Tuesday, 22 April 2014

This Is No Time To Stop And Smell The Flowers : GW2

Ascalon is my favorite region of Tyria. Plains of Ashford and Diessa Plateau were the maps where I began my long love-affair with GW2 all the way back in beta and their power to charm hasn't faded though the crowds that used to fill them have. Over the long drift down from launch I've become used to roaming the burnished fields, brittle and golden in the eternal Ascalonian summer's end, alone.

Well, those days are over. The Megaserver's here and with it the crowds are back. Diessa even has some kind of Champ Train running - Nageling Giant, Spider, Seperatist Agitator, Wurm. I'm learning the names if not the rotation. The reports of the Death of the Champ Train turned out to be greatly exaggerated, by the way. Rumor has it most zones have one now.

There was a line for the Breached Wall vista, one of the hardest vistas in the game. I had to stop twice and wait for some Norns to play through because there wasn't room to make a couple of the more difficult jumps. The hard skill point at the end of the underwater tunnel at the West of Blackblade Lake wasn't very hard at all with a constant flow of people making sure the Veteran mage who guards it rarely got to cast his devastating AEs.

Vet's dead, baby. Vet's dead.

It's not quite like it was at launch. MMOs only ever have that extreme, hysterical pitch when everyone levels together in the first few frenzied weeks or in the bubble that forms after the release of specific level-based content like a new race or an expansion with a raised level cap. Instead it's more the steady hum of like-minded players all choosing to be in a particular place for specific reasons of their own.

A lot of people are clearly bent on map completion. Map chat rings with questions about specific PoIs and vistas and how to get to them. There are also a heartening number of genuine new players, asking typical new-player questions like "does anyone need a 5-slot bag?" (answer: no, no-one in the entire world, not even if it is purple") and "what's Meatoberfest"? (answer: it's a Charr thing. You wouldn't understand. Maybe if you're a Norn...)

Warm beer, burnt meat, explosives - I think I was at that party in 1982

Against my normal run of play I, too, was Doing Map Completion. Partly because I want to try and gauge how the new changes play with what I take to be the normative new-player playstyle, which would be to finish a map before moving to the next, and partly because I might as well get in practice because Map Completion is one of the prime requirements for obtaining Traits through gameplay.

I have two things to say about Map Completion:
  • The level ranges given on the maps in no way reflect the level required to complete them
  •  Not only is Map Completion not exploring, it is the very antithesis of exploring
GW2 was never designed to allow a player to level steadily and sequentially through adjacent, level-appropriate maps. This was a major issue for many players at launch but players have learned or the culture has changed and you rarely hear complaints about it any more. Far from it. People seem much happier to level at the fastest conceivable pace by any means that comes to hand (crafting, Champ trains, Living Story, WvW) then come back and finish off the bits they missed (aka nearly everything) at a comfortable Level 80 with all the mis-scaled downlevel advantage that brings.

Who are you calling chicken?

At launch I was the one in map chat patiently (or not) explaining to some guy that GW2 wasn't "that sort of MMO", that you didn't have to finish a map before moving on, that it didn't matter that you had finished your racial starter map at level 10 but the map said it was supposed to go 15, that it was fine to go to another racial starting city and do their starter map too, that you could get xp doing almost anything - crafting, gathering, helping Blood Legion NPCs in full plate armor to stand up after a dandelion seed floating by on the breeze had knocked them unconscious. ..  That was then. Now I am that guy.

Truth be told, as a Charr I always had a problem with the whole set-up. It's bad enough that your Personal Story takes a dozen episodes teaching you the supreme importance of loyalty to your Warband and the Charr military-industrial complex, then cuts you loose from both as some kind of half-assed secret agent. The Personal Story is utter twaddle but at least it has some kind of narrative to cling on to, to explain why you're doing everything but what you imagine your character might actually want to do.

Yes, that's bad, but It's worse still if you decide to ignore it all and just run around doing whatever you like. So what am I now? A Gladium? A renegade? How come they don't arrest me for desertion the moment I set foot in Black Citadel? It's not like they don't know who I am - everyone I speak to calls me by my name and recaps my back-story.

You just ate meat from a guy who lives in a cave full of giant spiders. What did you think would happen?

So its hard enough staying in character just exploring Ascalon. I can just about rationalize it as some kind of rite of passage to discover my Charr heritage and I guess, at a push, I could stretch it to cover Getting To Know The Enemy in Kryta or Cultural Exchange in the Shiverpeaks but the further you stretch it the thinner it gets.

Which makes it a problem that so far I'm completing each map in about half to two-thirds of the supposed intended level range. And come to think of it, why does that happen, exactly? Because leveling in GW2 is about as difficult as eating a jam donut, that's why! And always has been.

I "finished" the level 15-25 Map Diessa Plateau last night by dinging 20 on Map Completion.
Well that's an hour of my life I'll never get back
I'd started it several hours earlier at exactly Level 15, wearing a complete set of Fine quality crafted armor that I'd made for myself at the forge in Black Citadel. I had 11 Fine quality crafted Weapons I'd made, one of every type a Guardian can use. Every piece had appropriate Runes and Sigils that I'd bought from Our Benevolent Benefactor Evon Gnashblade (if only they'd listened to him...) through the Black Lion Trading Post. I'd made food and sharpening stones. I'd spent well over an hour prepping.

First Heart out the gate took me about 2-3 minutes and the grateful vendor  offered me a major upgrade for my entire armor set. It went on like that from there. I literally didn't get more than two or three minutes' wear out of some items before the upgrade arrived. Moreover, within half an hour I was turning down the upgrades on offer for the content I was completing because I couldn't equip it for three or even five levels.

Clearly whoever designed the Heart flagged "Level 23" expected that the players completing it would be...level 23 or higher. That's why you need to be that level to wear the armor it rewards. I was soloing those at level 17 at a pleasantly satisfying challenge level. If other people happened by and joined in, as they often did, the challenge level dropped to somewhere between trivial and gimme now!

It would be tempting to blame this on the difficulty pass ANet gave the whole sub-80 world to compensate for the later arrival of Traits. That may have something to do with it but I wrote this after Beta Weekend Two, in which I observed "I moved to the level 15 - 25 areas when I dinged 13 and roamed around leveling up on mobs between 2 and four levels higher than me for most of Sunday." It might have gotten even easier but it was always easy.

Gotta get all that human blood off this armor somehow

Okay, some of it does come down to elder characters. A first character would be able to open all the Karma vendors, who in Diessa are stuffed to bursting with really good stuff - armor, weapons, jewellery, kits, many, many recipes - but wouldn't necessary have enough Karma to buy everything the way I did with 4.5m karma in the bank. It hardly matters, though, because having all that kit only makes things go extremely fast instead of just very fast.

Is this a bad thing? No, not as such. If this was my first character I very definitely would not have been pushing ahead at such a pace because I'd have been exploring. Yesterday I was doing Map Completion so I didn't explore at all. It sounds contradictory but it's really not.

Exploring is looking around you, paying attention to your surroundings, seeing something interesting or puzzling and going to investigate. It's spotting somewhere you think you just might be able to get to and taking a hour finding out you can't, but not minding because of the half a dozen fascinating things you found, trying.

Map Completion, conversely, is opening your map, checking where the next PoI or vista or waypoint is, running there using speed buffs, dodge rolls, stability or whatever you have that means you don't have to stop or engage with anything along the way, getting the UI flash that tells you you've ticked the box then barreling on to the next. All the time I was doing mine, other people were doing theirs, zipping past me, looping round and running back. No-one stopped for anything. I was about the only one who even bothered to watch the Camera Obscura at the vistas.

Vet's dead, baby...oh, you already heard that one?

Cut to the chase: did I have fun? Hell, yes. Thinking it through I come to the only conclusion I seem able to reach when GW2 comes under analysis: it is what it is. I loved Diessa Plateau in beta, when I was almost literally the only one there and I played it as though I was soloing in early Everquest. I loved it just after launch when there seemed to be hundreds on the map and nearly all of them Charr or Norn. I've loved it ever since, soloing it, duoing it, farming, exploring or just visiting favorite spots (the Cowtapult, the Sniper Rifles, the Meatoberfest fireworks, so many to choose from).

The Megaserver gives yet another face to Diessa, as does racing through it to complete the map. GW2 was built with an infrastructure where fun, and even the more elusive satisfaction, seem riveted on as firmly as the panels on the walkways of Black Citadel itself. It's gameplay that's very hard to break (although God knows sometimes it seems like ANet are doing their best to try) and I'm still not seeing anything in the recent revamp that looks like it could come close to breaking it for a new player. 

So, what comes next? At 25 there's an odd hiatus in the Charr leveling path. There is no Ascalonian map that covers 25-30 and the 30-40 map, Fields of Ruin has no safe entry point from lower levels, as I found out the hard way so I'd have to go via Divinity's Reach, which my Guardian doesn't want to do. I might do Map Completion in Wayfarers, something I'm not sure I've ever done despite having spent an inordinate amount of time there, or I might go to Lornar's Pass to evaluate the megaserver impact some more.

Whatever I choose fun is guaranteed.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Picking Up The Pace : GW2

When GW2 arrived back in late summer of 2012 it sought to bring a number of new concepts to the MMO table. Two in particular attempted to address shortcomings perceived to have dogged the leveling process in earlier MMOs.

First there was the supposed problem of inverse progress. In most MMOs the early levels pass in a blur, things come into focus in the mid-levels and finally everything goes into slow-motion for the final grind to cap. Level five might take ten minutes, level thirty ten hours, level 80 a week. GW2 attempted to solve this inequality with something occasionally referred to, somewhat oxymoronically, as the "flat level curve".

According to Isaiah Cartwright on the ArenaNet Blog back in 2010 (long-vanished from the official website but handily preserved here) the idea was for every level to take roughly the same amount of time. Discounting the tutorial and possibly the very first few levels, the intended time-per-level all the way to 80 was planned to come in around a couple of hours or so, as evidenced, albeit with some interrogative fudging, in this Cartwright quote: "...it takes about the same time to go through each level. It’s pretty simple; if we expect you to level up every few hours, then why shouldn’t it be that way all through the game?"

Is ectoplasm flammable? I hope not...
The second dragon to be slain by the sword of the new paradigm was wasted sub-cap content. One reason for the years-long development cycle of triple-A MMOs is the immense amount of artist and designer hours it takes to create the topography and activity that makes up the virtual world. Games that attempt to control costs by launching with restricted leveling paths and minimal low and mid level zones risk taking a serious PR hit in terms of predicted re-playability. Rift would be an example.

The Catch-22 has long been this: you need to come out of the gate with a big, sprawling open world or MMO players won't take your game seriously. The established games that make up your competition have had years to build up portfolios of zones numbered in the dozens or even the hundreds. At the same time, you know that a few months after launch almost no-one will be using any of your expensive zones other those at the beginning and the end of the level curve.

MMO fashion has already moved on in just the couple of years since ANet thought they'd found a solution. If they were making GW2 now no doubt we'd be reading all about their marvelous procedural processes and emergent AI. Back then, though, the buzzword everyone was using was "Dynamic" and along with Dynamic Events in a Dynamic world they gave us Dynamic Level Adjustment.

I know Charr are big cats but this is ridiculous

What that meant in practice was that your character would never outgrow a map. A level 70 passing through a level 25 area would be seamlessly re-calibrated to match the level of his surroundings. If an event popped he could jump right in without either spoiling things for the natural lower-level players around or wasting his own time. He'd be challenged as though he was still 25th but he'd gain xp and karma appropriate to his actual level. All maps would therefore remain attractive to all levels forever.

That, at least, was the theory. Very quickly, however, it became apparent that most level 80s weren't interested in doing level 25 content for the fun and the challenge. They hadn't leveled all the way to the top just so they could drop back down to the bottom again and futz around there forever. They didn't need the xp, there were better ways to get the Karma and, with the possible exception of crafting mats, they had no use for the level 25 loot.

ANet attempted to make the idea more attractive by changing things so that loot dropped based on the character's actual rather than dynamic level, but even so it turned out that most players just weren't all that interested in revisiting maps they'd "done" (unless, of course, there was a hefty bribe, a nice, fat loot pinata like The Shatterer, say, or a no-effort, goof-off Champ Train).

Go fer yer guns, Black Jake!

This history was flitting through my mind on and off yesterday as I leveled my new Guardian from five to fifteen, a thoroughly absorbing, entertaining and satisfying experience but one that made me wonder, possibly for the first time, whether the Flat Leveling Curve and Dynamic Level Adjustment may not be such great ideas after all. It's a thought that surprised me because they were two of the pre-launch concepts that most attracted me to GW2 in the first place and which, I would have said until now, had served me well as a player.

In brief, what happened was this: my character developed. In the course of Easter Sunday, from early afternoon until around midnight, she acquired and learned how to use eleven types of weapon, trained in six of the eight tradeskills, made herself food, weapons and full sets of armor at level five and again at level ten, acquired and spent half a dozen skill points and gained, often at considerable risk and with considerable effort, Map Completion for Plains of Ashford.

Or you could go to WvW to bank, respond to a Map Call to Hills and end up level fifteen at 3 a.m.
That works too.
 That done, she stood back to take a look at herself. She saw a well-rounded, well-equipped adventurer; level twelve with plenty of room to improve. While I'd strongly prefer that all her weapon skills weren't finished just because opening them is a lot of fun and getting it done so fast feels a bit like eating all your Easter Egg in one go (something else I may or may not have done yesterday) but that's a minor regret. All the rest of the pleasurable process of developing and improving that character remains before me.

By implication, therefore, at 80 it will lie behind me. It will have been done. Being able to roam the world, a faux-ingenue, her orange exotics temporarily sprayed mastercraft green, her punches perforce pulled, simply cannot be as satisfying. It can be fun, yes, but fun only takes you so far.

The counter to this is to make a stream of characters, which is what I have done. But the trip to cap in GW2, even if you try to slow it down, takes no more than three or four weeks. Even leaving aside the cost of new slots, just how many characters can one person play?

Baby's First Maw

Perhaps after all it would have been preferable to have at least a modified version of the usual, unbalanced upward curve. Perhaps "completing" a map should take a few days, not a few hours, even for ANet's very specific value of "Complete". Perhaps it would be better to take a few months rather than a few weeks to climb the ladder to the roof. Perhaps by then all those maps might look fresher and more inviting to re-visit.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps I'd be complaining of the grind and the tedium and couldn't we just cut to the chase. Well, I probably wouldn't but very many would. Replayability is not an easily-solved problem for MMOs and it turns out that ANet didn't have the magic wand they thought they did, but still, GW2 makes a better go of it than many.

Whether the current fix will make the journey more compelling or more off-putting remains to be seen. At the moment I'm more open-minded about it than I expected. Fifteen levels have flown by even though I've been trying to take things slow and steady. So far I don't see any evidence of gameplay or design decisions likely to make a brand new player log off in frustration or boredom, never to return. The implementation may be iffy but it's possible the conception may yet be sound. And even if it's not I'm very happy I decided to go find out for myself.

Next up, Diessa Plateau and the Megaserver Experience:  Greatest Hits or that Difficult Second Album?

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Now We Are Six : GW2

All last weekend there was a special offer on additional character slots in GW2. I kept casting sideways glances at it. I checked the gold-to-gems conversion rate every hour or three. I uhmmed and ahhhed and slept on it and put off making a decision and then the offer went away.

Usually that's a strategy that works well for me. Gone, forgotten. Not this time. A couple of posts back, Isey asked in the comments whether GW2 would now be better from a new player's perspective and I wondered that as well. Syp stirred the pot by quoting an excellent analysis of the situation by Verene at Under A Pale Tree. Verene has a second, detailed post that really nails just how badly this aspect of the revisions to the leveling game would seem to have been handled.

Still, it's one thing to look at a new pair of shoes but the only way to know how well they fit is to put them on and walk around for a while, so yesterday I got my credit card out and gave ANet the first money they've had from me since I bought my second account a few weeks after launch. If it turns out that, as I expect, I absolutely despise the way they've re-arranged the traits then I guess it'll be the exact opposite of sending a message to that effect by Voting With Your Wallet but leaving that aside, so far I'd say it's money very well spent.

It's been months, months! since I leveled my last GW2 character and I really didn't realize just how very much I've missed it. This is the MMO that makes by far the best fist of holding my attention at max level and I thought I was quite content bimbling around with my gang of 80s, but it turns out I was wrong. The moment I finished knocking Duke Barridin's statue into rubble and stepped out onto the riveted metal plate floor at the entrance to Black Citadel it felt like I'd just bought an amazing, exciting, brand new game. To quote Commander Siegerazer, "This is what I live for!".

My plan to make a Charr Engineer fell through yet again due to operator error: I bought the new slot on the same account where my Asura Engineer lives. I already have two rangers on that account; two engineers would be enough evidence to get any doctor to sign section papers, so I made a Charr Guardian instead, on the grounds that I don't have any heavy armor classes on that account, plus my other Guardian is a Sylvari (that'd make a great bumper sticker).

Character creation remains completely unchanged since launch as far as I remember. I'd forgotten just how ugly you can make a Charr look - shattered horns, broken teeth, wrinkled, sagging, aged skin, patchy fur, milky blinded eyes... Not that I went that route, but it was nice to have the option  I'm betting you can't make a female Human or even a Norn that looks ancient, battered and weary the way you can a female Charr.

As I've often commented, for my tastes GW2 characters rarely improve in appearance from the look you can give them at character creation and the starting armor for a Heavy-wearing Charr, dyed a natural copper color, looks as good as just about anything in the game. Even the very first set of 40 copper vendor armor looks fantastic, as does the lowest crafted and dropped gear. I realize that those of us who prefer it have the option of transmuting the look via the wardrobe, but it makes for a poor motivator if eighty levels later you'd pay money to look like you'd were still level one.

The Tutorial's clearly not been converted to Megaserverdom because I was the only one there. It scales perfectly though and I was through in under five minutes and out onto Plains of Ashford. Before I'd even got my bearings some charr farmer was yelling that his cows had escaped so I grabbed a cattle prod to round them up and that was me off and running.

Plans of Ashford isn't on the Megaserver either but there were half a dozen young Charr roaming Gunbreach Hills and Lake Feritas. After an encounter with the Rampaging Skale which led to my Guardian making a tactical withdrawal ("regenerates health" - oh yes, so he does) I decided to run to the bank in Black Citadel to see if there was anything I might use (don't say the T word...) which brings me to the first major issue with the GW2 approach when it comes to starting a new character.

It is flat-out impossible not to twink a new character on an existing account. The best you can do is exercise will-power by not spending or allocating the resources you've been given automatically. Not taking advantage of all the goodies in the bank was easy enough - I'd long since thrown out everything under 80. I looked askance at the Experience Scrolls and Tomes of Knowledge stacked up in there. There were enough to bump my little Guardian instantly to Level 31, which would have let her get straight to the Traits but would miss the entire point of how long and hard the road might feel, getting there.

Those stayed where they were but when it comes to gold, crafting mats, Karma, World Ability Points, Laurels, Wardrobe Skins or just about anything else it's much harder for a fresh recruit to remain virtuous when she has unfettered access to everything the grizzled vets have earned.

If you were sufficiently determined (or demented) there are work-arounds for a cleanish start. You could put all your cash, items and mats in a personal guild bank and disband the new character from that guild, for example. You could keep count of how many WvW ranks your level-up had personally earned, make a note of how much mana she was granted from each Heart, do all the dailies only on that character and count the Laurels and so on. You'd last about two hours before you cracked, I reckon. Less if you actually wanted to play one of your other characters.

So, the new character experience of a player with an established account is by necessity going to be very unrepresentative of the experience a genuine new purchaser of the game will have, even discounting the inevitable inability of the vet to forget what he or she knows. I did seriously consider buying a third account for this experiment, which, short of deleting every character on an existing one, is the only way I can think of to get a genuine fresh start. It might still come to that - god knows it's tempting... but for now I am going to go the "new character on old account" route, report on that and do my best to imagine what it would feel like for a real new starter. 

On that note, whooooahhhhh! Black Citadel! I can't rationally explain why, but the moment I started up that ramp as a fresh level two recruit the entire city hit me as strongly all over again as it did back in beta. It's not like I haven't been there recently, either. I've passed through plenty of times on various characters just last week. I often bank and craft among the Charr. For some inexplicable reason, though, playing a new character made me see it entirely anew. The city is magnificent, the experience wonderful.

That's how I came to spend almost two hours on Black Citadel map completion, something that I can now attest is possibly the slowest possible way to get from level 2 to level 3. Worth every second though, even if I did have to watch a YouTube video for the final two POIs (and watch it four times before I got the final one). And that's with having completed BC on two previous characters, not to mention having done a guide on the Vistas!

Anyone who hasn't fallen in love with GW2 after Black Citadel map completion is probably too jaded to rise from their chaise-longue to sugar their absinthe. It's my favorite place in Tyria and one of my favorite imaginary places anywhere. I had to force myself not to take more screenshots. Not very successfully. Despite, as I said, having already done the full map twice I saw several areas I swear I have never seen before.

That done, I went to the Guardian Trainer to look at what lies ahead. There you can, in an extremely annoying and unintuitive way, browse every trait, Fine, Masterwork and Rare. These are called Adept, Master and Grandmaster in your character's Trait panel, which would risk confusing a new player if he could actually see it, a problem handily solved by having the Trait panel locked until level 30.

I literally shook my head in despair at this point. Not only are new players now intended to wait thirty levels before they can begin acquiring Traits (most of which, according to Verene's analysis, will be out of their reach in any practical sense for far longer than that) but they aren't even permitted to know what's coming. What in the name of the gods that don't exist do they think they are playing at?

Moreover, how, exactly, is a genuine new player going to have any idea that he even can gain Traits through doing content? The Trainer doesn't explain it. He just has all the traits listed as buyable books. The Trait panel, which does explain it, is locked. Surely a new player will visit his trainer out of curiosity (there are plenty of them, clearly flagged), see that Traits cost ten silver and two skill points at the low end and go thirty levels assuming that's the only way to get them.

Of course new players can go to the wiki or any number of outside sources to find out how it works, see what's in store, even play around with builds on trait builders, but what kind of substitute is that for seeing them in game on your actual character? No kind, that's what kind!

I'll save commenting in detail about the asinine choices ANet have made for the ways and means that the traits can be unlocked when those options are eventually revealed. Verene has already made those points anyway (although that's sure not going to stop me weighing in if changes haven't been made by the time I get that panel opened up). For now I'll just settle for saying that locking that Trait panel is idiotic and inexcusable.

To recover from that unpleasant surprise I headed out to Plains of Ashfield to wash away the bad taste with Flame Legion blood. In moments all thoughts of traits were forgotten. I had a rip-roaring time tearing through events and hearts while filling out my dailies without even trying. In under an hour I'd completed the north-west corner of the map, acquired several new weapons and upgrades, dinged five and had more fun than I've had in GW2 for about a year.

As I write this I'm impatient to get back in and carry on. I had to stop last night to go defend the Honor of the Yak which was being severely tarnished by assaults from FA and HoD but really what I wanted to do was carry on leveling, something I plan on spending as much of today doing as I can. Of course, even before the revamp Traits didn't appear until Level 10 so it's too early to see any practical impact from the change. I can say for certain, though, that no matter how hard devs may try to break it, leveling up remains the most fun you can have in an MMO. Any MMO.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Always, Always, Eat Your Greens : Everquest, EQ2, GW2

Zubon at Kill Ten Rats has something to say about Plants Vs Zombies 2, which is not a game I have played or am ever likely to play. The point he's making has considerable relevance to MMOs, however, as he makes clear in the opening couple of sentences:

"Most games have learned that players respond better to incentives than penalties, even when they are mathematically equivalent. Instead of having a hunger debuff, food provides a buff, and all the content is balanced with the assumption that you are using food buffs."

When I began playing MMOs it was commonplace for the game to provide warnings along the lines of "you feel hungry", "you feel thirsty". I would respond immediately to those prompts for two reasons: firstly because I felt uncomfortable on behalf of my characters and secondly because I'd had my memory jogged to do something I knew I should be doing but had forgotten.

 What's a ravasect? You don't want to know.
As time and game development moved on developers began to learn that players preferred to be given a bonus rather than avoid a penalty; something that seems so obvious in retrospect that you might wonder why they hadn't thought of it in the first place. Food and drink, which at first had no magical properties but simply kept your characters from getting weaker and less effective, began to acquire all kinds of special effects.

Mostly these felt convincing, especially against the background of a world in which magic was real. Finding yourself more substantial (extra hit points) or robust (faster endurance regen) or stronger (bonus to strength) after a good meal felt right. A lot of sympathetic and ritual magic went into in the design, too. Eating the flesh of your enemy would transfer to you some of his power or cunning. Natural magic added the properties of medicinal plants and so on.

At first these were indeed just bonuses. Nice to have but nothing to fret over if you skipped a
meal or several. Over time, however, and as is sadly the way of MMOs, power creep occurred. By the time we got to Luclin in December 2001 we had already reached the absurdity of The Misty Thicket Picnic, a halfling extravaganza so vast it must have taken two halflings to carry, but without which no raider could consider himself fully prepped.

As Zubon observes, this approach led game developers, quite logically, to assume that, since everyone would be using the best available food, drink and other buffs, content should be tuned to match the increased power levels that implied. I was aware of this while playing Everquest but I didn't feel the full impact until EQ2.

I found several hundred of these on a vendor long ago.
Still eating my way through them.
From day one EQ2 expected characters to keep themselves fed and watered at all times. If you didn't eat and drink constantly your health and mana regeneration would be miserably slow. This wasn't a penalty as such; it was the default state. You were expected to stuff yourself with Jum Jum Pie and drink White Tea until you gurgled just to achieve basic adequacy.

EQ2 was a horribly-designed game at the beginning. I could put up a blog post a day for a month about its faults and still have plenty left to say. No surprise, then, that the implementation of food and drink was terrible. At low levels, which we all were, money was tight. The food sold by NPC vendors was cheap but had no stats and minimal regenerative qualities. Crafted food had a few stats and much better regen but it was time-consuming and fiddly to make and crafters expected a substantial return for the effort.

Consequently an awful lot of people (or a lot of awful people) didn't bother with food and drink at all and many of those who did made do with the cheapest vendor junk they could find. Because the primary effect of eating and drinking was to allow you to recover hit points and mana, not having supplies didn't just mean a reduction in a group's overall efficiency due to some members not being as buffed as they could have been. It meant that after every fight the members of a group who had provided well for themselves had to stand around at full health and mana, drumming their fingers as they watched the progress bars of their less-organized or more tight-fisted colleagues refill at snail pace.

Every pick-up group would at some point degenerate into an argument between the willing and the unwilling eaters. At some point someone would become so frustrated they'd start handing out freebies but as we all know there's no such thing as a free lunch and the bill would end up being paid in resentment and acrimony.

This was my big money-maker back in the day.
No-one got one of these beauties for free!
I was playing a cleric. I could speed things up somewhat by healing people after the fight ended but I couldn't do much for their mana. In the end I got so irritated I took up Provisioning myself so I could come equipped with drinks at cost to hand out to everyone just so we could get on with it. I did not do it with good grace.

Later, either in the Scott Hartsman revamp that saved the game or with the coming of Domino that saved crafting, food and drink got tuned up to be so obviously attractive that everyone wanted to use them. I was able to stop giving mine away and start selling them. For a while I actually had some money.

Fast forward almost a decade to Guild Wars 2 and what has been learned? Not much, it would seem. The profession of Chef in Tyria is a sprawling, chaotic confusing one that works differently to all the other tradeskills, flagged up even by the NPCs who offer training as harder than the others, and which, if pursued seriously, risks filling every available storage slot with half-finished dishes that could be made into something better later. Perhaps as a consequence, for a long time no-one seemed to pay all that much attention to food.

Mousse, Mouse, easy mistake if you're a Charr
At some point, inevitably, someone with a critical eye and a mathematical bent (never a
shortage of those in an MMO) must have run some numbers and worked out that our characters are, after all, what they eat. Prices on certain foods skyrocketed and it became de rigeur to carry a stack of Spicy Marinated Mushrooms or similar at all times. Moreover, GW2 being the communitarian enterprise it is, public-spirited folk can plonk down a Feast for everyone to share, while in the more militaristic setting of WvW a gruff commander can bark "Food Check" before slamming down rations for his ill-prepared militia.

Zubon goes on to to discuss how all this relates to the traditional dichotomy between the casual and the hardcore but it occurred to me that perhaps the real dividing line isn't how many hours you play or how seriously you take your gaming (two of the more common definitions of "casual" and "hardcore" behavior) but between how organized or disorganized you are.

Ascended Cookery? We don't even have Exotic yet.
Back when everything was flat-tuned and the game ticked out reminders to eat and drink like an irritatingly over-cautious scout master on a hike, being highly disorganized by inclination I found it much easier to maintain the expected minimal standards. Now that we're all supposed to recognize the inarguable benefits and behave like rational adults, I'm far more likely to forget about it entirely. The mobs have all had their extra Weetabix from the developers but my characters are muddling along on the memory of a snack they had last Tuesday.

Perhaps the disorganized deserve to be penalized, but as one of them I am no doubt that the original methodology worked more strongly in my favor than the current one. Perhaps one day game developers will begin to learn some of the lessons that economists are just now beginning to assimilate, namely that there is no such thing as a rational consumer. If and when that ever happens we might once again see fewer carrot souffl├ęs and more big sticks.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Burning In : GW2

Project Megaserver moves on apace. After the initial announcement (Level 1-15 maps) and the subsequent, fuzzier revision (lower population maps) we now have some actual hard information. This thread lists the maps using the new Asuran technology so far.

Here's the first batch:
  • The Grove
  • Heart of the Mist
  • Black Citadel
  • Timberline Falls
  • Southsun Cove
  • Rata Sum
  • Straits of Devastation
  • Fields of Ruin
  • Brisban Wildlands
  • Hoelbrak
  • Iron Marches
  • Blazeridge Steppes
  • Dredgehaunt Cliffs
 Assuming that they did indeed go with the least-populated maps, that's quite an interesting list. All the racial starting cities except Divinity's Reach plus most of the mid-level wilderness maps, suggesting a dearth of interest or activity outside of starting areas, max-level maps and the human heartlands. Just about exactly what you'd expect, given that most of the maps on that list were already sparsely populated three months after launch. And of course no-one in their right mind goes to Southsun if they can avoid it.

The first serving went down well enough that we got seconds very quickly:
  • Lion’s Arch
  • Lornar’s Pass
  • Kessex Hills
  • Diessa Plateau
  • Metrica Province
It's perhaps surprising that Diessa and Lornar's weren't included on the first pass, but I guess proximity to the alway-busy Wayfarer Foothills, Lion's Arch and now Gendarran Fields have helped keep the numbers up. Having Durmand Priory based there can't have hurt Lornar's either. Seeing Lion's Arch on the list is sad. It really does seem to have lost focus after the Terrible Events. I was skeptical whether Vigil Keep would work as a stand-in hang-out but load times for Gendarran Fields would seem to prove me dead wrong on that one.

See? I told you Diessa wasn't all brown!
Kessex Hills doesn't seem to have benefited much from the makeover it got from the Toxic Alliance. It was always a scrappy map and adding reeking fumes and tough, annoying mobs and events was hardly likely to improve matters.

Metrica, on the other hand, always seemed quite a happening place but then I generally only go there when the Fire Elemental's up, which I guess isn't a representative sample. It's curious that it's the only starter zone to go Mega so far. It's not like you don't see a plethora of Asura skittling about everywhere. I'd have thought Plains of Ashford would be less-used.

Enough theorizing. Time for experiment. Late last night, just coming into NA prime time, I took a jog from Wayfarers Foothills into Diessa Plateau to see if I could see any difference. Diessa has always been one of my favorite maps. I wrote about it during beta, although reading it back now it does suggest my initial reaction was less affectionate than it became later on. I've certainly spent a lot of time there on and off ever since so I must be quite fond of the place.

Who says you have to stand well back to fling a fireball?
Diessa was never bustling. The eternal Meatoberfest celebrations in Butcher's Block, right up against the Wayfarers border, always attracted a few visitors but even when the game was relatively new you could cross the map without bumping into much more than the occasional young Charr discovering his heritage. Your chances of getting enough people to down the Champion Giant in Nageling or open the mini-dungeon at Incendio Templum were poor indeed.

Not any more it seems. Within half an hour I'd done three Hearts (with their much-improved completion UI as noted by Syp), several Meatoberfest events, killed the Nageling Giant and even finished the really annoying Dredge event in Bloodcliff Quarry that always used to fail with too few people. In everything I was accompanied by a whole bunch of friends-I-hadn't-met-yet. Didn't see a single name I recognized from Yak's Bend.

Not that I felt out of place. The whole time I was there a Mesmer was porting all-comers to the very difficult vista and skill point at the Breached Wall and map chat was buzzing with cheerful, excited chatter. It was all very jolly if a little bit uncomfortable, a bit like the last day of term when your year tutor lets you bring in games. I wouldn't go as far as to say it was like launch week all over again but it certainly did make the whole map feel alive in a way it hasn't for a very long time.

Rock Solid Work, Name Deleted.
(Not actual name although there must be someone called that)
Today I popped down to Dredgehaunt Cliffs, a great map with some complex event chains that can be very challenging with low numbers, to see if the same magic was working there. There were people around, I can say that much. Not a huge number but enough that every event I tried found me fighting alongside two or three other players. People were constantly calling events and Champions and linking waypoints. It felt a bit less frenetic than Diessa. I liked it.

So, on the basis of those two snapshots and with the weight one should always allocate to anecdotal evidence, my conclusion is that it would seem the Megaserver is doing what it was intended to do. I'm not about to declare it "awesome" like Heartless but my first impressions are definitely positive, more so than I expected.

It's going to take some getting used to, though, and the benefits may be arguable in certain situations. I logged my engineer in earlier. He happened to be in Metrica right next to the Thaumanova Reactor and by chance it was only ten minutes before the Fire Elemental's new two-hourly slot. Crowds were gathering.

Stop shoving at the back!
There were so many people that the pre-events spawned Elites and Champions and I still couldn't get a shot off fast enough to get credit on anything as we walked the Clean 5000 around. The five-minute whirl in the reactor room was purely surreal. There were twenty or thirty of us scudding about trying to shoot things while as many or more lined the walls like the crowd at an arena. Actually, not "like". They were the crowd at an arena.

By the time the Elemental appeared I would estimate there must have been at least sixty players crammed in the room. The timer for the event runs fifteen minutes but I doubt the  "fight" lasted thirty seconds. Overnight FE has changed from a very, very challenging encounter for a few determined individuals to a trivial, challenge-free loot drop for a zerg.

With Megaserver populations that's going to happen to every event with a fixed timer and loot worth having. It risks putting us back almost exactly where we were a year ago when, even after all the difficulty passes, most World Bosses still melted in seconds when a huge zerg arrived. Except this time, with Megaserver technology, a huge zerg will always arrive.

Spectator Sport
I'm not saying that's a bad thing or a good thing but it's certainly a thing. Short of upping the standard World Boss difficulty to at least Karka Queen level, if not Teq/GJW, it's hard to see how it can be prevented. Always assuming someone wanted to prevent it. Honestly, I've done all these bosses so many ways now - easy, hard, small group, zerg, even solo - I really don't care any more. Most of them are mostly fun most ways. I'll just take them however they come.

After FE died, though, it should be noted that there were quite a lot of complaining comments in map chat. Some people couldn't get there before he died, some couldn't do enough damage to get credit, some just thought it was a lot less fun than it had been with a lot fewer people, some wanted to do it on their own servers and not some unnamed overflow, as they saw it. When I left five minutes later the post-match analysis was still going on.

Oh well. Never going to please everyone. At least it works. That alone is more than I was expecting. Looking forward, nervously, to seeing the new tech rolled out to those few maps I actually spend time in. Whichever those are. There must be some other than Wayfarers and WvW...

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Picking At The Threads : GW2

I'm just glad I have the week off work, that's all I can say. Although, come to think of it, that's hardly the most apposite turn of phrase, because there's quite a lot I could say about yesterday's Feature Pack Patch. The main problem would be knowing where to start. Or more likely when to stop...

Let's try and keep it short, unlike Anet, who opened nine dedicated comment threads in the hope of containing the howls of anguish from nerfed berserkers, crashed trains and other disgruntled customers. I'll stick with their categories.


Some people were really stoked for this. I wasn't one of them. GW2 is one of those annoying MMOs where you step out of character creation looking, there or thereabouts, like a regular Joe or Jane, at least in the context of the imaginary world you're about to explore, only to find yourself descending the spiral staircase of surrealism until you end up in a Daliesque daze, dressed like the third runner-up in an Ace Frehley lookalike competition. The recent flurry of screenshots from TESO on various blogs serve as a disturbing reminder of just how garish and tasteless GW2 has become. Roll on WildStar so we can go back to feeling all sophisticated by comparison, like we did back in 2012.

Never mind the ethos, what about the implementation? Not bad. Slightly odd that you can only access the Wardrobe from the bank, but given it works the same way as the Crafting and Mini bank tabs that kind of makes sense. Also odd to hear the little zinggg! sound every time you salvage some eminently forgettable item, thereby adding an equally forgettable appearance to the invisible, intangible wardrobe, when all you meant to do was grab a scrap of Luck, but, hey, it's a nice little sound sample, don't mind hearing it twenty times a minute. And of course as the Wardrobe fills up you'll hear that sound sample less and less often. Probably going to miss it in a few days.

With the five free Transmutation Charges and the twenty or so I got from converting the old stones and crystals clogging up my bank I now have about five times more conversions in hand than I've used in total since the game began, so I think I'm set. It's neat that they're now a Currency, too. What with that and Wardrobing all the unused skins I was hoarding, even though I knew I'd never use them because if I did I would have to play blindfolded, I've regained a dozen or more bank slots. On balance I approve of the Wardrobe although probably not for the reasons I'm supposed to.

Well, that was hardly keeping it short. Must do better. On to

PvP Reward/Gear/Ranks/Maps

Don't PvP. Pass. Wow, that got things back on track!

World Boss Synchronization

Immediately after the patch last night I logged in, arriving in Wayfarer Foothills just as The Frozen Maw was starting. I helped send the Shaman packing, grabbed my rares and retreated to Krennak's Homestead to try and make sense of my new Traits. Ten minutes later Brogun started yammering on about the Grawl and the whole thing started up again. And ten minutes after that. And ten minutes after that...

When Brogun kept getting as far as destroying the Svanjir totem then declaring the threat over and stumping back across the snowfields to reward himself with a fine ale everyone on the map assumed the event had bugged. Not so. Oh no, that would be infinitely preferable to the truth. After the cycle had repeated several times I went to check the immense patch notes , which I'd been avoiding on the grounds that I wanted to get in and play sometime before the sun came up. Here's the relevant section:

"If the event to destroy the dragon totem has succeeded when the boss is not activated, Scholar Brogun will declare victory and return to Krennak’s homestead without fighting the shaman."

In other words, in order to make this whole fixed schedule work, ANet have chosen to have the pre-events run on a continual loop (in the case of The Maw literally once every ten minutes). It's like watching Groundhog Day on fast-forward. I have yet to go see for myself but apparently the same is true of Gamarien's stroll, the Karka Queen pres and for all I know every other series of events that could, potentially, result in the appearance of a chest-dropping Boss.

Even in a "virtual world" that already resembled nothing so much as a series of animatronic tableaux, this takes some beating. It's one of the most openly cynical revisions to content I think I have ever seen in an MMO. Pragmatic, yes, I'll give them that, and at least it works, unlike the changes to the Shadow Behemoth event, which were supposed to increase the difficulty in preparation for the upcoming Megaserver population focus, but which initially made the event very hard to complete with the unmegaservered map population we still have and then bugged out entirely, so the event is currently not completable at all.

The feedback thread on World Bosses is extremely critical. Indeed, all the threads I read were. The forums have a reputation for negativity but in this case almost all of the commentary is well-reasoned, coherent and seems justified. I won't re-hash all the valid points in detail, such as the effect fixed timers have on people with jobs and families or the prohibitive costs of the Guild Event option that might otherwise be used to restore some flexibility. They're all there on the thread if anyone's that interested. I'll just observe that I don't think you'd be taking too much of a punt if you bet on quite a few tweaks to some of these "Features" in the coming days and weeks.

Guild World Events/Megaservers/WvW

Bit of an odd bundle. There are four people in my guild and one of them doesn't play any more so we won't be starting any Events. Pass.

The whole Megaserver thing hasn't really made itself evident yet. Whichever maps are using it aren't ones I've been on, or if they are then the population of GW2 really has taken a nosedive. The only place I did see it working was when I passed through the PvP lobby on the way to Lion's Arch Vigil Keep (they really need to put a new sign on that Asuran Gate), where I saw a large number of people standing around, presumably trying to work out what the hell had happened to their Traits or whatever it is that PvP people use. I'll take a rain-check on commenting on the Megaserver functionality until I actually see some.

As for WvW, that was one unalloyed positive for me. I'd been saving all my drips, tastes, and thimbles just for this day. I even had a keg. Drinking them all was good fun, even if every rank chest was stuffed with nothing but greens (I got one Exotic between two accounts and about 25 ranks and that was a speargun...). Ended up Rank 204 (I think it was) on one account and 115 on the other. Now I just have to decide where to spend the points.


ANet made two threads out of that but I've conflated it because I don't have anything to say, at least not yet. I was mostly already using full sets, not mix-and-match, and a cursory check suggests nothing much has changed. Browsing the Rune thread, the word that comes up most often seems to be "underwhelming", while the Sigil thread barely gets started at all and even when it does it mostly contains off-topic comments.  Confirms what I always suspected: no-one gives a damn about Sigils.


This is arguably the biggest Feature in the Pack. A full revamp of the Trait system, everything from the traits themselves to when and how you acquire them. Sitting on nine level 80s, all of whose traits have been grandfathered in, it doesn't seem terrible, just very confusing. I began this post by saying I was glad I have the week off work and this is why - it's going to take me a week to get all these traits sorted out.

The new interface is okay. Kind of a sideways move. I wouldn't call it an improvement but it's easy enough to follow. Being able to chop and change Traits infinitely, instantly, at no cost certainly removes all of the usual pressure these kinds of revamps bring, that of making a horrible mistake that will haunt you or cost you or both.  I found myself quite enjoying playing around with "builds", if you could dignify what I was coming up with such a description.

It's not really my thing, though, nor Mrs Bhagpuss's. We decided we'd just bang something in for now and wait til the theorycrafters come up with a new meta.Then we can ignore it and feel superior follow the herd.

Reading the forum thread, however, the most poignant and heartfelt comments came from new players, all of whom felt thoroughly shafted by the new system. This comment by Robert sums up the issues very well and looking at it from the outside it's hard to argue with his conclusion "If this is somehow supposed to make the game more enjoyable for new players, I fail to see how this is accomplished.. Sadly, for me, the opposite is true."

I'm very tempted to buy a new character slot, go try it for myself, see how "bad" it really is. It's too long since I leveled up and I never did get around to making that Charr Engineer I wanted. I suspect that the new, slower version of leveling, with its requirements to unlock traits by doing content might suit me rather well. I also think I'd be in a very, very small minority if that turned out to be the case and I fear this move could be commercial suicide when it comes to persuading new players to stick with the game.

The new Elite traits that my characters will have to unlock if they want to use them don't  look like being any kind of an issue. Two reasons: firstly, most of them look like they wouldn't warrant a slot anyway and secondly the price to buy them from the trainer is much, much cheaper than I was anticipating. I was guessing at 50g per unlock. I wouldn't have been surprised to see it pegged at the same as a Commander tag - 100g. When I got to the trainer it turned out to be 3g. Three! Oh, and 20 skill points. My ranger has nearly 500 of those, plus another 200 skill scrolls in the bank. Not seeing a problem there, other than it spikes the whole idea of going out to search for the things as a form of new content. Why the hell would anyone bother if they're only 3g a pop?

Profession Balance

Yada yada yada...

Every MMO does this all the time. Never worth getting worked up over. If you enjoyed something it got nerfed. If something was broken it didn't get fixed. A's still better than B, C's overpowered and D is gimped. Next time round move one place to the left. I treat class changes on a need-to-know basis. If something seems weird in play I'll investigate. Otherwise they  generally pass me by.

That's the gist of it although there's a lot more grain in the detail. There's the derailment of the Champion trains and the Contested Waypoint debate for a start, and dyes, but the change that got Mrs Bhagpuss the most irritated was one that's barely been mentioned anywhere: consolidation of Daily Achievements.

She took it as slap in the face for casual players, a demographic to which she somewhat confusingly aligns herself despite her thousands of achievement points, hundreds of WvW ranks and eight level 80s, half of them already kitted out in full Ascended. This pruning of dailies that limits choice and drops the old standby, Gathering, is more of a slap in the face of the hardcore than the casual, I'd say, since they're the ones chasing the Laurels, and whether it really will take longer to do the dailies now I'm not sure but, hardcore or casual, I can't say that I'm any more thrilled at being funneled into fewer areas to do them than Mrs Bhagpuss is.

Looking at the Feature Pack as a whole I'd say it's exactly what ANet claimed - an expansion-size patch with none of the content you'd find in an actual expansion.It's a bit like going to the cinema and having to  sit through all the commercials, trailers and safety warnings without ever seeing a movie.

I read the motivations behind the whole enterprise as a combination of three things:
  • A desire to drive substantially more business through the Gem Store
  • An attempt at avoiding the negative marketing hit that comes from server merges
  • The perennial inability of MMO developers to leave anything well alone.
I imagine having to do a lot of the background work to re-tool the game for the Chinese market has something to do with it, too. Probably gave them ideas. Oh well, if nothing else it gives us all something to talk about other than why we aren't playing TESO.

Monday, 14 April 2014

The Coming Of The Megaserver : GW2

If Year Zero can have a Day One then, for GW2, tomorrow is it. Just another twenty-four hours, give or take coffee and do-nuts, and we'll know everything there is to know about Megaservers.

Except we won't, will we? It was all quite clear at first - start at the beginning with the 1-15 maps, see how that goes, work upwards from there. Then there was a hoo-hah, retrenchment ensued and we were told the least-populated maps would get Megaserved first. That didn't stick either.

The current position appears to be...fluid. From the most recent Dolyak Express thread:

Q: Since the megaserver changes will initially affect a few areas, will the World Boss schedule table be true just for the light yellow bosses or are the rest of the World Bosses also going into the new schedule even if their areas are still not part of the megaserver?

Samuel Loretan: No, the World Bosses schedule will be released globally on April 15th. Note that the order of rollout of the MegaServer system may still change, as we’re still conducting tests, and as we will be adjusting the parameters depending on our monitoring. While I know that it isn’t what was in the blog post, we’re adjusting this to ensure the best experience for everyone, and the smoother possible rollout of this feature, which has a very large scope and requires careful operation.

I just bet it does.

It's behind you!

Anyway, all this got me thinking about World Bosses (horrible descriptor that it is, although possibly not as horrible as World Metas, which is what they often get called when the Train is running). For the first few months of GW2's existence the big ticket events like the three dragon lieutenants, The Maw, Shadow Behemoth and Fire Elemental, had no specific rewards attached to them. A chest would pop but inside it you'd find just a litter of blues and greens, with a low chance of a yellow rare, a vanishingly small chance of an orange exotic and the purely theoretical possibility of the Pre-Cursor to a Legendary (are they purple? I wouldn't know).

Even though there was very little in the way of tangible rewards people still did those events. I did Claw of Jormag any time it happened to be up and I knew about it, which wasn't as often then as it would be later because if there was any equivalent of GWStuff or its predecessor the Dragon Timer, then I hadn't yet found it. Everyone moaned bitterly about the vendor trash but there were always enough people to get those dragons down.

You can criticize his spelling all you like but you can't fault him on his accuracy.

Then Fractals came and overnight it seemed like half the population had vanished. For a while the Claw of Jormag became all but unkillable and even the Shaman at The Maw scoffed at the feeble turnout, although I notice he never actually managed to summon that Elemental no matter how long he hung around.

For many, though, the fractal attraction didn't last and people were soon back at the large-scale set pieces that were supposed to be the jewels in the crown of GW2's dynamic events system, doing what they enjoyed most - complaining bitterly about the terrible loot.

Finally ANet bowed to the pressure to make the Dragons "worth doing", added guaranteed rares, fixed a few bugs and juggled the RNG. The Risk vs Reward ratio suddenly looked an awful lot better (as well it should, seeing that with the numbers turning up there was now no freakin' risk at all!) As I wrote here , by February 2013 a World Meta Train was already in place, although no-one back then was calling it that.

Um..is anyone else still here?

Reading my own words, I'm quite surprised to find just how disenchanted and cynical I already was, just six months or so after launch. I guess that, since I thought even then that "Each event has a margin of error, presumably in an attempt to create some spurious sense of spontaneity but in practice all of them pop at numbingly regular intervals." it's hardly surprising the upcoming change from fake-spontaneity to an openly fixed schedule has had less impact on my sense of immersion than might have been expected. That fragile vessel shattered into fragments long ago.

The details are hazy now but somehow that first iteration of Guaranteed Rares got out of hand. I think you got one per character per day per boss and take-up was so great it was crashing both maps and the economy. By mid-March the train had picked up such momentum that the tracks were beginning to melt and ANet took the opportunity of the beginning of the Living Story to add some brakes.

Things calmed down after that and we all settled into a routine. I even put up a series of guides for the lackadaisical  that still work to a degree, although a number of much-needed passes on difficulty in the following months have meant that almost all the events now take a lot longer to complete than they did when I wrote the guides and the possibility of failure is now a lot higher.

If all these people are here, how come the only paw-prints in the snow are mine?

That long, rambling, inaccurately-recalled  trip down memory lane brings me up to yesterday, when, as is my wont of a Sunday (and most other days of the week come to think of it) I did several of the Dragon Events on both my accounts. I say "Dragon Events" because people still call them that once in a while. I didn't, of course, do any of the three actual dragons. What would be the point?

Tequatl, who so impressed me waaay back in September 2012 now needs an organized raid of a hundred people. Claw of Jormag and The Shatterer mostly work out their anger issues unobserved except when the train runs at Reset, the extended time taken to kill them being widely considered no longer commensurate with the rewards.

Even at a busy time on a Sunday a good turn-out is no longer guaranteed for the easier options but that scarcely matters because of one of GW2's dirty little secrets: barring the very biggest, almost all Dynamic Events are at their best when seen with as few people as possible.

Should have stopped half way through that sentence.

I did The Maw twice yesterday, the first time with four people and the second with about ten. It was exciting, well-paced and fun. People got knocked down and picked up, people kited the Shaman around, pets tanked. For a while it was touch and go but in the end we won in good time. I'm not saying either was as thrilling as the two times I've completed it with just two other players but sometimes you just have to share the fun. As I was glad to do at Fire Elemental, an event that's often hard enough to complete even with a good turn-out, but which we managed to knock off successfully with just four of us.

When the Megaserver beds in, extending its tentacles across all maps, there should be some definite benefits. It's been weeks since I last did Jormag or Shatterer and I miss them both. It'll be good to see a crowd gather for those. On the other hand, though, I wonder if there will ever be another Three-Man Maw. Melting the Shaman in seconds with a massive zerg may be a spectacle but it's not going to create many "I was there" moments, is it?

And maybe if no-one does turn up there could be consequences? Oh, silly me. 

I hope that, despite ANet's promise (or is it a threat?) that "the MegaServer system is just the beginning, and we are exploring all sorts of approaches in creating meaningful and solid social units for the system to use" there will still be the odd empty map here and there. They may have designed Dynamic Events to scale for scores of players but I get the distinct feeling that the  playtesting was carried out by an individual or a small group, because that's really where the detail and the love and attention that went into them all shines most brightly.

However it turns out, though, I'll still be doing the Maw every chance I get because I know another of GW2's dirty little secrets: you always get a Rare in the Big Chest at The Maw. Okay, almost always. I do it every day, often several times a day. Last time I didn't get a Rare was back in November. Often I get two. Or three. None of the other World Bosses pumps out the Yellows like the Svanir Shaman. I probably owe him for about a quarter of my Ecto Mountain.

Only being able to do him once every two hours is going to cut my income considerably so I just better make sure I don't miss any of my limited openings from now on. See you at The Maw, every other hour on the quarter.

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