Sunday, January 21, 2018

I Wish I Was A Little Bit Taller : Level Scaling in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft has always had the reputation of being an easy game but all things are relative. Back in 2004 the wider gaming public, if they thought about MMORPGs at all, considered the genre to be so appallingly slow and grindy that few outside the niche cared to waste time there. WoW changed all that - at a cost.

The journey began with a revelation: you could level up by wandering the world like the Littlest Hobo, blowing into town after town, righting wrongs and solving mysteries. Out went hiding in a corner, chain-killing trash mobs by the tens of thousands, praying you didn't get run over by a train; in came questing 'til your fingers bled while generally debasing yourself before NPCs with punctuation marks for hats.

Over the years the format refined itself into oblivion. By the time a decade or so had passed we had soloists in Heirloom gear one-shotting Elites and tanks pulling entire dungeons while the healer watched Netflix on another screen. Or so they tell me. I only know from hearsay. I missed both the sublime and the ridiculous.

My time in WoW was straight down the middle. The concept of the "quest hub" was already old hat and leveling by doing endless tasks for NPCs too lazy to walk to the corner of the street had become the norm in most MMOs.  There were already murmurs of discontent.

Conversely, I didn't stick around in Azeroth long enough to see it slide into self-parody. I turned up somewhere in the middle of Wrath of the Lich King and left before whatever came next. While I was there the leveling game felt solid enough; occasionally it may even have run a little slow.


But then, I was playing my first character, or at least my first collective of first characters. I never leveled anyone high  enough to benefit from heirlooms and when I returned, off and on, I mostly pottered around the starting zones on a free account.

Eventually even that proved no protection against out-of-control power creep. By the second decade of the 21st century even the very lowest levels were showing the strain. The moment any character I played left the extended tutorial of their racial starting instance it became apparent that "challenge" wasn't what the leveling game was about any more.

Last year Blizzard must have decided the situation was unsustainable. The population had migrated into the canopy of a bloated endgame, the final, meaningful ten levels of the current expansion perched precariously atop the etiolated and rotting trunks of every abandoned expansion and associated "endgame" that came before.

Eying, no doubt, the apparent success other MMOs, particularly Elder Scrolls Online and Guild Wars 2, in keeping much of their older content permanently in play, the decision was made to do something similar for Azeroth. Or to it. The practicalities were ironed out in the Legion expansion, where for the first time it was possible to have the mobs match you level for level, regardless what order you chose to progress through the zones on offer.



That must have gone well because this week that process was rolled out across the game.  As the patch notes to update 7.3.5 put it, it's now A Scaling World:
"Every zone in Kalimdor, Eastern Kingdoms, Outland, Northrend, Pandaria, and Draenor now use the level scaling system introduced in Legion. This new scaling system greatly increases the amount of options you have when deciding where to quest and when to move on to the next zone."
 And for good measure:
"All corresponding dungeons and the rewards therein now scale as well."
I logged in to take a look at this brave new world. There's only so much you can tell when your highest available character is locked at level 20 by the contingencies of not paying a subscription but the difference was immediately apparent all the same.

Waking up in a comfortable dwarven cottage outside Ironforge, the first thing I noticed was that everything in the Dun Morogh foothills conned even or thereabouts. All those leopards and boars in the forest, every elemental around the lake, the whole lot of them. From memory those would normally have been around level eight or nine. Now they came at me in the late teens.

And come at me they did. This formerly safe area for a mighty level twenty was suddenly somewhere I needed to be on my guard while traveling. Not merely because of the inconvenience of being attacked when I would previously have gone unmolested but because every one of these creatures is now capable of putting up a fight.


I wouldn't go so far as to say I was in any real danger but it didn't take me long to realize that if I wanted to get anywhere in a hurry I'd have to avoid drawing agro. True, it only took three or four arrows to bring down a wolf or a boar but every battle whittled a bit off my health or chipped the paintwork on my mechanical rabbit and if there's one way that WoW still feels old school it's in how long it takes to get your health back.

A quick visit to the forums showed reaction to be mixed. There are clearly two factions in play: those who like leveling and found the situation over the last few years unbearable and those who were more than happy to be able to one-shot their way to any content that they needed. I have sympathy for both sides.

I love leveling. In any MMORPG where I stick around for a while I level up anything from two or three to twenty or thirty characters. I've complained before about how the sheer speed of leveling in WoW sucks a lot of the entertainment out of the lower levels and I'm very pleased indeed to see that rectified.

On the other hand, it is very possible to have too much of a good thing. The reason I never hit the level cap in WoW on my first run through was that after several months, which is how long it took me to get into the 70s, I was fed up of running errands for NPCs.


According to many angry comments on the forum, questing is now the only viable means of leveling a character other than by buying a $60 level boost in the cash shop (which is exactly what most of those commenters believe is the reason behind Blizzard's changes). Dungeon xp is reported to have been nerfed through the floor, although whether by an actual change to the amount rewarded or simply by the hugely increased difficulty that comes with the scaling effect is a matter of conjecture.

Again by report, quests that require the killing of Elite mobs or the completion of content flagged for groups now actually require a group to complete. Which would be fine if there were groups to be had, but the complaint is that nothing has changed, or is likely to change, about the paucity of population in the leveling game. Content that could happily be soloed last week is now likely to go untouched, or so is the fear.

As an interested but largely uninvolved observer I can afford to sit back and watch how this develops. At worst it will enhance my low-level pottering. I already feel the urge to make a new character and try it out. I have to say, though, that if Daybreak decided to do something like this to EQ or EQ2 I would be incandescent with rage. i am very much not a fan of any "one size fits all" solution to problems that may not even be perceived as problems by everyone.

EQ2 currently enjoys the best of several worlds when it comes to older content. If there are specific quests you need to finish you can keep your own level, blitz through grey cons, getting no agro and one-shotting everything. I prefer to quest that way. The oft-repeated mantra that outleveling a zone means you can never complete the quests there seems completely paradoxical to me. Questing is more fun when you can concentrate on the plot and the dialog and forget about the fighting.


If you disagree with that opinion you're free to mentor down to whatever level gives you the challenge you feel most suits your tastes. If you want to help a friend who's leveling up you can mentor to them or if you want to solo you can visit the Chronomancer and self-mentor.

Mentored characters are more powerful than characters of the "real" equivalent level but if you want to be a real purist as you level you can level-lock your character whenever you feel you might be about to outgrow content you haven't finished. Call or dismiss in your Mercenary for even more granularity.

There are so many ways and means and styles to leveling in EQ2 that I feel spoiled for any other system. I would always opt for a toggle that puts the choice in the hands of the player but that isn't how Blizzard rolls.

I feel this particular change will take a while to shake out. Stargrace already reports changes to the way it affects old raid content. I'm looking forward to reading more bloggers' impressions, like Bhelgast's and Atherne's. For now, I would say my own impression is broadly favorable but I really don't have the perspective to make a meaningful judgment. Maybe when I finally get around to reactivating my account to play through Legion.

It's a big change, though, that's for sure.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For : Rift









 "...I'll take a Rift Classic server, please. I really miss those Sunday afternoons in Stillmoor."

Me - at the start of the week


 "In the Spring of 2018, we will launch a new server, RIFT Prime...We plan to present RIFT at its roots as much as is possible to do."

 Rift Producer's Letter - three days later



Thanks, Trion! I think.... 

Although I guess no-one should really be surprised at anything Trion does any more, this move does seem to have taken most people unawares. The MassivelyOP thread cuts the company a little slack but posts at Bio Break and TAGN take a more skeptical position, one which I share and then some.

The immediate assumption appears to be that Rift is getting some form of "Progression" server of the kind long-established, now perfected, first by SOE and latterly by Daybreak, for the EverQuest franchise. As yet there's not a whole lot of detailed information on how this might work and what there is does little to encourage any expectations of a true progression server, far less anything that could reasonably considered a return to the Golden Age of Rift as we knew it.

It took SOE/DBG many years to iron the wrinkles out of the Progression concept. Reverting a long-running MMORPG to the status quo ante turns out to be a major undertaking that requires the diversion of considerable time and resources, as Blizzard are no doubt very well aware. Practical considerations mean that even with the best of intentions some infrastructure changes just can't be rolled back. The final result is an approximation, a reminder, of how things used to be, not an archival reconstruction.

That doesn't appear to be an issue for Trion because they don't seem to be interested in taking the time, trouble or expense even to get within hailing distance of the authentic 2011 Rift experience. The Producer's letter makes that abundantly clear to anyone whose rose-tinted glasses haven't steamed up entirely with excitement.



Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the new server will both be time-limited and set on fast-forward ("The PRIME server will progress at a faster pace than the original launch and will eventually come to an end in spectacular fashion") there remains a much bigger roadblock to any fleeting sense of authenticity: "Many upcoming live content changes that apply to existing servers will also apply to the new PRIME server".

Added to that there's some not-so-nostalgic fiddling under the hood in the planning stage, with the Prime server "dynamically matching characters to their current zone’s level [and] dungeons dropping loot specific to your character’s true level". It's clear from the outset that the goal is not to create any kind of long-term home for players longing for the Olden Days, the way Blizzard plans to do for WoW Vanillaheads and Jagex already did for Runescape purists.

In addition to the aforementioned preset demise of the server, almost inevitably there's also the incentive of "participation awards that carry over to your characters on existing servers." I think that makes it clear that the target audience is existing Rift players out on a jolly.

On closer examination, what this appears to be is a version of another of SOE/DBG's popular and successful money-making tropes, the Limited Time Event Server. Trion did float this balloon sometime last year, in the relatively downbeat Producer's Letter of March 2017. There the talk was of bringing the "challenge" back to Rift with a series of special ruleset servers, possibly beginning with a Hard Mode version.



That went out to consultation and Rift Prime would appear to be the first practical result, its style and direction taking cues form the forum discussions that followed the original announcement. Trion, in their inimitable fashion, have managed to spin a year's worth of complaints about lockboxes, aggressive cash shops and other similarly unpopular business practices as "suggestions on how to make the business model more appealing".

Apparently that means no lockboxes, "a significantly reduced store" and a non-optional subscription. Pardon me for not being impressed. Or grateful.

The one significant, positive effect this announcement has had on me is to make me re-consider my nostalgia for the game. I loved Rift in beta and I liked it a lot at launch but when I take a step back and look at the overall experience more analytically I have to admit that it was a short love affair that came to an unpleasant end.

My time in Rift overlapped the beginning of this blog and it's easy to see my growing impatience and disillusionment in posts like this one from December 2011, some nine months after launch. Soon after that I went back to playing EQ2, then the GW2 beta weekends started, the The Secret World filled a gap before GW2's official launch and by summer 2012 I was a full-time resident of Tyria. 

In February 2012 Trion made the first 20 levels free with Rift-Lite and I enjoyed a fair amount of casual, drop-in low-level play when the whim took me. When they announced the first expansion, Storm Legion, for November 2012, I made the big mistake of buying two copies, lured in by its deal of a year's subscription bundled in. At that point GW2 was suffering considerable issues with bots and we were uncertain whether we would hang around much longer. The expectation was that that Mrs Bhagpuss and I would make a triumphant return to Rift and our short run in GW2 would be at an end. 



Instead, ANet banished the bots, Tyria felt clean again and Storm Legion turned out to be dour and dull. I think I played for about a week and Mrs Bhagpuss for maybe a day or two. In nearly twenty years those two copies of Storm Legion are the MMO purchases I most regret. I consider the $150 we spent on Landmark alpha access to be far, far better value.

After that I soured on Rift. I still dropped in and out once in a while in desultory fashion but neither of us played again until the game went free-to-play. At that point Mrs Bhagpuss had a brief fling with Dimensions until she'd spent all the free currency we got as ex-subscribers whose subs still had months to run.

It's a patchy history at best. I had very good times in beta, a good run after launch and a few odd moments after that. If I'm analytical about it, the main thing I really enjoyed were the Invasions and some of the Rifts. I liked the questing in a few of the original zones and I enjoyed the crafting to a degree. I liked some of the PvP and I also always found Telon to be a visually rewarding world to explore.

The actual gameplay, however, was always labored and clunky and crucially I never developed a close-enough affinity for any of my characters, although some of them had their moments. Leveling was grindy, especially on the second or third character and from Ember Isle onwards that grind became unbearable. Apart from those addictive and occasionally thrilling afternoons in Stillmoor, there's not an awful lot for me to be nostalgic about.



All of which, ironically, means that if anything induces me to give Rift Prime a try it will be the extent to which the experience doesn't accurately replicate the original. I would positively welcome faster leveling, better loot, less grind and the ability to vary the journey (via zone or level matching) from the very limited options available back at launch. When I stop to think about it, it very much appears I never wanted a "Classic" server after all.

Then there's the question of whether I want to pay a subscription for the privilege of playing (most probably in a half-assed, half-interested fashion) through content I've already played through several times already (much of which wasn't that great to begin with). I guess that will depend on what else I'm doing when it arrives and how much spare time I have on hand. Also on whether Mrs Bhagpuss is interested, which I'm willing to bet she won't be. She doesn't really do nostalgia.

One thing I never did first time round, which might justify subbing for a month or two, was dungeons. I saw a couple, briefly, but almost everything I know about them comes from the stories Wilhelm told about his adventures there with the instance group. That might be a diversion worth a few dollars.

Then again, I really feel like I've already given Trion more money than I want to. Last time didn't turn out well at all and there's such a thing as learning from your mistakes.

Anyway, there's no need to make any decisions yet. That time will come when Trion post some hard details, I guess. I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Incoming!

As I write this, I've just finished the fifth of the six Palawa Joko Invasions I needed to complete the full set of maps for the Zone Defense achievement in GW2's new Current Events update. That. mind you, is on my third account. I've already done it on accounts one and two and when I finish it on number three I'm going to log in my fourth, the F2P one I haven't used since last September, and do six more.

This weekend both Mrs Bhagpuss and I barely missed an invasion. Every hour, on the half-hour, there we were, waiting in the crowd in Metrica Province or Wayfarer Foothills or Caledon Forest as predicted by the Phasic Distortion Reader, a handy device which we both now have on all three accounts.

The Reader costs two gold to make and involves a fair bit of running around plus a full day's wait if you aren't an Engineer, an Asura or a Charr in  the Iron Legion. All it does is tell you in game what you can see on Dulfy any time you care to look. It's fluff in other words.

And yet we dig it out of our bags at the top of the hour and announce its findings to each other in Guild chat and thank each other for the information. We used it to encourage our one other regular guild member, who only plays on Sundays, to come and join the fun, which he did, although he probably had no idea what was going on.

In between invasions there were times when I did little more than clear my bags and hang around waiting for the next one. It's not as though I even want the rewards. The Achi gives three kegs of Karma, which totals 22,500. I have nearly 15 million karma on my main account. Even my third account has nearly seven and a half million.

The dropped loot is quite nice but it's the same loot you can get 24/7 in Path of Fire maps. Only I would never go there to get it. I don't go to Path of Fire maps any more. Well, for the vista daily or the plant-picking daily, occasionally, if there's nothing better. Otherwise, never.

PoF is all but dead to me already, as I predicted it would be. I saw the story once and hope never to see it again. I got the mounts and didn't like them, although I am gradually getting used to using the Griffin for general travel.

I haven't even finished a single one of the Ascended collects even though I want the weapons. Occasionally I think about it, then I imagine going through those tedious maps again and I decide to leave it for when I'm in the mood, which so far I never have been.

Whether the PoF maps are, in general, well-used these days I have no idea because I'm not there even to gather anecdotal evidence. I know the ludicrously overgenerous meta in the first LS4 map was being heavily exploited, just as Auric Basin was before the nerf , but that has everything to do with a broken game mechanic and nothing to do with whether anyone is actually enjoying the content. I did it once and haven't been back.

All I can say is that the Joko invasions, which look like they must have taken a very small team a very short time to create, are drawing big crowds and those crowds seem very happy. I know I am.

What the invasions remind me of more than anything is Rift in its early days, when it was good. As I think about it, a very great deal of the MMO content I've enjoyed most - certainly the content I've found the most addictive or compelling - in the last seven years or so has followed a very consistent and rather simple pattern: a bunch of mobs descend out of a portal and try to kill us and take our stuff and we band together to try to stop them.

As well as rifts, Rift had invasions. I liked those even more because they came at me instead of waiting for me to come at them. WoW had the Legion invasions which kind of did both. I really enjoyed those. I played more WoW while they were on than at any time since my six month stint years ago. I even subbed for a couple of months just to do them.

GW2 had the Karka invasion and then the wonderful Scarlet Invasions plus a few more along the way. Even World vs World, the part that appeals to me, follows the format. The enemy zerg arrives unexpectedly and starts sieging our keep, the call goes out and we rush to defend.

It seems to me that this could - should - be the PvE answer to PUBG. Content that's easy and quick to make but also infinitely replayable. Because it's PvE and it's in an MMORPG it probably has to have loot attached. Loot or achievements or titles. Preferably all three.

It's also best, I think, if there's something at stake. Something practical. In WvW you don't want to lose your structures, particularly if they've been upgraded and have banks and waypoints. In Rift beta and possibly for a month or two after launch if you failed to stop an invasion the baddies would kill your questgivers and take over your quest hubs for a while. I liked that but it got removed so presumably most people didn't.

Still, I don't think it should be beyond the wit of professional game developers to hit a balance between incentive and annoyance that falls on the side of motivation rather than frustration. The payoff would be a game that people wanted to keep playing because it was fun to keep playing - as seems to be the case with PUBG and its clones.

Gevlon posted today about the terrible fit "story" makes for an MMORPG and while I don't often agree with the goblin on much I do think he has a point here. Lore, for sure. MMORPGs thrive on lore. It gives context, creates a world. Story, though? Story gets in the way. It can work if it plods along behind or off to one side but put it at the front and get it to pull and the whole cart veers sideways. Sometimes it tips over.

No-one really knows what Joko is playing at with these invasions. There's no story to them and no-one cares. The action tells its own story. Invasions are exciting and dynamic but above all they are inclusive. They require no explanation beyond "Stop them!" and no organization beyond "Get here, now!". They're drop in and drop out if you want them to be or stay all day if you have the time and the inclination. They have a rhythm and a pace that allows for time to breathe between battles and yet they feel relentless, inexorable.

In beta, Rift looked like it might be the first MMORPG built around invasions. For a while, even after the post-launch nerfs, it was. If I had a wish for a new MMORPG it would be just that - all Invasions, all the time. I think someone could make a lot of money doing that right.

Failing that I'll take a Rift Classic server, please. I really miss those Sunday afternoons in Stillmoor.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Join The Club

Belghast alerted me to an interesting post at Digital Initiative, which was also a new blog to me. I added it to the blog-roll. Then I read the post. It breaks down the typical guild membership by type and Tamrielo, the author, clearly speaks from experience.

It's been a long time since I was in an active guild that had more people in it than just Mrs Bhagpuss, myself and one or two others but I instantly recognized just about all of the personalities listed. I could put names to most of them - if I could only remember the names. Actually, I could go "Oh, that sounds just like that guy, remember him, oh what was his name? Always wore green and used to sit in Plane of Knowledge all day moaning nothing was as good as the old days..."

Reading through the list was a little disturbing. I felt like I was auditioning for the lead in one of those T.V. movies about multiple personality disorder - that's me, and that's me and, oh, wait, that's really me!

I would lay claim to being any guild's lead Things Explainer - one of the "good" ones, I'd like to think, although other opinions are no doubt available. I literally left a guild over a stand-up argument with the Raid Leader because my You Need Yours position was so unwavering. I could make a strong case for being labeled Side Projects and I have certainly played the Chill AF role to the hilt on occasion.

The sumptuous and largely forgotten interior of the Guild Initiative Office.
There's probably a smattering of several others in there from time to time. I was certainly The Positivity Canon for a while in Vanguard, when I was having the best time of my MMORPG life while all around me people were just praying they could get the game not to crash for five minutes in a row.  I've been the Backpack to Mrs Bhagpuss's Hiker in a few guilds, too.

There are a few categories I am pretty certain no-one could ever accuse me of representing. I do talk a lot in guilds but apart from that I'm no Socialite. Come to think of it, one category that's glaring in it's absence here is The Chatterbox. /em raises hand.

I'd like to think I've never been The Downer or The Griefer but sadly neither have I ever been The Ninja or Silent But Competent. (Noisy But Incompetent - now you're talking...or more likely I am, while we're wiping).

Not sure if this is decoration or fly-posting.
Although all of this seems very familiar from the increasingly distant past, I wonder how accurate it is in terms of current guild practice and experience? Do guilds even work this way any more?

My view may be colored by five and a half years in Guild Wars 2, where guild membership is a very malleable affair. Apart from my own guild, where I spend most of my time, and a bunch of "Bank Guilds" I made for storage, I'm in two fairly large guilds each numbering somewhere in the hundreds of active members. Neither of them seems remotely like any guild I was ever in outside GW2.

They seem to be relatively structureless for a start. There's a nominal hierarchy with names for the ranks but no-one seems to refer to it. If we have "officers" I have no idea who they are (and I've been in both guilds for several years now). Events, when they occur, seem to be ad hoc and while someone got us a guild hall and did a bang-up job decorating it I have no idea who that might have been or when it happened.

Despite my apparent disconnection, I remain a member in good standing and if it all seems fairly anonymous and impersonal then that's because it is. In GW2 you join guilds by your Account rather than by your character and each account can be in up to five guilds simultaneously. Since it's common to have more than one account (I have four) the number of guilds you can be in at the same time is potentially quite large.

It used to be that you had to "Represent" a guild (which means specify it as your active guild) and you could only speak in the Guild Chat of that guild. Guilds were also server-specific. Over time all that has gone. Now you can speak in the chat channel of any of your guilds and you can join guilds on any server.

The even more sumptuous interior of the even less-frequented Arena in the Windswept Haven Guild Hall.

I wonder if that dilutes the intensity, indeed the cabin fever, that used to characterize the clubhouse mentality of many guilds in the past? It must be much harder to develop and maintain the kind of obvious idiosyncratic character traits listed by Tamrielo in an environment where guild membership is so much more tangential and fractured.

Finally, a reason to visit!
It also removes that whole "I quit" drama that made guilds so enervating in the past. If you get fed up, or someone's annoying you, you can just start chatting in another guild and go play with them instead, then come back to the first when The Drill Sergeant or Ready To Go has logged out.

I certainly have never seen anything in the two large guilds I'm in that comes anywhere close to the kind of emotional hothousing that so strongly put me off guild life back in the mid-noughties. It's a far more relaxed, casual, laissez-faire experience than anything I remember from EverQuest or EQ2.

As I do my dailies in DCUO, slipping my Qwardian coins into my wallet as I save up for Krypto, I'm still getting random drive-by guild invites. I haven't yet accepted one because it seems a bit louche to join and then never turn up for anything. At best I'd be a classic What's Going On Lately, dropping in for fresh events, grabbing the freebies, maybe staying for a week of dailies then disappearing until next time.

Even so, I am tempted. I never want to have to deal with proper Guild Drama ever again but I wouldn't mind being Things Explainer or Chill AF in a nice, quiet, steady guild somewhere. Maybe that time will come in Ashes of Creation or Pantheon, if either of them ever happen for real. Pantheon particularly strikes me as a game where a good guild would be more of a necessity than a luxury.

Meanwhile I guess I'll carry on as I have been, with the personalities I know from map and wvw chat standing in for guildmates. I could allocate a few names to categories there as well...

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Inbetween Days : GW2

Yesterday's update to GW2 didn't add much to the game other yet more pointless nodes for the personal instance and a tweak to the way Black Lion Chests (the game's lootboxes) work. In celebration of that momentous event there's a free chest and a key to open it with for all non-F2P accounts. Look in the Promotions section of the Trading Post while stocks last.

The current BLC comes with a guaranteed Mini Yellow Jackal Pup, multiples of which can be combined with dyes in the Mystic Forge to make several different colored versions. They are also tradable so you can go for the set without needing to spend real money although it would cost you a fair amount of gold for a full jackal pack.

More interesting and far less publicized was the arrival of the latest Current Event. As I've written before, these supposed side-dishes that ANet slip onto the table to keep us from getting hungry between servings of the Living Story are frequently a lot more satisfying than the main course itself.

The only hint this time was a line in the Game Release Notes that read "Reports of undead attacking travelers near major cities have increased". They did at least make it the first line this time, so it was harder than usual to overlook.

Even so, in all the excitement of World vs World, which was very lively last night, I forgot to go and see what was happening. It was only when I logged in to do the vista daily in Metrica today and nearly got trampled by a stampede of Level 80s on Springers, Raptors and Griffins that I remembered there was something I was supposed to do.

I won't go into details. Dulfy, as always, has an excellent rundown of exactly where you need to go, when you need to go there and what you need to do when you arrive. The event involves the overrated and currently ubiquitous Palawa Joko and his Awakened Army but it's a lot of fun anyway.

It's not dissimilar to the much-missed Scarlet Invasions but this time the whole thing has been streamlined and sped up so that it feels like it's on fast-forward. There's a lot of opening the map, finding a waypoint and hoping your map loads in before everything dies. It's frantic and chaotic which appeals to me no end.

After the Lord Mayor's Show

As is so unerringly the case when ANet makes events of this kind, there's an unfortunate and quite serious bug. The event comes with a series of Achievements, one of which triggers a very nice little follow-on "quest" but lots of people aren't getting the correct credit for participating that's needed to trigger the Achievements.

The bug has been acknowledged by ANet but so far there's been no fix even though we've had several subsidiary updates since the main one. I got all my necessary Achievements on one account on my first attempt but I got nothing at all on my second account and Mrs Bhagpuss hasn't had anything on either of hers.

Even so, it's still worth doing before the fix because it's a lot of fun and there's a lot of loot to be grabbed. I've had two exotic weapons drop (well, pop out of boxes I opened) so far. I know that's pure RNG luck and also Exotics are now barely worth what Rares went for before PoF (and Rares are all but worthless) but it's exciting nonetheless.

And one of them was "Kevin", the bizarrely-named Mace that looks like a thigh-bone . I've wanted that for over five years, just so I can link it in chat at opportune moments. Yes, I could buy it on the TP these days for under a gold but that would take most of the fun out of it.

And a partridge in a pear tree.

Further mention should be made of the the little quest that comes after the events. As is often the case with these Side Stories, it's particularly well done. Better than almost anything in either Path of Fire or Living Story 4 in my opinion.

If that sounds overstated, given that it's no more than a short scavenger hunt with some dialog, I have some evidence to offer. A lot of thought has been put into how the quest is going to be received by the players doing it.

It doesn't require you to have completed Hearts in order to buy the items, for example. Two of them are in boxes on the ground and one is sold by a regular vendor. The locations where the items are found also make complete logical and lore sense.

Better still, even though the items themselves are Account Bound, as is the final item they make, only the character who was present at the original event when the Achievement was completed can take them out of the chests or buy them from the vendor.

I found that out when I sent my Ranger to get one because my Elementalist had never been to Timberline Falls and the Ranger wasn't able to see the dialog or the item on the vendor. The Ele had to fly all the way from The Priory to Fisher's Eye Bridges on her griffon to get it herself.

For special customers only.
That will infuriate some players but it made me happy. I was even happier when Mechanist Ninn, the Asura who makes the final item, told me it would take a day to finish it and my Asuran character was able to say she knew a bit about machinery herself so could she give him a hand?

She and the NPC then had a little chat about it and made the item on the spot. Iron Legion Charr and all Engineers can do the same but everyone else has to wait a whole real-life day! Things like that, and Ninn addressing my character by her class and name rather than just calling her "Commander", go a long way towards drawing me into the story, even when there really isn't much of a story to be drawn into in the first place.

If previous Current Events are anything to go by the invasion should carry on for a few weeks. It's hard to see how it could be made a permanent fixture the way most (all?) of the others have been but I certainly wouldn't complain if it was.

Now if someone would just fix the bug so everyone can get credit for their effort, that would be lovely. Thanks, Anet!

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Touch My Stuff (You Can Die) : Very First Impressions of Stash

Having said I was in no need of novelty in my New Year's gaming diet, what did I do today but download a new MMO. I blame MassivelyOP.

The MMORPG in question is one I was vaguely interested in a year or three back but had completely forgotten about. Given its title - Stash - and its focus on storage and loot I suppose it was inevitable I'd at least take a look at it but while it was in buy-in Early Access I was never curious enough to pay for that privilege.

That just about sums up the predicament of the modern-day MMO industry, doesn't it? Even when you come up with a passably original idea and implement it efficiently, players who should be your target audience expect to get it for nothing. I plead guilty to being part of the problem and what's more I have no suggestions as to what the solution might be. Other than bigger lootboxes, obviously.

Characters come affixed to a "Peg", which you can customize, making them look and feel like tabletop miniatures.
The very day I learned Stash had officially launched as a Free to Play title and I didn't have to pay, well, naturally I grabbed it immediately. It downloaded and installed via Steam in a matter of minutes. Registration asked for nothing more than an email address and a password, plus a name, which of course I made up, because who uses their real name on the internet?

I spent a couple of hours in - hang on, the world has a name, just let me look it up... Primordiax. Trips off the tongue, that one, doesn't it? And...it was an enjoyable and refreshingly atypical experience.  Although it's scarcely sane to try and come to any kind of a judgment about an MMO after a couple of hours and a couple of levels, I do think this one at least has potential.

Character creation is simple, straightforward and well-documented. There are four classes. Warrior, Elementalist, Hunter and Healer, the same as you'll find in any F2P MMO of the last half-decade and more. All that ever changes is the names and those not very often.

I made this warrior purely because a +6 axe dropped and my Hunter couldn't use it. That speaks volumes.
The selection of races on offer is considerably more impressive. Where most F2P MMOs offer, at most, a choice between short human, tall human and childlike human, Stash extends that to Human, short Human (Dryad), Human with a Dog's Head (Lukoi), Human with a Cat's Head (Catfolk) and Human Made Out Of Rocks (Trulloc).

Unusually for a Western MMORPG, some of the races are gender-locked. In fact, they all are, except for Humans. Lukoi and Trulloc can only be male, Catfolk and Dryads can only be female.

If you sense something distinctly old-fashioned about the way those options have been allocated, well it really doesn't stop there. Stash is pretty darn old-school in lots of ways.

I say "visit an inn". I mean "visit the inn". There is only one. This one.
For example, all the classes have their own armor types and no-one can wear anyone else's. From Level five onwards you accrue experience debt when you die. Your character doesn't regenerate health automatically after a battle - you have to eat food, drink potions, visit an Inn or construct a camp to rest. You can't just spawn a camp at will, either; you need materials in inventory to build it.

Even the experience bar itself is eerily reminiscent of EverQuest's, something that's compounded by the terminology in the tool tips. I was getting flashbacks as I watched my xp bubbles fill.  As for getting the experience in the first place, how does wandering about in the wilderness picking fights with the wildlife or poking your nose into dungeons sound?

Stash is not quest-based. Oh, it does have quests (well, tasks at least) but you don't need to do them. Far from it - the game actively discourages you. The one task-giver I found was in the main city and came with a clear notice that the tasks were optional and could be ignored. The impression I got was that quests were only there because the developers knew someone would make a fuss if they weren't.

Laylia has all your tasks. And I mean all your tasks.
Even without the turn-of-the-century game design, though, Stash really isn't your average, cookie-cutter free-to-play cash grab. For a start combat is entirely turn-based. In gameplay it reminded more than anything of Wizard 101, only without the card deck.

The view is some kind of semi-free-camera, third person isometric perspective. The "world" looks like a tabletop game board. Almost surreally you can use WASD to get around the main map although it feels far more natural to use click-to-move.

Studded across the map like molehills are Encounters, Resources and Dungeons. Each can be "conned" in classic EQ style, with color-coding at Level One going from White (evens) up to Purple (notify next of kin before entering). Once I'd leveled up the White Encounters turned Blue so I'm guessing there's the usual spectrum above and below your own level.

Level 2 and already twinked. Shocking.
Interacting with Encounters opens an instance in a way that will be familiar to any W101 player. The game then goes into Turn mode and battle plays out. Entering a dungeon puts you into another explorable zone which is itself populated with Encounters. Resources also open an instance but as yet I haven't managed to acquire any harvesting tools so I can't say from experience how that works.

I liked the combat. I found it easy to slip into and enjoy and it exuded a strong "just one more" vibe that kept me playing for considerably longer than I'd planned. I was soloing, of course, but the game is designed for group play and some of the Dungeons are open-world, where you can run into other groups.

An intriguing aspect of Stash and one of its defining features is player housing. You get a Base Of Operations, "BOO" for short, which is a personal instance. Mine looks like a clearing in a forest - I don't know if they vary at all. You can supposedly decorate and even build a house but I'm vague on how and the wiki sure isn't helping any. As yet, most of the entries are unedited stubs.

Go for the eyes, Boo! Wait, wrong game...

On a purely mechanical level the game works pretty well. I wouldn't go quite so far as to say it feels polished - I noticed some typos and textual artifacts here and there - but I certainly didn't run into any bugs and everything seemed solid and as easy to understand as any new MMO ever is.

Aesthetically I found the UI appealing and intuitive and the font was clear and comfortable to read. In design terms I spotted one or two appealing and original touches. Player-to-player trades happen by way of the the well-known "stall" method but uniquely in my experience there's a global interface for searching through them, which comes in the form of a "Newspaper".

Stallholders can place Advertisements in the paper to let potential customers know what they're selling. That's one example of both a whimsical approach and an attention to detail that I find encouraging.

And they say the internet killed classified advertising.
Frogdice, the developers, make some very big claims for Stash: that it's "bringing the magic back to MMORPGs" and that it's "more than just a game". They all say that, though.

More convincing than the rhetoric is the company's record, running Threshold, a " text based, role play required MUD still in operation after 20+ years (opened June 1996)" . Then there's the lengthy list of influences and inspirations they draw on, which includes "Dungeons and Dragons tabletop gaming, Warhammer miniature gaming, the “Gold Box” AD&D video games, Baldur’s Gate, Planescape: Torment, Temple of Elemental Evil, Bard’s Tale, Wizardry, and a variety of other turn based RPGs we have played over the years".

I guess the old school vibe shouldn't come as much of a surprise after all. I don't know whether I'm going to find the time to invest in this one that it certainly requires and possibly deserves but it's tempting. It may look funny but it's a proper, real MMORPG and that's not nothing, not nowadays.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Solo Player's Guide To GW2 World Vs World Dailies


Reading the frustrated reports of very experienced, skilled gamers like Aywren, UltrViolet and most recently Azuriel amply demonstrates just how badly GW2 introduces and explains key gameplay elements to new or returning players.

One thing that should be very simple are the three "dailies" required to gain the rather generous stipend of two gold pieces that most new or returning players would really like to slip into their virtual wallet each day. Back in the mists of time you would get your dailies just for playing the game but those days are long, long gone.

Dailies come in three types, one for each of the major silos of the game: PvE, PvP and WvW. You can mix and match any three dailies from any of the categories but most new or returning players focus their attention on PvE.

Once, that made sense. You used to be able to do your PvE dailies anywhere and there were plenty of them. Not any more. Nowadays you get your dailies based on the highest level character on your account and the expansions you have purchased and you get told which map to do them in.



This is awkward enough even on a first character leveling up. For anyone who has taken a short-cut to endgame, either by using one of the Level 80 boosts that came with an expansion or by means of one of the in-game boosters such as Tomes of knowledge, it can be disastrous.

With a fresh level 80 you risk getting dailies in maps you have never visited and can't easily access. You may be asked to complete "Adventures", which most players avoid like the plague. You may be asked to kill Champions in a group event or World Bosses you've never even heard of.

Don't despair. World vs World will rescue you.

World vs World has a very small range of dailies and they are almost all very easy. Most of them are also very quick. Everyone can access all the WvW maps (F2P players need to be Level 60) and even if you don't have a Level 80 you will be bumped up to play as though you did.



But it's PvP, isn't it? I'll get ganked before I can do anything!

No you won't. Many of the WvW dailies can be done with a very high degree of safety at very low risk. Chances are you won't see, let alone fight, an enemy player. What's more, with the current low level of interest in WvW, it's even less likely than ever that you'll bump into anyone. Depending on your World and the time zone in which you play you may not see anyone at all!

Enough pre-amble: what about the dailies? Here's the list from the Wiki, with my - hopefully helpful - comments. I've also given them a star rating based on a combination of ease, speed and safety. The more stars the better. And I even made some maps!


***** Big Spender

Spend at least 25 Badges of Honor.

This daily takes seconds to do and is guaranteed 100% safe. If you do WvW you'll have more of these than you know what to do with but if you don't you may still have plenty. You get a hundred in every Achievement chest and once you start doing WvW dailies you'll get some more for every one you do.

The simplest way to do this daily is to buy two Traps from the Tricks and Traps vendor. They cost 15 badges each and they stack. There's a T&T vendor at every spawn-in and at your home Borderland Citadel.


*** Caravan Disruptor
Destroy a supply caravan.

A "supply caravan" is a Dolyak. They spawn at every supply camp and walk (or run) to towers and keeps. If there's no friendly structure for them to supply they just stand in the camp and chew the cud. You can see them on the map - they are the little icon that looks like a Dolyak (surprise surprise).

If they are in transit they don't fight back but they will defend themselves if they're still in the camp. The safest option is to use the map to locate a camp your team doesn't own but which is next to a waypoint you can use (you may need to visit the WPs once to open them if you have never been to that map before, same as PvE). Several of the camps on Desert Borderland are structured so you can get to the yaks in camp without aggroing any guards. The northern camp just behind Citadel is particularly good for that, with four yaks in a stable under the raised platform.

Wait somewhere safe until a yak leaves the camp and then jump it once it's out of range of the guards. Or pick one that's on a lonely stretch of its route. If the camp is upgraded (has two or three shields over the camp icon on the map) the Dolyak may have NPC guards so an unupgraded camp is easiest. Camps change hands all the time so finding a weak camp is not usually a problem.

Dolyaks are robust and take a while to kill but usually you will have plenty of time. If you are unlucky enough to be interrupted by an enemy player just keep killing the yak. If you die and the other player kills the yak you will still get credit for the daily. Dying in WvW costs you absolutely nothing other than a few seconds of your time so just let it happen - unless you think you can win, of course!


* Invasion Defender 
Kill three enemy players.

Avoid this unless you are going to join a squad and/or run with the zerg. If you're even considering getting your daily by killing other players solo you certainly don't need any help from me!


**** Land Claimer
Capture a sentry point. 
 
This is very easy and very low risk. Sentries are marked on the map by a flag icon. There are plenty of them and one or two can be seen and checked for safety from places where you yourself are invulnerable to attack. Many others are in places few players pass by regularly.

Possibly the easiest to get to quickly and safely is the one on the junction of the road between the north-west gate of Garrison and Dreadfall Bay. You can see that sentry from the safety of the platform above "Water Gate" at Garrison to check there are no enemies nearby.

Whichever sentry you pick will be a Veteran but they are veterans in name only. They die in a few hits. When you've killed the sentry, stand in the ring that pops until it fills. It only takes a few seconds. Daily done, waypoint to safety!


***** Master of Monuments  

Capture a shrine (Desert Borderlands) or a ruin (Alpine Borderlands).
 
(Wiki is out of date here. The Desert BL also requires "ruins" nowadays, not shrines, which are different places altogether).

This involves no combat at all. Just stand on a marked spot for around 60 seconds while a ring completes. The relevant spots are all clearly marked on your in-game map. They're all in the central area, which is the least-trafficked part.

If your team owns three out of five then on the map all five will be filled in with the color of your world. Ignore that. It means your side has Bloodlust and it was made to work that way when gliding was added to WvW, so that your glider could use the entire area.

What you need to do is check the spots visually, not via the map. You're looking for one that is at least partially uncolored on the ground. You can see two of them from the safety of the Alpine Garrison water gate (one from the Desert BL Garrison/Earth Keep equivalent). Pick one, run to it (or glide, if you have gliding opened for WvW) then stand looking around nervously for a minute while the ring fills.  Daily done!


*** Guard Killer 
Kill five veteran or higher NPC guards.

This is very manageable although it is potentially risky. I would recommend avoiding Desert Borderland; the guards there seem to be tougher. All guards count, at camps, towers or keeps. Sentries also count as does the Quartermaster in a camp even though he's not a Veteran. "Flavor" NPCs like Citizens or Soldiers at North Camp don't count.

This is another daily where it's important not to worry about being ganked. So long as the guard dies and you did enough damage you'll get credit even if another player butts in and kills you. Worst case scenario is that you're interrupted by a player on the same team as the guard you're trying to kill, which means the guard will live and you won't get anything. That hardly ever happens in my experience so long as you avoid busy areas.


**** Veteran Creature Slayer
Defeat the veteran warg, the harpy veteran, or the veteran wurm on a Borderlands map. 

Very easy and very safe and very quick, so long as your creature of choice is up. If you have a waypoint open at Dreadfall Bay the Wurm on Alpine is probably the easiest to get to but the Warg on the enemy Alpine BL where you have the south-west spawn point is even safer. The Harpy is, in my opinion, both the toughest and the most awkward to reach on Alpine but compared to most PvE content they are all easy solo kills.

The Wurm on Desert BL is very easy to find once you know where it is (see my map above) and so is the Warg but they do require some travel across exposed ground so there is an element of risk. I wouldn't even consider the Harpy on Desert BL because of how awkward it is to reach.

Often you won't have to solo the Veteran Creature, though. They are a ten minute spawn and if the one you've picked isn't up you will frequently find someone on your team already waiting for it. I have even waited with people from the enemy team, killed the creature (carefully avoiding using any AEs), bowed and left without a fight.


** Camp Capturer
Capture two camps.
 
This is a lot of fun but very high risk compared to most of the dailies above. Camps, as I said, change hands all the time and scouts (players watching the map) will report any activity if they're doing their job properly. Whether anyone responds is another matter but it takes some time to clear and take a camp solo - two or three minutes - and that's a long time to stand in enemy territory with a sign over your head.

On the other hand, it's every bit as likely that you'll be joined by someone on your own side, particularly if you are re-taking a camp on your own borderland. Most teams don't like to leave their camps in enemy hands. Once a camp is taken it cannot be re-taken for five minutes and you can see the timer for any camp by mousing over the icon on the map.

If you go to such a camp (particularly North Camp, which is also the easiest, safest and quickest to get to) just before the timer expires there's a very good chance others from your World will already be there, waiting to retake. Also, so long as you've killed any guard at the camp, you will get credit if that camp changes hands to your side at any time before you leave the map so it can be worth just popping a guard in passing if you plan to be there a while.

If you happen to be in a match or on a team where certain maps or areas are rarely visited, taking camps for dailies can be both enjoyable and useful for learning WvW and gaining confidence. Some teams don't seem to like playing on Desert Borderland and the southern camps there are often very quiet. I spent a lot of time re-learning and practicing my old EQ pulling techniques in the southern desert on my Ranger while I was leveling up.


* Keep Capturer
Capture a keep.

Totally out of the question unless you join a zerg or squad or have the good timing to run into the keep just as your team is about to take it. Actually, keeps can be soloed. We have someone on Yak's Bend who does it for his own amusement. If you can do that you should be writing guides not reading them.


* Tower Capturer
Capture a tower.

Same as Keep. Ignore this one unless you're planing on joining a squad or zerg. Although technically easier to solo than a Keep I've never soloed one successfully. Mrs Bhagpuss has though. A few times.


**** Objective Defender
Defend an objective during an enemy assault. The achievement is rewarded when a defend event successfully completes.

Now this is a very easy daily that's often overlooked. "Defending" sounds like it means fighting but it also includes repairing. Mrs Bhagpuss does this one a lot. She just looks on the map to find a keep or tower that we own that looks "contested", which shows as crossed swords over the icon. Then she goes there and looks for a damaged wall or gate and repairs it.

Structures check their integrity every couple of minutes and when that tick passes anyone who's contributed to defence, either by killing an enemy player or repairing the structure, gets credit.

There you go. Dailies all done!

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide