Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Like A Bad Head In The Morning

"And I might as well just grin and bear it
'Cause it's not worth the trouble of an argument"

I don't often rant but sometimes you just have to, don't you? I'll try and keep it short. After all, no-one reading this is likely to be part of the problem and there's nothing anyone here can do about it but a trouble shared is a trouble two people have to deal with instead of just the one. That is how the saying goes, isn't it? I thought it was pithier, somehow.

Also, complaining about people complaining (which is what I'm doing, although I realize I haven't actually said so yet) is such a bad look. I mean, who wants to be that guy? Or girl. (Why is it that "guys" plural can be gender neutral but "guy" singular is always male? Not that I'm complaining. Just observing. Or maybe I am complaining. Sometimes it's hard to tell.)

Bad look or not, I am going to be that guy. As I commented on this thread, which is what got me wound up in the first place, some people will complain about anything. This post proves it.

You can work out what my posting name is on the EQII forums from that link, by the way. Unless someone else said it as well. I mean, it's hardly an original aperçu, is it, "Some people will complain about anything"? It's not like I'm claiming copyright on it.

Not that the name I post under is a secret or should be, although if I wanted to be sneaky I do have several accounts, so I could post as different people. I could go on the forums and have a huge argument with myself, maybe even try to get one of me banned. That would be meta. Or postmodern. Or ironic. Or childish. And probably against the EULA.

Hauling the point back in on a very long rope, the substantive issue that some EverQuest II players are ready to quit over is this: instead of patching every week the game will now patch every other week.

I know, right? It's armageddon! Or at least one of the harbingers. I think it's in Revelations, somewhere. God forbid the developers should take more time to get things right or give the excellent, dedicated and tireless testing community longer to do their selfless, unpaid QA shuffle.

Clearly a move like this is a slap in the face, the last straw, incontrovertible evidence that the game is on fast track to maintenance mode. What are we paying them for, eh? EH??

EverQuest and EQII players both have what seems to me to be lower than average anger thresholds, although I strongly suspect there are other MMORPGs could give them a run if there was an award for "Most Easily Outraged". Just not any that I play. Thankfully.

The other hot button issue right now (or at least the latest - there's a line of them stretching right around the walls of Freeport and back over the hills half way to Qeynos) is the removal of descriptive text from crafting mats. It used to say what level items the material was used to make. Now it doesn't.

I admit it's an odd change although the ostensible reason is entirely valid in my opinion. Changes to the crafting system over time mean that what used to be a straightforward, vertical progression is now far more horizontal. In consequence those tool tips, once helpful, are now potentially confusing, especially to newer players.

That makes a lot of sense to me. I stopped looking at that text years ago for exactly that reason. If I want to know what mats to use nowadays I open the Recipe, where it always tells you, or if I have a material I'm unsure of I go to the invaluable EQ2 Traders and look it up there. 

It seems that I'm crazy. No-one should have to do anything as outrageous as looking stuff up. It should all be there, in front of you, on the object, all the time. And if it's not you should down tools and walk away.

The hills some people choose to die on! Unplayable lag, gamebreaking bugs that stop you logging in at all, PvE events that end in a FFA PVP brawl... (oh, wait, wrong game and working as intended...). Those I could see as legitimate reasons for remonstration. The removal of a few words of guidance text? Yeah... no.

The thing that annoys me most isn't people complaining per se. Everyone complains. I complain. I'm doing it now. It's human nature. What annoys me is people complaining on my behalf without asking me or even knowing me.

"Everyone hates...". "No-one wants...". "We all wish...". No we frickin' don't! Or maybe, yes, we do, but how do you know? And who elected you spokesbeing anyway?

Generalizations are fine. Necessary, even, to put a point over. But qualify them, ffs! "It seems to me like everyone hates...", "No-one I've ever heard about wants...", "Everyone I've spoken to wishes...". Is that so hard? You may still come over as insular and ignorant but at least you're not claiming to be omniscient.

It's particularly galling when, as so often seems to be the case, I'm having a great time and someone's telling me I'm not. Blood of Luclin is my favorite expansion for years, I've played more of it than I have most others in the Daybreak Era, the progression mechanics work better for me, I'm making more money, getting better gear and having more fun. I even like the changes to how crafting works, the ones that apparently mean crafters are "shafted" and crafting is ruined forever for everyone.

Don't tell me I'm not having fun when I'm having fun!

Anyway, I said I'd keep it short so I will. Feel free to complain I went on too long or missed the point or that I don't know what I'm talking about or I contradicted myself (I do realize that all the things I'm complaining about are remarkably similar to things I've been saying about GW2 for years now...).

That's what comments threads are for, isn't it? Complaining?

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Transmitting Live From Mars

According to Steam it took me exactly five hours to complete Californium. That seems remarkably precise. It's also remarkably slow compared to most people who've finished the game, at least according to some of the "mostly positive" reviews, where three hours would seem closer to the norm.

I like to take my time, look up, smell the rosewater. Also, finding some of those glitches wasn't as easy as all that. Mostly I managed it on my own but I'm very glad someone took the time to record a full playthrough for the handful of times my search threatened to stretch from fun to frustration.

So... was Californium any good?

At just over £5.00 for exactly five hours play I thought it was reasonable value as entertainment goes. A little less expensive than the average movie, a little more than a medium-length novel. If I'd paid for it with my own money I wouldn't feel short-changed.

It doesn't have a great deal of replayabilty although I guess, technically, it has as much as any Philip K. Dick novel, in that both tell a linear story with multiple possible interpretations. I've re-read most of PKD's novels, though, some of them many times; I can't see myself playing through Californium again.

The game's greates strength is its aesthetic, which is rigourously and successfully maintained throughout. I never once tired of looking at it. Indeed, at one point I wondered what it might feel like to "play" the game without playing it.

There's a mysterious voice that occasionally chides the protaganist, Elvin Green, for his apparent inability to know when he's well off. As Elvin peels away the layers of reality, finding a less satisfactory version each time, the voice suggests, with reason, that Elvin doesn't know when to stop.

And in fact each iteration begins by putting him in a better place. He starts as a failing writer, behind on his assignments, whose publisher is about to "let him go". In the second chapter he's much more successful, feted as the "Patriot Writer", the biographer of Abe Lincoln. When he tears the veil and steps through yet again, he becomes the political leader of an entire planet, or at least the boss of a mining colony on Mars.

It's only when he starts pulling at the threads that everything unravels, always leaving him in a worse situation than when he began. He has a very nice apartment, which gets nicer each time, and it occured to me that, as a player, I could refuse to engage with the process, let the glitches glitch, just log in to spend a few minutes staring out of the window at the scenery. It's nice scenery. Elvin doesn't appreciate it but I did.

But no, we all have to do our part. So I worked through all of the chapters, saw all the changes, spoke to all the people... or not. I thought I had but the game has Achievements (because of course it does or it wouldn't be a game, apparently...) and one of them is Speak to Every NPC. And I didn't get it.

So I missed someone. I have no idea who. I spoke to everyone I saw because the writing is not bad and the voice acting is a bit better than that so I wanted to. Also you never know when a Philip K Dick reference might pop up.

I thought about that, too. Californium is a game predicated on a knowledge of or an interest in the works of a particular author. Thematically it does a fair job of evoking a few of the great man's better-known tropes. It also drops in the odd reference that seems to have no function other than to give the player warm fuzzies of recognition.

Is that Fan Service? If it is, is that a bad thing? What's wrong with servicing the fans, anyway? If you weren't a fan of Philip K Dick, would you be playing at all? I know it's why I bought the game.

Even when the references seemed to be crowbarred in (and there were only a handful that I spotted) I appreciated them. Would I rather the developers had taken their own game more seriously and resisted temptation? No, I don't think I would. I'm a fan. Serve me.

The final chapter, in which reality comes unglued along with physics and topology, was probably the best part of the game as a game. It was also the part with the least story. I do still struggle with the interface between those concepts. I've seen Californium referred to as both a "walking simulator" and a "puzzle game" and it is both of those things, although the walks are very short and the puzzles mostly easy.

I was satisified with it as a "game" but I'm easily satisfied on that front. I was a lot less staisfied with it as a story, largely because of the ending. It was all going rather well until then.

I'm not going to say the ending was bad. It might have been. There's one interpretation - and it was the first one I came to - that, if true, would make it a very bad ending indeed. One of the worst kinds of ending, in fact. But I'm very far from sure that was the ending.

Or the meaning of the ending, anyway. It was definitely the ending of the game in a practical sense; everything stopped and there were credits. Whether what had happened was what I first thought had happened, though, I somewhat doubt.

In which case I didn't understand the ending. That's not great, either, although it might be my problem. Or it might not. Maybe it wasn't as clear as it should have been.

Or maybe that was the point. Maybe it was clever Dickery, a touch of postmodernist humor. Maybe it wasn't supposed to make sense because, y'know, reality isn't what you think. If you can understand it you've misunderstood it. Except I've read, as I mentioned, an awful lot of Philip K Dick and I never once got to the end of a novel and found myself thinking "what was that all about?". Granted, I still haven't read Valis, let alone The Divine Invasion, but the point holds.

Would I recommend Californium? For PKD fans and sympathizers, yes, definitely. I felt it was five hours well spent. I enjoyed it. I strongly suspect it isn't anything like as smart as the creators probably imagine it is but it's certainly smart enough. It doesn't disgrace its source material and that's a lot more than not nothing.

For anyone who hasn't read Dick, I'm less sure. I'd say about a quarter to a third of my enjoyment came from resonances the game kicked up, stuff I remembered from the novels and short stories. Half was from the look of the thing and the rest from the voice acting and the narrative. Whether that's enough for someone unfamiliar with the original texts is questionable.

But, as I said, who else is going to be interested? Probably not a problem.

According to the best review of the game I read, everything Californium does right the much better-known and vastly more successful The Stanley Parable did better. Maybe I should try that next.

Saturday, February 15, 2020

My Idea Of Fun: EQII

Look up. Up there, right above us. See that? That's my shared bank, that is. Why don't we take a closer look?

The first box is all potions. Partially sorted. A work in progress. I only got them all into the one box just a few minutes ago.

All of those came from Overseer missions. They're useful and I'm glad to have them only I'm terrible at using consumables. They make a very significant difference to both speed and success when soloing the harder instances but I only remember that when I'm struggling. If I'm up and killing I never think to use potions to go faster. So they pile up. Also, when do I do hard instances? More on that later, kind of.

The second box is Infusers, mostly, plus some Powerlinks, a peculiar kind of one-time buff that I've never used and don't entirely understand. "Things I don't understand in EverQuest II" could be my specialist subject on Mastermind. Also a few overspill Mount items that wouldn't fit in the third box and some old Adornments I probably could junk.

Infusers are both useful and annoying. They're used in the Infusion system (No! Really?) which is how you incrementally improve gear. There are different grades and types. The current expansion uses Empyral Infusers and that's what I'm getting from the Overseer missions but I still have Celestial and Planar Infusions from previous iterations. They all still work.

Hello. It's me again!
The problem is, I can't see the point of using any of them to upgrade gear until I'm reasonably sure I'm going to be wearing or wielding it for a while and I'm nowhere near that point yet. I don't feel like much of anything any of my characters is wearing is likely to be around for long.

I haven't even done the final instance of the Adventure Signature line on anyone yet, let alone completing any of the Achievements that give what's probably going to be the best solo gear I'm going to see. But I have now at least looked at those achievements, thanks to Topauz's suggestion, and many of them seem, erm, achievable. So I'm sitting on my Infusers for now.

Bags three and four are stuffed with saddles, reins, barding and the like. Things mounts wear. A hackamore. Don't ask me what that is. I got most of those in the Dragon Attack pre-expansion event. I have a lot more stashed on individual characters, too.

One of the boxes is mostly tradeables. The other is mostly Heirloom. A few of the tradeable items are worth a lot. Millions, if the ones on the broker are priced to sell. I'm dithering over whether to sell mine or use them. I've been dithering for weeks.

The rest are either not particularly what I need right now or can't be equipped until various mounts level up. Leveling up mounts takes months and you can only level one at a time per character. You can buy your way out of that and you can get mount time potions as drops to speed things up. I have had a couple from Overseer missions.
I don't understand how this works. It's not how you'd think.

Even so, it's going to take a lot of thought and organization to work out which mount gets what on which character. I have half a dozen max level adventurers, four max level crafters and all of them have multiple mounts. I haven't been taking this seriously until now, so some of the mounts I've leveled up are the wrong ones and I only just realized I really need to use separate mounts for crafting and adventuring . Only all my crafters are also adventurers, so they'll need one of each.

I could stash all the mount stuff  in a character's bank to free up two boxes in the shared bank. I have access to an almost unbelievable amount of storage in EQII. Quite literally many, many thousands of slots. Which is fine, only I know that if I stash things on characters I'll never see them again. Out of sight, out of mind.

On occasion I have resorted to making notes on who is keeping what in their bank vault. I had it all written in a notebook at one time but of course it's out of date now. I know there are people who would make a spreadsheet for this but the day I find myself tempted to do something like that is the day I start looking for another hobby.

Box five is full of craft books for levels 111-120. Also some spell upgrade materials and recipes and mats for making yet more mount gear. I need to run all the crafters past this lot so they can scribe whatever books they can. Then I need to decide if I'm going to level up any of the other crafts so I know whether to keep those books.

I don't understand how this works, either. Add it to the list.
I ought then to sell what's left over but due to certain anomalies of crafting in Blood of Luclin, some are valuable and some are worthless. Which means checking them all. Which takes time.

Boxes five and six are full of gear. A lot of this is from Overseer missions. The rest I either picked up as various characters went through the Signature lines or I got as drops from overland Nameds. Most of it probably isn't an upgrade for anyone but some of it will be.

To know for sure I have to have everyone look at everything they could use so I can evaluate the auto-comparison. Sometimes that can be a tad hard to parse so it takes quite a while to do even one character. I have six.

Once I've equipped all the upgrades on everyone I'll have to decide what to do with the rest. I could try and sell some of the better pieces but I never really bother to sell gear. I tend to assume everyone else also has more than they know what to do with.

The weapons all need to be converted into Planar Weapon Essences (you can see some of those in Box Eight). That's what fuels weapons upgrades in addition to Infusing. Of course, the same issue applies, namely I have yet to be sure I'm keeping the weapons I'm using. So those just get stashed for now.

The rest of the gear, I have to decide whether to Transmute or Salvage. I've been exceptionally lucky with my Overseer missions so far. I have several BoL Adornment recipes that use the mats I'd get from transmuting gear over level 111. I even have a recipe to make a Red or Blue Rune (Growth, in fact), which is a big deal right now, let me tell you.

The problem here is that I don't fully understand how the revised system works yet. Some of the recipes have "Charges" and I don't know what that implies. I need to do some research before I make anything.

It's Mythical so I suppose it's a good drop.
The last box has a few odds and ends from earlier eras of the game at the top. I haven't gotten around to sorting those out yet. They probably need to be stashed in someone's bank, after which they will almost certainly never be seen again.

In the middle are the three grades of Fragments that everyone complains bitterly about getting as
rewards. I think they have something to do with Epic Weapons but since I've never even looked at how Epic Weapon quests work in EQII I have no clue what to do with them. I just hold on to them in case I need them one day. I got all of mine from Overseer missions, naturally.

Then there are a couple of boxes. I had my Carpenter make a bunch of Swamp Ash Boxes (44 slots) for my Wizard so she could clear her bags and stuff all the unsorted stuff in her bank vault, which is the EQII equivalent of sweeping the dirt under the carpet.

While I was doing that I noticed she could make a 96 slot Jewellery Box. It says it holds "Jewelery, Baubles, Adornments,Transmuted Components and Cloaks" which sounded extremely handy. Only when I put it in the bank I found out it doesn't open like a normal box. It has a "Use" button but pressing it does nothing. So that's some more reading I have to do.

Finally we come to Agents. I get these now and again as loot from Overseer missions. They duplicate. If I get new ones I add them immediately to the Berserker or the Necromancer, my two primary Overseer operators. The spares I have to shunt around to other characters but I haven't yet found time to think about who is going to get whom.

That, in a rather sizeable nutshell, is a glimpse into my EQII gameplay right now. I'm playing the game for several hours every day and enjoying it as much as, maybe more, than I have for years. It's incredibly complex and it makes me think almost all the time, which I love. Only I'm not really doing anything, am I?

Or, rather, I'm doing an awful lot but almost all of it is preparation. But for what?

As well as all that sorting and upgrading and sending Agents out on Missions, I'm making sure to use my staff every two hours to go searching for Shadowed crafting materials, which I then use to make spell and CA upgrades for myself or to sell. And doing the public crafting quests every time the cooldown allows.

Not the best selection of spells
but the first one I made sold for 150k so I'm not complaining
On the subject of making money, the Shadowed book I got hasn't exactly made me rich but I have made more than two million plat so far, which is a lot of money by my count. I've also either been astoundingly fortunate in having three more Expert/Mastercrafted books drop (a Sage book for Level 115 Caster spells, a Jeweler book for Level 115 Scout CAs and a Level 120 Armorer book) or the rarity of these things, as frequently bemoaned on the forums, is wildly overstated.

I'm involved in a fun (for me, at least) price war with a couple of other crafters, which means I have to check my prices two or three times a day. When things sell I have to replace them and since I'm selling on a different character (because he has the 100% broker fee reduction Veteran sales display) I have to swap them over and it all takes time! So. Much. Time.

I'm still doing the Familiars Wild quest daily on three characters. That involves capturing creatures almost all of which are well below my level so I need either to mentor or to be extremely careful, since they have to be both aggroed and alive when I capture them and they all die instantly if any of my max levels even look at them with an arched eyebrow.

And why am I doing that quest? Well, mainly because I enjoy it but the nominal reason is to upgrade the familiars I'm actually using. Everything leads to upgrading the characters. "Upgrading" means making them more powerful and/or robust. Why am I doing that? So I can kill things faster or more efficiently and die less often while doing it, of course.

Only, when do I ever actually go and fight anything these days? Anything where the conclusion isn't foregone, that is? There I am, happily whiling away several hours every day, having a jolly old time trying to make all my characters fit for battle and yet I have no immediate plans to go fight anything!

In fact, I actively avoid it. The only character who's doing anything that could vaguely be called adventuring is my new Fury and she's only doing it to level up so she can stop like all the rest.

Oh well. I'm enjoying myself. And I guess I'll be ready when the time comes. If it ever does. Which doesn't seem all that likely right now...

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Don't Make Me Admit Stuff

There's a community thing going on right now called "Love Your Backlog", initiated by Later Levels and picked up, so far, by Time To Loot, Nerd Girl Thoughts, Shards of Imagination, Indiecator and probably more that I've missed. I'm following with interest and not a little puzzlement. If there's one gaming trope that makes no sense to me it's The Backlog.

Backlogs of unplayed games are clearly a thing in many people's lives but not in mine. It's not so much that I don't have games I haven't finished (or started), although I don't have all that many of either. I tend not to buy or download games unless I'm planning on playing them immediately.

It's more that I don't see games that I'm not currently playing as a "backlog". It's a word that has very specific and entirely negative connotations in my vocabulary. I would never apply it to anything I anticipated getting pleasure from.

My formative encounter with the word was in my first office job, a year out of university, working as a clerk in an insurance company. On my first day I was introduced to "the backlog". It was a line of cardboard boxes filled with files, dumped haphazardly on the floor, winding all the way around the walls of a side office and snaking back down the corridor. There were more than six months of claims in there that had never even been looked at, let alone dealt with. Guess who had to start sorting them for the next person up the chain? Not me, thank god - they had to bring in another company to handle it, things had gotten so out of hand.

That's what I think of when I hear the word "backlog": a crisis threatening to turn into a calamity. I have several piles of DVDs I haven't gotten around to watching yet and I always have piles of books waiting to be read but I don't have "backlogs" of movies or tv shows or novels to "get through". I have a treasure trove of potentially wonderful, exciting, hilarious entertainment to look forward to. There ought to be a word for it but I can't think of one. I can think of two though: treasure trove.

But we were talking about games, weren't we? I'm not sure I have much to contribute there. How about I try these conversation starters and see how we get on?

A game you’re eager to play, but haven’t yet started:

We're talking something I own, right? Nope. Can't think of one. Next.

A game you’ve started several times but haven’t yet finished:

Okay, this is easier. Let's exclude all MMORPGs because as we know you can't finish any of those. I have a few candidates but they don't really fit the ethos of the question since I have no interest in finishing them. I tend to play games until I'm not amused or entertained by them any more. Then I stop. If the game isn't holding my attention that's the game's problem, not mine.

The one game I own that I have started and that has a definite ending, which I would like to get to, is Broken Sword 5. The first two Broken Sword games were what started Mrs Bhagpuss and I on gaming back in the '90s, before we moved on to Might and Magic VI, Return to Krondor and then EverQuest.

I put  Broken Sword 5 on my Amazon wishlist years ago and a non-gaming friend bought it for me. At the time I had a Windows 10 Tablet and my plan was to play it on there, with Mrs Bhagpuss, when we were on holiday. I did take it away a couple of times but when I'm on holiday the last thing i want to do is play games. Then my Windows tablet broke and I replaced it with an Android one so that was the end of that.

I've started it a couple of times on the PC but I get a little way and then I think it's a shame to be playing it on my own so I stop. Maybe one day.

The most recent addition to your library.

I can answer that one! I posted about it last week and there will be another post soon. Californium. I'm playing it, though, so how does that count as "backlog"?

The game which has spent the most time on your backlog:

I think we already established I don't have a backlog as such but I do have a candidate that I think fits. Even though I said I was excluding MMORPGs, I think I'm going to put Project: Gorgon in for this one.

I first posted about P:G waaaay back in 2013 and I've written about it many times since then. I played all the various sneak peaks and alphas and betas after that. I kickstarted it the time it actually succeeded (and the time before, when it didn't). I linked my old account to the new version when it went into Early Access on Steam...

...and the closer it comes to being finished, the less often I log in and the less often I feel like logging in and the less likely it becomes I will ever log in again, let alone play the damn game like an actual MMORPG the way The Friendly Necromancer does.

There's another post to be written here about that, bouncing off Hardcore Casual and The Ancient Gaming Noob. I might get to it at the weekend.

The person responsible for adding the most entries to your backlog:

I buy my own games, by and large, although as I mentioned above I do occasionally add one to my Amazon wish list. Not very often, though. My friend bought me BS5 and Mrs Bhagpuss bought me the Legion expansion for WoW but I think that's about it.

I also won a prize of a Steam voucher from IntPiPoMo, twice, which accounts for much of my very small Steam Library. That's what paid for Californium (thanks Chestnut!) and I still have about $10 left.

I guess the answer is me.

Well, that didn't take long, did it? What would take a lot longer and probably fit into a Venn diagram of the underlying concepts involved would be a list of the games I both own and intend to play but don't actually get around to playing, either as often as I'd like or at all.

Just looking at my desktop I can see the icons for sixty-five games. I've finished four (Doki Doki Literature Club, A Raven Monologue, The Banner Saga and Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger and The Terribly Cursed Emerald) although all of them could be replayed for different endings, which is something I never do. There's also the demo for Neo Cab, which I've finished. I might buy the full game one day. I'm leaving it there to remind me.

Four are free games I got with my Twitch account: Age of Wonders III, Mable and The Wood, Wonder Boy:The Dragon's Trap and Banner Saga II. The first three I guess you could call a backlog if there was ever any chance I might play them. What they really are is the backlog to my Recycle Bin. I just haven't gotten around to deleting them yet. Banner Saga II I could conceivably play one day but I didn't like the first one that much so I probably never will.

Then there are a few that lead to things that have been cancelled but that I hope might come back in some form (Fallen Earth, Dragon Nest) or that went to limited-time trials or demos that have ended (Ashes of Creation Apocalypse... oh, wait, that's still going, in a lurching, undead kind of way) or to games I started and might get back to but probably won't (Tanzia, Yonder).

I guess other people might call those last two "backlog" titles. I don't call them anything. They're just there.

The rest, pretty much, are all MMORPGS which, as was established, can't be finished and therefore cannot qualify for "backlog" status. Or if you prefer all MMORPGS are in a permanent state of perpetual backlog.

Even though I'm putting most of my rejection of the term down to a combination of definition and personal psychology, I do wonder how durable the concept of a "backlog" is. With streaming largely  having taken over from buying or even downloading music and movies and even making significant in-roads into reading and with a multiplicity of major global players queuing up to offer the same kind of streaming services for gaming, how many people are going to bother paying to own games in future?

I know most people reading this are going to put their hands up but how representative a group are we? I mean, I still buy my movies on DVD and my music on CD - even though I literally watch the things I've bought on Amazon Prime on my Kindle Fire in preference to using a DVD player and I use the CDs solely to transfer the files to my iPod Touch.

We might all use Steam now but once there's an all you can play for $9.99 a month option that's reliable and efficient how many will jump ship? And how many new players will pick ownership over instant access to a huge library for a monthly fee?

I don't think a future devoid of personal ownership is cut and dried even for movies and music. These things can and do change, often generationally and not always predictably. For the immediate future, though, I suspect backlogs may be heading towards the "funny things old people do" shows.

And I'm pretty sure those are never going away.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

I Don't Know What I Don't Know But At Least I Know It: EQII

There's a detailed post waiting to be written about EverQuest II's Agnostic Dungeons but I'm hardly qualified to be the one who writes it. I vaguely remember, when the feature was added some years ago, it was intended to be a way for players of widely varying levels to group together. I didn't entirely understand why we needed it since that was something I thought we could already do via the Mentoring system but I guessed there was more to it than I knew. There usually is.

For quite a while Agnostics, as they became known, seemed quite popular. I often saw people looking for groups for them or hanging around outside the portals in Freeport or Qeynos. I did one just to see what it was like. All I remember is that we went to The Library of Erudin, a dungeon I know quite well and like a lot, and it all went off pretty smoothly.

I was only playing EQII as a back-up game back then and even though I'd enjoyed the run I didn't repeat it. As the years wore on I forgot all about Agnostics. No-one seemed to be looking for groups for them any more and If I'd thought about it at all I'd have assumed the feature had passed into that limbo which awaits so many features in every MMORPG: still around but of interest to no-one.

As with so many untested assumptions, that would have been false. There may be no-one queing up to do Agnostics for the purpose for which they were intended but that doesn't mean they've fallen into disuse.

For whatever reason (and this is purely an anecdotal impression) the fifteenth anniversary and the subsequent release of the Blood of Luclin expansion seems to have brought more former players back into the fold than usual. For the past two or three months there's been a steady chorus of comments in general chat as people out themselves as born again newbies.

Some are looking for guilds, some for advice and some just want to reminisce. Until this weekend none of them had raised much of a ruckus. That all changed on Saturday with the arrival of a very voluble and persistent character who began by announcing they were back after seven years away and would anyone like to send them some plat?

With EQII's economy in a state of hyper-inflation, the kind of money that would seem like untold riches to a newbie is less than pocket change to even a casual-but-regular player so a few people chipped in with donations. Others offered practical suggestions on how to earn money in game.

Patience and generosity began to wear thin when the request was repeated on and off during the afternoon. There was some to and fro over the subject, then the would-be beggar began to ask if someone would like to powerlevel them.

That wouldn't have been out of place back when they last played. Powerlevelling used to be quite a thing in EQII. It really isn't any more. Leveling goes so fast and there are so many ways to make it easy and effortless that paying another player to tow you around on a string while they kill things would actually be one of the slower and more awkward ways I can think of to get xp.

EQII has a fairly cheerful and helpful community, on Skyfire anyway, even if almost everyone does tend to act as if it's open mic night at the comedy club now and again. Many people, myself included, attempted to explain why PLing wasn't a great idea. Several went on to make helpful suggestions and offer alternatives.

The returning player was having none of it. They countered every suggestion with a reason why it wouldn't work for them, few of which made any sense. They also countered the accusation that they were trying to get something for nothing by explaining that what they wanted to do was pay someone via PayPal for powerlevelling services rendered.

As you can see, the boots are yet to drop.
Needless to say no-one took them up on their generous offer as it was repeated several times over the course of the weekend. Eventually they fell silent, presumably either having decided to buckle down and level up like a normal person or having left the game in disgust at the outrageous selfishness of modern players, unwilling to give up a few hours of their time to do the job of an NPC mercenary for less than minimum wage.

Over the last couple of weeks I have been leveling a Fury. I have several Level 100 and 110 boosts I could use to skip most of the process but leveling in EQII is fast and fun and I wanted to get at least a vague idea of how the class works so I've been doing it the old-fashioned way.

These days the "old-fashioned" way isn't really all that different from powerlevelling. You just get a Mercenary and let them kill stuff. They never have to stop for a smoke break or to walk the dog and they charge about a thousandth of what players used to charge so it's both cheap and efficient.

I'd been wandering around almost at random in zones and dungeons I like or which I haven't done for a while, picking up quests as I travelled and not bothering to finish them before I moved on. That way I'd made it to the mid-sixties in a few sessions.

I'd never thought of doing Agnostics but a couple of people in chat had tried to explain to the recalcitrant returnee that they were the fastest way to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps. They even suggested which ones were the best: Stygian Threshold and Crypt of Agony.

Oh, come on... He's not that big!

Stygian Threshold was a new one on me so I thought I'd give it a try. It was a surreal experience. I zoned in using the burning helmet portal outside the bank in West Freeport. All the mobs, as you'd expect, conned "Even". They were all triple-up arrow Heroics. I pulled the nearest, my Monk mercenary bopped it a couple of times and it fell over.

That was how things went for all the regular mobs. I explored the very attractive zone, entirely new to me, killing everything I saw, until I bumped into my first Named - or "Boss" for anyone not used to EQ jargon. I expected a little bit more of a fight so I held back and sent the Merc in - and the Named dropped dead. Instantly.

This turned out not to be a fluke. There are eight Nameds in Stygian Threshold and every one falls down in a dead faint - actually, make that just dead - on a single hit. I have no clue why this is. No matter how easy a zone is, I've never known one where bosses were even easier to kill than regular mobs.

It's quite a fiddly zone. Several of the Nameds need to be spawned in a particular fashion. I had a walkthrough up, so I knew some of the bosses had strats and behaviors but of course I never saw any of them in action because BLAT!

XP was very good. I made several levels. Loot was good, too. There's a specific gear set in Agnostics, all Legendary, which drops for your specific level and armor type. Every piece was an upgrade for my Fury. It also all matches and looks great.

I was very happy. It was going so I well I moved on to try Crypt of Agony, a dungeon I know and like. Everything carried on just the same. In addition I got a Master and my first ever Mythical. And it was a key Fury spell!

After I finished that one I thought I'd try another I'd never seen. I chose one from the Kunark Ascending expansion - Kralet something or other. I zoned in, pulled the first even-con mob and about half a dozen came. My Mercenary started to shake with fear and refused to fight. I managed to kill a couple of them on my own but then I ran out of mana. Since I was standing right at the entrance I clicked it and zoned out, so at least we didn't wipe.

Two more tries went the same way. I gave up and tried a couple of Velious-era dungeons instead. They went fine. I carried on until my Fury dinged 75 then I stopped for the night.

Next time I'll experiment some more. The whole system is shrouded in mystery and I evidently have a lot to learn but it certainly looks like a potentially painless, profitable and entertaining new-to-me way to level. I wouldn't want to take every new character through an unbroken sequence of dungeons but it makes for a very nice change of pace.

And it makes me wonder what else I might be missing...

Saturday, February 8, 2020

On A Mission For Love: EQII

February sees the beginning of a flurry of holiday events in EverQuest II. We took a full month's break following the end of Frostfell in early January but this week saw the start of  Erollisi Day, Norrath's version of Valentine's Day.

When it comes to Norrathian holidays, a "Day" usually lasts at least a week. The Errolisi celebrations go on for twelve days. There's a short break and then very soon we'll all be seeing double during the equally misleadingly named Brewday, a two-week bender built around the earthly "holiday" of St. Patrick's Day (not really a thing where I come from). That runs directly into the Chronoportal event, for which our Earth can offer no equivalent.

No sooner (literally) than the Chronoportals vanish, Bristlebane, Norrath's Lord of Misrule appears. Trickster that he is, he somehow manages to persuade us all to celebrate his "Day" for a full two weeks around April 1st. The moment he disappears, out pop the Beasts for Beast'r, a relatively new and short holiday celebrating, yes, you guessed it, the Norathian version of Easter.

While all this is happening the regular, monthly City Festival and lunar-cycle Moonlight Enchantment events carry on as usual. It's a full calendar, to say the least. I'm sure we'll all be relieved to take May off before it all kicks off again in early June with the successive and lengthy elemental celebrations of Oceansfull and Scorched Sky.

All of these events are packed with quests, collections and achievements, some them looking fit to burst after fifteen years of stuffing. There was a time when I'd go all out on each holiday as it arrived, trying to do everything, often on several characters across different accounts but these days I'm a lot more selective.

There are still people who go all in on every holiday. You can occasionally hear their cries of distress on the forums as they bewail the unfairness of not being able to do everything on everyone. And each year it gets harder for completionists as the dev team strives to add something new to every festive occasion.

As Bart Simpson once said, they're damned if they do, damned if they don't. Some people find the sheer volume of things to do stressful but any holiday that comes and goes with no new content at all is held up as evidence that the game is dying.

Not that many anniversaries pass by unchanged. There's always something new, even if it's just something small and unremarkable. For this year's Errolisi Day we get the usual extra achievement (Over the Moon) and a selection of new things to make and buy, but the centerpiece is something much more substantial, not to say original: a series of five quests for the new Overseer system.

That seems quite significant. Potentially, it's game-changing. Prior to this, it hadn't occured to me that the Overseer feature could be meaningfully integrated into the metagame but on the evidence presented here it most definitely can. Indeed, it has been.

To get the quest you have to visit an NPC called Sister Marinah Highgleam in New Halas. She's standing there with a feather over her head just like any other questgiver and when you speak to her she has a backstory like any other, too.

Some pirate kidnapped her, then released her on condition she help him win the love of "a tall troll woman known as Deadly Rhedd". It's the traditional set-up that would normally have you agreeing to run all over Norrath collecting objects and killing monsters, which is precisely what needs to be done, only not by you. The modern adventurer has people to do that kind of thing for her.

Taking the quest doesn't write anything in your Journal. Instead it adds a new Overseer Mission "Thralg's Bejeweled Cutlass" to your list. The mission takes just half an hour. When it finishes it's immediately replaced by another, "Thralg's Mad Grobb Grog", then "Thralg's Trained Monkey" and so on. Each has a little story. All Overseer missions do. The conceit that these are quests which really take place inside the game is dutifully maintained at all times.

I'm currently on the fourth of five, "Thralg's Blessed Cologne". I'm doing them as I write this post because "doing them" entails nothing more than tabbing back into the game after thirty minutes has passed, picking up my rewards and clicking on the next one.

It would all just be a bit of fun (and it is that, too) if it wasn't for the fact that the rewards are potentially comparable to, or even better than, anything I can get for going out and fighting things. My Shadowed crafting book, by far the most valuable drop I've had in the expansion so far, came from an Overseer Mission and every day I get a few items comparable to those I get from solo quest rewards. Granted, the quest rewards are usually better, but only by a slim margin. And I have had some upgrades.

Now we have proof of concept that quest chains with narrative can be handled via the Overseer interface. That subverts the core gameplay loop. We're in a brave new world where we, the players, talk to NPCs via our characters then send those characters out to adventure at the NPCs' behest - and our characters then delegate the work to their own sub-contractors! By the time anyone gets a sword upside the head there are several degrees of metaphysical separation between the sword-wielder and the aggrieved party.

The way this all affects gameplay goes even further than that. As I type this I have a character camped at one of the graveyards in The Commonlands, waiting for the Errollisi Day Public Quest to begin. I've done it once already in the middle of writing this post. It's the quest I wrote about in detail last year, when I did it on two characters so I could get the Carina Cuddleblaze familiar.

At the time I was happy just to get a cute little dragon that would follow me about. This year I'm doing it because Carina Cuddleblaze is a Fabled quality familiar, which means she's extremely useful for reducing the Mishap chance on Overseer missions.

I'm also doing the "Familiars Wild" daily quest on the only three characters that can get it (my account is bugged, as I suspected, although my Berserker has inexplicably unbugged himself somehow so I remain hopeful for the rest). That's so I can build up a stable of familiars purely for Overseer purposes.

Next on my list of things to do is to hunt down or buy better Mercenaries and pay for them to be hireable anywhere, once again so I can use them to increase my chances of a bonus chest on Overseer Missions. There are changes to the system already up on the Test server which will give players access to all of the Missions they have unlocked, rather than having to take whatever the server gives them, and that will make the system even more central to gameplay.

I'm finding all this quite strange. It doesn't just add a resource management mini-game to EQII, as I imagined it would. It opens up a whole new channel for character progression and now the dev team has thrown narrative possibilities into the mix.

Perhaps the oddest thing is how much I like it. It seems to run counter to the kind of things I say I want in my MMORPGS but then we all know how that goes. MMORPG players rarely play the way they say they wish they could, even when the opportunity arises. All too often they do the exact opposite, then complain bout it. 

In this case, I can see why I'm becoming increasingly drawn into using the Overseer system. For many years, solo endgame play in EQII has meant running instances repeatedly for the daily and weekly rewards. That takes too long and becomes too repetitive for my tastes. It's too much like hard work. The Overseer system is turning into a way to get much the same result, only with the tedium removed (or at least shunted offline, which is much the same thing).

At the moment the rewards aren't generally as good or as reliable as you'd get from instances but as my portfolio of Missions and Agents builds and I get full control over which missions I run each day, that could easily change.

I've just started the final Mission in Sister Marinah's questline. It will reward me with a pirate illusion and a title as well as a standard Overseer Mission crate. I've already received a new Agent, a plushie for my house, a vanity pet and four crates.

If Overseer Mission Questlines like this were to become a standard addition to holiday events I'd be very happy indeed. You wouldn't hear me complaining even if we started to get them outside of the holidays as general content updates, although I'm pretty sure that would cause some stirs of dissent.

There will always be those who rail against change but that's why we have Kaladim. It's not as though we don't have a choice. Somewhat to my own surprise, I come down heavily on the Retail side of the argument, to put things in terms a WoW fan would understand.

Oh, god. I've been corrupted, haven't I? Where did I put my principles? I'm sure I saw them a while ago...

Friday, February 7, 2020

Real To Irreal : Californium

For once, I did exactly what I said I was going to do. After I finished blogging yesterday I popped off to Steam to buy Californium.

Not! Of course I didn't. As soon as I hit "Publish" I forgot all about it and spent several hours futzing around in EverQuest II .

It wasn't until late in the evening that I remembered and finally went and did it. By then I only had time for a quick look. I played for about forty-five minutes. This morning I logged in again and played for a couple of hours.

That's not enough for a full review but it's plenty for a First Impresions piece. And my first impressions are very favorable.

Let's start with the best part: the art design. It's gorgeous. I've taken over fifty screenshots already. I'm seriously considering grabbing several hundred just so I can use them for randomized desktop backgrounds.

It's a good thing the art's as well done as it is because the game relies on it extremely heavily for gameplay, which consists entirely of spotting anomalies, while the narative relies almost equally strongly on visual contextual disparity. Some weight is carried by the soundscape but it's down to the art department to handle the heavy lifting.

The controls are just about the most minimal I've ever seen in a game. WASD for movement and left mouse button to interact. That's it. Oh, and sometimes you have to type the words you see on screen in a simulation of typing on a typewriter, which is how the game begins.

Absolutely nothing is explained extrinsically. You're left to work out for yourself what to do by context. It's not difficult because there are only a tiny handful of things you can do. You can walk around and look at things - and by "look at" I mean you, the player, can stare at the image on your monitor. Your character, a writer named Elvin, who analogs Dick himself, can't perform any of the typical adventure game tricks - no examining things, no picking things up, no interaction of any kind.

Except when you see something glitch. This, I think, is where the game really earns its right to invoke the name-recognition of PKD. All the gameplay I've seen so far consists entirely of noticing something that's not right and looking closely at it. That's something that drives the narrative in many of Dick's novels and here it's replicated beautifully.

Reality is not what it seems. As you pan the camera maybe something will flicker and catch your eye. Perhaps you'll notice objects juddering or changing place. There might be a glow where no obvious light source exists.

When you spot one of these you'll notice an icon. Left-click on it and hold and reality will change, overwriting the late-summer light of Summer of Love era California with a colder, bluer, altogether more 1950s aesthetic.

I wandered about, looking for glitches, opening holes in reality, listening to the rather good soundtrack. Once the phone rang and I listened to a message from Elvin's publisher. He didn't seem very pleased with his work. Then the television sputtered into life and started talking to me. When the static cleared all it showed were roman numerals. They turned out to be a countdown of the glitches I needed to find before I could move on to the next stage.

Eventually I found all the tears in reality and pulled them open. That in turn unlocked the door to my apartment. I moved outside to do the same in the street, the yard, my publisher's office, the local diner...

And that's all there is to it. Oh, except for talking to people. Listening, I should say. Elvin doesn't speak. He listens. And listening is a pleasure because the voice acting is very good. Up to radio drama standard, very nearly.

Once you leave the apartment you get to meet all kinds of folk; hippies, policeman, federal agents, store owners, draft dodgers. They stand around in the form of cardboard cut-outs, something that has a particularly Dickian resonance, although I think it's just a visual trope not a representation of how your character perceives them. Although, just as in a Dick novel, you can't quite be sure...

Californium claims to take its inspiration from both the life and the work of Philip K. Dick, which is why I was interested in playing it. From what I've seen so far it fulfills that promise quite convincingly although not everyone agrees.

Perhaps the author of that piece was insufficiently "familiar with obscure biographical facts from Dick's life", as he suggests players need to be if they're to get the most out of the game. Having read more than one biography of the great man as well as most of his non-SF works, several of which are semi-autobiographical, I thought it made a pretty fair fist of getting the existential nuances right, which is the hard part. Homicidal androids and funny talking doors, well, any game can manage those.

As for the plot, it's too early to say. There seems to be one. In the hippie reality Elvin has writer's block and his wife has walked out; in fifties fascist world he's a respected Patriot Writer but his wife, the same wife, now estranged, has just been arrested for terrorism. There's a third reality starting to open up. I don't know what that's going to be. But I'm curious to find out.

Clearly I'm enjoying myself so far but Californium does have its problems, the biggest one being an inability to save your progress when you'd like. You have to complete each level (the game actually calls them "levels") to have your gamestate retained at that point. If you quit before then, when you next log in you'll have to begin again from the start of the last level you didn't finish.

That's hardly conducive to natural play, particularly since it's far from clear when a "level" has ended. The television sets scattered around the locations keep a tally of how many glitches you've uncovered but sometimes there's more than one TV on the go.

Spotting the glitches can be quite challenging, too. They vary a fair bit in how they appear. The ones I find most convincing reveal themselves by some movement or lighting effect but others only show themselves momentarily as you pan the camera, emulating the sensation of catching sight of something out of the corner of your eye. They can be hard to spot. 

Then there are those that only appear when you mouse over them. Some only appear when you mouse over them while Elvin is moving. Some are concealed behind behind furniture, which glitches to reveal them, then covers them again. It's immersive when it works but frustrating when you've been wandering around for ten minutes without spotting anything.

That's adventure games all over, though. Which is why I always resort to a walkthrough in time of need. I'm playing to enjoy myself not to raise my blood pressure. 

I made it about two hours in before I got completely stuck. Fortunately there is a full walkthrough on Steam. It's in video form but given the nature of the game that makes sense. It means you could also watch it like a movie if you wanted. 

I might end up doing that but I think it's more likely I'll play all the way through. The way the layers of reality peel back is intriguing. I'd like to find out what's at the core. And I want to know who the sarcastic guy is who keeps talking down to me through the TV. And punch him in the throat.
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