Monday, 6 July 2015

Decisions, Decisions: FFXIV, Villagers and Heroes

If there's one thing I really don't like it's making decisions. I don't even much like making choices. In life there's not much you can do about that. As Syl said in a recent, eloquent and moving post, "This is life and it’s happening to everybody!"

MMORPGs, however, are not "life", even though they are places where we can, if we so choose, imagine that we live. For all that we try to deny it they are, ultimately, artificial constructs following arbitrary rules. As such many, although by no means all, of the choices within each game are mandated by their makers. Most require no more from the player than mere compliance.

That should make the whole process more palatable for a choice-denier. You'd think. The hard work has been done by someone else. The decisions have all been made. The only thing left to do is countersign the paperwork. And yet, somehow, it doesn't always feel that way.

Syp announced today, apparently as much to his own surprise as that of his readers, that he's taken out a subscription to FFXIV, a game he only managed to spend half an hour playing on his first attempt and of whose impulsive purchase two years ago the best he could say was "...that’s a $30 I really regret spending."

Unlike Syp I fell into FFXIV like a warm bath on a cold day but by the time the first thirty days were up the water had gone cold and I was more than ready to get out. Yet, If there was one thing I should have enjoyed about the game, it was the complete absence of any requirement whatsoever to make decisions. In that respect it ought to have been perfection. It was very far from being anything of the kind.

There were a number of reasons why I fell out of love with FFXIV but the extreme lack of
personal agency was high among them. When it comes to making choices in FFXIV nothing really matters. That might start out feeling liberating but the walls soon begin to close in.

You only need one character because everyone can be everything. A single character can level up all the classes through the Job system and max out all the gathering and crafting professions on top of that. A simple Fantasia potion available as a veteran reward or through the cash shop even lets you change your race. There's no chance of getting anything wrong, ever.

With no decisions needed on what or who to be rest assured you'll never be in any doubt where to go or what to do either. The entirety of the gameplay sometimes (often) feels like little more than an elaborate framing device for the true content, which is, of course, the Cut Scenes. As cut scenes go they're pretty good but Mercury of Light Falls Gracefully neatly sums up my own reaction: "I can’t say that I wouldn’t have rather watched it in the form of a movie".

The main storyline, which cannot be omitted, skipped or skimped unless you opt out of
character progression entirely, dictates the pace and direction of your journey from character creation until at least as far as where I parted company with the game in the mid-30s. From what I read nothing much changes thereafter.

My strongest objection was to the forced grouping but the entire tenor of the enterprise, MMO by diktat, felt increasingly objectionable. Every MMORPG nowadays seems to take authored narrative as a given but FFXIV really takes it to extremes.

The game is, without any doubt, the most paternalistic MMO I have ever played, filled with an all-pervading miasma of Daddy Knows Best. The imprimatur of its autocratic creator hangs over every sumptuous setting from staterooms to farmsteads. The decision to walk away and return to Tyria felt like being let out of a stifling, stuffy, shuttered room into glorious, open countryside stretching in all directions to a horizon far-distant under a vast, open sky.

So, choices, decisions: it seems they are good for something after all. I'll try and remember that when I next log into Villagers and Heroes. I've been following the core storyline there with interest and admiration.

Rather than the main line that passes through all stations common to most MMO central narratives it's more like a meandering path through a forest. Often it wanders off among the trees, splitting into lesser tracks, some of which eventually wind back around to rejoin the main pathway, others which peter out or come to a dead end leaving you to retrace your steps. It feels so much more organic that way, unpressured, almost anarchic. Enticing and inviting and somehow mine.

Which is why it was such a shock to come at last to a very definite decision point. I'd been so wrapped up in the investigation that I forgot there's always that final scene in a whodunnit, the one where the detective goes through all the suspects and dismisses each in turn before, finally, revealing that it could Only Have Been One Person All Along.

There are four possible candidates for the role of Malicious Miscreant and now I have to decide which of them it is. As I said at the beginning, if there's one thing I really don't like it's making decisions. Turns out the only thing that's worse is having someone else make them for you.

Eeny meeny miny moe....

Sunday, 5 July 2015

What Does This Button Do? : EQ2

The other day Syp was pondering why he sometimes finds it hard to move fluidly from one MMO to another. He came up with several good reasons, such as the varying UIs and control systems, the psychological upheaval, the lack of muscle memory and even not being able to remember your log-in details. All of those have weight but I suspect it's mostly inertia that pulls the cursor to the familiar icon every time.

It isn't really very hard to accustom or re-accustom yourself to the mechanics, after all. That shouldn't really be a barrier. Other than the odd exception like FFXI, whose controls seem to have been designed for a different species, just about every MMORPG I have ever played uses a variant of one of two systems. They're all either roughly like WoW/EQ or roughly like DCUO/TESO.

Each game does have its idiosyncrasies, to be sure, but the similarities vastly outweigh the differences. Assuming you stick to the shallow end, of course. Naturally, if you plan on diving into cutting-edge group or raid content you'll need to be on your game, if only for the sake of your groupmates, let alone your own reputation and self-esteem.

The leveling game, though, and even most solo content at the cap, is usually remarkably forgiving these days. If that's what you're doing then there aren't too many MMORPGs left that would challenge even a somewhat rusty player overmuch.

This kind of content almost seems to have been tuned intentionally for partially-developed, badly-geared characters played by ill-prepared, poorly-skilled players. Perhaps that's why experienced gamers, raising their fifth or sixth alt, frequently complain that "their" game has been dumbed down beyond the point of imbecility, whilst all around them genuine newcomers or returnees still somehow manage to make heavy weather of it.

No, given that most game-hoppers are going to be experiencing gameplay that's very far from the current peak, when we demur from dipping back in to a game we haven't looked at in months, I can't really accept that it's inability to use the controls efficiently that's putting us off.

No, you open it!

In my case it's definitely more likely to be inertia or, if you want to be harsh, laziness. It's just a lot easier to do the same thing today that I did yesterday because if I enjoyed it then why wouldn't I enjoy it now? If staying there made you wish you'd gone somewhere else then it wouldn't be called a comfort zone, would it?

What that means in practice is that I have to make a specific effort not to log into my current favorite MMO. In a way I can almost understand those plaintive cries of boredom in general chat. It's all too easy to end up doing what's all too easy sometimes. You have to make an effort to avoid boredom and who wants to make an effort?

It helps that I have a strong sense of curiosity. It makes for a good motivator when I read about a new MMO or an update to an old one. Reading is just a taster. I like to go and see these things for myself. Being a blogger as well as a player helps. I can always use something fresh to write about. And then there's bribery. That works too.

Didn't you lot used to be...well...scarier?

This week was a holiday weekend albeit not where I live. Some MMO companies have long had a tradition of offering incentives to get players playing and customers spending when they find themselves with an extra day or two of leisure time. Daybreak popped double XP for EQ2 and that's all it took.

There was the small question of who to play. Any kind of xp is wasted on my Berserker sitting at the cap but there's a necromancer in the 90s who'd feel the benefit on the paid account. In the end, though, I plumped for the lowly Channeler, EQ2's newest class and my newest character.

He started the morning at level 16. With the help of full vitality (200% XP bonus) Veteran bonus (another 20% for having a capped character on the account) and one of the myriad of free xp potions sitting in /Claim (110% XP bonus for that one) he made six levels in just over an hour.

And believe it or not it felt quite slow. I don't know how that can be with an average of a full level almost every ten minutes. I suspect it's because I can't fathom the class yet so I never felt in control. Channeler, like Beastlord, is another of these "resource management" classes. I believe the Revenant in GW2 is going to be very similar.

Um, boss...I think your mist stuff is going through the floor.

I don't really like them much. They would seem to be designed for that vocal demographic that complains combat is too simple and they don't have enough to do. These classes always have extra bars or wheels or meters that need to be topped up by tapping or siphoning or channeling or some such malarkey. They also often have pets or spirits or souls or constructs that need to be acquired and trained and equipped and managed.

Frankly, it's a lot of busywork. For it to be fun you have to be fully committed to the character. The payback for the extra time and effort is power. It's notable that there have been loud demands for both Beastlords and Channelers to be excluded from EQ2's upcoming progression server, not because they are inauthentic for the period it seeks to recreate but because their power is seen as overbalancing for it.

Well, maybe, if you know what you're doing. I didn't even remember the Channeler is a healer until halfway through the session. If I'd remembered that I probably wouldn't have gone and hired a bard for a Mercenary. I knew I should have taken the Paladin. Although then I suppose it would have seemed slower still.

Don't ask me what it is. Just kill it!

To go back to what I was saying earlier though, and to re-iterate why I really don't think not being able to remember which button does what is a good reason to avoid picking up a new MMO or revisiting an old one, not knowing what I was doing made no difference whatsoever. Random button-mashing got me through the first half-hour just fine even though I was under the misapprehension that I was supposed to be dealing out the damage rather than keeping everyone alive.

"Everyone" is an odd term when you consider I was soloing but no-one really solos any more, do they? Syp (him again) describes the entourage that accompanies him on his solo jaunts and it's much the same for me. I didn't have my vanity pet out today but there were still three of us in my solo party - a walking pile of rocks, a stereotypical hobbit-analog and my own character.

Of the three, who was the least essential? Don't ask. When I come to think about it, button-mashing was a relatively sophisticated tactic and at least it kept me occupied. If I'd stuck to solo content I wouldn't have need to press any buttons at all. It would be entirely feasible to level up just by running through camps of solo mobs and letting the merc and the construct finish them off. I could play that useful little pet you get in ARPG's, the one that doesn't fight, just hoovers up all the loot and sells it.

Anyone got a lightstone?

That's why I went dungeoneering, first to Blackburrow and then to Stormhold (the dungeon, not the soon-to-be server), where we could fight encounters intended for full parties and I'd have something to do. It's also where I learned that a Channeler gets several AEs that both work in a sphere and penetrate solid surfaces. It's been while since I pulled the second floor of a dungeon from the first. That brought back some memories. We still have XP debt in Norrath in case you were wondering.

Norrath hasn't changed as much as you might imagine. It hardly seems worth having a progression server sometimes. Remember the camps that acted as hidden ring events and spawned names and great clunking chests that doled out buffs if you completed them? Still works. The highwaymen that appeared out of thin air to block the roads and slaughter the unwary? Still doing it. Heroic opportunities? Still firing although I don't suppose for a moment anyone cares.

If you go to Antonica or Commonlands the quests are the largely same as they were in 2005. The NPCs spout the same badly-written, badly-acted voiceovers. Nothing much has changed except I don't ever remember it getting quite this dark at night.

Hang on, just let me get an arrow and I'll have you all healed up good as new.
Oh, all the triple-up-arrow group mobs have gone. There is that. It means the quests that used to take five people a day now take one person and her minions five minutes. I guess that might be one thing that the prog server does differently. Can't say it sounds like much of a draw but maybe it'll be more fun than I remember. It would need to be because I remember it being no fun at all.

When the xp potion ran out I called it a session for the Channeler. I like him as a character - he's a ratonga so that was pretty much a given - but the class is hard work. On top of the resource management thing for some inexplicable reason he has to use a bow and arrow for many of his spells, which means spells effectively need ammunition. That's a new one. Also they seem incredibly slow to cast. Really, really slow. Probably can fix that with gear and AAs and so on but at low levels it's quite tedious.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

So I swapped to my Berserker, knocked out one of the weekly quests and went to try the new Fabled Achadechism, a level 100 version of the dungeon that sits on top of Crushbone. There I found unwanted proof of my theory that it's only at the point when you run up against content that's tuned for current capped players that things like knowing what the icons on your four combat hotbars mean and what your spells and skills actually do begin to matter.

Even then, facing level 105 orange-con mobs in the "Advanced Solo" version of the instance, it was only the bosses that gave me any trouble. Well, boss. Only saw the first one and didn't manage to kill him. It took three attempts before I got close, by which time I was beginning to think seriously about what I was doing and to realize I needed to. That's when muscle-memory, timing and having at least half an idea how to play your character start to look important after all.

Next time I'll have a bit of a warm-up first, get the old skills loose and juiced and then we'll see who's lying on the ground at the end. Or I might just do something easier instead.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Once More, With Feeling : GW2

Among the many changes to longstanding systems, processes and practices that came with the recent, massive update to GW2 was a complete revamp of the Skill Point mechanic. It's been a staple of the game since beta but in preparation for the upcoming expansion the entire concept has been given a makeover that rewrites just about everything, from the name itself to the utility of the skills and traits and the appearance of the UI that we use to to interact with them.

Not everyone likes everything about the new look and feel. Someone on the forums even called it "ugly" which exemplifies the old saw about accounting for taste, namely that there is none. There was a certain amount of rather more justifiable grumbling about the automated process that spent a portion of everyone's points without asking permission so we could all have a playable build ready as soon as we logged in after the patch. I thought that was a stroke of genius but I can see why it went down like bitter medicine from Nurse in some quarters.

Despite all that I think it's fair to say that the project has been received about as positively as anything like this is ever likely to be. Overly well-received in certain cases, and for as dubious a reason as if you'd found an ATM that kept spitting out banknotes without bothering to check if you had money in your account.

Some of the more spectacular bugs and oversights led to some fast and panicky patching, not least the spectacularly broken build that allowed Guardians to strut around like superheroes for a while, boasting that a single group of them running the right build could kill New Tequatl, the double-health dragon that was flummoxing entire raids. That got fixed before I ever got to see it in action.

ArenaNet confirmed that until they get all their waterfowl in a row such shenanigans will not attract the ban hammer. Good thinking. The new system is so much clearer and easier to navigate (as well as being prettier to look at, too) and it makes experimentation a lot more attractive even for someone like me, who usually can't be bothered with all the fiddling about. Let everyone try to break it and then fix the damage. Kind of what you have a Test server for, I know, but, hey, it's not like we're paying a subscription here.

It was wholly because of these changes that I happened to notice, while I was out and about in Tyria today, that several of the Challenge NPCs had acquired "I remember you from last time" dialogs. At least, I think they have acquired them. I'm not really sure.

One of my many rangers happened to pass Roj the Rowdy Butcher, one of the distressingly large number of clinically insane charr, who make Diessa Plateau the wonderland it is, and thought to challenge him to a fight. My memory is that, under the old system, you could do that. You can't now. Now he spouts a little speech and sends you on your way.

You can still join in with the fight if someone else has started it but if you turn up alone old Roj is having none of it. Neither is Shaman Purda nor the slightly worrisome thermal spa evangelist Burrison the Blue.

As I think more on it, though, I'm less and less sure that these ever were repeatable. Maybe I just imagined it. It seems hard to credit that, with all the work that's needed for Heart of Thorns right now, someone sat down and drafted new responses just on the off chance someone might try for the best out of three.

It's a pity, though. I can't really see why we shouldn't be able to spar with these folks as and when the whim takes us. Not, obviously, for any kind of credit or reward but just for the fun of it. Whenever I pass a Skill Point Hero Challenge that someone has triggered I always join in. They are fun fights as a rule. I don't see why we should have to wait for someone who hasn't done it to come along before we can have another go.

For that matter, why are Hearts one-time only affairs? A lot of them are pretty dull, to be sure, but there are a few I'd do every time I was passing, if I was allowed. It just seems like an easy route to extra, optional content to leave all of these active permanently. Just detach any and all rewards from characters who've already received them. Although, when you consider that Dynamic Events are all infinitely repeatable with rewards, maybe you don't even need to do that.

Oh, I don't know. Maybe it's just me. Maybe no-one else would ever want to repeat this stuff. I notice that a lot of people don't do every single stage of the pre-events at Maw or Fire Elemental every single time the way I do, after all. A lot of people, well, they just stand there. Some people just don't know how to have fun.

Anyway, I don't think it would hurt either my Guardian or Shaman Purda for the two of them to go a few rounds every time they meet. Where's the harm?

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Many Mansions: Villagers and Heroes

Tobold was was taken aback by Syp's plans to play at least nine MMOs this year. Tobold observes that "in one game 20 hours per week results in some sort of progress. Split over many games, nothing much is happening". I wouldn't agree.

Not only is it, arguably, an outdated view of how MMOs work these days, when so much content and so many systems are overtly designed to meet the needs of players who log in only for short sessions of thirty minutes to an hour at a time, but it's predicated on a belief that MMOs have to be played according to some sort of agreed scale of progression. That's something I would argue does not exist and never has existed outside of the self-imposed limitations of individual players.

To use an anecdotal example, I've mentioned before that we have a friend in our GW2 guild who has been playing since not all that long after launch. He only plays on Sundays, rarely for more than a couple of hours, and by no means every Sunday at that. He has just the one character, who hit level 70 only a couple of weeks ago. By the time Heart of Thorns is here he'll most likely have a single level 80 so you could say he's paced it exactly right.

Grass is greener, sky is bluer

People play at the pace they prefer. I have plenty of characters I'm still working on in many different MMOs and some go back months, some years, some more than a decade. Every so often I'll log one in and chip away a little at the mountain. I'm making progress on all of them. It's slow, it may never be complete, but something is definitely happening.

All the same I would never claim it isn't a challenge to keep all these plates spinning. And mostly they don't. A lot of them wobble and fall and lie there, forgotten. Stargrace has been pondering why we often just stop playing one MMO while we'll carry on with another. She comes up with several reasons that ring very true with me but the most common explanation of all is simply that there are too many good MMOs out there to have any hope of playing even a fraction of them regularly.

So I guess Tobold isn't so far off the mark after all. Sure, we can do a lot better than just playing one or two MMORPGs concurrently but in the end, however many we manage, it will only be a scratch on the surface of the genre.

One sheep doesn't make a flock

For a good while I wasn't happy with the variety in my MMO diet but things have improved of late. This week saw a small rollback in that improvement, thanks to GW2's giant patch, which didn't leave much time for other MMOs, but that should settle down soon enough.

I hope so, anyway, because when you concentrate exclusively on one MMO you do inevitably miss out. Because I couldn't, or wouldn't, stop playing GW2 at every available opportunity, I failed to get my Necromancer to level 10 so he wasn't able to vote in Daybreak Games' "should we break our own rules at the first sign of difficulty?" poll on Ragefire. Neither have I done my weeklies in EQ2, let alone put any more levels on my channeler. Dragon Nest has gone unplayed since I came back from holiday.

I would like to get all those back into some kind of loose, weekly schedule, at least. Then there's the upcoming Anniversary in The Secret World, which is a great bun fight for tokens to spend on gear that I'd prefer not to miss. I'd also dearly like to finish the main story in City of Steam before I wake up one day to read they've shut the servers down. And on it goes.

These crazy steampunk glasses turned up early on as a gift of some sort. I love them!

If there's one MMO I really want make more time for right now, though, it's Villagers and Heroes. I was having a great time playing before the Lion's Arch patch dropped and I felt I was making solid progress too.

The bug that was roadblocking the main quest turned out not to be a bug at all. I went to the forums and, following the advice I found there, I was able to resolve the problem without taking up the very generous offer from V&H developer Cameron England, which he made in the comments to my last V&H post here, to look into it for me. That's certainly going above and beyond the call of duty!

I'm guessing I should have heard of this place...

With that out of the way I somehow ended up down on the Lower Ethos docks again. On a whim I decided to go through the portal on the ship that was moored there just to see where it went, which was how I ended up owning my own house. And a sheep.

That was a surprise. I'm not sure why but I'd somehow gotten the idea that you had to buy your house from the cash shop. Not so. You get the basic one free for the asking once you visit Donald's sister Dareen.

Donald, who appears to be a bit of a literalist as well as a shill for his sister's real estate business, suggested I limit my search to a village that had housing space available. Following that impeccable logic (not that I actually saw any villages with the "No Vacancies" signs up but thanks anyway, Donald) I went to the portal and scrolled through a very long list of choices until the name of one caught my fancy: Autumn Woods Village.

It was night when I arrived there. Night in V&H is an odd duck. Sometimes it gets really quite dark. Other times things just seem to go a bit fuzzy around the edges. Occasionally both happen at once.

Seen by moonlight Autumn Woods looked delightful. I wandered around looking for a good plot. There was plenty of choice. In the end I chose a charming spot overlooking the lake.

Seriously, who goes house-hunting at midnight? Witches?

The villages, which are instanced, remind me a little of LotRO's housing but with much more visual appeal. There seems to be a wealth of facilities for crafting and gathering within the village itself. I'm guessing the bulk of the "Villager" gameplay takes place there. A large noticeboard lists a raft of communal activities with which villagers can join in and which, if completed, add to the available amenities. That reminded me of Horizons, which is really going back some, although I believe I've seen similar mechanics elsewhere too.

Building my house was a simple click of the mouse. No messing around acquiring building materials here. There's a fairly large range of styles on offer but for my starter home I had the choice of just two. One seems to be the basic model while the other, I think, has something to do with a choice I made at character creation.

It's got a door but don't get your hopes up.

I was happy enough with my little cottage although I was momentarily puzzled to discover I couldn't go inside. It turns out that "housing" in V&H equates to storage not accommodation. It's not what I'd call housing but on the other hand it's by far the fanciest personal bank I've ever had in an MMO and it comes with a garden, so who's complaining?.

When my "house"  popped into existence so did a sheep pen and a vegetable garden. They're round the back. What's more the pen comes with a sheep already installed. Just the one. On my stroll around earlier I'd noticed some battery farms reminiscent of ArcheAge, where players had jammed a dozen assorted farmyard animals into a space barely fit for a couple of rabbits. Efficiency over empathy is par for the course in MMO animal husbandry it seems.

Ok, sheep. If you had to choose between, oh, I don't know, a Blue drinking bowl shaped like a racing car or a Pink drinking bowl shaped like, erm....a princess, which one would you go for?

I played with my sheep for a while and he (she?) asked me for a green apple. Talking sheep. Well, they talk in pictograms but its pretty clear what they're trying to say. It reminded me of ArcheAge again but even more so the much-missed pet training job in Free Realms.

And that's where I had to leave it to go exploring in Lion's Arch. I hope my sheep's still okay. He (she? I'll have to check...) had plenty of grass but no water. The picket fence is pretty low, though. I'm sure any self-respecting sheep could jump it and we're right by a lake...

...oh dash it all, now I really need to go check he (she?) isn't lying there, gasping his (her?) last or floating feet up in the lake. I'm not sure I'm cut out for this degree of responsibility.

Monday, 29 June 2015

She's Filled With Secrets : GW2

Lion's Arch continues to fascinate. There's a tour you can take but with amazing timing I joined the group just as the guide went on her break. She sent us all through the portal to Gendarran Fields and said she'd meet us on the other side. Then she stalked off in the opposite direction.

We all waited by the bridge for a few minutes. Then I took matters into my own hands. I decided to make up a tour of my own. Well, not entirely my own. While I was exploring I also filled out the formal Map Completion requirements. Map completion was always exploring by numbers but with the addition of the onscreen pointers now it's more like one of those "nature trails" beloved of infant school teachers the world over.

If I was any kind of efficient I'd have taken the trouble to pick up a rifle from Turl Sharptooth and potted a few Karka along the way. Mrs Bhagpuss has already bagged Princess for both of her accounts and I haven't even started. Must get on that before I drown in dragonite.

Reason I didn't bother with the rifle this time is that it'll be no trouble to go round again. Any reason to spend more time in this rich and strange city is welcome. There's so much to see and hear, so much to do, so many secrets to discover.

Oh yes, secrets. Lion's Arch is full of them. Sya has one. To be honest, it's not much of a secret, not any more. There's a twelve-page thread about it on the forums for one thing. If you happen on her, where she stands near Fort Mariner, she'll gladly tell you about it, if you ask.

Her secret. Sya used to have another name. She's changed. And more than just her name. She's not someone I know well, more an acquaintance, really. We met at the refugee camp a while back. He was Symon back then.

Wait, she tells it better than I can:

Tyria is becoming a new kind of world. Maybe having a clear and undeniable enemy helps us to focus on what's important. (The elder dragons. Remember? Big, lizardy, lots of teeth...) Makes it easier to understand what matters and what really doesn't. To make choices. Perhaps that's it.

Old Tyria was big on lines you wouldn't want to cross. Charrs and humans, that was one. Remember the big deal when Rytlock and Logan even got as far as not trying to kill each other on sight? That was progress, then. Now we have Jordyn and Leyah and their Asura Guardian, blurring all the lines.

Of course, those two always had vision. Let me remind you what Leyah told me when we bumped into each other a while back. She said "I'm teaching Jordyn how to be a soldier. She's going to be in my warband, and we're gonna be Ash legion, 'cause we're spooky".

I said I didn't think humans could be in a Legion but she already had that all worked out. She told me "They couldn't be before, but me and Jordyn are gonna change that when we're tribunes. Probably in a couple of years or so."

Grammar is not a high priority in the Fahrar curriculum
The way things are going will it even take that long? Look at Snikk and Scratch. Best friends forever, when they should be natural enemies, or at least experimenter and experiment. All over Lion's Arch you can find multi-racial groups of children at play. Human children and charr cubs seem to have a mutual attraction that rivals the bro-bonding of adult Charr and Norn. Or maybe those are Norn children. Whatever. When these kids grow up everything will change.

Already, though, Tyria in general, Lion's Arch in particular, looks to be in the vanguard of social change. Gender reassignment and sexual orientation (Hi, Jory! Hi, Kas!), racial harmony and who knows what else. It's heartening for sure. But let's not paint too bright a picture. There's a worm in the apple.

I ran into Inspector Lizzi on the beach. She'd found something. Something very bad. The twisted corpse of a sylvari on the sand. I stopped to see if I could help. What she told me brought a bitter chill to the bright day.

Blood speaks to blood as the sap runs thin. There will be an accounting.

Right now, Lion's Arch is at peace, or so it seems. Enjoy it while you can. It won't last. It never does. Remember, we all stand together or we fall.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

The Best Apples : GW2

This week's update to GW2 has made me think more about what I want from that game in particular and MMORPGs in general than almost anything in a long while. Which is a surprise, because, in all honesty, I wasn't expecting very much.

The whole thing was flagged up as a Big Deal of course, what with the pages and pages of patch notes and the press releases and so on, and we've been so starved of anything you might reasonably call new content for so long that you couldn't help but feel a frisson of anticipation. Even so, my personal hype meter wasn't registering off the scale anything like the way you'd think it might.

Perhaps that's why I'm so impressed. And make no bones about it, that's what I am. Impressed. And pleased. Impressed and pleased. A happy customer. After all the foot-shooting over the pre-purchase announcement ANet needed a win and they got one. With me, anyway.

Feeling blue?

The two big pillars of the patch were the root and branch revamp to traits, skills and the way the entire combat system works and the reveal of the rebuilt Lion's Arch. Either of those would be difficult enough to pull off separately. Plenty of MMOs have run off the road trying to negotiate tricky corners like changing the way people can play their characters or the look and feel of social hubs. Bundling them in together risked chaos and concern but I think they got away with it.

I have a strong antipathy to visual overhauls of familiar places but I especially dread class balancing, combat rewrites and major overhauls of opt-in points systems like traits and skills. Theorycrafting "builds" is not a part of the hobby that particularly interests me. I'm fine with doing it once, the first time, as I level my characters up, but once I have a build that works I'm more than happy to use it, unchanged, for the next decade or so. I am very firmly in the "good enough is good enough" camp when it comes to that kind of busywork.

Consequently I approach all of these Year Zero moments with a mixture of trepidation and annoyance. I would dearly love just to be able to log in and play and pretend these things weren't happening. And, miracle of miracles, this time that's exactly what I was able to do.

Thank you, Jeeves.

Oh, there was one of those warning pop-ups telling me everything had changed but instead of leaving me with the usual bucket-full of returned points and slew of empty slots it directed me to a new build with everything all filled in and ready to go.  All I had to do was give it the once-over to see if I approved my personal dresser's choices, which, for the most part, I did. I didn't even need to do that much, truth be told. I could have just closed the window and left it at that but curiosity got the better of me and I did mouseover a few things. It all looked fine so that was that.

It helps that the new trait and skill windows are a massive visual improvement on the originals. There wasn't anything particularly wrong with the last version and if you'd asked me I'd have said it was fine. It was fine. This is better, though. It's sleeker, simpler, clearer and more intuitive. The flow is much easier to follow and changing from one build to another is simple and elegant.

Apart from the slick new interface there's one great and as far as I can see entirely unheralded improvement; we now get a completely separate WvW build in the way we always had a discrete build for PvP. Unless I've misunderstood something, the traits and skills that you set when you're in any Mists map will lock and persist in all WvW maps until you change them again but when you drop back into a PvE map you'll autoswap to your pre-existing PvE build and vice versa.

Hardly shouting the news from the rooftops, are they?

I couldn't quite believe it when I noticed it, which I only did when I spotted the small text gloss as I looked at my build when I was standing around in Citadel. Surely this is the kind of major innovation everyone would be talking about? Apparently not. There it is, though, and it works. I tested it to be sure.

The thing is, had I not spotted it, it wouldn't have mattered much. ArenaNet managed to transition my old builds into the new system with sufficient accuracy that I was able to play several characters without changing anything. That's a real achievement - 10AP to whoever came up with the idea and 50AP to whoever made it work.

What's more, the new system is so user-friendly I feel confident and even inspired to play around with it to see if I can come up with something that suits me even better. My necromancer is going to need some re-writes, for sure - someone seems to have mistaken her for a Minion Master. That cannot stand.

Did they have to import all this sand?

So, that was the Great Trait Revamp out of the way, for now, at least. The aftershocks rumble on and things will take a while to settle but all's good for the time being. ANet's official position on a number of widely reported unexpected outcomes is that :

1) Conditions seem a bit strong
2) World bosses are currently too easy
3) There are some bugged skills and traits
4) There are some overpowered builds

We won’t fix it all at once but these are four large topics we are talking about.

They seem to be "talking" surprisingly fast because fixes are already coming in flurries but my main attention has been elsewhere.

I was planning to write this morning about the changes to Lion's Arch and the way they have caused me to revise and revisit my whole outlook on MMO gaming but it's too big a topic to rush and I'm still mulling it over so this is the short version, which I can sum up like this: background is more important than foreground. 

There's an argument to be had over whether MMORPGs need a "story" at all. Plenty of people feel they do. There are companies, BioWare being only the most obvious example, that have predicated their entire business model on that belief. On the other side are the people who believe just the opposite; that the only stories that matter in MMORPGs are those told by the players themselves. Again there are businesses set up to cater first and foremost to that audience .

Who Is Data Dog? You may well ask.

I'm not happy with either extreme. I feel story both has its place and should know its place. It's not the be-all and end-all but neither is it entirely dispensable. What I consider to be more important than either is milieu. 

My deep and abiding affection for Norrath, Telon and now Tyria doesn't derive from the great adventures I've had there or the friends I've made, immensely important though those are. It derives from the sense that I've lived there. For a place to feel that real other people have to live there too. Players provide a lot of that life but the bedrock of belief comes from the real residents, the NPCs.

There would be, wouldn't there? How did we ever manage before reddit?

Right from when I first began playing Everquest I noticed that the world I'd stepped into was alive. Yes, some shopkeepers and guards might be at their posts twenty-four hours a day but a myriad of other characters were out and about, getting on with what appeared to be lives of their own. 

I spent hours in Freeport and Qeynos following NPCs about, trying to work out what they were up to and usually coming away little the wiser. There seemed to be half a dozen or more NPCs who had business between Qeynos Hills and West Karana. I'd see them jog to the zone line and disappear. They're still at it now, most of them. I saw it on Ragefire only the other day and it still puzzles me. What are they up to and how can I find out?

So am I! I was worried about you guys!

When GW2 began one of the most striking and laudable elements of its rich mix was the wealth and depth of quotidian narrative. For a while it was one of the big talking points: not how we could beat the Elder Dragons but how much fun we were having throwing snowballs and picking apples. 

It wasn't so much the vaunted Dynamic Events, whose promised gleam so quickly tarnished, although they certainly added some new texture we hadn't seen before. It was much more the sheer detail of the everyday lives that carried on around them that drew us in and made us feel part of the world. You could have spent many hours in Metrica Province just trying to unravel the Asuran intrigues going on there, without ever lifting a sword or completing an event. I did. I do. You still can. You should.


After a while, and really quite a short while at that, the perspective shifted to Orr and What Was Wrong With It and Was Zhaitan Really Dead and all that big picture stuff. All the little things faded into the background. When the first iteration of the Living Story arrived and we were asked to find lost toys in the snow and light fires to keep refugees from freezing there was something of a backlash

From then on Story had to come capitalized, in cut scenes and instances and Mysterious Letters, in sweeping sagas of adventure or family strife or social commentary, with Achievements and Rewards and Titles attached. And yet somehow a space was always found around the edge, out of the spotlight, for a score of smaller stories told in lower case. Every episode of the Living Story scattered a few seeds and there were some who cared more about what might spring up where they landed than they did about the latest installment of the Dragon of the Month club.

They better not have brought their bad luck with them.

It's been a long dry spell. I'd forgotten just how much those small stories meant. Since the patch landed I've spent almost all my gaming hours in the magnificent new Lion's Arch, exploring, watching and listening. From the Consortium's new HQ (just who is their mysterious, never-seen leader?) to the Dodgy House (as it's known Chez Bhagpuss) that only opens its doors at night to the spitting gourds that remind us all of lions lost there's a wonder around every corner.

Snikk and Scratch captured my attention first. I tried to follow them but they use the waypoints. And why not? Who's to stop them? With so many adults killed in the battles with Scarlet and her armies Lion's Arch is awash with unruly children. They go where they please. The lucky ones, like Jordyn and Leyah, have found a measure of safety and security but the rest, who can say? I fear some Fagin is already at work and, Lyssa knows, the Lionguard aren't going to do anything to stop him.

Trust me, Edward's slacking is the least of our worries.

As I said, I'm still pondering all this. It's complex and fascinating and it will take a while to process but the return of Lion's Arch has reminded me of what was missing in my gaming world. It had slipped away almost unnoticed under a mass of dailies and achievements and loot runs. It's the wonder or being somewhere rich and strange, surrounded by mysteries you may never unravel; not the epic legends of dragons and gods but the small mysteries of everyday.

I'd like a whole expansion's worth of this stuff please.

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