Monday, May 25, 2020

Well Did You Evah?

Before I get to the third and final part of my unplanned trilogy on the expansionary evolution of EverQuest I thought I'd give myself a break and tag onto the "Have You Ever?" bandwagon as it passes by. Wilhelm breaks down the provenance so I won't bother with that. I'll just get straight to the questions.


Driven or been driven at 100 mph/160 kmh? 

Yes, albeit not intentionally. I drive a lot of hire cars. We almost always take touring holidays where we just fly somewhere, hire a car and drive about for a week, week and a half, with only the loosest plan on where we might go. I do all the driving. Mostly the cars are small and similar to what I drive at home but sometimes they're more powerful. The roads are often very good, very straight and very empty.

I'm generally good at sticking to the limit but sometimes, in a more powerful car than I'm used to, on a long, straight, empty highway, if I'm chatting away, it's all too easy to let the needle drift upwards. I have caught it drifting past 160km a few times although not in recent years. I try to avoid breaking any road rules, these days.

Learned a possibly deadly skill?

No. Why would I do that? Do I look like a spy? Of course, if I was a spy I wouldn't look like one, not if I was any good. Or tell you about it, either.

Ridden in a helicopter? 

Helicopters are functional. I wouldn't not go in one but only in the way I wouldn't not go in an elevator. It's a non-thing, isn't it? Unless you're a traffic reporter or a cop. Or Colonel Kilgore.

Been Bungie Jumping?

Bungie jumping is just idiotic. I wouldn't have done that when I was twenty. I could be snide about it but seriously, you only have to think about it. It does all the snark work for you.

Gone zip lining?

I went on one in Fortnite the other day. Does that count?

Zip lines are different. They have function. They take you from somewhere to somewhere else.  Plus you don't look like a total doofus. I'd have done it for real when I was younger. Much younger, like fifteen. We didn't really have them then but we did have "adventure parks" where you slid along a rope on some kind of pulley system. I did that. Does that count?

Been to an NFL game or Ice Hockey?

Nope. I wouldn't be against the idea but it's never happened. I would love to go to a major league baseball game, though. Or minor league. Actually, minor league is more Americana, so that.

Watched Dr. Who?

Now we're just being silly. Everyone in Britain has watched Dr. Who, whether they wanted to or not. To avoid it you'd pretty much have to be a trappist monk and I bet even they can tell you their favorite doctor in mime.

I grew up watching it. I saw the first series. I saw the first episode. At time of transmission. I can remember watching it. I was five years old. I didn't watch many more because it gave me nightmares so it was banned in our house for a while, but I must have been back behind the sofa by 1965 because I remember watching the Zarbi episode, which also gave me nightmares, which I can also still remember. I would have been six and a half by then. 

 We didn't have a T.V. for a few years in the '60s so I was hit and miss on Patrick Troughton but by Jon Pertwee I was watching every episode religiously. I missed some of Tom Baker's run because I was at university and we didn't really watch much T.V. then. I saw most of his episodes, though and Tom Baker will always be the Doctor to me for the simple reason he was the best. I carried on, desultorily through Peter Davison, (dull) and Colin Baker (poor, although I've come round to him over time) but by the time Sylvester McCoy took over I was gone.

But... I ended up swapping a bunch of football comics with someone at work for VHS tapes of all McCoy's episodes and I liked him a lot. It was the cheapest. lowest-budget, uncared-for era of the show but it had more personality than anything Davison and C. Baker had managed. And Ace, with her leather jacket and baseball bat.

I've not seen any of the revival version, yet, other than a couple of the Christmas specials, but I have almost all of them on DVD. I'll get around to them one day. I'm not a Dr. Who fan, mind you. I'd like to make that quite clear. I've met real Dr. Who fans. Seriously, all that above? Just an average viewing  history for someone with a passing interest in T.V. sci fi, where I come from. 

Been to Canada?

No, but I'd like to. I listen to a lot of Canadian music. Top country for bands. Also scenery.

Visited Disney?

No and I wouldn't like to. I love Disney. Huge force for good in the world, despite Walt being basically a wannabe totalitarian dictator. I've almost been in a fight over that. The "force for good" argument, not the dictator thing. I don't see why I'd want to see the characters re-created in pantomime cow outfits by financially-challenged students, though. As for the rides, see "Bungie Jumping", above.

Visited an actual castle?

Oh, please! I live within fifteen minutes drive of at least three, all of which I have visited several times. And those touring holidays I mentioned earlier? We try to hit two or three new castles every time. There are even pictures on this blog.

I don't keep a count but I must have visited getting on for a hundred different castles by now and I've been to quite a few more than once.

Visited Vegas?

Nope. Mrs. Bhagpuss has. She asked her daughter where she'd like to go for her thirteenth birthday and that's what she chose, so off they went. Gambling wasn't on the agenda, obviously. They mostly saw shows and used it as a base for trips to Death Valley and the Grand Canyon and suchlike. They gave it a good review.

Eaten alone at a restaurant?

Wilhelm thought this might be a British thing but I think it's mostly a girl thing. I don't imagine any man ever thinks twice about eating alone in a restaurant but it comes up frequently in novels either written by women or with female lead characters and I've heard several radio discussions on the topic, always from the female perspective.

I actually like eating alone in restaurants and I've done it a lot. I used to go on holiday on my own once or twice a year (back in the days when I also went on a family holiday and a couple's holiday, all in the same twelve months). I found that eating alone in restaurants can be problematic, even for a man, but only in the evening. At that time, you're taking up a table that could make a lot more money and sometimes you can feel the vibe.

Instead I would try to take my main meal at lunchtime, when most restaurants are delighted to see single people willing to pay for a full meal plus drinks. I had some really great, long, hazy, sundrenched afternoons on restaurant terraces in cities and small towns all around southern Europe. Not sure when that's going to happen again...

Played an instrument?

Several, all very badly. The only one I can play with any facility is the guitar, although it's now more than twenty years since I last picked one up. 

When I say "with any facilty" I mean I know some basic chord shapes. Enough to have played decent rhythm guitar for a punk band. I could play fast and in time and all on the downstroke. I got compliments on that but it has limited applications. By the time I left university in 1981 no-one really wanted me to play guitar any more, which was fine because now they wanted me to sing. I was pretty limited there, too, but I knew what my limits were and stayed inside them and that seemed to work for a few more years.

I keep thinking of starting again. Maybe actually learn to read music. I should probably do it before arthritis sets in.

Ridden a motorcycle?

Only on pillion. I was in my late teens and I was a bad pillion passenger. I would lean the wrong way. I wasn't asked twice by the same person.

Ridden a horse?

No. I sat on one, once. I've ridden a donkey and a camel. Strangely, I went through a period in my early teens when I read loads of pony books. My mother did the football pools (ask your grandfather - your British grandfather) and I made her promise me if she won she'd buy me a black pony with a white blaze on its forehead. I think my main interest in ponies, if I'm honest, was that girls liked them and I thought liking them too would get me in with girls. It didn't. It just made them laugh.

Been skiing/snowboarding?

Nope. There used to be annual skiing trips organized by my school, on which several of my friends went every year, but I never even thought about going. The one time the school changed tack and went for a trip to the Balearics, though, I was in like a shot.

It's odd, looking back. I grew up sledging and I love snow. I think it was the poshness that put me off. That and the horrific expense.

Gone to a festival?

Yes, quite a few, although like Wilhelm I don't stay overnight. My first was the Watchfield Free Festival in 1975, which I attended with my cousin. We got stopped by the police, late at night, on the way back to my aunt's house, where we were staying and I refused point blank to give my name or any information. I was a revolutionary little git in those days. I also got stopped by the police surprisingly often and it annoyed me a lot so I tended to react quite sarcastically.

Throughout the late 1970s, all the way through the 1980s and well into the '90s, I went to the Ashton Court Free Festival every year. For a few years I lived within walking distance, which was good because parking there was a nightmare by the time it grew to be the biggest free festival in Europe. I saw a wealth of great bands although few great performances. Festivals are terrible places to watch bands, anyway. Great places to get high and hang with your pals, though.

Actually, I did once try to stay overnight at a festival. It did not go well. It was the first "wet" year at Glastonbury. 1985. I went with my then-wife. We lasted one night. At the festival, not in our marriage. The tent pretty much fell in, the site was a sea of mud. We gave up mid-Saturday afternoon, came home and watched it on T.V..

I have no plans on trying that ever again.

Driven a stick shift?

This is the question that makes me think this has to be an American quiz. I have never met anyone from Britain who calls a manual transmission a "stick shift". It's something I associate one hundred per cent with American culture.

Also, almost everyone over here does drive a stick shift, so why would anyone even ask? It would be far more appropriate for a questionnaire like this to ask if you'd driven an automatic. Most British people won't have. I have, though.

Actually, I just fact-checked this and I'm way out of date. Automatic transmission vehicles in the UK are much more popular now than when I was learning to drive. It's up to 40% now and rising. Maybe the question doesn't so much indicate a non-British author as someone much younger than me. Like that narrows it down...

Ridden in a police car?

In spite of all those stop-and-searches when I was a rebellious teenager, no, never.

Driven a boat?

Nope. Been in plenty but never at the wheel or whatever you call it.

Eaten escargot?

No. I've swallowed a baby octopus, whole. That was quite gross enough.

Been on a cruise?

No, and given the news reports this year I'd be surprised if anyone ever goes on one again. I never will, that's for sure.

Been on T.V.?

I had to think about this one. I'm pretty sure not. I was on the radio once. I remember being in the studio. I have absolutely no memory why or what it was about. You'd think these sort of things would stick with you but evidently not.

Been in a paper/book/magazine?

Again, hard to be sure. Also, it depends what counts. I had a decade and more in fanzines, including plenty of articles, reviews and opinion pieces in what was, at the time, the U.K.'s largest, semi-pro comics zine. I also had stuff in Comics Feature, a fairly big U.S. prozine. I didn't get paid for anything there but I did get paid for reviews in MicroAdventurer magazine, a short-lived pro-zine dedicated to video adventure games.

That's not me being in the paper, though, is it? It's my work. Maybe that's not what the question means.

The first band I was in, which I co-founded, was either reviewed or mentioned in a feature article in all the big three U.K. music magazines of the '70s, N.M.E., Sounds and Melody Maker. I didn't get mentioned by name, though. Does that count?

If not, then "no", I guess.

Eaten Sushi?

Oddly, no. Everyone at work under about 35 seems to live on it. I'd be more than happy to start but it hasn't happened yet.

Seen a U.F.O.?

Hmm. I think so. As in I have a vague memory that I did, not that I saw something I think might have been one. Once again, you'd think it would be the kind of thing you'd remember but that's not how my mind works.

Rescued an animal?

When I was in my mid-teens I was visiting my aunt, who lived about thirty miles away. We went for a
walk and I found a magpie on the ground, unconscious. I picked it up and started carrying it around and we drove home with it, still unconscious. It was winter and we had a fire lit. I put the magpie on the hearth-rug and settled to watching T.V. About an hour later the bird suddenly leaped up and began flying madly around the room. We opened the window and eventually it flew out.

I'm not sure the magpie, which was now thirty miles from home, in winter, at night, would have described that as being rescued but there you go. I have other animal rescue stories with even less heart-warming endings but maybe I'll save those for another time.

Met someone rather famous?

I've met loads of people who are or were "rather" famous and a few who count as "famous" without the qualifier. If you want to meet a certain type of famous person, you could do worse than work in a book shop in a world heritage city with an active arts and theater scene. Not only do we have all those authors, sports personalities, actors, celebrity chefs and T.V. personalities turning up to do book signings or give talks but half the indie bands and touring theater companies who hit town kill an hour or two in the afternoon wandering aimlessly among the shelves.

I've generally tried to steer clear of that side of the business because I don't especially like meeting celebrities, especially if they're people I admire. Gives them too much opportunity to spoil your illusions.  That said, the ones I have met have generally been lovely, especially when I happened upon them out of the blue rather than at a formal event. For example, John Irving was charm itself, as was Becky Chambers.

Before I worked in a bookshop I met plenty of "rather" famous people via comic fandom. I interviewed Marv Wolfman for an hour and hosted a question and answer session on stage with Dave Sim of Cerebus fame. I was Will Eisner's minder at the event pictured above, which was both amusing and a huge honor. For a while I knew Alan Moore well enough that he'd buy me a drink, but then Alan would buy anyone a drink back then. Lovely man.

I could go on but that's more than enough name-dropping for now. I hate people who name-drop, don't you?

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Lost In Daydreams, Forgotten By Time : EverQuest

And so we come to what might be the more intriguing part of the tale. We've all heard war stories from EverQuest's early days and its meteoric rise, when it became, briefly, the most popular and celebrated MMORPG of its day, until hubris, incompetence and implacable fate dragged it down to an ignominious and devastating fall. But all of that spans less than a quarter of the twenty-one years the game has stuck around.

We hear far less about what happened after the collapse. I saw some of it, in flashes as a lightning storm, but most is as dark to me as anyone. Just a few, glowing fragments, scattered across those long, quiet years.

The Lost Age

Dragons of Norrath 

When DoN launched in February 2005 I was deep in the slough of EverQuest II's despond. It would be a few months before Mrs Bhagpuss and I returned to the cradle. When we did we found Norrath much changed.

Looking back, it's difficult to see why we bothered. Everyone we knew, pretty much without exception, had jumped ship on both games. I never found out where most of them went because, by and large, I'd kept all my relationships on a strictly in-game footing. I didn't collect real names or email addresses. When people stopped playing they stopped existing.

I had no shots of DoN at all. I had to log in my druid to go take some.
I'm happy with that decision. It was a conscious choice and, I feel even now, a necessary one. Even with a degree of distancing, those were years filled with very considerable personal drama, much of which overspilled the game into what we amusingly liked to think of as "real life".

Before we'd left for the EQII beta I'd had a spectacular falling-out with one of the key movers in our extended social circle. Mrs Bhagpuss was not on speaking terms with another. There were all kinds of complications with any number of individuals. Guild drama was a way of life back then and we had a tangled skein of inter and extra guild relationships to contend with as well.

Things in EQII hadn't been quite so extreme but drama followed us there, too. Our guild leader had a blowout in the middle of a status run one Sunday afternoon and very publicly quit the game, never to be seen again. The guild faltered on with no active leadership, bleeding membership to other guilds but mainly to other games. We struggled on until early summer, then one day the last person either of us knew in EQII announced he was quitting and we decided we might as well call it a day, too.

I don't recall whether we went straight back to EverQuest or if we tried something else first. There wouldn't have been a lot of choice in 2005. We did, however, have a choice to make on our return to EQ.

Back in May 2003, in the days when EverQuest new servers were popping up like mushrooms, a Brand New, No Transfers, Fresh, Start server called Stromm arrived. For about three months Mrs Bhagpuss and I abandoned our friends on Antonia Bayle and made a whole new set on Stromm.

Of course it was night when she got there. Possibly the darkest in-game night I have ever seen. And this at 6pm game-time...
When the time came to return to EverQuest once again, in the summer of 2005, we still had the sour taste of the previous summer our mouths. Back then, we'd taken the opportunity of a free character move Sony Online Entertainment  were offering to transfer all our characters from Ant. Bayle to Saryrn, but we knew no-one there and had no affection for the place.

It was a time when server pride and community were both very real. We'd had a very good few months on Stromm. There were no bad memories. It had been a lively yet laid-back place, full of the enthusiasm of people starting a fresh, new life with a clean slate. That's where we decided to go.

The thing was, there'd been a level cap increase and our characters hadn't reached the last one before we stopped. Dragons of Norrath was the current expansion but most of it was a long way out of our reach.

I can't remember much about what we did to level up but I do know we barely touched anything DoN had to offer. I do recall doing some faction work in the opening zone, accessed via tunnel from Lavastorm, itself revamped for the expansion. There were some instanced missions of some kind that I may have spent a little time on at some point. I definitely did enough to earn quite a lot of one of the expansion currencies, Radiant Crystals, because there were some augments I wanted.

Here's the same shot, auto-levelled to remove all the effects. Which would you rather see when you're exploring a zone where everything wants to kill you and is perfectly capable of doing it?

Some of that probably happened on a later run. It's all more than a bit vague. I do know that, by the time the next expansion arrived, we were just about ready for its opening zone, Corathus Creep, which was meant for character levels 45 to 55.

Depths of Darkhollow

I have quite a soft spot for DoD, something I doubt you'd be likely to hear from many EQ players. The aesthetic of the zones, all of which lurk in some nebulous and ill-explained subterranean nest of caverns beneath Nektulos Forest, is pearlescent and overripe, by Giger out of Lovecraft. There are gnomes because in Norrath there are always gnomes behind everything. I can still hear the relentless clockwork theme of Corathus Creep in my head.

The fights were tough but the xp was good. Mrs. Bhagpuss and I duoed there a lot for the first few weeks. We pushed as far as the next zone, Undershore, but it was too much for us. Then the rot set in. And how.

A quiet day on the beach at Undershore.
All expansions have their unique features. There's a post to be written about that and I may well get around to writing it some day. There are features that the game was waiting for, which change the way we play forever and there are features that barely get used at all. DoD had one that started out as the first and ended up as the second.

There were three major new features in total: Evolving Items, Shrouds and Monster Missions. I'll save the first two for that post, should it ever happen. The one that concerns us today is Monster Missions.

I've ranted about this before so I'll keep it short. There comes a time in every developers life when it seems like a good idea to stop players playing the classes and characters they've chosen and instead stuff them into the pantomime costume of someone or something else. It can be a fun diversion or, more commonly, a total pain in the butt.

Monster Missions should absolutely have counted as the latter. Not only did they turn entire groups into nondescript NPCs, they imposed onerous movement restrictions and provided minimal combat abilities. I never heard anyone even pretend to find them fun. It would have been just another failed and forgotten feature to stack alongside so many more had it not been for the xp.

Those don't look hallucinogenic at all...
Somehow, Monster Missions gave more xp for the time they took than anything else in the game. Literally anything. Once word on that got out, almost no-one wanted to do anything else. If you wanted a group you'd better be ready to give up playing your character because it was go monster or go solo.

Since we were only duoing or soloing, it shouldn't have mattered but it did. These things always do. A rancid stench of discontent and entitlement permeated the air. In MMORPGs, if you make something easy and accessible and give it great xp or rewards, countless players will feel they have to do it.

Some of them will be fine with that but many won't. And yet they'll do it anyway. And hate what they're doing. And hate themselves for doing it. And tell everyone who'll listen just how bad it feels and how much they hate whoever made them feel that way, which is never themselves, even though it always is.

Things went that way and we put up with it for a while and then we couldn't any more so we left. Again. Where we went I don't recall. I can only think it must have been back to EQII, although the dates don't seem to fit. Whatever, wherever, we were gone.

Lovecraft's influence is strong. Still, better him than Tolkein.
Of course, we came back, eventually. I always come back although Mrs. Bhagpuss has finally shaken herself free.

SoE nerfed the missions hard then harder until people stopped doing them. Things went back to normal. Most people just wanted an excuse to stop. The monster missions are probably still there but no-one cares. It's a vast game with a thousand dusty corners. What's one more?

Darkhollow itself, I have revisited, several times. I've done some levels on at least three characters, most recently my old Shadowknight, who did a level in Undershore a couple of years ago. I even wrote about it. I may well go there again. As I said, I'm quite fond of the place.

Prophecy of Ro

I know nothing about this expansion other than it destroyed Freeport. I wasn't there when it launched and when I came back it was already forgotten. How it was received, what people did while it was new, whether it was considered good, bad or indifferent, I have not the least idea.

What's more, I've never really taken the trouble to go look at it since. One of the huge delights of EverQuest is the way your character becomes much more powerful with levels while Norrath remains the same. It's still surprisingly possible to get out of your depth in older content but on the right class and particularly in the post-mercenary era it's possible to play tourist in places that once meant instant death.

Look! It's another Roger Dean album cover!
I have some screenshots taken in one of the zones so I must have been there at least once but I remember absoluterly nothing about it. Maybe I'll go and take a look with my Magician when she dings 100. It should be fairly safe by then.


So much for the Lost Age. It really does live up to its name. If it hadn't been for the happy hours I spent in Corathus Creep I'd barely know it ever happened.

Next up is what the EverQuest Show calls "The Renaissance". It features two more expansions for which Mrs Bhagpuss and I returned, yet again, for one more run. Mrs Bhagpuss finally bowed out after 2007's Secrets of Faydwer and hasn't been back since. I keep plugging on although I think about the last new content I actually saw first-hand must have been in 2010's House of Thule.

Next time should see us all the way through to the end. It's two-thirds of the lifetime of the game and about as much of the content but most of it remains as mysterious to me as the dark side of Drinal, Norrath's other moon.

If anyone's actually played through any of the last ten years of EverQuest maybe you'd like to tell the class about it. I know I'm curious.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Seven Ages of Norrath

I stole the graphic at the top of this post from The EverQuest Show, where there's an excellent post breaking down EverQuest into a sequence of developmental phases. I found myself in broad agreement with most of the commentary there and I thought it might be interesting (to me!) to count down all the expansions from a personal perspective.

Classical Age:

Classic - It's funny how we don't have a proper name for the initial release of any MMORPG. "Vanilla" and "Classic" seem to be the accepted terminology but of course no-one playing at the time would ever have dreamed of calling the game anything of the kind. I only barely scrape in to the true "Classic" period, not having started until November 1999, by which time the game had been running for six months.

To listen to people talk now you'd think it was a prelapsarian paradise but by the time I arrived "Bored 50s" was already a meme. Down in the newbie trenches where I was, "twinking" was considered a major social issue, along with the overcrowding that sometimes made it hard even to find mobs to kill, far less grind. The main reason I moved to the Test server within weeks of starting was because I'd heard it was much quieter there and had double xp. From a safe distance we may romanticize the slow gameplay of the early days but at the time many players were willing to do just about anything to speed things up.

It can't have been that bad, though, because I was hooked. It was the virtual world I'd been imagining for a couple of decades, a place to immerse myself in a new and magical life. Did I know it was going to last for decades? If I had, would I have been delighted or terrified?

Ruins of Kunark - When RoK appeared I'd been playing for almost six months. Mrs. Bhagpuss and I had individual accounts and even a PC each to play on. No more taking turns, looking over each other's shoulders, backseat driving.

I had characters on a bunch of servers but with Kunark I made an Iksar Shadowknight on yet another. I really enjoyed the whole Iksar experience. The race was incredibly well documented compared to anything I'd seen in EverQuest before. They also had four full size zones as starting areas and a vast, confusing, labyrinthine city, Cabilis. Just playing an Iksar was like a whole new game.

I think my Iksar got to about level twelve before it all just got too difficult. Everyone hated him. It was wearing. I was also playing my Druid, who was in the mid-teens, and pretty soon she was my focus character. I spent a lot of time with her in Lake of Ill Omen, where I learned to group properly at last. Fun times at the Sarnak fort. I still miss those Saturday mornings.

Scars of Velious - Velious was an unusual expansion in that it had a clear starting point in the mid levels. Most expansions either begin at the bottom or the top; for SoV you needed to be about level thirty. The six months between Kunark and Velious hadn't quite been enough to get my druid that far. She'd done about a dozen levels by then. A level every couple of weeks was about my average, playing forty-plus hours a week. Different times.

At level twenty-eight she was just about able to get groups in Iceclad Ocean although she wasn't anyone's first pick. I spent many happy hours in pick-up groups outside The Tower of Frozen Shadows but it would be some time before I ventured inside (on an infamous Guild Raid that barely managed to get to the third floor. Come to think of it, we might have wiped on the second...).

Mostly I soloed. I spent a lot of time making runs to the dwarven ice city of Thurgadin, where I bought velium weapons, which I then hawked around South Karana for considerable profit. I also liked to take brand new starting characters on a wanderjahr all the way to Thurgadin just to prove I could do it. Some of them may still be there.

Shadows of Luclin - I wasn't around for the launch of SoL, which may have been just as well. It was rocky, or so I heard. I was off playing Dark Age of Camelot but when the novelty of that wore off (quite fast) I drifted back, followed by Mrs Bhagpuss, and we re-invested ourselves on the moon.

If Kunark was Lake of Ill Omen, Luclin was Paludal Caverns. In those days there always seemed to be a ghetto zone, where the dregs of society gathered to sop up what was believed to be the best xp for the least risk. I'd loved LoIO but I loathed PC. It was dark, dank, ugly and loud. My prevailing memory isn't of the gameplay or even the appaling behavior of the players - it's those endlessly looped, yelping sound samples.

After a while, when we'd levelled some more, Paludal gave way to Dawnshroud Peaks, a wide-open, sunlit savannah where I spent an inordinate amount of time. I hunted rockhoppers and zelniaks and lived in wolf form because that way half the wildlife ignored me.

The other defining trope of SoL was The Bazaar. It was supposed to be part of the expansion at launch but it was months before EverQuest's trading post/broker system worked properly. It hadn't even gotten started by the time I came back to the fold. Once it was up and running, though, it all but took over my life. There was a point when I spent almost all my time scouring NPC vendors for things to buy for pennies and resell on my Bazaar trader at huge profit. Mrs Bhagpuss and I both left our PCs on 24/7 for months (years, probably), our traders bringing the money in overnight before we logged on and went out to re-stock them in the day. An odd way to play an MMORPG.

Golden Age

Planes of Power - When the books on their stone pillars began to appear all over Norrath in the run-up to PoP there was widespread speculation on what it might mean. The end of life in Norrath as we'd known it, it turned out. Shadows of Luclin had introduced a form of "fast" travel with the Wizard Spires and The Nexus but there weren't that many of them and they only fired up once every fifteen minutes. There was a PoP book in almost every zone and all you had to do was click it to find yourself transported to the Plane of Knowledge.

Luclin had already changed the way the game was played with the introduction of Shadowhaven and The Bazaar, zones where NPCs were universally racially tolerant, meaning good and evil characters alike could trade and mingle without fear or restriction. PoP took that to the next level, creating an entirely safe, instantly accessible zone where players could find all possible services, along with plenty of space to socialize.

For many years everything began in Plane of Knowledge. Even today it's the game's social center. By this time I was running with both a guild and a custom channel crew and PoK was where we met up and decided what to do before we headed out. Over time it would also become the place we bought KEI and Temp and all the other player-cast buffs without which half the population of EverQuest came to consider combat unthinkable.

For many EQ players, Planes of Power recalls the heyday of raiding. Not for me, although it is where I draw much of my minimal personal knowledge of the raid experience, because it was also the era of pick-up raids. I chain-healed a few of those and it was... well, something I'm glad I can say I've done but would be happy never to have to do again.

No, my overriding memory of Planes of Power is the shopping. The endless round, every blasted day, of all those hundreds of NPC vendors in PoK and Plane of Tranquility, hunting for stock for my Bazaar trader. I made a lot of money but in the end it wore me out.

Legacy of Ykesha - LoY was the first of EQ's mini-expansions. Sony Online Entertainment didn't even call it an "expansion". It was, officially, an "extension", although that nomenclature never caught on.

I liked LoY a lot. I made a froglok on a fresh server even though I was one of the many absolutely outraged by the eviction of the trolls from Grobb. I may even have signed a petition. I hated the way the frogloks blurp and blorp and do backflips so that character never got played much. I can't even remember what class it was, let alone the name. LoY also introduced the first non-horse mount, the peculiar Drogmor, which everyone had to have. I got one for my necromancer but all my other characters stuck with their ponies.

LoY was another mid-level expansion, the new zones beginning at around level thirty and going steadily up to the cap from there. The Wikipedia entry is very negative on that content, saying the new zones "were generally received as very uninspired and added little to the lore of Norrath". I'd strongly dispute that. While it's true that the Gulf of Gunthak and the rest may not have gone down particularly well at the start, over time they became busy, popular levelling zones. I spent a great deal of time there, on the boats, down the tunnels, battling pirates and Lovecraftian fishmen. Some very good times indeed, and pretty darned scary, too.

Lost Dungeons of Norrath - If I had to pick one favorite out of all EQ's expansions I think it would have to be LDoN. It was EQ in concentrated form, possibly the most formalized and directed expansion the game ever had (The Serpent's Spine runs it a close second).

The aptly-named expansion consists entirely of instanced dungeons. It ought to have been one of my least favorite but instead of fighting the concept I went with the flow and found a whole new way of playing. LDoN is famous as the expansion that taught casuals how to group effectively. In some ways it was one vast tutorial. I learned more about playing my class well in a group in six months of LDoN than I learned in all the years before or since.

What's more, I watched many other players develop and change from nervous, hesitant, low-skill performers into confident, competent colleagues anyone would be happy to have in their group. I can't really say why those particular dungeons were so efficient at turning solipsistic soloists into team players but that's what they did.
Discord Age

Gates of Discord - And then it all fell apart. Gates of Discord is quite possibly the most destructive expansion ever unleashed on any MMORPG (although World of Warcraft's Cataclysm might want to dispute that honor).

2004 was always going to be a tough year for EverQuest, what with the upcoming EverQuest II scheduled to split the playerbase and Blizzard's as-yet untested competitor waiting in the wings, but there was no need to worry about any of that; the EQ team was perfectly capable of shooting itself in the foot without any outside help. In fact, all the "help" needed was very much coming from the inside as various factions wrestled for control, all at the expense of the game and its players.

The version of Gates of Discord we got was horrifically difficult. It was years before we found out why; it was originally meant to come with a ten level cap increase. Without those extra ten levels much of the content verged on the impossible and almost none of it was fun. Guilds broke themselves against it and broke up with many top-tier raiding guilds leaving the game altogether for the more fruitful fields of WoW's beta.

Strangely, I quite liked GoD. Yes, it was terrifyingly difficult but for a while I was one of the handful of people trying to cajole friends and guildies into making a push into the lower foothills. We all died. A lot. Many of us just trying to get there. I still quite enjoyed it.

Omens of War - By the time the delayed OOW arrived in mid-September it was too late for me and many of my in-game friends. Most were considerably less committed to EQ than they had been; some had given up and weren't logging in at all.

A few, myself and Mrs Bhagpuss among them, had received invites to the EQII beta by then. When Omens of War launched I don't believe I even bought it. EQII beta was buggy, the gameplay was grindy and slow, my PC struggled to run it. It was still ten times more fun than Gates of Discord so we stayed.

I didn't get to see Omens of War until a year or so later, when EQII had proved itself to be no kind of substitute for the real thing and absolutely every single person, without exception, we'd known or met there had given up and gone elsewhere in search of a game that might actually be fun to play.

I don't really have any very clear memories of OOW from that time. I vaguely recall spending quite a few hours in the first zone, Dranik's Scar and the next, Nobles' Causeway. That was probably all I saw until much later, when Mrs Bhagpuss and I came back to Norrath yet again and spent several months going around all the places we'd missed the first time, gleefully trashing them with our higher-level characters and their mercenaries.


All the above barely even qualifies as jotted notes towards an introductory essay. The moment I start to write about EverQuest the memories just come flooding back. I could write a series of posts on each and every expansion I've mentioned so far.

And, looking ahead, there are at least five more expansions where I could do the same. I did think that by the time I got to the Lost Age I'd be able to speed up but maybe not quite yet.

Let's reconvene for part two in a while.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Trailer For The Future

As I write this I'm downloading Fortnite. How did that happen? Like this...

I have a terrible habit of flicking between things as I wait for loading screens. It's pathetic. These days most MMORPGs take a minute or two to log in, seconds to swap from zone to zone. It's time that doesn't need to be monkey-filled with chatter. Just let it flow.

Good advice I don't listen to. If there's a loading screen that lasts more than three seconds I'm off, alt-tabbing out, rabbitting through the favorites scrolling down the left. Except, insanely long as the list is, there's not much on it I actually care to look at, most days.

This morning I'd swapped between EverQuest and EverQuest II, setting Overseer quests and missions. By the time I'd been through the various stages, swapping characters a couple of times, I'd exhausted Feedly, my blog roll, the weather, the news, and matchup reports for World vs World in Guild Wars 2.

I was about to log in to GW2 to do dailies but as I exited EQII, in the thirty seconds it takes to camp out (because I always log out properly instead of just quitting, because I remember when closing an MMORPG too quickly could lead you to miss a character save and lose a few seconds of progress - or at least some people believed it could and why take the risk?) my eye cast around for distraction and found it in the shape of Box Office Pro.

I have five movie sites bookmarked from back when TAGN Movie Obsession was still a thing. Remember that? Of the five, two (Cinemascore, Theater Counts) are completely dormant for obvious reasons and one, Box Office Report, might as well be.

The remaining pair struggle on. The Numbers has turned into what feels like a personal blog about DVD/Blue Ray and Streaming releases. Box Office Pro, true to its name, has concentrated on interviews with cinema professionals and think pieces on what might happen to the industry in months to come. Today they ran this report, which opens with the news that
"The new trailer for Christopher Nolan’s highly anticipated Tenet has debuted online via the video game Fortnite and on YouTube."
Say what again? It happened last night while I was asleep and as far as I can tell wasn't trailed anywhere much earlier than that. The big video game sites had the story around eleven, my time, by when I was tucked up in bed playing Animal Crossing Pocket Camp and watching Season Two of Community on Amazon Prime.

I read the piece on Box Office Pro. Then I googled around and read a couple more reports on Kotaku and The Verge. The Kotaku piece has a magnificent clickbait headline which neatly sums up the reason I have Fortnite downloading in the background right now:
"New Tenet Trailer Premieres In Fortnite, Which Is No Longer A Video Game"
Isn't that fantastic? Give that sub-editor a donut!

I'd read about Fortnite's new Party Royale peace-out bliss mode, of course. I knew it was a non-combat area where Fortnite players could do what many of them have always done, namely hang out and chill, only without the buzzkill of imminent apocalypse. I also knew about Epic's propensity for using the game as a backdrop for major music and pop-culture events. Oddly, I hadn't quite put the two things together.

The Verge had:
"There’s an outdoor movie theater and a club with towering holographic dancers, alongside race courses and other points of interest like a pirate ship and soccer field. Epic describes it as an “evolving space,” so we’ll likely see more activities and events added in the future. Both of these updates point to Fortnite’s likely future"
The Travis Scott event, which made global headlines in the non-gaming press, took place inside the game itself - the Battle Royale - but there's already been a major concert in Party Royale, featuring Dillon Francis, Steve Aoki, and Deadmau5. Even I know Deadmau5.

As the Kotaku report on that one puts it "The show made Fortnite feel like a world". Yes, like the real world.

Because that's where this is heading: towards fulfilment of the promises made and never met by Second Life. Or, more pertinently, made by a mainstream media fooled into believing Second Life was William Gibson's cyberspace and Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash all rolled into one.

As that BBC piece explains "Mentions of Second Life first crept into the UK media mainstream in early 2006... newspapers fell over themselves to cover it, devoting many column inches in their business, technology and lifestyle sections to profiles and trend pieces. "

But just a couple of years later there was silence. Businesses who'd jumped the trend backed off. Stores and embassies closed. The reason was simple. No-one cared:"You could go and open these stores and no-one would turn up...They would have 20 to 30 people there when it opened, and after that no-one would bother going in there again. It just wasn't worth the spend."

Those handfuls have become multitudes. Events in Fortnite reckon their attendances in millions. In tens of millions. These are the jetpacks we were promised.

I'd been kind of meaning to try Fortnite for what feels like a couple of years now. I've read so much positive print about about it. I've played a few Battle Royales, though, and they're not really my thing. Everything that interested me about Fortnite was the not killing each other part. And now, here it is...

... Intermission ...

So, the first thing I do is break Fortnite. It's downloaded and installed. I've made an Epic Games account. Woohoo! Free games for me!. I've logged in and...

Can I find Party Royale? I cannot. I fiddle around for a bit and then tab out to google it. I find what seems to be a seperate download. I download that and install it. It's not the right thing. It's something called Party Hub and it breaks Fortnite good and proper.

After several repairs, a welter of error messages and offers of online support, I finally decide to re-install the whole thing. That, eventually, does the trick.

... End Intermission ...

Turns out, Party Royale is something you select from within Battle Royale. I had to watch a YouTube video before I worked that out. I guess the hundreds of million who already play Fortnite don't need to be told but a signpost for the several billion who don't would be nice.

Then again, Fortnite is still in early access. I'd forgottent that, what with it being one of the most successful video games in the entire world! But no, there it is on the login screen. Early Access. Can't expect anything too polished, I guess.

When I finally stepped out into the mall-like streets of Epic's brave new world, the movie trailer was just about to begin. I could hear someone interviewing the star, John David Washington. Then it started and I could hear that, too, but by the time I'd figured out where the screen was it was all over.

A movie trailer does only last a couple of minutes. If it had been a concert or the promised full Nolan movie to be shown later in the summer, I'd have had plenty of time to get a seat. The trailer's showing on the hour, every hour. Maybe I'll drop back in and take a screenshot or two.

Except you can't. Or I can't. I went through all the in-game options looking for the screenshot key. There isn't one. I fired up FRAPS and it doesn't work with Fortnite. I googled it and watched some YouTube videos and apparently you either take video with the in-game playback feature or you just hit PrtScr and tab out. Which is what I did.

I know static images are so twentieth century but not even having a screenshot function does seem a bit primitive. Feel free to tell me what an idiot I am when you point out it does have one and how to use it in the comments.

Anyway, that's the hard work done. Fortnite is installed and working. I have an Epic Games account. Now I can play the game - all of the games - and drop in to mingle and marvel whenever something culturally significant happens.

I don't think Fortnite is the future. I just think it's a pointer to where the future's going to be. Think of it as MySpace to Second Life's GeoCities.

The next generation's the one. Or maybe the one after that.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

I Recommend To You

Booksellers tend to be cynical about author's recommendations. Well, the ones you see on the backs of paperbacks, anyway. There's always a strong temptation to check if the writers share an agent or a publisher.

The vast majority of such puffs are technically legitimate. Anthony Horowitz did a great job of explaining the nuances involved in a piece he wrote for The Guardian back in 2012. A few years earlier the Daily Telegraph went further, quoting a number of well-known authors, admitting to having given favorable quotes for books they'd only skimmed or hadn't read at all.

Little has changed. If anything it's worse. Books still come plastered with glowing endorsements only now they're on the front cover not the back. Sometimes a casual reader might even be misled by the relative size of the names into thinking the book was by someone else altogether.

It's a shame, because I've found there to be a noticeable correlation between my tastes in fiction and those of writers I particularly enjoy. When reccomendations arise out of interviews, where authors are expressing their genuine enthusiasm for things they've actually read, it pays to pay attention.

I was musing about this as I was reading an interview with one of my favorite writers of recent years, Emily St. John Mandell. I'd been thinking about her because of the pandemic. As evidenced by the awards it won, or for which it was nominated, her breakout novel, Station 11, is one of the finest examples of genre-bending I've read in a long time.

It takes some doing to win the Arthur C. Clarke and also be nominated for the National Book Award and the Bailey's with the same novel. In our store, Station 11 is shelved in both mainstream fiction and S.F., a very rare occurence.

Station 11 isn't about a pandemic but it begins with one. A much more serious affair than the one we're living through right now. A couple of decades later, when most of the action takes place, the world is changed because of it. That's what makes it a science fiction story.

Having read the book I did something I rarely do. I bought all her other novels and read those, too.

There were four of them because like most overnight sensations Emily Mandell had been around for quite a while. It helped that they were published in a clean, austere uniform edition. Books are always to be judged by their covers, don't let anyone try to tell you otherwise.

Photograph by Jessica Marx
They're all excellent. Like the astonishingly wonderful Donna Tartt, Mandell writes crime novels and doesn't tell anyone. Her latest, The Glass Hotel, for which we've been waiting a long time, continues the trend. I haven't read it yet. I'm pondering whether to get it on Kindle or buy the imported U.S. softback. It's not published in the U.K. in hardback until August. I hate hardbacks, too.

Backtracking, I was googling the author because the pandemic had reminded me I hadn't heard anything about her since Station 11. That happens a lot. I love things and then I forget about them. I need constant reminding.

Google led me to the interview linked above. In it, beneath a picture of herself looking maybe seventeen (she's forty), Emily mentions two of my favorite and most respected novels or series of novels (A Canticle for Liebowitz and The Dark is Rising) and two authors with tenure on my "must read" list, whom I've shockingly still to find time for (Toni Morrison, Ali Smith).

In the course of what's only a short interview, Emily St. John Mandell namechecks more than a dozen writers, living and dead. It's what creative artists tend to do and we should thank them for it. I'm probably not going to try Sarah Waters just on the strength of a mention - I already have opinions of my own - but I'll keep an eye out when I'm back at work for Ronan Farrow's account of his part in the Harvey Weinstein affair (inappropriate word...), which somehow passed me by when it was published last year.

The most interesting of all, though, would seem to be Dan Chaon, whose name was completely new to me. He looks to be another genre disregarder, a reccomendation in itself.

I'll most likely give him a try after I've finished the book I just started, Lightning Field. It's the first novel by another of my very favorite contemporary authors, Dana Spiotta. I've read her others, all three of them.

I started with the superb Stone Arabia, which landed in the proof pile at work a few years ago. I seem to recall I wouldn't have looked at it only it had a recommendation from someone I rated on the cover...

Illustrations "borrowed" from the interweb. If they're yours and you'd rather they weren't here, just let me know.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

New You : Auteria

Back in April 2018, I wrote a first impressions piece on Auteria, a ten-year old MMORPG I'd found through a reddit thread. It took a while, like a couple of years, but eventually that post got a comment and from someone who'd actually played the game, no less.

In my original piece I'd noted that, although Auteria had been running for more than a decade, it didn't seem to have had an update since 2010. According to LexiAtel that's changed. Today I finally got around to taking another look.

The website, which is quite detailed and informative, includes a handy patch history. There were twenty-three updates between 2007 and 2010 and then silence until 2019, when the game received patches in March and April. With the first of those it also moved from Release 1.97.3 to Version 2.00 which has to mean something big happened!

Having read the patch notes on the forum, I'm not exactly sure what that was. When I said in chat that I hadn't logged in for a while someone asked me if I'd seen the new map yet. So I guess there's a new map. Whether they meant a new zone or the change to the on-screen map (Pressing "M" does now open a map!) I'm not sure.

I also mentioned in chat that I hadn't seen much outside the starting area and someone said something about using "port stones" on the map to go on a tour. Maybe that's new, too. I couldn't figure out how to do it so it's a moot point.

Before I began I needed to re-download and re-install  the client. That took just a few minutes. My login details worked fine but there was a surprise waiting for me when I got to character select.

When last I wrote about Auteria I made much of the quirky fashion sense the game displayed. I described Lisa, the NPC who gives you your first quests, as looking " like she's about to go for a nice dinner at a fashionable beach-side restaurant sometime in 1986" and said of my own character "I quite like the idea of fighting evil in blue jeans and a skintight blouse".

Well, I guess it was nice while it lasted (more than ten years) but all good things come to an end. Auteria now has a choice of races, although nothing seems to tell you what they're called, and my first task before I was even able to log in was to pick one.

I went for something that looks like Grobb's entry for Miss Norrath. Either that or a cross between She Hulk and an Asura. There was plenty of choice. I could have had a plain old human, a dwarf, a gnome/halfling, a lizardperson, some kind of crystalline elemental or several flavors of goblin/orc/troll/ogre. They all look pretty spiffy. And no elves that I could see, which has to be a bonus.

Before (never saw my face)
I'd write something about the couple of hours I spent playing but reading back what I wrote in the first impressions piece it would be almost exactly the same, minus the sightseeing tour by dragon.

It was incredibly dark and stayed that way for almost the entire time I was logged in. I had the same trouble working out how to fight and how to heal myself. I had another run-in with an insanely tough ant. I made the same trip to the same nearby town and was as just impressed with the lighting effects as I was the first time.

The sunrise, when it did finally arrive, was spectacular. More like someone let off a mini-nuke just behind some mountains, really. I literally stood and watched the sun come up for about five minutes, it was that amazing. Screenshots don't do justice to the way it throbbed and pulsed, nor how my shadow suddenly leapt across the sand, making me actually start in my chair.

One thing that was new to me was the cat family. I met a bunch of kittens, all with names beginning "Me Me", which is a little on the nose. They had me killing mice (mice the size of pigs, I might add) and carrying messages back to their sisters and mother.

It's probably a breadcrumb quest to lead you to the next town but in the pitch black night there's really no choice anyway, since that's the only lit path. Well, other than the big wooden bridge. I went that way too, to try and kill a bandit, but I hadn't figured out how to handle a sword at that stage so I came back pretty quick.

I took a look at the website while I was healing up in the hut. There's obviously far more to Auteria than I've been able to see, pottering around in the starting area. The Screenshot section shows lots of interesting places in seven regions, including a capital city called Renvale.

I hear it's the manufacturing center of Tegratia. Maybe I'll see it one day although I certainly wouldn't put any money on it. Auteria's an endearing game with an old school feel  but I suspect its moment may have passed me by.

I would like to make some armor though, I need something to wear, now I don't have my blue jeans and blouse any more...

Tuesday, May 19, 2020


Seasons of original shows on Amazon Prime seem to run eight or ten episodes. It's a curious length. I grew up with U.K. television series lasting about that long but I'm used to American seasons stretching out for twenty weeks or more to fit the way Network schedules used to align with the calendar. There's a reason they call them "Seasons", after all.

Freed from those constraints I guess it makes sense to take smaller bites, especially when you take into account the tendency to let the whole thing go at once. Eight episodes makes for a handy weekend mini-binge.

I try not to do that. For series that come in single figures I try to ration myself to one a day. Or one a night, since that's when I watch. I've come semi-circle (not full) from TV advocacy in the eighties/nineties through abstinence in the oughts to what I like to feel is a balanced stance today.

After Tales from the Loop, which turned out to be every bit as good as I'd hoped, I moved on to another science fiction-inflected original, Upload, a brand-new show debuting this month. As the trailer says, it's from "The guy that brought you The Office and Parks and Recreation" only I didn't watch the trailer until later so I didn't know that. Also I've never seen The Office, either version.

I have seen Parks and Receation, though. It's superb. That might have swayed me, had I known. The trailer certainly wouldn't. It's a terrible advertisement for the show. Yes, it is partly a romcom with a lot of rather unsubtle social satire ladled on top but it's more a murder mystery and a lot better than the trailer would suggest.

I'd definitely reccommend Upload. It's smart and funny and has an involving if highly unoriginal plot. Its big strength is some very strong, nuanced characters. Andi Allo, once a singer and guitarist in Prince's New Power Generation, has been drawing all the attention for her turn as Nora and she is a warm and inviting presence but for my money the most interesting performance comes from Allegra Edwards in the far less likeable but unsettlingly nuanced role of Ingrid.

With only ten episodes, I was through Upload in not much over a week. I sped up a bit towards the end. Watched a couple of episodes back to back. Hard to resist doing that.

Amazon, naturally, uses algorithms to suggest things you might want to watch next. One of the shows it put in front of me after Upload finished was the very similarly-named Undone. Makes you wonder whether they're sorting these things by subject and theme or just going with the closest character match.

Luckily, Undone is another top choice. Better than Upload?  Maybe, although I'm not sure it makes much sense to compare the two. They have some similarities, sure, particularly in the female leads and the murder mystery backdrop and the "from the guys that brought you" pitch (in this case, those would be the guys that brought you Bojack Horseman, a show I really want to see...) but they're more different than they are alike. At least the trailer's better, we can all agree on that.

Undone came out last September but I didn't notice it back then. It's  Amazon's first original animated series, although I sometimes balk at including rotoscoped motion capture in "animation". Where Upload's reviews are somewhat mixed (people seem either to absolutely love it or think it's very weak), Undone has had almost universal critical approval and I can see why.

It's a very adult show, something I also felt keenly with Tales from the Loop. Very much television for grown-ups. That's definitely down to the outstanding writing, but I also believe it has much to do with process. Animation always drags a huge weight of history along, pegging anything that smacks of cartooning as for kids, but I have a strong suspicion rotoscope imparts a gravitas that's not always fairly earned. It's a paradox.

Something about the cleanliness of the surfaces, the ability to include only what's wanted, combined with the eerie sense of watching real people (which we are) conspires to elevate the experience somehow, make it feel more important, give it depth. A heightened reality. That's certainly the case here, where the acting is exemplary, the illustration overwhelming.

Undone triggers me. It might be argued I see Philip K Dick in everything but he's here for sure, not just in the fracturing of reality but in the stylistic hat-tip to the stone-age mo-cap of A Scanner Darkly. I was minded also, at all times, of the Hernandez brothers' classic work on Love and Rockets. It's a more dangerous comparison. Lazy, maybe. Latinx characters, ligne claire by way of Riverdale High... an easy conclusion to jump but I'll stand by it.

It's more than surface. Alma's spiky, punk attitude, the relationship between her and sister Becca, their physicality - Alma gamine, Becca womanly - all vibe Hopey and Maggie. And I speak as someone who once had photocopies of the two of them all over my walls.

Love and Rockets also operated in the liminal space between the quotidian and the fantastic and so does Undone, albeit much more quietly. There are no rockets, for a start.

There is quantum entanglement, though, and timeshifting. And pre-Columbian mysticism. Or maybe it's all just in Alma's scattered mind. A car crash, PTSD and a family history of schizophrenia might lead you to see things that way.

Upload and Undone have both been picked up for second series, just as well since they both end, if not on cliffhangers, then on open questions. This is the part of watching new stuff I don't much relish. The waiting. Then again, with things as they are these days, who can afford to leave it for the box set?
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide