Sunday, April 21, 2019

SW:TOR First Impressions: The Leveling Game

Star Wars: The Old Republic sixty hours post-download:
    • 14 Hours Played
    • 1 Character     
    • 27 Levels           
    • 2 Companions
    • 1 Stronghold
    • 1 Starship
    • 0 Other MMOs played
I'd say the experiment is going pretty well so far. I am definitely having fun. Even two days in, though, I can see where problems are likely to arise.

I sat down early this fine Easter morning to hammer out my first impressions of TOR's gameplay in bullet points. It turned out not to be that easy. For a start, "Gameplay" is a real catch-all category, covering just about everything from combat to crafting, decorating to PvP. I've scarcely scratched the surface so far but already it's plain from the small amount I've seen that most of the main gameplay elements deserve full posts not bullet points.

Added to that, we all know MMORPGs these days have a short wind-up and a long delivery. What we used to call "end game" is now just "the game". Everything that comes before is, at best, an appetizer. The gameplay I'm experiencing in the first few hours is unlikely to have much to do with what I'd have to get used to if I carried on for months. Or years.

That's an issue with many modern MMORPGs but it seems to me that TOR conforms even more to this back-loaded model than most. I'm going to hold off looking at the individual elements that make up the "gameplay" for a little longer and talk instead about my overall leveling experience so far.

At the stage I'm at, I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that almost the entirety of the game consists of story. I don't really have a gameplay loop yet. More like a chapter list. Occasionally I find myself wondering whether the whole experience might be not better served by joining all the cut scenes together so I could watch them without a break. We could call it a "movie".

It didn't start out like that. When I landed on Ord Mantell, starting planet for Scoundrels, TOR felt very much like a regular MMORPG. I landed in the middle of a war between the planetary government and an armed insurgency known as The Separatists. As an independent, nominally operating under the flag of The Republic, I would have been very happy to play both ends against the middle, only the very first thing that happened was someone stole my starship. Since then I've been on the back foot.

With my ship gone, I needed to make some quick credits. I was ready to take anything on offer. I ran around grabbing missions from NPCs with markers hanging over their heads. Then I ran around completing them. Then I ran back to do the hand-in. As a set-up for the regular MMORPG gameplay loop of taking quests, killing mobs, getting rewards and leveling up it was a good one.

If the leveling game in TOR has a problem, it's not with the set-up or the execution. It's with the results. I can imagine how, back at launch, it must have felt like World of Warcraft in Space some people said it would be. It doesn't feel like that any more.

The point of leveling up is to become more powerful. The point of gaining new abilities and better gear is to be able to do more. This is progression as we understand it.

As a brand-new player in TOR today you don't need any of that. Neither do you need to prove skill, tactics or situational awareness. You can already do anything you want to. All you need to do is show up.

Games intended for very small children not excluded, TOR is by far the easiest MMORPG I have ever played. Whether this is a good or a bad thing I hope to cover in a separate post. For now, I'm just accepting it as a fact.

Leveling just happens. You don't need to do anything beyond taking missions and killing mobs. I was Level Ten before, entirely by chance, I happened upon my class trainer. I'd done ten levels using the two basic blaster skills I got at Level One. What's more, I hadn't even thought about needing anything else. Those two skills were more than adequate for all the missions I'd been sent to complete.

In retrospect I find the whole "Hot Bars For Sale" controversy deeply ironic. At Level 28 I am still using the single, default hot bar. The game has autopopulated it with various skills but I only use three or four of them: the two blaster skills I started with, an AE bomb and a stun. And I only use the stun because I like watching the animations.

There are probably a whole load more skills I could use but I haven't bothered to look. I think I last visited a trainer somewhere around Level 17. Why would I bother? I don't need any new skills. Everything dies so fast. Often before I even work out what I'm fighting.

If the game was ridiculously easy before, and it was, it became ludicrously so when I acquired my first Companion. I picked up Corso Riggs when I left Ord Mantell for the Republic Fleet. He's a healer. I found it impossible to die before he had my back; now my hit points never even go below 99%. Ok, this one time, on the last boss in the Story version (solo) of The Esseles Flashpoint, I did manage to get to 80% health but it was hard work. Corso is a beast of a healer.

As for gear upgrades, I am, as usual, wearing quest rewards and whatever drops. So far, I haven't bothered to look at the stats let alone think about what they mean. There's an automatic comparison between gear pieces on mouseover; I just glance at that and equip anything where more of the text goes green than red.

Leveling is not just easy; it's fast. Very fast. XP comes in bucketloads. When I started I had rested xp and double xp and then there was a patch and we got holiday double xp as well. Free xp boosters also turned up as rewards from time to time but I left those in my pack.

Examining my XP bar, I saw a lot of text in a very small font about bonuses and how they did or didn't stack and how F2P players did or didn't get them. I didn't attempt to unravel the details because I felt like I was being hosed down with XP already. The last thing I wanted was more. If anything, I wanted less.

At Level 20 I got my wish. There was a pop-up telling me from now on, as a F2P scrub (if it didn't actually say "scrub" it was definitely implied) I could expect reduced XP. If I wanted the good stuff I could either subscribe or spend real money in the Cartel Store.

Speed of leveling did slow down noticeably at that point. It went from crazy fast to just plain fast. It feels about right now. It will be interesting to see what happens when the holiday boost drops but by then I might be 50 already. I'm more than half-way there.

For a good, long time none of this mattered a damn because I was having fun! I ran around killing separatists and rescuing children and making moral choices right and left and I found myself enjoying it way more than I expected.

Apart from how easy it all was, the other overiding impression from my first couple of days was how incredibly huge the gameworld seemed. It's deceptive, because SW:TOR is anything but an "open world" game. The unit of territory might be the "Planet" rather than the "Zone" but all you ever really see is a sliver of each world. Even so, the terrain you cover is immense.

It's made more so by the inordinate amount of running you have to do. I cannot recall ever having to run this much in an MMORPG, something that seems all the more peculiar in such a high-tech setting.

On Coruscant even the gangland areas are like military industrial complexes in their own right. The ceilings are vaulted, the corridors stretch into the distance, elevators shuttle between levels and pathfinding, even with the map, can be a trial. Even the NPCs notice. Corso, trailing behind me on yet another ten minute jog from questgiver to target and back, wondered aloud how a street gang could find the money to fund a base on such a scale.

Yet, for all the running, I haven't been bored. Or frustrated. It feels oddly convincing. The absence of short cuts and fast travel (they exist, or so Tyler tells me in the comments, although I haven't investigated the possibilities yet) adds to the immersion. That, I know, won't last. Enjoyment of slow travel is a function of novelty.

When I moved on from Ord Mantell to Coruscant I was determined not to let the main storyline suck me in. Once again I ran around picking up random side missions. They were all reasonably interesting. They were also even more insanely easy than before because by then I'd discovered that The Scoundrel comes with an in-built cheat mode.

As a rogue class, The Scoundrel gets to sneak. You'd expect that. What you wouldn't expect is for "sneaking" to translate into "infallible invisibility". The abiilty, "Stealth", has no cooldown, lasts indefinitely and casts instantly. Nothing I have met so far, including bosses, sees through it. Once, in the Flashpoint, I encountered some droids that used a kind of ray that would reveal me but they had a huge telegraph and predictable pathing. Other than that, nothing.

In Stealth mode you move at 85% run speed. It's not even enough to notice. I often forget to switch Stealth off in safe areas. By sneaking I was able to do almost all missions without fighting anything other than my specific target mobs. When, as was often the case, I just needed to click on an object or find and talk to an NPC, I was able to complete the mission without any combat whatsoever.

I've played a good few classes with various forms of stealth or invisibility but never anything like this. It's the dictionary definition of overpowered. If it wasn't that the combat it avoids is entirely trivial anyway it would feel like an exploit to use it. As is, it just feels handy.

Eventually I ran out of side missions on Coruscant, just as I had on Ord Mantell, giving me no option other than to return to the main quest. I felt my agency as an individual slip away, subsumed into the pre-ordained narrative.

It's fortunate the story's half-way decent and the voice acting is better than average. What it reminds me of more than anything is watching a mid-season, filler episode of an 80s T.V. show; Magnum P.I, say, or The Fall Guy. Not a particularly exalted benchmark but above the reach of most MMORPGs that aren't The Secret World.

The whole thing is significantly enlivened by the famous BioWare "meaningful choice" mechanic and the accompanying Dark/Light dichotomy. I plan on dealing with that in more detail another time but for now, as a first impression, I'll just say that it's working a whole lot better for me than I ever imagined it would.

Some more recent reviews of SW:TOR suggest it's become little more than a slightly awkward single-player RPG. The suggestion is that, finally, the ill-fated MMORPG has morphed into the spiritual successor of Knights of the Old Republic so many wished BioWare had made in the first place.

I'm not so sure. There's certainly a huge amount of course-correction in place, the game trying its hardest to steer a new player down the optimal path of story, story, story. That, of course, was never  the original intention for the game. As firmly and irrevocably as TOR became associated with narrative, basing the entire game on story was never the plan, not even when BioWare famously or infamously touted their "Fourth Pillar" as the magic bullet that would save the MMORPG genre.

As many people argued at the time, supporting a live MMORPG on story wasn't likely to be sustainable long term. But then, it didn't need to be. Story, after all, was only the fourth pillar. The game also rested on three more: exploration, progression and combat.

I have to assume those still exist at the upper end of the game. I imagine there's the usual MMO endgame of grinding repeatable content (combat) to chase incremental increases in power (progression), punctuated by sporadic updates (exploration). New expansions, like Onslaught, due this Autumn, give a refresh to all four pillars and off we go again.

Down in the bilges of Free to Play, where all we have to sustain us is the original fifty levels, there's precious little sign of the missing three. The fourth pillar looms over everything, casting a long, dark shadow. But there are glimmers of light in the darkness.

I got my starship back yesterday evening. It was a moment, I can tell you. I may have said "YES!" out loud. Air may have been punched.

My next port of call should have been the planet Taris for ongoing narrative reasons. Instead I flew back to Ord Mantell, where I finished up a Bounty Hunt I'd taken on sometime back when I was about Level 18. Now I have my ship, I plan to go where I want to go, not where some NPC tells me I should. I worked damned hard to get my agency back and I don't plan on giving it up easily.

We'll see how long that lasts. I'm used to playing agaisnt the grain in MMORPGs. I have a feeling this time I'm going to get splinters.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Star Wars: The Old Republic: First Impressions (The Basics)

Since downloading and installing Star Wars: The Old Republic on Thursday I have played for just under eight hours. My first and so far only character, a Scoundrel, is a few pixels shy of Level 22. I've acquired my first Companion and a Stronghold. I know it's very early days but it's never too soon to give an uninformed opinion. This is the Age of the Internet, after all!

Download and Installation

Flawless. Seamless. Painless. Really, this is how it ought to be. As a Free to Play player you don't even have to enter an email address. All you need is a username and password and you're done. The game will prompt you later to add an email address for security reasons (the pop-up appeared for me around Level 17) but you can play until Level 20 without one, which should be plenty of time to decide whether you're going to hang around long enough to care.

You have the option to start playing immediately while the main game downloads behind you. I chose to let the whole thing install first. Once that was done I took a look at

Character Creation

Slick. Intuitive. Simple. First you choose your Faction: Republic or Empire. It's hard to imagine anyone coming to SW:TOR without prior knowledge of the baggage attatched to these generic labels but there's a short description just in case. I thought it was instructive that neither is described in terms of "Good" or "Evil"and both include negative descriptors ("chaotic" for The Republic, "rigid" for The Empire). I chose Republic, mainly because it uses a blue theme and I prefer blue to red.

After Faction comes Class. There are four, split into two sub-classes, so really eight. There's a short description of each but a series of much more detailed drop-downs gives you full disclosure on abilities, expected roles, gear and even storylines. I confess I completely missed this when I made my first character. It could be better signposted. Or I could pay more attention. Either one.

Next comes Race. SW:TOR has a lot of races. There are a dozen to choose from but for F2P players the choice is made a lot easier: you only get three. I chose Cyborg, which is not even a "race" in my book. More of a lifestyle choice. The limited racial options for F2P might rankle more if it wasn't that all playable races are basically "human with a funny head". For a science fiction IP Star Wars has always seemed astoundingly conservative to me. The extreme prevalence of bipedal aliens who look like guests at a "SciFi"-themed fancy dress party is a big part of the reason for that.

Each race gets a "Social Ability" which, apart from looks, appears to be the only practical difference. I didn't even notice this when I made my character. I doubt it's going to matter. Especially since I don't plan on being social. Again, though, it could be better highlighted.

Finally you get to pick a gender. The choice is simple. Male or Female. I do wonder how much longer games are going to be able to get away with that. It seems archaic. You might imagine a Science Fiction IP with galactic reach would be a tad more forward-looking. It is what is, I guess. For now, at least. I chose Female.

Now comes the fun part: sliders. There are nine, covering the basics from Head and Body Type to Scars and Skin Color. They aren't real sliders, though. They just move between presets. There's enough choice to suit me although I doubt it would satisfy the kind of player who downloads pre-launch character creators and spends weeks trying to get the exact look down to the last freckle.

With all that done it's time to choose a name and a server and enter the game proper.

A place for everything and everything in its place.

User Interface

Clean. Clear. Comprehensible. Also enormously flexible. I didn't fiddle with the UI at all because it was already laid out pretty much exactly how I like it. Hotbars bottom center. Quest tracker on the right. Chat on the left. Most of the screen clear. There's an interface editor that allows you to move anything anywhere as well as make any number of other quality of life tweaks.

Couldn't really ask for more, although I don't doubt the default UI is widely derided and I'd be considered a noob for sticking with it instead of some Mod or other. Don't care. I like it.


Traditional. Comfortable. Classic.  One of the reasons I've been holding off playing TOR is the control system. Not because I thought I wouldn't like it but because I knew I would. These days it's getting harder and harder to find WASD, tab target, hotbar MMORPGs in the style World of Warcraft span out of EverQuest but that's the style I crave. I'd been saving TOR because who knows when, or if, another one like this is going to come along.

I realize this will be seen by some as one of the very reasons TOR didn't do as well as it should have. Many developers have explained in very convincing detail how this kind of control system hugely limits appeal and how badly most gamers struggle to adapt to it. MMORPGs have largely transferred to an action rpg style for sound commercial reasons.

I don't care. I like the old version. I like full control of my mouse pointer at all times. I like to point and click. As I've said many times, I'm perfectly capable of using the other control systems; I just like this one better.

TOR's controls work exactly as you'd expect them to. No surprises. I was as familiar with them in thirty seconds as I am with the controls in games I've played for years. Keys are all fully bindable with a huge range of otions. The defaults are what you'd expect - "M" for Map, "I" for Inventory and so on. No-one's tried to make a name for themselves by reinventing the wheel, for once. The only thing I changed was the screenshot key.

Those "textures"! Those "colors"! Help me!


Oh dear. Oh dearie, dearie, dear. For the first dozen levels I thought SW:TOR was probably the ugliest AAA MMORPG I had ever played. I had to go check when it launched because it looked about ten years older than I remembered. It probably didn't help that the planet where the Scoundrel starts looks like a cross between a 1970s out of town shopping mall and a municipal dump but mostly it was the textures. Or so I thought.

I fiddled with the settings a little. I put the Textures to "High", the only option other than "Low", where they'd defaulted, but I couldn't see much difference. I switched off some, then all, off the nameplates. It helped a little. Not a lot.

What happened then is telling. In other MMORPGs I've played, where the graphics were really off-putting, I've usually ended up digging through all the settings, trying everything, then googling for suggestions. In TOR I kind of forgot about it. I started doing some quests and a couple of hours later it was time to log and I'd done nothing about the graphics. Next day I played for another hour and a half or so before I thought about doing something about it.

Now that's more like it!

When I finally did go to the web and search I immediately discovered I'd completely missed a whole macro-level of settings, where you can simply set the overal graphic quality in a six preset range from Low to Ultra. Once again I hadn't seen that, even though I had used the drop downs on either side of it. I really can't blame that on the game. I'm an idiot.

With that arcane knowledge revealed I simply set my graphics to Very High and everything changed almost out of recognition. Even Ord Mantell, the starting planet, began to look vaguely bearable. Coruscant was amazing.

Although it was entirely my fault that I missed the options, I find it strange that the game itself defaulted to the lowest settings. Pete, who has just returned to TOR and has his own returner's impressions post up, said "It’s an old enough game that when it detected my graphics card it said “Gosh I have no idea” and set everything to “low”. Which is fair enough if you have a state-of-the-art whizz-bang graphics card but I have a GTX960 that was barely mid-range when I got it several years ago.

While there's an obvious problem if a game tries to do things the player's hardware isn't up to handling, there's an equal risk in downgrading everything to the bare minimum. Especially on a F2P title. You don't really want to give people an opportunity to opt out and really ugly, low-rez graphics as default are that opportunity. The game didn't even default to the correct resolution, which is something many games fail at and which completely mystifies me.

Once I'd got everything settled, the graphics seemed more than acceptable. It's no Guild Wars 2 or Black Desert but it doesn't burn my eyes.

Space. Contrary to popular belief it can be surprisingly noisy.


Atmospheric. Varied. Immersive. Sound is very well used in TOR. As I write this I have my Scoundrel stealthed in the Justicar quadrant on Coruscant. As well as the incidental music, I can hear the sound of vehicles in transit down the metalic corridors and the static crackle of distant announcements. It feels authentic, by which I mean filmic.

Interacting with computer terminals makes a satisfying bleeping sound. My footsteps slap and echo on the metal walkways. My blaster pew pews like a good blaster should. Even the combat music, when it kicks in urgently, doesn't make me reach for the controls to turn it down.

TOR looks good with the settings properly tweaked but it sounds great straight out of the non-existent box. And sound design is extremely important, or it is to me. It's always puzzled me that anyone can play with the sound off, let alone with other music playing instead. In the days when MMORPGs required you to pay attention to stay alive, I got so many cues from the sound that kept me from being ambushed or surprised. These days that rarely matters but much of my sought-after immersion comes in via my ears, not my eyes.

The Basics: Conclusion

SW:TOR has all the basics down. It's a Triple-A game from a major publisher and you can tell. It's also had over seven years to iron out the wrinkles and stamp on the bugs. Everything works, everything it where is should be and getting started is all made very easy indeed. I haven't had this seamless an introduction into an MMORPG for a while.

Next up: gameplay, questing, leveling, travel, housing. All that good stuff!

Friday, April 19, 2019

Let The Good Times Roll : SW:tOR

After yesterday's post, in which I wondered aloud whether my increasing lack of patience with labored, time-consuming mechanics was a sign of learning through experience or a lack of inspiration, I had a thought. Maybe I don't have to wait for Ashes of Creation or Pantheon to reach a playable build before I test those hypotheses. Maybe I could just try a new MMORPG right now.

There are still one or two genuine, Western AAA MMORPGs out there that I haven't tried. Hard to believe, I know. I've made a concerted effort over the years to run through them all, at least far enough to form an opinion. For some reason, though, there have always been one or two that have eluded me.

In part, I think it's because I've been holding them in reserve, just to know there's something in the tank should I ever need it. Mostly, though, it's because for one reason or another they were games whose setting or premise or I.P. never appealed to me.

There's Trion's Defiance and Defiance 2050, about which I know almost nothing, not even what control scheme they use. There's Pirates of the Burning Sea, which for some reason I never played even when it came under SOE's umbrella. There's Age of Conan, for which I actually own a sealed, boxed copy that I once picked up for a pound in a Manager's Special dumpbin at PCWorld, and there's Star Wars: the Old Republic.

Were I to find myself  looking for a new MMORPG to play, SW:tOR, the MMORPG with the most irritating acronym ever, and which I shall henceforth refer to as TOR, would appear to have a good deal to recommend it. It's World of Warcraft in space, after all, which means it's yet another reskin of the DikuMUD model that's served the genre so well for decades.

I like that model. I prefer it to all the other flavors of MMO I've tried. It feels like a classic to me, a sound and solid structure, capable of supporting an almost infinite number of variations. In the case of TOR it means tab targetting and hotbars, levels, xp, linear progression and gear ladders. All the good stuff.

It also means Star Wars, which is why I've never played it. I am not a Star Wars fan.

Sometimes, when someone says "I'm not a Star Wars fan", what they want you to understand is that they're somehow above such trivia; that it's too juvenile or too lowbrow to deserve their attention. That is decidedly not what I mean.

Such pretension wouldn't wash, really, not when you consider the way I devote almost all of my free time to playing and writing about video games. Nor how I was such a major comics fan in my twenties and thirties that I published fanzines and interviewed creators. And anyway, claiming not to be a Star Wars fan wouldn't really cut much slack among the intellectual elite whileI also find myself inexorably compelled to take any and every opportunity to out myself as a Buffy fan, a Scooby Doo fan, a Supergirl fan...

No, it's a lot less convoluted than that. The thing is this; I never really thought Star Wars was all that good.

As I've mentioned before, I kind of took against the whole project in the months when the original movie was breaking all records in America but hadn't yet been released over here. I even wrote a song about it, the first lines of which went "Star Wars' a bore and I haven't even seen it/Critics say it's good but I know they don't mean it".

Of course, the moment it released in the U.K. I did go to see it and I thought it was great. Who wouldn't? That first movie is great. The second one was great, too. After that... not so much.

Despite my lack of personal interest, I remained well in the loop about Star Wars for a very long time. My college-era girlfriend (now, and for a very long time, my ex-wife) was a member of the Official Star Wars Fan Club. I remember their magazine, Bantha Tracks. I think she had some spot illos published in it at one time.

Much later, when George Lucas decided to trash his own legacy for the new millennium, even though I hadn't much thought about Star Wars for years, I went to see all three movies on release because my movie buddy was crazy for Star Wars at the time.

And yet, despite all this exposure over the years, Star Wars and I never quite connected. I can remember quite clearly back when Raph Koster's Star Wars Galaxies MMORPG was anounced. I was hip-deep in the hobby and desperate for any new MMO that might come along. It's not like there were so many you could afford to ignore a big one.

But ignore it I did. My interest in SWG never sparked, despite the fact it was being produced by Sony Online Entertainment, my favorite developer, makers of my beloved EverQuest. I didn't apply for the beta, even though I pretty much applied for every beta in those days. I didn't buy it when it launched. It would not be unreasonable to say I barely noticed it existed.

Looking back, I'm not sure exactly why that was. Mrs Bhagpuss isn't much for Science Fiction and wasn't at all interested but I've always played a lot of MMOs that she wasn't interested in so it can't have been that. It was before SOE invented the All Access Pass so I'd have had to pay a full subscription, which probably would have been enough to put me off dabbling.

Whatever the reason, I didn't get around to trying SWG for myself until it eventually did become part of the All Access subscription. I downloaded the game and made my first character about a week after the NGE hit. Timing is everything.

I didn't dislike SWG but it was a bit dull. The colors were dull, the costumes were dull, the quests were dull... I pottered around for a few sessions and then forgot about it. And when the hype train began to pick up speed for TOR I was very much not on board.

All of which brings us to now. Last night I downloaded TOR. I already had an account, never used, which, of course, didn't work so I made a new one. I logged in, made a character, played for a couple of hours, logged out. I was Level 11. This morning I logged in, played for about three hours and logged out. I was Level 17.

I will be doing a First Impressions post soon, although xp comes so fast I may have forgotten half the things I was planning on mentioning by the time I get around to writing it. So far I will say that, while the game is not without its flaws, I am having a good time.

But then, I almost always do have a good time at the start of a new MMORPG. How long the good times last is another question altogether. Let's find out!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

On "Difficulty"

Last night I felt like playing a little Pillars of Eternity. I got it last year as a free Amazon Prime/Twitch offer and I put quite a few enjoyable hours into it before I got stuck in a quest cul de sac and stopped.

The Twitch Prime promotions have been considerably more successful in re-introducing me to single-player gaming than my own efforts over the past few years. On the few occasions I've tried to branch out into non-MMO territory on my own I've mostly chosen games that look, feel and play like MMORPGs (Yonder, Tanzia) but don't have anyone in them but me. Unsurprisingly, that leads to feelings of isolation and pointlessness.

Through Twitch Prime I played The Banner Saga. I thought the plot was thin and predictable. I was unimpressed by the writing in general. Perhaps the stellar reviews led me to expect too much. As for gameplay, the combat was labored and the resource management tedious.

Visually, though, it was very striking. The best part of the game was the atmospherics, which kept me interested long enough to finish it. The last video game I can remember actually finishing before that must be Baldur's Gate 2 back around the turn of the century.

I certainly didn't get enough out of The Banner Saga to want to play the second one, which also came free with Twitch Prime. So far the only other freebie on offer that's appealed to me at all has been Pillars of Eternity.

PoE was Kickstarted as the spiritual successor to Baldur's Gate. From what I've seen so far it pretty much hurdles that very high bar. It looks and feels similar and the questing is all but identical. There are some oddities but on the whole it's a lot more "BioWare" than anything BioWare are known for nowadays.

I ought to love it. I don't. I like it. When I'm in the mood. And I really do have to be in the mood.

The thing is this: Pillars of Eternity is demanding. It requires effort. A lot of effort. There's an inordinate amount of inventory, skill and party management. There's not an awful lot in the way of handholding. Travel, which is frequent and required, takes forever. Combat, when it occurs, goes on and on and on.

Then there's the talking. A lot of NPCs are partly voiced and the voice acting is not bad. I like to listen to the spoken parts but it slows things down. And when the voiceovers stop the conversations carry on. There's a lot of reading.

And choosing. So. Much. Choosing. Choices with consequences, too. I hate that. Always have. I don't mind flavor but I like to know I can't screw things up by making a stupid decision on a whim. The inevitable result is that, whenever I reach any obvious nodal point, I have to go check a wiki to be sure I take the right turning. Which makes everything take even longer.

Last night I fired the game up for the first time in months. It was surprisingly easy to get back into the swing of things. In a few minutes I was questing. Well, I say "questing"...

It took me around an hour to finish a single quest. It took place in two adjacent districts of the same town. It involved no combat whatsoever. All I had to do was talk to a guy, walk to a building, take a thing from a place, take that thing to another guy, talk to a third guy and finally go back to the first guy and talk to him again.

I did that using a walkthrough and it took me an hour. Partly that was because, during all the walking and listening and talking, four members of my party levelled up. Independently, at separate times, for reasons unclear. The time I took to allocate their various points is included in the hour.

When it was over I sat back and thought. That was one, tiny side-quest at around level five. I knew from previous experience that it was entirely typical. If I did nothing else with my free time but play Pillars of Eternity, finishing the game could probably keep me occupied for the rest of the year.

Twenty years ago that would probably have seemed like a positive. Not any more. Or not so much, at least.

Before I fired up PoE I spent a while on EverQuest II's new Time-Limited Expansion server, Kaladim, where similar time-to-entertainment issues were evident. My Dirge there is Level 21. There's plenty she can do solo but none of it appeals.

Transport options are limited. It takes a long time to get anywhere. It's not practical to dart around looking for interesting quests. Leveling alone is excruciatingly slow, despite Kaladim supposedly having accelerated xp for a progression server. It's also not very interesting, consisting mainly of grinding slowly through various native species - bears, snakes, hawks, wolves...

It's hauntingly close to how I remember the game a few months after launch. Among other reasons, it's why I left. Daybreak Games have done a disturbingly good job in recreating the feel of pre-Hartsman EQII although why anyone would want to is another question.

Most mobs that used to be tuned for groups have been returned to that state. Intentionally, everything worth doing, above and below ground, relies on groups. I've been in a few and they weren't horrible but it mostly served to remind me what I felt back in 2005: EQ2 is not a great game for grouping.

The pace and flow of group combat in EQ2 has always felt off to me. As a healer I never felt I had time to adapt to situations the way I did in EverQuest. As a DPS I'm never really sure how much of what I'm doing is effective or required.

I think EQ2 combat absolutely shines in a duo or trio, where there's ample opportunity for tactics, strategy and subtlety. Full groups always seem to devolve into either mincing machines that move through corridors annihilating all in their path or fractious, failing collectives that fall apart on the first bad pull.

These two experiences, PoE and Kaladim, contrast sharply with my choice of gameplay for this morning. I ummed and ahhed for a while over what to play before deciding to level my EQ2 Shadowknight on the Antonia Bayle server. He'd just dinged 86 and I'd been taking him through Stonebrunt Highlands, a zone from the Sentinel's Fate expansion of 2010.

Rather than carry on there, I took him to the Chronomancers in Freeport and had them drop his level to 80 so he could start the main quest line from an even older expansion, 2008's The Shadow Odyssey.

In a couple of hours of extremely enjoyable questing my SK did just under two levels. I was never bored, always entertained. I read most of the quest text, even though I've done all these quests before, because much of the writing is amusing and because I had plenty of time to appreciate it.

I was soloing and there was no-one around me (I saw one other player) but I didn't for a moment get that "why am I doing this again?" sensation that comes when you realize you're teetering on the edge of an existential void. Twice I had to turn the general chat channel off, not because of anything offensive (conversations were relaxed and friendly) but because I was enjoying what I was doing too much to countenance distraction.

As usual, I'm not going anywhere with this, or not anywhere specific. I'm recording my thoughts so I can refer back to them later. This is an ongoing project. I do find the way that both my expectations and experiences have changed over a couple of decades fascinating. I'd like to understand those changes better.

I could really use a compulsive, new MMORPG with an old-school approach to benchmark against. Am I becoming less and less interested in "difficulty" (or is it "complexity"?) because my jaded palate needs refreshing from a fresh, pure wellspring? Would all the old love of slow travel and painstaking detail return if prompted by something genuinely inspiring?

Or have I finally matured to the point where I understand that life really is too short for all that. Cut to the chase, get to the point, are we having fun yet?

I guess I'm going to find out if a playable version of Pantheon ever appears. Until then I'll go on running experiments on the limits of my patience and writing up my findings here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

To The Barricades!

Mailvatar put up a thought-provoking post that covered a range of related issues about how video games are marketed and sold nowadays. I read it while I was in hospital and would have loved to reply to it at the time.

The post touched on any number of topics, most of which have been in regular discussion for years, from microtransactions and payment models to celebrity developers and the current buzz phrase, "Games as a Service". I found it instructive to see all these themes drawn together in a single rant.

I've just finished reading Hadley Freeman's excellent book on 80s movies, Life Moves Pretty Fast, in which Hadley makes a convincing case for things not having improved quite as much (or at all) as you might have imagined. What struck me most, though, was less how little some things have changed than how much others have.

I sometimes dither over whether or not I identify as a gamer but a simple look at the facts suggest I may be in denial. At 60 I am too old to have played video games as a child but I was playing them in late adolescence and I've rarely stopped. What that means has changed so much.

In the 1980s every game was a discrete, complete package. A product. The format varied - cartridge, cassette, disk - but the games themselves were always the same: a single, standalone chunk of entertainment that you played until you finished.

Of course, you could replay your game, as many times as you liked, and some games might even have difficulty modes or alternate paths or endings that allowed some variation, but what you bought was, in essence, no different from a video cassette or a book. You could even line them up on shelves and alphebetize them if you wanted.

This wasn't some antedeluvian paradise. Lots of the games were terrible. A significant proportion of them didn't work properly (or at all). If the game you bought was buggy it was going to stay buggy. There weren't any patches or fixes coming down the pipe. There was no pipe.

Because I am hard-triggered by the word "review" and can't help myself, I slapped a wholly irrelevant comment on yesterday's post on Review Bombing at Time to Loot, in which I may have implied that I am above using reviews to guide my purchasing choices. While it's true that I do revere reviewing as one of the finest of fine arts, I am not about to pretend it doesn't also have a practical function.

I remember spending hours reading reviews and promos for new games for the ZX Spectrum and the Amiga, trying to decide which were worth risking money on. Even with all that research the outcome was often underwhelming at best.

As we passed through the 90s things began to change but slowly. In my own case it was the eve of the milennium before I finally embraced the future. EverQuest was the first video game I ever bought that didn't stay the same.

People talk a lot about how the early MMORPGs were prototypes for social media, how they made talking to strangers on the far side of the world an everday experience, and that's a huge part of why those of who were there, then, hark back to those days with such longing. What's mentioned far less often is the way the games themselves changed, constantly, inexorably, unfathomably.

I could lose hours browsing the EQ Patch Archive on Allakhazam. It's astonishing, not only how much content was added as the game became more successful but how radically the structures and processes of the game were revised, revamped and replaced.

As we've seen with the developer notes on WoW Classic, short of literally starting over with the launch-day code, there's no "Classic" version of any MMORPG. All of them, always, are in a constant state of flux. On any day a single change can radically re-interpret part or all of the game.

We've become all-too familiar with game-breaking patches. They seem to come along once or twice a year for most MMORPGs. Usually it turns out the game doesn't break after all because all games are now self-healing. Or, rather, a bunch of over-stretched developers in some office somewhere get to cancel their dinner dates and text hasty apologies to their families so they can stay late at the office and fix what they broke.

We expect this now. And not just in MMOs. It's partly implied in the FOTM marketing term "Games as a Service". It also means companies large and small can get away with releasing games that don't work.

The thing is, they always could. Back in the 1980s, as I suggested, companies released games that didn't work all the time. It was much the same as studios releasing movies that bombed. Keep doing it and eventually you'd go out of business but everyone could get away with a few stinkers.

Are we better or worse off now? In the old days we'd just write off a crappy game as a bad purchasing decision and move on, out of pocket but mostly unconcerned. Nowadays delivering a video game that disappoints brings death threats, even though there's every likelihood the game will eventually work as advertised.

It's unclear and it gets much less clear when you factor in microtransactions. If we're paying a penalty in upfront useability by buying into the "Games as a Service" model, shouldn't we at least expect the corrections, when they come, to be free? It's one thing to have advertised parts of your game missing at launch; entirely another to include them in paid DLC later.

Then, as Mailvatar asks, there's the question of the damage the whole concept of microtransactions makes to immersion, satisfaction and potential. Even if the pricing is reasonable, is it really still

"actively working against any potential a game has to be great. How are we supposed to be immersed, to feel like we’re having an adventure, when big red price tags are slapped right in our faces every five seconds? When we can’t look cool unless we swipe our credit cards some more? When we can’t pick up stuff because we haven’t bought enough inventory space?"
Once again, to no-one's surprise, I'm ambivalent. You see, I already had this issue long before any of us had ever heard or used the term "microtransaction".

In my first two or three years of MMORPG gaming I was one of the most militant of hardliners concerning "immersion". I strongly believed that all loot should only drop from monsters, be crafted by the person who was going to use it, or, in limited circumstances, come from an NPC.

To my way of thinking, trading between players was tantamount to cheating. Even trading between your own characters (twinking) was cheating. I did it, of course. Everyone did. But I kept very quiet about it. It was shameful.

Over time all those militant tendencies buckled under the assault of actually enjoying myself. Turns out getting stuff you want is fun, however you get it. Who knew?

Consequently, by the time we got to cash shops and microtransactions, I didn't much care any more. I still have issues over fair and reasonable pricing but only the same ones I have over any product or service. If they made every single item and ability in the game available via the Cash Shop in most MMORPGs I play I wouldn't object. My days of caring deeply about either immersion or exclusivity are far behind me.

What concerns Mailvatar about all of this is the damage it does, not to the games as they are, but the games as they could be: their potential. I think this is a good point.

It's becoming very plain that games that launch at or close to the best they could be (Apex Legends probably being the standout recent example) are the exception. Most developers seem content to get something out the door as soon as possible, pick up some valuable income on the back of it and worry about the future when it gets here.

Is that sustainable? Probably. Seems to be. Yes, there are backlashes and review bombings and campaigns but worldwide revenues from gaming continue to rise and rise. Individual studios and companies may go under but the industry itself continues to trend upwards.

Naithin, commenting on Mailvatar's post, concludes "I also think it important that we speak up when things tip too far in favour of the commercial" to which Mailvatar replies "basically the one and only ‘message’, if you will, that I tried to get across". I agree.

As Ferris Bueller told us back in the 80s, life does indeed move pretty fast. There's often not too much we can do to stop it, either. Wishing away changes like microtransactions or Free to Play or Games as a Service is going to be about as effective as wishing ever is. The universe does not have our backs on this one.

Doesn't mean we have to like it, though. Or pretend we do. All the changes that have happened over the last few decades incorporate course corrections caused by outrage, protest and complaint. You might think things are bad now; imagine how much worse they could be if everyone had just kept their heads down.

Protest goes in and out fashion. Right now it seems to be on an uptick. Video games aren't global warming or the alt-right (although...) but they're not nothing either. Business practices affect much more than the products themselves; they touch the culture.

Over time, choices matter. Boycotts rarely work but social trends do. If certain ways of doing things acquire negative associations that negativity transfers to sales and profits and that's when change happens.

I'm definitely not suggesting I'd avoid playing a new MMORPG that looked really good just because it came with dodgy business practices but I am saying that, if offered the choice, I'd plump instead for one produced by a developer who appeared to have higher standards. Even if the game itself wasn't quite as sparkly.

Put that on a banner!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

When You Get Out Of The Hospital

It's been a bit quiet around here for the last week or so, which usually means I've been away on holiday. I was indeed lounging around, doing not very much, but I was doing it in a large hospital, not some pensión in the back of beyond.

As I briefly mentioned earlier in the year I had an investigative procedure that turned out to be positive and last week I went into hospital to have 30cm of my upper bowel removed. Everything went well - the surgeon's report described the operation as "uneventful", which is, I guess, exactly what you'd want your surgeon to say.

There was an interesting moment a couple of days into recovery, when they thought I might have had a heart attack. I was surprised to discover you can have one without noticing. It was a false alarm, fortunately, and I was judged well enough yesterday to come home.

If my ongoing recovery goes to plan, I probably have a month, maybe a month and a half,  before I go back to work. Then, all being well, I really will be on holiday for two weeks in June!

When I go on holiday I usually take a complete break and avoid looking at any blogs or gaming news but in hospital I was often looking for something to keep me amused and entertained so last week I read everything as normal. The hospital wifi, which I was piggybacking (they hadn't bothered to password it) didn't permit any kind of uploading or downloading so I wasn't able to reply to any of the interesting posts.

It's probably a bit late to start now. If you posted something in the last week, just imagine my reply. I would almost certainly have said exactly what you think I would. I usually do.

Since I'm supposed to be taking it easy and not overdoing things I should have plenty of time for blogging and also for trying some new MMORPGs. If I can find any.

That's about all I have to say on the matter except to do the thing everyone always does after they've had some potentially life-threatening condition diagnosed and (hopefully!) averted.

I really had no inkling I was seriously ill. I felt fine. I had some minor pains but they were occasional and familiar. There's no way I'd have gone to a doctor about them. It was just good luck that I dinged 60 in real life last November and because I'm fortunate enough to live in a country with a National Health Service one of my rewards for leveling up was a free test kit for bowel cancer.

Even then, I might easily have ignored it but because I tend towards Lawful Neutral I went along with what I was being asked to do, even though it ended up taking three goes and six weeks to get a definitive result. As a result, the operation I ended up needing has been smaller and less impactful than it would have been had I waited until symptoms appeared, always assuming that by that stage it would have been operable at all.

In countries with socialized health care there are generally a lot of free checks you can get. Medicine is all about proactivity these days. I don't really know how it works it countries that base healthcare on insurance but I imagine insurers would generally prefer to pay less earlier than more later so there are presumably options there, too.

Without getting all political about it, I'd just say that whatever checks you can have, you should have. If they offer them, take them. If you have to ask, then ask. Yes, it's annoying. We all have better things to do with our time than take an afternoon out to go to some clinic and have holes poked in us. Until we don't.

When I'm fit again I need to take my own advice and follow up a couple of other, less urgent, flags that popped up in some other precautionary testing I got free with my 60th birthday. For now, though, I'm going to sit back, drink tea and play games.

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Seven Years In Advertising: GW2

Above is a still from a new promotional video for Guild Wars 2. Here's the whole thing:

Here's another one:

Those are from the "Summoned" series. There's another set:"GW2 Tourism". Here's one of those:

That was Divinity's Reach. This is Rata Sum:

And Hoelbrak:

The Grove:

And Black Citadel:

 Finally, there's this rousing call to arms, going out under the noble banner "Play for Free":

I took all of those from this forum thread. It was started by a player but Mike Silbowitz, ArenaNet's Head of Global Marketing, jumped in fast to quell the inevitable suspicions over authenticity and steer the discussion in a positive direction.

Conversation moved along predictable fault lines:

Who is this aimed at? 
"People who are not currently familiar with GW2"

 Why don't you just show gameplay footage?
"CG grabs the eye of that "outside" audience more effectively"

Are these leftovers from the cancelled mobile project?
"All these videos were made specifically for GW2 with the specific intention of bringing new players into our vibrant community".

All of which is perfectly fine, as far as it goes. And it's certainly nice to see some money being spent on advertising the game. It also makes for an intriguing contrast with Holly Longdale's recently-stated position that EverQuest and EverQuest II can get by very nicely with the audiences they already have, thank you very much.

Not that ANet is ignoring the legacy market. After all, as the F2P video boasts, there are eleven million current and former GW2 players out there, somewhere. And there's already a campaign under way to bring them back into the fold.

Without doubt, this new lust for fresh or former blood for GW2 comes off the back of the recent retrenchment, a development that must have placed ArenaNet in a precarious position. All the proposed projects they spent the last five years working on have been summarily cancelled. They appear to have no prospects of expanding, either via new platforms (Console or Mobile) or new products. Their fortunes now rest on a single property, the Guild Wars franchise, currently represented by one very old game and an aging sequel.

What's more, they have precious little to sell off the back of either of them. Guild Wars is officially in maintenance mode, while GW2 hasn't had an expansion since 2016, won't get a new one this year and may never get one. Plus, they already played the F2P Conversion card several years back. It's the very definition of putting all your eggs in the one basket.

Still, you work with what you have. In two decades of MMO gaming I don't think I can recall a single instance of a developer launching a major promotional campaign for an MMO that had nothing new to sell and no new payment model to promote but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

There are, after all, orders of magnitude more potential customers out there who haven't tried the game yet than those that have. It's just a question of getting them to take notice.

And as I said about Rift, if Trion had been able to launch that game "as is" in 2019 it might well have been quite a success. It doesn't feel "old" and neither does GW2. For most MMOs made in the last decade, aging technology, mechanics or graphics aren't really what's holding them back. Getting anyone to look at them in the first place: that's the problem.

It's going to be very interesting to see how this all plays out, although how we'll be able to assess the success, if any, of these campaigns is hard to see. I very much doubt we'll get any announcements boasting how many digital boxes were sold as a result, let alone any hard numbers on how many people are actually playing.

As the old saw goes, though, all publicity is good publicity. For the health of the hobby, let's hope it works.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide