Tuesday, 19 August 2014

The Whole Of The Moon : EQ2

I had a whole long, serious post about MMO payment models nearly finished but stuff that!

Someone mended Luclin!

I was flipping through Feedly after work when I saw EQ2Wire had the latest patch notes for EQ2. The first entry was something about Moonlight Enchantments. That might interest Mrs Bhagpuss, I thought. Must remember to tell her when she gets home.

Then I came to the the second entry...

"With Kerafyrm’s defeat, Freeport and Qeynos have finally broken the Awakened siege, and Luclin – now whole – shines brightly in the skies."

As Antonia Bayle's Bit On The Side (great handle!) says in the first comment - Wait! What?

"Now whole" ?!

I had absolutely no idea this was coming. Unlike many longtime EQ players, I loved the Shadows of Luclin expansion. I was Not Happy (although I was very excited) when Norrath's first moon was destroyed as part of the lead-in to the launch of EQ2.

I've always hoped and halfway expected that, one day, we'd get to visit to the remnants we've watched glower like a livid scar across the skies of Norrath ever since. I never, not for one moment, considered the possibility that Luclin might be restored.

If anyone wants an example of how MMOs can change and grow without making a song and dance about it, this is it. This is how it's done. No big PR push. No cinematics. No hype on social media. No warning at all. Just log in one day and there it is - the moon on a stick.

Of course it won't have come as a shock to everyone. The refurbishment of Luclin represents the culmination of the high-end storyline of the previous expansion, not to mention the underlying narrative of the last decade and more. You don't just drop something like that in as an afterthought.

If you're on the ball you'll have done the two-group raid that was added in the Age's End update earlier this month, where you get to see how it was done. I'll probably have to watch that on YouTube. Oh, wait, what's this in the patch notes...

"YouTube integration has been removed due to incompatibilities with Google’s API updates. Options are being explored to return video functionality". D'oh!

You don't have to be an end-game raider to stumble on a harbinger of things to come though. You just need to watch where you're going once in a while. As I was running through the the undead orc lands above the Commonlands dock, trying to get an angle on the new moon, something caught my eye.

Just a rabbit.

Hang on a minute...this is Norrath not Tyria. We don't have floppy bunnies lolloping across the bleached desert sands outside Freeport. Snow bunnies in Velious, those we have. Or had.

We especially don't have huge, plump rabbits that make eye contact, lock their gaze on you, turn when you turn and sit up on their haunches, drumming their great, fat, furry back feet with an audible thump.

Well, we do now. Whether we've had them since the first bunny mounts appeared for Easter or whether they've arrived in anticipation of the new bunny mounts due after the expansion I'm not sure. It's the first time I've seen one though.

Either way, this is how you get someone's interest. Okay, it's how you get my interest. And my loyalty. And my word of mouth. And my money.

Roll on November!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

I Want What They're Having : GW2, EQ2

The news that Episode Four of Living Story Season Two would be the last for several months came as something of a surprise. No, wait, that's not quite right. It came as a total bolt from the freakin' blue!

ANet have somehow managed to eke out the reveal of a single new explorable map, one that's roughly a quarter of the size of the map next door, over the course of two months, and almost convince us we're getting something amazing. How did they do that? All the lore arguments about the original GW1 Dry Top being a small area aside, it's really not a very impressive achievement, although the way it's been marketed definitely is.

Now we learn that it will be another two months or so before the process starts up again. At this rate it will take more than a year to add the equivalent of one, complete explorable area.

Compare that to recently-announced expansions for other MMOs. The upcoming EQ2 expansion, news of which so impressed me, includes two massive overland zones, fourteen dungeons and a new playable race. WoW's Warlords of Draenor proposes to expand Azeroth by more than half a dozen outdoor zones plus dungeons and another ten levels. FFXIV's as-yet unscheduled first expansion is mooted to be as large as the entire game was when it first launched.

There are plenty more where those came from. Even MMOs that aren't going down the Big Box route can claim to have added major new game systems in expansion-like updates - SW:ToR's Galactic Starfighter and Galactic Strongholds brought PvP space combat and housing to that game, for example.

By contrast, what have we had in the two years since GW2 released? At the start the signs looked promising. In the first four months there was a new, explorable map, Southsun Cove, swiftly followed by no fewer than nine "fractal" dungeons. At that pace, who needs an expansion, right?

Since then, however, world building has slowed from a flood to a trickle. There's been one WvW map, Edge of the Mists, and one explorable map, Dry Top and that's it for permanent new areas. Oh, hang on, no it's not - how could I forget Cragstead and the North Nolan Hatchery from the very beginning of Living Story One? Anyone visited either of those recently?

Along the way we've seen a reasonable amount of temporary real estate appear only to vanish like morning mist when its purpose has been served. Dungeons, like The Molten Facility and, um, was there another one? Oh yes, the Krait Tower in Kessex Hills.

We've had small storyline pop-ups like Canach's Lair and off-the-wall experiments like the Super Adventure Box and naturally we've had the usual flurry of seasonal and holiday content like Tixx's Infinirarium and The Mad King's Realm. We even had the gorgeously detailed and highly popular Bazaar of the Four Winds and look how that turned out.

Right from the start ArenaNet's insistence on a dynamic, living, changing world has been controversial. While most players understand why content related to specific holidays only hangs around for a specific period, the idea that almost all new content should be dangled on a string for a week or two and then snatched away was a difficult sell from the beginning and the current direction of developmental travel seems determined to take us down an altogether different road.

Changes to existing maps that tie in with a particular storyline are a longstanding and widely accepted tradition in MMOs. Sometimes they leave permanent scars on the landscape to puzzle and confuse future generations of players, like the huts of the Rude Individuals that still litter Qeynos Hills a decade and more on, or the shattered remnants of Scarlet's probes that glower banefully across Tyria even now. More often they just vanish when their function is no longer required.

With GW2 in general and the Living Story in particular, AreneNet have attempted to sell the idea that their approach to content addition is something radical and new. For a while that seemed almost plausible. Certainly the pace at which they approached things was unusual. The appearances, completely unexpected and unheralded, of whole-cloth additions like Fractals and the SAB were bold, striking coups. The introduction of the bi-weekly Living Story sent ripples across the genre.

From the perspective two years down the line, however, things look somewhat different. GW2 has not added more, new, permanent content than other MMOs I play, when judged on that timescale. If anything it has added less. Moreover, I would strongly question whether it has even given us more temporary content than we are used to getting elsewhere. After all, every active MMOs runs storylines, holiday events, anniversaries, and a variety of one-off or ad hoc activities as a matter of course.

Just today I noticed that my No Bombing At The Moonfire Fair post from last year had popped back up in the top five weekly posts list for this blog, leading me to surmise, correctly, that Square had switched the event back on for its annual appearance. This is just what MMOs do. In a few weeks Mad King Thorn will, we assume, burst out of what's left of the Lion Statue in LA and start haranguing us all over again. Many MMOs, EQ2, LotRO and WoW among them, even have in-game calendars so players can keep track, so frequently do these time-limited events arrive.

GW2 has already created a number of set pieces that can and will recur. Even the Bazaar of the Four Winds may make a comeback - it's not at all clear how much of the flying fleet came  down over Dry Top, after all. Two years on a solid framework for celebrating high days and holidays has been established.

Outside of that, over the course of its first two years I don't believe GW2 has added much, if any, more regular content than the average MMO. Unlike most other passably successful games of its genre, however, what it has not done is produce anything even remotely comparable to an expansion.

Although the real figures are kept frustratingly obscure from us, I think few gamers would argue that any of SOE's MMOs can be more commercially successful right now than GW2. How is it, then, that both Everquest and EQ2 get substantial expansions every year and regular, substantial content updates throughout the months between? Regardless of anyone's opinion of the relative quality of these additions their quantity isn't up for question.

To stick with the current MMO I know best other than GW2, last year EQ2 received a full-scale expansion with Tears of Veeshan in the autumn of 2013. By the time that arrived players had already enjoyed the free Scars of the Awakened update in spring, which added a large explorable zone and a new, full-size dungeon, and, as if that wasn't enough, they'd also had the Dawn of Darkness update in June, giving them alternate, high-end versions of several existing dungeons.

Well, if EQ2 is so much better, why don't you go and play that instead, then? Oh, wait, this isn't map chat, is it? No, the point isn't to score points, just to note that, for all ANet's high-visibility effort, the progress being made isn't all that impressive. It's not quite treading water but then it's not the Australian Crawl either. More like doggy paddle I'd say.

With spoilers in mind I'll leave it a few more days before I get into what I thought of the actual content of the "mid-season finale". I'll just say that it took me less than three hours to complete and that I haven't felt like repeating it on the second account yet. With everyone else getting expansions between now and Wintersday, though, the second half of the season had better come up with something substantial. Man cannot live by amuse-bouche alone.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Jam Today : SOE Live

Anyone following SOE Live in the hope of hearing something substantive about EQNext might be looking in the wrong place. Azuriel, reporting from a panel at GenCon, quotes EQN lore writer Maxwell Drake as estimating development has another two years to run.

I think we all got overexcited this time last year, what with supposed gameplay footage and "something playable" just around the corner. A 2016 launch would bring things back on track with my own original guesstimate. If that's confirmed at SOE Live then we can all officially forget about Next for the time being until we start getting excited all over again when the alpha packs go on sale sometime in 2015.

We should be getting the hang of this new, hyper-extended, "open" development cycle after Landmark, which looks precious little nearer any form of "launch" than it was six months ago.  Massively has an interview with Terry Michaels and Dave "Smokejumper" Georgeson, in advance of any panels, in which they out August 27th as the day combat comes to the not-yet-a-game game.

It's an instructive read, stating as plainly as I've yet seen it laid out that Landmark is not going to be "just a building game". As Smokejumper says, "The reason Landmark right now revolves around the building tools is because we had to have the building tools or we couldn't build anything." What he doesn't emphasize is that combat systems are another massive chunk of development time. If we're seeing the initial alpha implementation in late August then any kind of official launch of a "finished" game surely can't be expected this year.

Nothing yet on H1Z1 that I've seen. Maybe that'll be the new SOE game that bucks the trend and finds a launch window sometime this year. Sod's law says it is since it's the one that doesn't really interest me.

Much, much better news comes from the Keynotes and follow-ups for the games SOE actually has up and running. The forthcoming EQ2 expansion, Altar of Malice, looks like an absolute corker. Not counting the "Features" expansion, Age of Discord, which I personally loved but about which most EQ2 fans were considerably less enthusiastic, the last time I read a contents list that sounded as exciting must have been Rise of Kunark back in 2007.

Dinosaurs! New playable race! Luclin! (ok, a crash-landed chunk of Luclin but it's still Luclin!) Islands! Storylines that I'm interested in! (we might finally get to find out something about why the Far Seas Trading Company closed the Isle of Refuge and even who the heck they actually are). Not to mention the reportedly amazing new graphics that, to quote Feldon from EQ2Wire, "Holy crap. Doesn't even look like EQ2".

The various quality of life and systems improvements due in the pre and post expansion updates sound excellent too. EQ2 Wire has the full details and the panel transcripts but frankly they had me with the return of the Isle of Refuge, which we get back twice, once as a playable area and again as the 10th Anniversary Veteran Reward. I suppose I 'd better go play through Tears of Veeshan before AOM arrives, so conveniently close to my birthday, in November. Now if I can just pry Mrs Bhagpuss away from GW2 for a bit...

The Everquest expansion, The Darkened Sea, sounds pretty spiffy too but frankly level 100-105 content is notional to me. I may well still buy it because it will come with the previous-expansion-but-one rolled in and that's the one that gives access to the Bazaar and the Barter system from anywhere in the game. I've already nearly bought that expansion several times just for that convenience alone.

I'm very curious that the upcoming expansions for the two games share settings, themes and protagonists. I can't recall that happening before. Both take place in the seas off Antonica, both feature dinosaurs and Lanys T'Vyl has her hands in the plot of each. She's a goddess (or a demi-goddess - I forget) so I imagine a mere 500 year time lapse won't offer much of an impediment.

All in all it's been a great news day for longtime EQ and EQ2 players. Not so good for those who've moved on. It may be a long wait until Landmark and Next are real games but this will do me fine until then.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Old Dogs, New Tricks: Everquest

For quite a while now SOE has been in the habit of re-purposing old zones. I'm not sure just when it began but I first noticed it in the Seeds of Destruction, Everquest's 15th expansion, which arrived in the autumn of 2008.

Of course, Everquest zones have always been fluid. Splitpaw has changed ownership and level range several times over the years. Firiona Vie went from the primary good-aligned elven outpost on Kunark to a dark elf stronghold of evil. Kerra Ridge, Kithicor Forest, Grobb and plenty more besides have suffered their invasions and revolutions over the years. Norrath has always been a living world.

Then there was the long-running series of graphical revamps. Some, like the one that destroyed the ramshackle charm of Freeport to replace it with a bewildering concrete wilderness, ever afterwards shunned by all, were devastatingly ill-judged. Others, Nektulos Forest, for example, weren't terrible, although come to think of it, it did take two passes to get that one right. It's even possible, whisper it softly, I might prefer the new version of Oasis.

In the end, though, few contemporary or former players appreciated the graphical re-envisionings, while many complained about the violation of their misty, blood-soaked memories. Changes that put different, usually higher level, mobs in existing zones tended to be better received but even that risked complaints from those who felt disenfranchised by the new order.

The current orthodoxy is a much safer bet all round. Instead of altering existing zones and risking trampling on tender emotions, how much better to slide an altered copy of the zone in alongside the unaltered old one. Or, more practically, slap down a portal to an alternate version of reality.

EQ2 has The Ethernere, in which, to quote the Wiki, "Every area of Norrath has its own home". Everquest has The Void. You'll pardon me if I'm vague on the lore here. Nearly fifteen years and I have only the fuzziest idea what's going on. I believe there are storylines. I know Zebuxoruk has something to do with one of them. Not being a high-end raider, however, most of the finer details have passed me by.

Whatever the supposed reason, with the aid of a few color filters, usually green, and some very dim lighting, developers are able to re-use existing zone layouts and get away it it handsomely. I'd like to think I do know an old favorite when I see it, even when it's heavily disguised. Eventually. If someone gives me a hint.

Even before I took SOE's shilling for a free level 85 I'd spent a fair while in Oceangreen Hills. It was one of the better places for my level 84 Beastlord to struggle through her daily, thirty-minute, veteran double xp "lesson". At one level higher but, crucially, with a storming pet and a complete set of level-appropriate gear, however, Oceangreen became my magician's private playground.

So, Oceangreen is Qeynos Hills and what would Qeynos Hills be without Blackburrow?  Quiet, peaceful, safe...let's not go there.

The entrance to Old Blackburrow looks very similar to the old Blackburrow entrance but with one major difference. These gnolls know how to lock a door. The high-level version that abuts Oceangreen (not to be confused with the high-level version of the original zone, known as Reinforced Blackburrow, which occasionally appears during various special events as a treat for higher level players and a damned nuisance for everyone else) requires an access quest.

I like access quests provided they're reasonably short and not too complicated. This one fits the bill perfectly. Bracka, a Darkpaw Gnoll in a camp that's carefully hidden, right at the far end of Oceangreen, well out of sight of Old Blackburrow, explains the sorry plight of her clan: bigger gnolls stole their lunch-money came into their home and kicked them out. Funny - that happened to the original Splitpaw gnolls too. And then the Tesch Mal when the Elementals arrived. Must be a gnoll thing.

Despite the fact that I've been roaming round the edge of Bracka's camp for weeks, indiscriminately murdering his kinfolk whenever I'm a few kills short of the next percentage point on my xp bar, he asks me if I'd like to help them out in their eternity of need. Go kill some Blackburrow gnolls he suggests, although he seems a little muddled on just how many. Looking at my journal I think the quest got a difficulty pass in my favor somewhere along the line but whichever dev retuned it on his lunchbreak didn't quite get all the numbers lined up.

Whatever. It's killing gnolls. Who cares how many? Off to the slaughter we go, my merry little band: magician, mercenary and elemental.

With Bracka's quest as a passkey we slip through the door and inside we find...Blackburrow! It's exactly the same only better-looking. The tunnel that proved, so many times, just those few desperate yards too long; the old hollow tree that nearly made me quit for good a few weeks after I began, when I fell down the concealed trap and couldn't get my body back; the long ramp down to the yipping, howling, gnollish depths; the rope bridges, the underground lake... everything's just as it ought to be.

In no time and the classic fashion I've cleared my fifteen ten "any old gnolls" long before I find the five three special, unpronounceably-named "elite" gnolls. It's not quite a jolly romp just yet though. Even at 88 some caution and care is required. Blackburrow has always been famous for adds. And trains. A mistimed pull here can still spell, if not disaster, a fast trip to the supposed safety of the zoneline. If you make it.

Seeing the word "elite" in the quest description makes me jump to conclusions. I head to the old Elite ledge. I remember when I was in awe of the groups that would set up on that terrifying slab, huddling in the corner, medding up to beat the respawns in their search for the elusive Studded Leather Collar and the even more elusive "great xp".

In Old Blackburrow, it seems, there are no Elite guards. Their place has been taken by slavers, four or five of them with just the one slave. Wouldn't you guess it, he wants to be rescued, and wouldn't you guess it, I'm naive enough to agree.

I'm not quite so naive as to jump in to save him, when I see that instead of stopping in the traditional manner to get himself killed by attacking the first gnoll he passes, my escortee is blithely strolling up the ramp, gathering outraged gnolls like a labrador picks up burrs.

Outside in Oceangreen, with the merc giving me dirty looks as she heals us all back to full health, I ruminate on how fortunate it is that no-one else chose to visit Old Blackburrow today. I'm so out of practice I forgot to yell "Train to zone!"

Returning under the umbrella of permanent invisibility (all very well until I run into one of the handful of undead gnolls scattered around the tunnels) I decide to take a voluntary dive down the old tree trap. Some extensive exploration and a few scuffles later I find the "elite" gnolls standing idly around the shores of the underground lake. None of them even has the grace to carry a fishing pole.

Forewarned of their dangerous nature (as opposed to the puppyish exuberance of the couple of dozen of lesser gnolls I've had to polish off to get here, presumably) I approach cautiously. They do have very nice armor and a ferocious demeanor but they aren't that tough, at least not when you chain-stun them and set them on fire. Still, I wouldn't fancy a runner much and they take a bit of knocking down after they turn at 10% health, so after the second one almost makes it to a bunch of his friends I do something I haven't done for a long, long time. I return to the spawn of the first one I killed and camp his replacement.

Boy, that brings back memories. I never did like camping stuff much. I had a two-spawn limit for most drops - if I hadn't got what I came for in three kills I'd move on. Didn't get much I wanted that way but I did get to keep my sanity. After years and years of more modern MMOs, where a slow spawn means having to wait more than a minute, the quarter-hour passes slowly. Not sure that's a piece of golden age gameplay I want to see make a comeback.

Time will pass though and at least I only needed a kill not a psuedo-rng-cursed drop. With all my boxes ticked, a quick trip back to Bracka and there I am, flagged to enter Old Blackburrow any time I like.

I will be going back but only for the fun of roaming the old place again (or the Old old place, should I say). I certainly won't be going there for the experience. Ninety minutes I was in that dungeon and I made 1% of the level, including the xp I got for the quest hand-in! The money wasn't up to much either. Killing gnolls just never gets old though so everything evens out.

When SOE announces the details of the forthcoming expansions for Everquest and EQ2 at SOELive this week I'll be neither surprised nor disappointed if we learn that more re-purposed zones are on the way. I've always had a strong curiosity for remakes of favorite movies. It's fascinating to see familiar things from a different angle and when that curiosity's been satisfied I can settle back and enjoy the original with renewed appreciation.

This way of doing things seems, finally, to offer the best of both worlds, the old and the new, the future and the past, even if we're not quite sure, existentially, which is which. Either way, it certainly beats giving the Karanas a makeover like The Commonlands got, that's for sure.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Always On : GW2, WoW

Later on today the fourth episode of GW2's current Living Story will arrive. Sometimes it comes as early as three in the afternoon, sometimes as late as eight in the evening.

By fortunate happenstance ArenaNet's current update schedule is synched with my working pattern. I get alternate Tuesdays off and, unlike last season, they're the right Tuesdays. By the time the patch is ready I'm usually logged in and playing.

The first and only warning is a yellow text message in the chat line announcing a New Build. Sometimes it's due in ten minutes; sometimes it's an hour. If you choose to carry on playing beyond the time-frame given that's fine. The game won't kick you, unless you're in WvW, which can't accommodate multiple instances.

If you change maps you'll find yourself at the patcher, getting the new files, but if you stay put nothing seems to happen. You'll just, eventually, find yourself alone as everyone else moves to a different build and your map empties out. Maybe if you hang around too long the game will give you a nudge. I can't be certain. I've never waited long enough to find out. I'm always too eager to see what's new.

Moderate Fantasy Violence

The way that GW2 handles patching, updating and maintenance like this is unusual. It might be unique. I certainly can't think of another MMO I've played that handles it in quite the same way.  For one thing, the servers never go down. Never. Apart from a few DDOS attacks and other crises and crashes, the servers have been up and running continually for almost two years.

Combined with the "Buy Once, Play Forever" sales pitch, the automatic up and downlevleling of characters and the mostly-horizontal gameplay, ArenaNet have managed to create what must be the most permanently accessible MMO of all time. If you ever bought the game all you need is a PC and an internet connection and in seconds you can be right back where you were, at the heart of the game, no matter how long it's been since you last logged in.

Other MMOs don't have this advantage. All the recent attention given to WoW's upcoming tenth anniversary has made me mildly nostalgic for my old characters. After a helpful pointer from Gripper in the comments thread at TAGN last night I managed to sort out both my Free Trial account and the long-lost details of the account where my original WoW characters reside.

Contains Mild Peril

If I want to log them in, though, I have to set up new payment details. I did get that far. I was at the payment screen and willing to pay the money. What stopped me wasn't the cost or even the inconvenience - it was the interruption.

I was all ready to hit the button but I got de-railed by the payment process itself, which re-routed my thoughts from nostalgic whimsy to real-life practicalities. It made me think about the value I would be getting for my money and about whether I'd have time to play at all, which made think I'd probably better put it off for now. Thus are opportunities lost both for the company and the player.

I've had similar experiences with SOE's games. Not over payment, because I have All Access or whatever they're calling it now, but because when I went to log in to EQ2 or Everquest on a whim the servers were down. When SOE patch the servers come down and stay down for a few hours. They've been known to be out of action for the whole day.

Even if they don't have anything to patch they bring the servers down weekly for maintenance. It's amazing how often that turns out to be the very time I get the itch to play. If left unscratched that itch tends to fade and it might be weeks before it flares up again.

If I was a resting GW2 player looking to return there would be no such break in continuity, no barrier to entry. I'd have the whim, I'd indulge the whim, thought would become deed and I'd be playing again. ANet would have another chance to hook me in.

Translation: "ANet Unfair To Level 20s"
 It happens every day. I see names I haven't seen for a while, weeks, months, nowadays even a year or more. They roll up and jump in and there they are, absent for months and now giving it some on the borderlands. Doesn't matter that their gear is what they were wearing a year ago - if they could do something then they can still do it now.

That, too, makes a huge difference. WoW, EQ2, Everquest, LotRO, all of them have Expansions or expansion-like updates. The level cap rises, whole tiers of gear become obsolete.

That's why Blizzard have chosen to give away a free level 90 with each pre-order of the forthcoming WoD expansion and why it took EQ's recent introduction of a free leg-up to level 85, complete with all the right gear, to get me going again in Everquest even though I already had a level 84. That character couldn't compete or progress easily because her gear was several expansions adrift whereas the 85 is now 88 and getting run-outs every few days. Even she will stall soon, though, when the new expansion arrives, unless I knuckle down and take her into the 90s.

If GW2 continues to be successful, as it seems that it will, it will be largely because of the skill with which both designers and marketers have removed almost every reason not to log in whenever the mood takes you. That, presumably, is why they have been so keen to develop the Living Story process for content updates rather than come up with the boxed expansion that would so patently make them a lot of money all in one hit.

An auction house will only take you so far.

It's also what makes the decision to require players to have a Level 80 character to participate in LS2 so peculiar. It's a decision that, in a way, is as out of kilter with the whole design ethos of the game as was the introduction of Ascended gear but, whereas adding a whole new tier of vertical progression caused howling and wailing on the forums and much drama in and out of game, the "must be this tall to ride" gate on the current wave of fresh content seems to have passed almost without comment.

That may be because everyone already has a level 80. Or maybe it's because new players know how quick and easy it is to get to the cap. Or it could be that, because the content is permanent, no-one feels locked out. They'll get to it when they're ready.

Still, it's odd. It doesn't fit. It seems exclusionary. The first season was scrupulously level-blind. Scarlet was an equal-opportunity megalomaniac, always careful to dispatch her alliances to maps suitable for all level ranges. If characters needed to be temporarily uplevelled that was done too.

Between last season and this something changed. I can't help but wonder if we aren't being prepared, gently, for bigger things to come.

Monday, 11 August 2014

10 Answers About WoW

I don't know if anyone's noticed but it's coming up on ten years since World of Warcraft opened its doors to the paying public. Alt: ernative chat , a blog of which I was hitherto unaware, despite its thousands of posts and podcasts over the last five years, came up with the idea of commemorating this momentous occasion by posing ten open questions to anyone who's ever played WoW.

Replies began popping up in my Feedly feed as various bloggers I have heard of began to respond and I thought, well, I played WoW, you know. Not for long, I grant you, but I played. Why should I miss out on all the fun?

So here are my ten answers.

1. Why did you start playing Warcraft?

It must have been about five years ago now. We were in a bit of an MMO slump, the only one I can recall in nearly fifteen years. I can't remember why but we'd stopped playing our regular MMOs, EQ, EQ2, Vanguard. If I'd been writing this blog back then I could flip back and remind myself exactly why that was but since I can't do that I'll have to guess it was either Guild Drama or Existential Ennui.

We tried out all the alternative MMOs we could think of and enjoyed most of them but none of them stuck for more than a few weeks. One weekend we were both really at a loss for an idea of what to try next and someone (I think it was me) said "why don't we try WoW?". Neither of us could think of a good reason not to so we did.

That was a big decision. Neither of us had ever played any Blizzard games. We were aware of it when it was in beta but it meant nothing, neither intellectually nor emotionally, and we paid it no mind. We were hyped for EQ2. After WoW became a huge success we just thought of WoW as "that dumbed down MMO". Only one person we knew had ever played it and he lost interest around level 40 and came back to EQ2 before going to LotRO where he remains to this day.

I don't think either of us ever expected to play WoW let alone enjoy it.

Are you quite sure he's tamed?

2. What was the first ever character you rolled?

Last night I was writing this while tabbed out from GW2. My necro was "guarding" the north east gate of Garrison by standing on the wall offering herself as a target so that, if anyone started to pound it with a catapult or a treb, or tried to meteor storm our mortars, I'd hear her screams as she got caught in the explosions and be able to quickly tab back in and sound the alert.

Because of that I was working purely from memory rather than opening a lot of old files and searching for thumb drives full of old screenshots. Still, I had no difficulty recalling my first WoW character. He was a Dwarf Hunter.

I knew nothing whatsoever about WOW so I had no idea that Hunter hate was a thing. I wanted to start in a snowy area and I liked the idea of having a pet. Unusually for me that first character was the one I stuck with. He got into the low 70s. The next-highest was a Gnome Warlock, who was somewhere around 50 when I stopped playing, as far as I recall. Then there was a Death Knight and I think I tried a Druid for a while. I was only there three months so I doubt I had more than half a dozen characters on the go..

This morning, minus the distractions of guard duty, I had time to dig out those old WoW screenshots. The very first one I came across was a picture of a Dwarf Priest. Oh, wait a minute...

Fergit aboot me, wid ye? I'll gi' ye summat tae fergit aboot!

My actual first character, rather than the first character I was able to remember without prompting, was a Priest. I recall now that I got him to maybe level 10 or 12. I know he was in Goldshire when I finally decided enough was enough and that Mrs Bhagpuss was clearly having a lot more fun than me with her Hunter. I'm all for slow and steady leveling but there is a limit.

He did eventually get played enough that, when the first iteration of the Dungeon Group Finder appeared, just before I stopped playing (although the two things were entirely co-incidental) I was able to try it out by queuing as a Healer. I did a Wailing  Caverns run with him that went well enough but I wasn't minded to repeat the experience. I guess he must have been in the high teens by then.

3. Which factors determined your faction choice in game?

I didn't know there were factions. Well, I suppose it was mentioned at character creation somewhere but it went straight over my head. I just looked at the race and class choices available.

It was only when I started doing Battlegrounds that I really noticed the factions. That and when I couldn't get a griffin in Goldshire because some troll had killed the flightmaster.  I was pretty gung ho for the Alliance after that.

Come to think of it, in the short while I played WoW, I don't believe I had any Horde characters at all. I have one now, a goblin, on the Eternal Free Trial. I've forgotten my password though. I might have to start again.

Last call for passengers for Ironforge. Please have your boarding cards ready.

4. What has been your most memorable moment in Warcraft and why?

Easy one!  It was the day I finally managed to get up to the Secret Gnomish Airfield. I'd spotted the apparently inaccessible location while leveling up in the general area and I became obsessed with finding a way to get to it. I spent hours attempting to climb various possible approaches without success. I watched YouTube videos and read detailed walk-throughs and still couldn't get it right.

The day I finally found the exact pixel-perfect spot to clamber up and onto the snow-covered runway was the day I downloaded FRAPS to record my triumph, although a not-very extensive search this morning has failed to turn up any documentary evidence beyond a couple of screenshots. It remains one of my most memorable MMO experiences ever. Proper exploring, that was.

If that view doesn't make you want to go exploring you might need to check your pulse.
That you have one, that is.

5. What is your favorite aspect of the game and has this always been the case?

Leveling and yes it has, not least because it's my favorite aspect of every MMO. I found leveling to be quite well-paced in WoW so long as I wasn't on my Priest. Nowhere near as fast as I'd been led to believe and not as easy, either. Very satisfying and enjoyable, especially when I was just hunting at random and not doing quests.

Five years ago that was still a perfectly practical and pleasant way to level. From the evidence of playing my Goblin in the Free Trial last year I'm not so sure that's still true today.

Home is the place that when you have to go there they have to take you in.
Especially when they have no doors to keep you out.

6. Do you have an area in game that you always return to?

Dun Morogh, the dwarven starting area, and Loch Modan, the next one along. Just thinking about it makes me want to roll another Dwarf so I can go there again. I also liked Goldshire although not so much the people who hung out there. I haven't been back since Cataclysm though. I wonder how things have changed. Or even if they've changed.

7. How long have you /played and has that been continuous?

A little over three months. For me, WoW was the classic three-monther. I came to it not expecting very much and found it to be much, much better than I expected. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole journey from 1 to 50 (the original game) on two characters and would happily have played several more through that content. Probably will one day.

I didn't feel the same, however, about either The Burning Crusade or the WotLK zones. I didn't enjoy the 60s much and by the time I hit the low 70s I'd had enough. Gameplay seemed to have become much more directive, even coercive, and it took much of the fun out of leveling. Mrs Bhagpuss lasted a little longer and got a little higher but although we were both very happy to have played and had a lot of fun while we did, three to four months was enough.

The color scheme that nearly killed the game.

8. Admit it: do you read quest text or not?

Absolutely. Every time, every quest, all the way through. I do in every MMO, even badly translated imports. Having plenty to read as I play is a key reason why I play MMOs in the first place.

WoW does itself no favors with the abysmal font, color and design of its quest text. It's ugly, abrasive and hard to read. Added to that, Blizzard's writers use a strained, artificial, cod-formal prose style that adds a weird, arch, knowing edge to every quest. You get used to it eventually but it's a struggle. Plenty of other MMOs, most of them in fact, have better-written quest text than WoW.

Look. It's not a mailbox, I'm not naked and I'm not dancing. Alright?

9. Are there any regrets from your time in game?

Can't think of any. I never danced naked on a mailbox.

10. What effect has Warcraft had on your life outside gaming?

None whatsoever. Wait - one thing. I know no-one at all in "real life" who would ever identify as a "gamer" let alone as an MMO player, which makes it quite difficult to explain to anyone what it is I do with my time out of work. When I try to explain, occasionally someone will say "oh, you mean like World of Warcraft?" which allows me to say "well, sort of. Something like that". It's quite literally the only MMO 99% of people I meet have ever heard of.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

I Thought He Was Quiet...

Just a quick plea for assistance. For some reason I am having a lot of trouble posting comments on certain blogs.  Where they used to pop up instantly, as soon as I posted them, now they just vanish into the ether.

It appears to be the ones that don't require a log-in to comment, like Keen&Graev and Kill Ten Rats, that are giving me issues. Blogs like TAGN and Healing The Masses, which go through a WordPress log-in screen first, seem to be okay.

Isey at I Has PC (who is having his own problems with WordPress with which he could use some help too) found my comment there had gone into his Spam folder so I'm wondering if I have fallen foul of WordPress Spam Blocker Add-On Akismet. If so, apparently the only way to get back on their good side is for blog administrators to spot my comments in their spam folders and flag them as Not Spam.

If everyone else checks their spam folders as often as I do (i.e. almost never) it could be a long while before some of you hear from me again in your comment threads (yes, there's always a silver lining, isn't there?). Anyway, if anyone does find any of my bon mots languishing in their Spam folder I'd be grateful if they'd flag me Not Spam so I can get back to blathering incontinently across the interwebs as usual.

That's just a guess at what might be causing it, though, so if anyone has any other ideas I'd be glad to hear them.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide