speculation and conspiracy theory the first broadside of hard information hit the official website.

The first episode of Living World Season 3 is coming to Guild Wars 2 on July 26

This was followed by two crowd-pleasing Lore pieces featuring journal entries from probably the only major character from Season 2 to have acquired something akin to a fan following - Taimi.

Someone is clearly working hard on both damage limitation and rebuilding trust. In addition to fine words and promises the game has actually received quite a lot of low-key hydration over the past few weeks. A connected and accretive series of open world events backed up by Achievements have kept some of us reasonably busy and passably entertained, while WvW has actually seen more attention and alteration than at almost any time since launch.

These things don't count for much among many. For most MMO players it seems that the definition of "content" is quite rigid: new explorable areas, new classes, new races, new quests (or in GW2's case quest-like activities), new plots and storylines and anything that makes their characters significantly more powerful. And Festivals.

For some reason, recurring festivals, even if they're almost identical to the previous year, count as content to a lot of people. ArenaNet have been absurdly unwilling to capitalize on this easy win. For four years the only highlights on the Calendar have been Halloween, Wintersday and Lunar New Year.

Super Adventure Box, following years in the wilderness, was re-instated as the fourth annual holiday a few months ago. Dragon Bash, Queen's Gauntlet and Bazaar of the Four Winds, all of which are eminently suitable for an annual appearance (and I could write the lore get-out for Bazaar in ten minutes) languish in limbo.

In nine days the second of what MO has already chosen to stop calling "Quarterly Updates" will drop. In keeping with the new mode of "show, don't tell" we probably won't have much idea what it contains until it arrives. It apparently includes "content and quality-of-life updates for several other game modes" but the big ticket item will be the first episode of Living Story 3.

And what does that mean, precisely? MO mentions in his forum post that "nine or ten releases" from 2013 equate to something "that we’d today call a Living World episode". 2013, of course, was the year of Living Story 1, the cadence that began with a series of open world updates that, at the time, were perceived to be very low in content indeed

Even so, nine or ten releases? Really? That would mean the July 26th update would have to contain as much Living Story content as we got from January to July of 2013

Flame and Frost: Prelude - January 28, 2013
Flame and Frost: The Gathering Storm - February 26, 2013
Flame and Frost: The Razing - March 26, 2013
Flame & Frost: Retribution - April 30, 2013
The Secret of Southsun - May 14, 2013
Last Stand at Southsun - May 28, 2013
Dragon Bash - June 11th, 2013
Sky Pirates of Tyria June - 25th, 2013
Bazaar of the Four Winds - July 9th , 2013
Cutthroat Politics - July 23rd, 2013

Full details here.

If that's true then I'll be very impressed. And surprised. Even if we do get a drop of equivalent scale, however, I can almost guarantee that players will have burned through the entire thing in a lot less than the proposed three months before the next one lands. No wonder MO hopes to get the engine ticking over a little faster:

we may be able to increase the pace, ramping from four bundled releases per year towards six

You'll need to. You'll need to get more Festivals in place to tentpole those releases too. And information about that second expansion needs to come out from under the cloak of invisibility pronto. Presumably we're looking at a 2017 release date at best.

At the moment there is a lot happening in the world of MMOs and MMO-like experiences. The firehose of Western WoW-alikes dribbled to a trickle a while ago and now appears to have dried up completely but the torrent of Eastern imports continues unabated. Meanwhile the genre has opened out to include action-oriented and fps iterations, transcended the console barrier and is presently colonizing the mobile space.

With the beyond WoW-level success of Pokemon GO, hailed by one of the founders of the form as "just a virtual world, an MMO", we may be on the verge of a paradigm shift for the hobby. Existing MMORPGs that want to retain market share are going to have pedal really, really fast to keep up with the vanishing MMO event horizon.

So. Living Story 3.

It better be good.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Project Patchwork Pegasus : EQ2

The change of name and management from SOE to DBG has brought a lot of changes to the two EverQuest titles but one thing that has continued unabated is the long-established predilection of Sony Online Entertainment for experimenting with variant rulesets. It's an approach to curating MMORPGs that I have always endorsed wholeheartedly. I've even suggested that for any MMO to have two servers running under the same ruleset is a wasted opportunity.

Over the years I've done my best to taste all the flavors but even with the greatest goodwill and enthusiasm there are only so many hours in the day and you can only play so many characters. When Holly Longdale announced in her Producer's Letter back in May that two new servers would soon be available I read the rulesets and decided that I'd probably pass on the offer this time around.

Neither of the new servers looked especially appealing. The Isle of Refuge server, whose unique selling point is that almost all items that are flagged "Heirloom" on regular servers will be freely tradeable, seemed to me to be a re-run of EverQuest's Firiona Vie server minus the awkward (and quickly abandoned) "roleplaying" rules.

I played on Firiona Vie when it launched and for a few weeks afterwards. It was a unique and surreal experience. The RP rules included severe language restrictions that meant even characters of the same alignment couldn't communicate - dwarves and elves and gnomes had no common language for example.

The first few days seemed to consist mainly of language parties, where groups of characters of different races would sit in circles and spam each other in /say with repeated text in their own language. That's how you learned a language in  Norrath in those days.

The fact that almost the first thing players attempted to do on the RP server was nullify the very restrictions that had been implemented to encourage roleplaying foretold the story of Firiona Vie's future. Within a short time the only aspect of the ruleset that mattered was the free trading of just about everything, which in turn led to FV's status as the RMT capital of Norrath.

I'd remembered that Firiona Vie later fell into severe decline but it seems that's not the case. If it ever happened that decline has been reversed. I mentioned my belief in a comment to Wilhelm, who observed that FV sits at "Medium" on DBG's server status page, a level that puts it well above most servers for population.

Since I have a level 22 ranger there I took the trouble to log in and check. Using the very reliable benchmarks of /who in Plane of Knowledge, and the Guild Lobby, number of people in General Chat and number of Bazaar traders, all data points that can easily be compared between servers, I find that FV does indeed have a considerably higher population than Luclin/Stromm, my main server these days.

So, reports of Firiona Vie's failure seem to be apocryphal and it makes a lot more sense than I thought to see EQ2 attempting to replicate its comparative good health. Still doesn't make me want to play under that ruleset. When Isle of Refuge went live at the end of June I declined to attend the party.

The other server, which launched a couple of weeks later, looked if anything even less appealing. The server name, Race To Trakanon, is self-explanatory. This is the first of what Holly Longdale suggests may be a series of "Event" servers.

The server runs until the specified event is achieved, in this case the killing of the dragon Trakanon. There are set markers for players to achieve, which provide a variety of material rewards if hit, but soon after the dragon dies the server closes. At that point players get a free character move to the regular ruleset server of their choice and the server re-opens with a new target event.

This seems to me to be a good idea in principle. Over the years the various "Progression" servers for both games have tended to be seen by certain players and guilds as competetive "race to the top" environments. That hasn't always played well with the wishes and desires of the players who were looking to recreate the original Norrathian experiences of the past, or just to play through older content at a reasonable pace with a decent population around them.

Although I approve of the concept of Event servers, which should help to serve the needs of those conflicting communities, as someone who already plays far too many characters in far too many MMOs, much though I love that new server smell, the idea of starting yet another character on a server that won't exist in three months didn't really seem to make much sense. I was going to give this one a pass as well. And then I saw the sweetener.

Like Telwyn I couldn't resist the lure of a free flying mount for every character on my account. That really is a proper incentive. The mount itself isn't just a pegasus, something I have never owned, but a rainbow-hued patchwork pegasus. The patchwork versions of creatures, which appeared a few years back as part of the Bristlebane Day festivities, have always been one of my favorite looks.

What's more, the bar for obtaining this highly-desirable mount has been set exceptionally low. All you need to do is get to Level 10. Even under the slower xp rates and restrictions of the RTT server, that's no more than a couple of decent sessions.

It's very smart marketing. The server requires an All Access account to play on, which effectively makes it a Subscription-only option. Chances are most people playing there right now already had such an account but each of these "AA Only" additions to the game takes it further in the direction DBG clearly intends to go - back to a Subscription service with a generous free trial.

I've spent several hours playing on RTT very happily. Very happily indeed, actually. I forgot just how much fun starting a genuine new character with no access to the accrued wealth of high levels on the same account can be.

Right before I began writing this post my ratonga bruiser dinged ten and the free mount was mine. I could stop there, mission achieved, but I'm not going to do that. I'm having far too much fun.

I chose to begin in Qeynos because even after all these years there's still a great deal of content in Queen Antonia Bayle's capital that I have never experienced. I could have written three more posts already on new quests, new instances and new events that I've found, all of which I've never seen before.

When the time comes for my new bruiser to move home I'll be excited all over again for whatever comes next but it's not the event for which the server is named that's doing it for me. I'll never see Trakanon fall, not unless I watch it on YouTube. No, it's that starting over yet again has made me realize just how much there is still to see even after a dozen years of heavy play. That's been the real "event" for me.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Why I'm Not Playing Pokemon Go (Like I Have To Have A Reason...)

Ravanel has a post up this morning about how much she wants to be playing Pokemon Go right now. At the end of the post she asks a couple of questions that started me thinking:

Did you grow up with Pokémon? And are you playing Pokémon Go?

Well, no I didn't. No, I'm not. Just like I'm neither interested in nor excited by news of yet another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Transformers movie, the mere invocation of the Pokemon brand presses none of my buttons. Well, none of the appropriate ones.

You might assume that was an age thing, what with the fairly imminent approach of my sixtieth birthday, and to some extent it is. I was, after all, nearing forty years old when the first Pokemon appeared in 1995. There's more to it than that, though.

Not only does the franchise form no part of my personal lexicon of childhood or adolescent experiences but I can honestly say I barely even noticed it at the time. Yet it's not as though I wasn't culturally exposed, open even, to such things as they were happening.

Not a Pokemon
During the 1990s I was living day-to-day alongside three children, who were aged somewhere between five and thirteen when the game first appeared. I knew who Mario was. I actually saw the movie at the cinema. There was a SNES in the living room. I bought and played FFVII. Still, I have no memory of anyone I knew ever playing, wanting to play or even mentioning Pokemon.

For a long time I had it filed away in the back of my mind as something associated with Tamagochis, which were a big thing in our house for a while. And Furbys. We had both of those and I played with them and understood them. Pokemon - nothing.

I would have pretty much forgotten Pokemon even existed if it hadn't been for Wilhelm. Over the last few years reading TAGN has told me more about about Pokemon than I ever imagined I'd know. In the same way that reading countless reports on Minecraft has left me feeling I must have played the game in some other life, I have a ghostly, vestigial pseudo-memory of catching brightly colored cartoon creatures and setting them against others in fights that come freighted with queasily uncomfortable socio-historic subtext.

Mulling this over it seems to me that, while age has something to do with the extent and the specifics of involvement, which cultural phenomenon gets to sink its hooks into which person depends a lot more on personal experience than the number of candles on a birthday cake. My childhood was mainly in the 1960s and my adolescence in the 1970s but for some reason, although many of the cultural shibboleths and touchstones of those decades resonate strongly still, in my late fifties the decade whose cultural artifacts affect me most sentimentally in recall is probably the 1980s, the time when I became an independent adult.

I say "probably" because these things drift. In the mid-90s, when Pokemon was new, my call-backs were all to the seventies. In that I was dead in tune with the zeitgeist. Pokemon arrived in the white-heat of Britpop, that final spin of the thirteen-year cycle, which sought to magpie the best from the '60s and '70s and mosaic something bright and new out of the scraps. Now, a couple of decades on, the '90s themselves are beginning to acquire a soft, rose-hued glow.
Looks a bit more like one but still not a Pokemon.

Perhaps the nodal point of nostalgia always trails a generation behind. Maybe it takes twenty years to acquire the distance needed for flaws to fade and warmth to grow. maybe it's not so much how old you were then as how many years have passed.

But to trigger a wave of nostalgia or even simple recognition you have to have been paying attention the first time round and Pokemon passed me by. Instead of warm fuzzies I have cool, hard intellectual curiosity. Pokemon Go does look like an enjoyable game. More importantly it appears to be developing into a fascinating and potentially influential cultural phenomena.

There's a chance it could mark a fork in the cultural road the way Twitter or Facebook did. In a year or two Augmented Reality gaming could be as much a part of everyday life as tweeting or updating your profile (two things that once again I know only from hearsay). Or it could be languishing wherever fads like Farmville go to die.

Obviously not the latter. The immense strength of the Pokemon brand will sustain when the fickle attention of the global horde moves on. Pokemon will be with us forever, like every other cultural phenomenon that passes a certain, hard to define, watershed. If the name of Pikachu (still the only Pokemon I can recall with certainty) isn't up there with Dracula and Sherlock Holmes quite yet, it  soon will be.
Okay, these could be Pokemon...

I probably would be playing Pokemon Go along with everyone else right now, just to be part of the buzz, if it wasn't for one other thing: I don't own a mobile phone. Not just not a smart one, like Wilhelm. I don't even own a dumb one.

I have a blind spot about phones. I am fully and happily digitized. I have a houseful of PCs. I have old gaming systems from the 1980s tucked away in cupboards. I have an iPod and half a dozen tablets and use several of them daily but I have never owned a phone. I've never even had a landline in my own name.

And even if I did have a smartphone - and sooner or later I will almost certainly have to get one  because in five or ten years it's going to be next to impossible to function as an adult without one - I would not allow it to track my whereabouts, which as far as I can tell would pretty much drop a rock on the chances of chasing down Pokemons.

I don't have a valid argument for that - it just feels completely wrong so I'm not going to do it. Not until I do, naturally. Consistency, hobgoblin, you know the drill.

So there it is. Another cultural milestone missed. Can't hit 'em all.

All images borrowed from The Internet. Any rights holders unhappy about that just let me know and they're gone.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Got To Catch A Few - Riders Of Icarus

This week it seems at least half the bloggers in my Feedly have been playing a new game. Some of them seem to be having a great time while others aren't completely convinced. And someone I expected to be all over it hasn't even started yet.

I've been playing a new game too. One other person in this quadrant of the blogosphere took the same road less trampled and of course it was Kaozz. Her first impressions piece appeared just after I'd finished my opening session in Riders of Icarus. That was probably just as well because I had been going to put up one of my own but at that stage I hadn't even finished the tutorial.

Since then I've played this newest Eastern import several more times and from the dizzy heights of level 6 I'm ready to agree with Kaozz that it's "a solid game that looks good." Well, almost.
Who has the longer neck?

Let's start at the beginning: character creation. You can be a human, you can be a human. I chose to be a female for a change (stop laughing at the back) but it was a struggle getting anything I imagined I'd be happy to see looking back at me from screenshots.

There are a lot of sliders and styles but the character models are iffy. The proportions seem slightly off, particularly the necks, which all seem to be uncomfortably extended. After a few hours play I still don't feel comfortable with the character I made, which is a strong indicator that I won't be playing long.

In common with most MMOs the default graphic settings appear to be intended for someone who hasn't bought a new PC since the Bush administration. Possibly the first one. I don't know why they do this. First impressions count for an awful lot so why you'd want people to log in for the first time to the wrong screen resolution and a lot of low textures is a puzzle.

I died twice getting this wolf because he kept throwing me off into the rest of his pack.

Things improved rapidly with a few tweaks. It runs on CryEngine 3 but the art design could be from almost any of the dozen or more Korean MMOs I've played over the last few years. Everything is over-scaled and there's an oddly flat quality that seems to leech out depth of field somehow.

It's certainly pretty enough to make looking at the world a pleasure and I found no shortage of screenshot opportunities. My first and so far only character is a Berserker, flagged as the "Easy" option. She hits things with a sword that is, predictably, bigger than she is.

The controls are peculiar. The developers get a huge thumbs up from me for offering a choice between tab-target and hotbars or action settings but the traditional version, which naturally was my choice, is awkward to use. Like Dragomon Hunter, you can click the icons on your hotbar with the mouse pointer, as I prefer to do, but you either have to double-click or right-click. Why we can't have the basic single click that MMOs have used for the best part of two decades beats me.
The fiery hawk is a freebie for playing the Open Beta. The thigh-high stiletto-heeled leather boots are not optional. Or practical. Or comfortable, I'd imagine.

Bag space is reasonable. I got an additional bag for a quest around level 5 and it just goes into a slot like it would in WoW or GW2. None of this incrementing the base inventory count by two like Black Desert.

Once you're in there's a short "Escape from Prison" tutorial straight from the "Build Your Own MMO" manual but after you're largely left to get on with things on your own, with further instructions being incorporated into the basic leveling quests.

Progress seems to be linear in the extreme, down to the way maps funnel you in a particular direction, so the chances of you wandering off piste are minimal. What with only one race that's seriously going to limit replayability but that's the nature of these true F2P imports, by and large.
I did laugh out loud at the Kangaroo. It's as amusing to ride as you'd imagine, too.

The translations are excellent. I haven't come across any untranslated text or Korean voiceover yet and there are no more grammatical or spelling errors than in a Western MMO in beta. Did I mention Riders of Icarus is in "Open Beta"? No wipe so  we'll call that "Soft Launch" I think.

The writing is adequate but not much more than that. Unlike Dragomon Hunter, whose often bizarre and surreal dialog occasionally has me laughing out loud, this is quite dry. The quests themselves are cookie cutter and plain cookies at that. They all work though and they are short and tidy. Quality control seems high.

The real meat comes with the gameplay. Riders of Icarus offers two things most MMOs don't - a huge range of tameable pets and mounts and mounted combat. I haven't yet tried the latter but the "gotta catch 'em all" aspect has considerable appeal. Wonder where they got the idea from?
The NPC and monster models are variable. This is the Queen of the local fairies and she looks the part.

It took me several tries to tame my initial mount, a Unicorn. You have to sneak up to it using the taming skill and then hit Space to literally jump onto the creature's back. The first couple of times I missed altogether. When I did get onboard the Unicorn bucked me off but I got back on and just sat there and somehow I ended up with a docile mount.

There is actually more to it than that. Not much more, I'll grant you, but you do have to do something. There are various messages describing how the animal is reacting and these correspond to four keys, bound by default to WASD. Don't worry about interpreting which emotional state matches which action - the key you need lights up. Just press that one.

So far I have the Unicorn, some kind of Wolf, a Turtle and a Kangaroo. In fact I have two Kangaroos. Apparently you can tame multiples of the same creature, which is useful because tamed animals can be either Mounts or Pets but not both. When tamed they are automatically set as Mounts and the process of converting a Mount to a Pet is permanent, so you want spares.
Loading screen with the obligatory "tip". I wasn't aware there were "talent builds". I took the shot because the rabbit in the bottom left corner, who lets you know the zone is still loading, is the most appealing character in the whole enterprise.
I wish I was playing whatever game he comes from.

As Kaozz mentions, there's an annoying stamina bar mechanic for both mounts and pets. As soon as the bar depletes your animal vanishes and you fall off (assuming it was a mount). The bar refills quite fast but it's annoyingly disruptive. I'm guessing you can buy something in the cash shop to circumvent the problem but I haven't bothered to check since there is no chance in this lifetime of me spending a cent on the game.

Weirdly, I seem to have found myself with a choice of "collect all the pets" games and neither of them is the one everyone else is playing. I prefer Dragomon Hunter by several country miles - it's quirky, funny and has a lot of personality. Riders of Icarus is flashier and takes itself more seriously but feels a lot more corporate and bland.

Most importantly, though, I actively like my DH character whereas my RoI avatar is a cipher. That could change over time but I don't expect to be playing long enough to find out. Riders of Icarus is by no means a bad game or a bad MMO but with so many others to choose from I'd struggle to come up with a good reason to play it rather than something with a bit more soul.

Saturday, 9 July 2016

The Machine Stops

I’ve killed that goblin a hundred thousand times across a dozen games over more than a decade, and I can scarcely muster the energy to read about how it is being re-skinned as a different shade of orc

Yesterday brought the surprising news that Turbine, one of the longest-established and most influential of MMO developers, had made the final decision to turn its back on the genre it helped to found and form.

Turbine's first MMORPG, Asheron's Call, was one of the original "Big Three" along with Ultima Online and EverQuest. Some MMOs are bigger than others, though, and even back in October of 1999, when I was sitting in front of my 14" CRT screen at work, searching the World-Wide Web via NetScape for information about these scary, mysterious "online" role-playing games, Asheron's Call, even though it was just about to launch the following month, barely registered.

Back in those days of shortage I tried to play every MMO I could find. Unlike Lineage, which I have still never played even now, Asheron's Call wasn't hard to access. I just went to one of the three video game shops on my local high street and picked the enormous cardboard box off the shelf.

I didn't take to Asheron's Call. By the time I tried it I'd been playing EQ for a while and I'd also tried UO and would have taken either in preference to the strangely loose, unmoored experience I found in Turbine's flagship. I wasn't alone. While AC had its dedicated supporters and was commercially successful enough for Turbine to follow it with an ill-fated sequel, like Pete Wylie in The Crucial Three, the Asheron's Call franchise was destined to disappear behind its peers into the rear-view mirror of history.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given my lack of enthusiasm for the original, I didn't pay much attention to AC2 at the time. When it went dark in 2005 I assumed I'd missed my chance but I finally got around to kicking its wheels when Turbine made the surprising decision to resurrect it as a F2P title almost a decade later. I didn't enjoy that experience a great deal more than I did the first one.

Turbine's third MMO looked a lot more interesting. In 2006 they launched the first MMO officially based on the D&D licence, Dungeons and Dragons Online. Given that I'd originally decided to give MMORPGs a try on the understanding that they offered something akin to a 24/7, on-demand automated D&D session, this looked promising.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I both joined the DDO beta and, like many, perhaps most of the testers, came away disappointed. What with the extreme instancing, the lack of an open world, the almost complete reliance on grouping and the unfamiliar choice of the Eberron campaign setting, our few forays into Turbine's first licensed MMO were not happy times.

We declined to buy DDO when it launched in 2006 but we did give it a second glance three years later, when Turbine made their industry-shaking decision to make the game Free to Play. By then DDO had been largely re-structured to be a much more open game with a fair-to-middling solo experience. I dabbled for a while and enjoyed it in parts.

DDO wasn't the first Western F2P MMO. That was Anarchy Online, which opened the doors to the great unsubbed in 2005. Somehow Funcom's innovative move slipped by largely unnoticed while Turbine's dropping of the subscription required to play DDO was seen even at the time as a harbinger of storms to come.

And come those storms did when Turbine played the F2P card for the second time. Despite the very rocky start for their first licensed outing, just a year after DDO's launch Turbine took a second run at someone else's IP and again it was a big one. Indeed, it's not unreasonable to suggest that in Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings Turbine took on the two biggest IPs the genre knew. For a relatively small and specialist player they were certainly thinking big.

Lord of the Rings Online launched in 2007, which was several years after the global success of Peter Jackson's trilogy of movies. Perhaps that was coming a little late to the party. The world may have been a little Tolkiened out by then. Like SW:toR a few years on, LotRO wasn't as big a deal as the power of the name might have led investors to expect. 

It certainly wasn't a failure. Critics loved it and it sold respectably if not spectacularly. It took Mrs Bhagpuss and I a while to get around to trying it but when we did we found a solid and enjoyable MMO wrapped around a very convincing iteration of Middle Earth. We played for several months, eventually tapping out in the mid-40s. 

Mrs Bhagpuss would probably have gone on playing longer but one Sunday morning I had one run-in too many with the roleplaying police and decided life was too short to argue the toss over authenticity with people who apparently believed Hobbits were real and Middle Earth was historical fact. There was also the issue of the combat, which alone among MMOs gave me seriously painful RSI. 

In the years since I've dropped back in a few times.The world is always a joy to explore. In 2010 dropping in became something you could do on a whim as Turbine again abandoned the subscription model. 

If taking DDO F2P had shaken the industry the move to free for LotRO rocked it on its foundations, not least because of the apparent financial windfall it meant for Turbine. The reported threefold increase in revenue six months down the line was almost certainly the spur the industry needed to move en masse away from the decade-old subscription model towards the plethora of hybrid and F2P options that have dominated the genre ever since.

That turned out to be Turbine's last throw of the dice as far as shaping the course of the genre went. LotRO was Turbine's final MMO. Since then, other than a long drawn-out and ultimately futile attempt to enter the congested MOBA market with yet a third Licensed IP, the DC Comics' based Infinite Crisis, Turbine seems to have done little more then curate, fitfully, their one money-earning product, LotRO.

The license granted by the Tolkien Estate to run that title expires next year. There's an ongoing legal case that apparently means no-one from Turbine can talk about what happens next, even if they wanted to, which they most certainly don't.

There's been a deal of speculation about what that might mean for LotRO but yesterday's announcement that the company would be "transitioning into a free-to-play, mobile development studio" would be impossible to interpret as anything other than a hard blow to the prospect of a happy outcome for the many thousands still enjoying their journeys through Middle Earth.

Massively OP managed to prise a clarification out of Turbine's owners, Warner Bros, to the effect that "The Lord of the Rings Online and Dungeons and Dragons online games will continue to operate as they do now." Be reassured if you will.

So, dark days for Elves, Hobbits and Men and a shadow over the genre. Many, like Zubon, while feeling angered or saddened by the ignominious fall of a once-respected pillar of a once-great community, will see it as another brick in the wall that separates them from their past. Undoubtedly the future for the genre is not the future we thought it would be back when the sun first rose over The Shire. 

Yet these are not the last days. For the while light still shines from the East, as the relative success this year of Blade and Soul, Black Desert and the ongoing renaissance of Final Fantasy XIV attest. As Zubon observes, old MMOs roll on, playing to their own, niche audiences, oblivious of trend. For those of us still excited to see what colors the next lot of orcs might come in there is always likely to be someone standing ready with the paintbrush.

If you want to enjoy what Turbine brought to the Tolkein table, and it was a very considerable contribution to the canon, then as Wilhelm advises "Play the games while you have the chance, as the future is more uncertain than usual and nobody is likely to make a game like LOTRO again". If, on the other hand, it's the MMORPG genre itself that fires your imagination and makes your clicking finger itch then lift your head and look up.

MMOs are coming to mobile platforms and to consoles. VR, when it settles down and beds in, looks to be made for the form. The last two decades laid down the foundation for the future of an imaginary experience that will be with us for as long as imagination itself lasts. MMOs aren't going anywhere. They're going everywhere.

Who knows, maybe Turbine will even make some of them. For your phone.

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