Sunday, 19 November 2017

Playing In The Big Leagues : DCUO

If you run around in just about any MMO without a guild tag up you can expect to get unsolicited invites. Sometimes it's a whisper asking if you're looking for a guild. Sometimes it's a drive-by pop-up.

Occasionally you run into that annoying recruiter who hears "I'm not looking for a guild right now" as a challenge to his recruiting skills but usually all you have to do is make the right polite demurral or simply not respond at all and you're on your way. Which is what I always do.

Except last night, playing DCUO, I didn't. I was in a Metropolis Police Station shopping for clothes (as you do), when a League Invite window popped. Leagues, naturally, being how guilds are known in the game.

And I accepted it. I don't know why. I liked the name - DC Bombshells - and I also liked the name of the person who'd sent the invite, both of which are always positive indicators, but mostly I was just in a mellow, "it's a grouping kind of game" frame of mind.

I said "thanks" and no-one replied so I guessed it was going to be one of those "we recruit the entire server" kind of organizations. Which is fine. Being in one of those is like still playing solo only now you have a tag so you're more anonymous than ever.

With that ice broken I was in for more socializing. Since returning to the game I'd taken a minimal amount of trouble to read my skills, check my loadouts, spend my Trait Points and grab a couple of upgrades so I was about as ready as I was going to be.

The next step of the Episode story arc was a four-person instance. I queued it and it popped in a matter of seconds. The Episode instances so far have been role agnostic so queuing as DPS isn't the drag anchor you'd expect.

The instance went very well. In keeping with modern practice no-one spoke as we followed the quest tracker instructions, which could largely have been condensed to "Kill everything and go through the next door that opens".

As battle progressed it occurred to me that, as DCUO has one of those rare, welcome, native screenshot functions that auto-hides the UI, I might be able to get some decent combat shots. Getting screen grabs of fights involving your character that don't look like an explosion in a firework factory is hard enough but doing it without dying can be next to impossible so I was surprised and delighted with the results.

When I came to look them over, it wasn't just that I had a few nice pictures for the blog: I could actually see - for the first time ever - what my character does in a fight. I had no idea that when she uses her "Whirlwind" attack she flies around her enemies at ankle level, parallel to the floor, for example.

I'll be taking a lot more in-combat shots because they look great. I wouldn't go quite that far in describing what my character looks like but she certainly looks a lot better than she did in yesterday's illustrations. It was looking at the unseemly outfit she was embarrassing herself with in yesterday's post that made me open the Style tab and rethink.

DCUO may not match the legendary superhero fashion show that was City of Heroes but the Style system is a robust entry in the MMO appearance stakes. I don't have a whole lot of Styles earned and learned yet but I was able to put together something I'm a lot happier to be seen rescuing citizens in.

The instance proceeded efficiently and without drama until someone spoke up to question one member of the party who seemed to be in the wrong place doing nothing very much. There was no reply but a couple of minutes later I noticed the slacker had dropped from the group and been replaced by a new person. No "Vote to Kick" window popped so I guess he left of his own accord.

That was as awkward as it got. Well within my tolerance levels for pugging. We got to the final boss - Owlman - and knocked him around for a few minutes. Then we stood there like lemons while he and bad Commissioner Mayor Gordon played "pass the buck" for a while before Owlman pulled some trick from his Owlbelt (I'm guessing) and made his escape.

Fun times. The group broke up while I was reading my reviews in the window of shame that pops after an instance. I was, of course, lowest on every count - DPS, Healing, the other one. Well, I did beat the guy who left halfway through, but not his replacement. Still, no-one yelled at me and you could at least see I'd been doing something.

I went back to my Lair to go through my bags and sort out any upgrades that had dropped and I was standing around doing that when I heard voices. DCUO is a game with a lot of voiceover work so I just assumed it was Superman or someone nagging me to do more pro bono but gradually it dawned on me that DBG probably wouldn't pay voice actors to chat at length about their builds in some kind of simulated in-game version of a podcast.

I'd completely forgotten that DCUO has inbuilt VOIP. What I was hearing was a couple of people in my new League, chatting away. That was freaky. They sounded quite pleasant though so I turned the sound down a little and left them on like a radio station in the background.

That got me looking at the League tab. I don't think I've ever opened it before. I discovered that I've joined a League that only accepts female characters. Googling the League's name makes it clear why that is. Once upon a time I'd have known that without having to look it up but my obsessively detailed knowledge of the DC Universe stops dead in its tracks around 1989.

I don't know what counts as big in DCUO terms but DC Bombshells has over 400 members and there were twenty or twenty-five on the whole time I was playing. It looks as though I've joined an active organization at least.

Whether that's going to encourage me to log in more often or make me find something altogether different to do remains to be seen. Joining guilds has had both effects on me in the past. Whatever, it makes a change.

I'm not a fan of "getting out of your comfort zone" in principle. I've always held comfort to be aspirational not problematic. I do need reminding sometimes, though, that a comfort zone can stretch a fair old way and still stay pretty comfy.

I think I might be able to push this one a little further yet.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Old Dog, New Trick : DCUO

If there's one MMO I've played longer than any other yet never given the attention it deserves it could be... well, it could be quite a few of them, now I come to think about it, but the one I had in mind was DCUO.

I've been playing on and off - mostly "off" - since beta. I always enjoy myself a lot and yet I don't play very often. There are several reasons but the main one has to be that the game - as a game - is far too difficult.

Difficult in a couple of significant ways: first, it has an extremely intense and demanding endgame. Not that I've ever come within hailing distance of it. I wouldn't even know one existed had it not been for Tipa's long series of increasingly despairing posts detailing her failing attempts to keep up with her partners in Team Spode as they scaled the game's attritional progression, a "curve" that often looked more like a cliff face.

Someone's overcompensating.

If the prospect of a never-ending gear and stat ladder wasn't enough to put me off - and it was - there's also the simple matter of player skill: I don't have any. Not, at least, when it comes to ARPG mechanics. I don't play my keyboard like a concert pianist, I fail at reading tells even when they're telegraphed with gestures that would put a mime to shame (if such a thing is possible), and I get hand-cramps and shoulder pains from too much fast mouse-clicking.

Add to that the kind of relentless forced grouping that makes FFXIV's look like an introvert's daydream and it becomes apparent that DCUO was never going to be my ideal MMO. And yet, as I said, I have always enjoyed it anyway.

Mostly I enjoyed leveling up. The first 30 levels  - theoretically the only 30 levels since level cap is 30 - may be not much more than a very extended tutorial these days but they're good levels. DCUO always had a fun leveling game - it just didn't last long enough.

I never imagined Smallville so...industrialized.

I've mostly entertained myself in short bursts over the years by making new characters and leveling them towards that low cap. I began on a PvP server at launch and did it the hard way. Then I kicked back for a while on a PvE server.

Eventually SOE came up with an elegant mechanic that let Heroes and Villains all play together without having to fight unless they chose to do so (a mechanic which it looks as though Blizzard is about to emulate almost to the letter when it removes dedicated PvP servers from WoW). Around then I moved to a different account and started over yet again.

That's the character I usually turn to on the odd occasions when I remember to log in although I also have a Level 30 character that I've never played, courtesy of one of DBG's frequent free boost handouts. Once I do get the urge the problem isn't who to play, it's what to do. Yesterday I discovered to my amazement that DBG are not only aware of that problem but that, as with the PvP dilemma, they seem to have solved it.

I'd heard there was a new Chapter or Scenario or whatever they call them, this one featuring the Crime Syndicate of Earth 3 (don't bother trying to keep DC's Earth's straight - no-one can). I had a little time free so I thought I'd take a look.

I know very little about how these Episodes (that's the name!) work. Every time I've tried to get involved in one until now I've failed to work out how to join in before my energy and enthusiasm ran out. This time, though, I had read that there was an Open World element to the update and if there's one thing that motivates me beyond all else it's the chance to explore a new map.

When I logged in I found myself inside my Lair. Lairs are DCUO's version of housing and a rather good version at that. It was particularly handy finding myself at home because the game was telling me I had a batch of posters waiting for me in my Claim window.

I don't think any of those effects is from anything I'm doing.
As I was claiming them a mysterious voice began to harangue me. Something about collecting things. Then Superman chimed in to order me to Smallville, where a spaceship had crash-landed (I know! What are the chances?).

I was too busy to pay full attention because I was putting my posters up but once I was happy with the decor I saw from the UI that I was supposed to join a Duo and go to Smallville. This is how DCUO rolls. You aren't really supposed to do anything alone. You can go by twos, fours or eights but solo is no go.

Except surely not in "Open World"? Isn't that kind of what the term means? Which is how I ended up running aimlessly around The Watchtower for the umpteenth time, trying to find the Teleporter to Earth 3 Gotham, the new zone that comes with the Episode.

I have issues with The Watchtower, The Justice League's orbital base. I can never find anything there, ever. This time I only wasted a few minutes before I gave up and went to Google. And that's where I found this lengthy dev blog explaining some radical new thinking:

"We have enormous diversity in our player base - players of all types with all sorts of expectations - and in Episode 30, we wanted to have more freedom to design content specifically for more of these different kinds of players.

What does that mean? Earth 3 will have three different types or versions of content. You're used to seeing two versions - normal and elite. Additionally, this episode will also have an easier, stat-clamped version of all instances. The stat-clamped versions - essentially a Starro-sized major event - will launch alongside and in addition to the full episode, for all players over level 10, and will remain until Episode 31 launches next year....

The stat-clamped content is highly accessible (and of course open to players of any level), so it is a light, easy-going experience. The regular end-game version is more challenging, but still accessible to the majority of players...
We expect the player (or alt) who is not yet at end-game to enjoy the easy event content, the end-game player to enjoy the accessible end-game content as usual, and the elite player to rise to the challenge of the elite raids to get that improved elite gear, all while the increasing currency rewards and extended vendor discounts keep everything within reach. "

Wait? What! Everyone can play?! You don't need to be a Member - you don't even need to be at the baby "cap" of 30 let alone be an actual end-gamer? What is this? Communist Russia?

Seriously, how good an idea is this? A limited-time free-for-all after which the trainer-wheels version goes away, but gets replaced by new, equally accessible content. And, before the Welfare Epics contingent have a coronary, there are a whole set of different, playstyle-appropriate rewards too.

I'd quote all the good stuff but there's too much good stuff to fit. I just hope ANet are taking notes.

The devil is always in the detail but a quick scan of the forums suggests this is a popular move. It certainly motivates me to log in more frequently, not least because there are plenty of housing items in the mix and I'm becoming increasingly attached to my Lair.

My "partner" hovers impatiently at the zone-out while I listen to Supes and Lex yakking it up

I was so motivated I even queued up for and completed the Duo instance in Smallville. It went as well as could be expected considering I have quite literally no idea what any of my abilities do, don't have clue one as to how to play my character and am wearing gear I haven't upgraded for about ten levels.

Actually, it went better than that because my silent partner didn't yell at me even when I died for the third time. We eventually made it to the Gotham of Earth 3, where we promptly split up to do our own thing, which in my case was to skim up to the top of a skyscraper and start taking screenshots.

All of which bodes well for my continuing future in DCUO. It was always a good MMO but I do believe it just got significantly better.

Friday, 17 November 2017

What Time Do You Make it, Bero?

This is the clock Mrs Bhagpuss made me for my birthday.

On the left, in blue, is my Asura Elementalist. On the right, in pink, is Mrs Bhagpuss's Asura Elementalist. Fero and Bero for short (as if Asuras could be anything else).

The shape of the clock denotes their home city, Rata Sum, which is all angles. What the keys represent I'm not exactly sure...

There are also tiny lights that look like the stars around Rata Sum as it floats in space only lights are phenomenally difficult to photograph if you only have a digital camcorder that you don't really know how to use to take stills.

I hung the clock quite high on the wall directly behind my monitor where I can look up and see it. It looks fantastic. I tried to take a picture of it in situ but the result was... less than fantastic. I think I need a better camera. Or to learn how to use this one.

Anyway, terrible photos notwithstanding, it's an amazing present. All those hours at the crafting tables in Lion's Arch really paid off!

Thursday, 16 November 2017

Remake, Remodel : Otherland

Was anyone waiting for another post about Otherland? Or expecting one? Safe bet no-one even wanted one. I know I didn't. All the same - incoming!

Last time I wrote about the ill-fated MMO based on Tad Williams' aging Science Fiction trilogy I thought it was Game Over - very nearly literally. By then Otherland had faltered and restarted several times already, lurching back to life each time like the serial killer in a straight-to-video slasher movie. It couldn't go on and even if it could, I couldn't.

When I said goodbye to my one and only character just over a year ago I left him stranded in Lambda Mall without a quest to his name. The main scenario had bugged out on me and I'd lost patience with the whole thing. The game was a laggy, bug-ridden shell that showed every sign of having been abandoned by its current owners.

Hey, barkeep!

It seemed inevitable the only news we'd hear after that would be when the thing finally went dark for good and that would be a mercy. My last words on the subject were: "Never say never. If I hear that anything's really changed - for the better - I'll always be open to taking another look but for now I think I'm done. On to the next world."

Well, I thought they were my last words. Guess what? Something did change and I heard about it.  I tried to ignore it but there the game was, still in my Steam Library (that's all of four games so hard not to notice one). What's more, not only was the game still up and running but it was getting patched. Regularly. Bugs were being stomped. Scraps of news filtered out. Some even suggested the game was improving.

I had a free afternoon. I was on Steam. My mouse pointer hovered. My finger clicked.

Gimme yer fastball. I'll knock the skin off it!

There was a 5GB patch but Steam is fast. In ten minutes I was looking at character select. It was blank. I logged out again.

If there's an MMO I've restarted from scratch more often than Otherland I don't want to remember what it might be. I played through the original tutorial at least twice, then a couple of times more through the revamped one. It was never a lot of fun and doing it over didn't make it any more so.

Still. Curiosity. I went to the forums and began flipping back through the update notes. There were a lot of them. Working my way back to the megapatch that landed in August, right after the game changed hands yet again, I read this:

Patch 5.6.49 introduces many changes to the current state of the game. Both the gameplay and class experience has been redesigned to provide a much more enjoyable experience.

Due to the number of changes implemented we had to remove all player characters.

Okay, so that's where my character went. What the heck, one more try for the gipper...

I have some cream that'll clear it right up.

Character creation seems to be one of the "many changes". I don't remember it being this detailed before and certainly not this slick. A better first impression, for sure.

The tutorial/introduction seems to be mostly the same as last time. It's changed a few times since I first played and the current iteration is linear but none the worse for that. It zips along nicely, explaining what it needs to explain.

There are now pop-up "Hints" that I think must be new but the thing that's really changed is that there aren't any bugs. Well, other than the ones in Bug World but they're meant to be there.

I made it all the way from character creation to Lambda Mall, the game's hub zone, without encountering a single bug, major or minor. That was a first. A welcome first.

Paging Captain Obvious.

There was also barely a sign of lag, another big improvement. That said, there is a stickied post on the forum advising players on how to deal with lag so maybe I was just lucky.

Lambda Mall still looks great - just how a cybermall should look. Unlike last time I had no trouble at all continuing my quest. I got my uSpace apartment (amazing view) and did a couple more introductory tasks. This part of the tutorial has been heavily trimmed and it's all the better for it.

Then it was off to the first proper adventure zone, the starting area known as 5Isles. The mechanics for moving from zone to zone have been tidied up nicely. The portals throughout the tutorial are now very clear and easy to see, something they certainly haven't been in the past. There's a very user-friendly teleport gate in Lambda Mall with an immediately understandable drop-down menu. Much better all round.

My uSpace. I think Luc Besson used to live here.

The quests in the village where you first arrive didn't seem to have changed but everything seemed faster. Much faster. Combat has been tweaked to be a great deal less tedious. Otherland's combat isn't going to be winning any prizes for originality when it comes to mechanics but at least now it feels quick and crunchy.

Knocking down eight of this or fifteen of that took no time at all and the process was much enlivened by the new, flashy visual effects. Clouds of digital artifacts explode around every impact in a very 1990s style that feels quite appropriate if not exactly subtle.

I got as far as the Water City which, I seem to remember, is about as far as I've ever gotten in the game so far. Stopping to take stock I realized that nothing had gone wrong. Nothing at all. It's perhaps not much of a compliment to say that I didn't come across any bugs in the Tutorial or the first starter area but it's more of a compliment than I've been able to offer the game any other time I've posted about it.

And that's just auto-attack.

What the commercial future might be for an MMO based on a fairly obscure IP that's slipping further and further out of public consciousness, one that's been nigh on a decade in development without ever getting as far as an official launch date, I wouldn't like to say. I might be thinking something but I'll be polite and keep it to myself.

Be that as it may, for whatever reason - very, very much against the odds - this particular MMO is still plugging away. When you consider what's just happened to Marvel Heroes, which had both one of the entertainment industry's biggest IP's and the backing of one of it's largest companies behind it, you have to take off your hat to Poland's Drago Entertainment just for keeping on keeping on.

I'm not sure I'll be playing Otherland any more after this. There are a lot of MMOs and only so much time. On the other hand I'm definitely not saying I won't. I said that before and look where it got me.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

I Know My Way Down The Side Streets Now : GW2

I wasn't all that impressed with GW2's Living World Season Three and after Path of Fire's somewhat perfunctory narrative I'm not building my hopes up for Season Four either. The best thing I can say about the current central storyline is that at least the fighting's not as painful as it used to be.

That doesn't mean that I'm not invested in the storyline or the characters. It's a soap opera. I know it's rubbish but I still want to know what happens next.

I don't really care all that much about the ultimate fate of Tyria, but I do want to know if Jory and Kas are going to continue on their downward spiral towards some kind of abusive, dysfunctional personal hell. I want to find out whether Braham's ever going to grow up and, more than anything, I want to know whether Zoja's going to recover.

Forget Gods and Dragons. This is my GW2. I know those people. I've spent five years with them. I mourn and miss the ones who've gone. Well, some.

I miss Scarlet. When she appeared as a Memory in The Domain of the Lost it was like unexpectedly meeting an old friend. One you'd thought had died.

I miss her enough to imagine things. Enough to imagine that maybe she might not be dead after all. It's not such a stretch. As I expounded at length a while back, no-one ever really dies in Tyria. Why should Scarlet be the exception?

My fantasy didn't come from nothing. Not this time. There's something mysterious afoot.

For some while now GW2's best storytelling has been happening in the shadows, on the sidelines, left of center, off of the strip. The apologetically labelled "Side Stories" have given us more to chew on than the main course, at least if you're feasting on speculation and puzzlement. I still don't know what my Krait Oil's good for but I'm hanging on to it.

It was disappointing not to find one of the single line throwaway hints buried in the last Update Notes but it transpires that there are some stories too obscure even for that. It was by sheer chance, as I was idly flipping through the forums, that I came across this.

Naturally I dropped everything to investigate. First I went to Godlost Swamp and ran around. Didn't find anything new although I did have a number of post-ironic conversations with various god-botherers who don't seem to have updated their theology since launch day.

Tapping out in the swamp I waypointed to Lornar's Pass and flew my griffon down to Reaver's Gate. I had more luck there. The corpse was cold (and bald) but the trail was still warm.

I went through the dead priest's pockets and found a journal. Isn't there always a journal? In the interests of science and to scratch that itch I opened it.

A red lady, speaking in dreams, seeking allies...could that be...? Well, doesn't it fit the pattern? Wasn't she always about the alliances?

I knelt to Grenth's statue, which still seems able to dispense buffs even though Grenth himself has taken the last train to the coast. With some prompting from the forums I took several screenshots in which you can faintly see the shapes of New Krytan text but what it means or whether it's new I have no idea.

The forums also told me that what I wanted in Godslost I could only find when the Shadow Behemoth makes his two-hourly showing. He was near due so I ported back there and waited. And it might have been a long wait if I hadn't gone and done the pres myself - no-one else was bothering.

When he did arrive he brought with him several "Mysterious Skeletons". They weren't attackable. They just stood there, surrounded by black fuzz like fungus on a log. They are indisputably new but their inscrutability gives nothing away.

The Behemoth eventually fell. I was ready for what came next but had I not been pre-warned I doubt I'd have spotted it. A small, orange-red "Mysterious Spirit" spawned and shot off across the swamp. I gave chase, wildly snapping my camera in its general direction until it came to a halt beside another dead body.

There's a necromancer who lives in a hut nearby so I went to ask him if he knew anything. He did, a little. More necromancy. Something about a call. It didn't help much.

For now that seems to be all there is but you can feel it in the wind. Something's coming.

I just hope it's Her.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

First World Problems: MMO Edition


Seriously, guys! Don't you ever talk to each other?

What's The Point? EQ2, GW2, WoW

I sat down at the PC this morning not sure what I was going to do. I have the week off work (yes, I do get a lot of vacation time, thank you very much) but I have no particular plans other than to enjoy myself.

The night before, I'd logged off  about two-thirds of the way towards the total number of Hero Points I need to complete Mirage, the Path of Fire elite specialization for the Mesmer. Contrary to my previously expressed doubts I'm finding PoF somewhat more sticky than expected. Partly this is because, after a full month's break, by far the longest she's ever taken from the game, Mrs Bhagpuss is playing again and we've been duoing on and off in the new maps.

I think it was Aywren who mentioned somewhere (I'd link it if I could find it) that the PoF open world content is a lot easier to handle in a duo or a group. I'm not at all convinced of that. It seems to be just as relentless with two - and "relentless" is definitely the word I most associate with this expansion.  I firmly believe PoF to be the most "hardcore" open world content ANet has released since the original Southsun - far more "hardcore" than anything I experienced in Heart of Thorns.

At one point in Desert Highlands, up around the plateau where the giants roam, we had the most intense fifteen-minute running battle I can ever remember outside of an instance in GW2. It all kicked off when Mrs Bhagpuss spotted a necklace near a nest of skelks and made a beeline to grab it.

Skelks were thick along the ramp up to their nests and much thicker still at the top. There were many veterans and the respawn rate was ferocious. Skelks have the annoying ability to stealth and teleport so it was impossible to tell which were respawns and which were just the ones already in play, flicking in and out of existence.

Tyrian Giants are proper big.

Added to that we had aggroed a Giant on the way up and he was hurling boulders at us. I'm sure there were other kinds of creatures mixed in as well but it was so hectic it was hard to tell. It also didn't stop or even slow down.

After a quarter of an hour of non-stop combat I called a retreat and we withdrew. At no point did it ever look as though we were going to get ahead of the game. We could still be there fighting skelks now.

This, I find, is entirely typical of the whole expansion. Bringing more people just seems to increase the number of mobs. Not that there aren't plenty to begin with. I soloed a Hero Point in Crystal Oasis last night, the one where you fight a Djinn of the Air. When I started it was just him and me. When I finished it was him (dead) me (2% health) a Veteran Hydra, a Veteran Sand Shark and a pack of hyenas. Probably some sand eels in there too - there usually are.

The big difference between fights like that in PoF and similar all-pile-ons in HoT is that you do feel you can win in the desert. I did win. It was flippin' hard going, there was a lot of dodging, I stealthed and reset a couple of times and once I kited the Djinn so far he leashed, but I always felt I could do it.

What people mostly didn't like about Heart of Thorns Hero Points was that some of them were intended not to be soloable. Putting a Champion instead of Veteran at a Hero Point will tend to give that impression.

That dam' HP's gotta be around here somewhere...

The PoF Hero Points are all soloable by intent but you still hear people asking for help with them in map chat because they're bloody hard. Whether you prefer the on-demand, manic chaos of PoF to the much more straightforward but by appointment only predictability of HoT seems to me to be largely a matter of taste. I'm fine with either.

The upshot of all that is that I very well might have sat down this morning ready to carry on where I left off. Only I didn't. First, I ummed and aahed over whether to re-sub to WoW. Had I read Stroeb's post on his belated Legion experience first, I almost certainly would have subbed up right away.

As it was, I didn't read that until after I'd finished adding a level to my Shadowknight on EQ2's Fallen Gate progression server. I ended up there because, while I was trying to make up my mind, I went to check if any new pre-expansion content had been patched into EQ2. It hadn't but I saw it was a double XP week for Prog servers.

So I logged in and did that. It's all so...random. I'm not in control of my own actions! Do I need an SK on a Progression Server? Do I need to to level him up? Does it make any frickin' difference if he's Level 30 or Level 31?

Mount skins? We don't need no stinkin' mount skins!

No, but it's fun and that's pretty much all you need to know about it. Syp was wondering why he grinds levels through the Dungeon Finder in WoW when he could be out there questing and seeing the world (again). I don't know. Don't look at me! I don't know why I do any thing in these games...other than it's what I feel like doing it when I do it.

My SK woke up in Butcherblock so that's where he leveled today. It's a really great leveling zone. I've done it many times, both end to end - every quest - and piecemeal as required. With full vitality, 100% server bonus and the 10% from boost from the Clockwork Calamity illusion (which is, surprisingly, usable on all servers) it still took me nearly two hours to do the whole of level 30.

It felt just about right. I'd hate to do it with no vitality and baseline xp though.

I hadn't seen a single other player in Butcherblock all morning. Out of curiosity I typed /who to see if I was alone in the zone. I was. Not unusual in a lower-level zone during the middle of the night by American clocks.

Both EQ games have a handy function few other MMOs offer: you can type /who and it will tell you the name of every character in the zone you happen to be in right now. Or you can type /who all and it will tell you the name of every character currently logged onto the server.

Claws off, birdie! That's my egg.

I guessed everyone must be wherever the level cap has gone. I've lost track of which expansions are active on Stormhold right now. I typed /who all, expecting the usual truncated list of 100 names, which is where the function caps, making it useless for guesstimating the current popularity of the game or your server.

Well, usually it's useless for that. Not so much when the result that's returned is four names. There were four people online on Stormhold.

I'd like to say it was at that point that I remembered the server is due to be closed and all remaining characters transferred to Ant. Bayle. I really should have twigged it when I logged in and the game gave me a free transfer token. I think I even mentioned it in a post a while back...

Embarrassing to admit but I only remembered it when I was halfway through writing this.

All of which makes the two hours I just spent even more completely pointless than I already thought. Except that I really enjoyed myself and I'd happily do it again. Maybe I'll go for Level 32 later today.

That's why, once again, I don't think Gevlon has it exactly right. Or, this time, Syp, whom he cites, either. Sometimes the sheer fun of doing something is all it takes to make something worth doing. When it comes to entertainment, maybe always.

Monday, 13 November 2017

Tumbling Dice : GW2

If we're going to define gambling as "doing something the exact outcome of which is not entirely a foregone conclusion" (and regrettably it seems the consensus is that we are) then gambling in GW2 is very much not restricted to Gem Store purchases. It is, indeed, embedded in the game to such an overwhelming extent that it's somewhat surprising anyone plays at all, given the apparent propensity of gamers to quit at the first suggestion that there may be some element of chance involved in the enterprise.

Consider, for example, the Mystic Forge, an elaborate construction whose outlets in Lions Arch, The Mists and any number of pay-to-enter velvet-rope enclosures form a conduit to some netherworld dungeon, in which the Djinn Zomorros languishes, incarcerated for an indeterminate period by persons unknown for unspecified crimes. Here adventurers come in their thousands and tens of thousands to deposit rare or exotic weapons by their millions in the hope that Zomorros will turn them into pre-cursors.

Mostly he doesn't but people keep trying. The lure of a Legendary leads many to try their luck at the Mystic Toilet, so named because it's like throwing your money down one.

Then there are the Skritt with their enterprising, entrepreneurial, ectoplasm exchange. This feels a lot more like actual gambling. People call it playing the Ecto Slot Machine. In fact, you always get something back, even if it's often less than you put in, so it's really just buying a pig in a poke from a rat in a coat.

Open the box!

The original Skritt gold sink (for that is its true function) arrived unannounced along with the revamped Lions Arch. It was, indeed, so very far being announced that most players probably still don't know it's there and half of those who do can't find it. For reference, it's here and there's another one, which you're even less likely to stumble upon by accident, in Skrittsburgh.

As a company ANet is famous, among other things, for iteration; a design ethos whereby you do the same thing over and over and over again until either it works or you stop noticing that it doesn't, whichever seems most expedient. They have also talked about five and even ten year development arcs.

Who knows what their long-term plans might be? Is it unreasonable to suspect that the entire game was devised as a half-decade long softening-up process aimed at rendering lockbox sales palatable? Probably, although I do tend towards the maxim "if you can think of it someone, somewhere is doing it".

Tinfoil hattery aside, by the time Path of Fire arrived, ArenaNet clearly felt they no longer needed to hide behind Skritt collaborators in caves. This time they brought the whole operation out into the open, with a full-scale Casino in the main expansion city, Amnoon.

The ecto lottery became a fully-fledged card game for hugely inflated stakes.  Disappointingly, not really. The "fully-fledged card game" part, that is. The "hugely inflated stakes" is true.

You're getting colder...

I was hoping for something like FFXIV's Triple Triad, where you play a hand of cards against an NPC. What we got was just another merchant selling lootboxes.

These are just a few examples of the cradle-to-grave integration of "gambling" in GW2. There are many, many more and yesterday I happened, completely by chance (ironically) upon another.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I spent much of Sunday doing Map Completion in Desert Highlands. It took a very long time because as I have mentioned before, and as I am finding to be truer and truer the deeper into the expansion I delve, Path of Fire is hardcore.

Well, hardcore by GW2 standards. Certainly the most hardcore open world content since the original Southsun. Heart of Thorns is decidedly casual-friendly by contrast. Anyway, that's really a post for another day.

The point is that I spent so very long trying to fill out PoIs that were next-to-impossible to find that I ended up discovering a slew of hidden rooms, corridors and caves that weren't marked on the map. Some of those had interesting things inside and some didn't. And then there was the Curious Bowl.

But who's counting?

The Curious Bowl is a small bowl sitting on the floor of a room at the end of a broken railway line half way down a forgotten crevice somewhere near the aptly-named Derelict Delve waypoint. Behind the bowl is a large statue of a kneeling demon. The bowl looks as though it might be where you place offerings.

If you inspect the bowl the game suggests you might like to drop a gold piece into it. Make an offering to an unknown demon? I should coco!

So, I dropped a gold into the bowl and next thing I knew I was inside a locked room. Facing me were two chests and two more demons. No exit. No NPCs. No mobs. No hints.

What else was there to do but select a chest at random and click on it? Aaaand...Bingo! Back in the room with the bowl. Now I'm down a gold and back where I started.

So naturally I did it again. With the same result. At which point I decided to google it. I'm not made of gold. Also, who knows what flags I might be setting?

It transpires this is the start of a nested "The Lady or The Tiger" trick only without the lady or the tiger. Instead, each successful choice puts a reward in your bags and flips you to the next room to try again.

Back to the day job.
There are four rooms. The rewards improve each time. Or, rather, the number of rewards reduces, leaving fewer, better items and therefore an enhanced chance of getting something good, although the wiki entry interprets this as "diminished returns".

In point of fact, other than an Achievement, there doesn't seem to be any rational reason to continue. There are no good rewards with the sole exception of a slim shot at a 24-slot bag in the final chest. Everything else is either very common indeed or can be bought from the Trading Post for much the same price as a single attempt.

It took me five tries to get a single chest to open at which point I called it quits while I was behind. I did have fun, though. Five gold well spent. Would play again - if it wasn't so much trouble getting there.

Let's face it, I am not a natural gambler. I was an unpopular presence at the table at college poker games because I would reliably stand up after a couple of hours with almost exactly the same in my pockets as I'd had when I sat down, a feat achieved by barely engaging with the process at all, other than the drinking and smoking parts.

I think it annoyed people even more that I really seemed to be enjoying myself. And I was. I like games of chance a lot so long as they don't involve any actual risk. The moment I feel anything that even hints at an adrenaline rush I stop.

It's just as well. I doubt I could play GW2 otherwise. After all, looked at from a certain angle, it's nothing more than a random number generator with a rococo front end.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Lockbox Apocalypse : GW2

A few days back, when I posted about the addition of new mount skins to GW2's Gem Store cash shop it was mostly with the intention of examining the emotional disconnect I was experiencing between the concepts of "Mounts" and "Mount Skins". In retrospect this seems somewhat like pointing out an unusual species of squirrel leaping from the branches just before a falling oak tree crushes you to death.

As it happens, at the time I wrote the post, I was blissfully, not to say naively, unaware that the topic was even a matter of particular controversy. It was only after Jeromai drew my attention in the comments to the fire raging on the forums that I became belatedly aware of the crowd brandishing pitchforks and flaming torches.

The "Official Mount Adoption Feedback Thread" started by GW2 Communications Manager Gaile Gray has now dropped to page two of the forums, albeit not before it grew to more than seventy pages containing nearly three thousand comments. It would probably still be top of page one and growing if it hadn't been for an intervention by ANet CEO Mike O'Brien, who stepped up personally on Friday to try to get things back under some sort of control.

Blue is the color.

Unfortunately, far from dampening down the fire, his peculiar "Message About The Mount Adoption Certificate" merely served to pour gasoline on the flames. The full text is too lengthy to reproduce here but the gist appears to be "Thanks for complaining. We thought it was a good idea but maybe it wasn't. We aren't going to change anything but next time we'll try to finesse things so it doesn't look quite so much like an obvious cash grab". Or, in his exact words:

"Microtransactions can be polarizing, and we’ve received both positive and negative feedback on the license. We won’t change the existing license in a way that would invalidate the investment players have made, but I want to confirm to you that our next planned mount skin releases will focus on individual sales like the Reforged Warhound and bundles like the Spooky Mounts Pack. We will not add any skins to the currently available Adoption License, thus not pushing down the odds of acquiring any one skin in that set.
We appreciate the thoughtful feedback many of you have provided, and that you hold us to high standards for monetization."

Unsurprisingly, this has satisfied almost no-one. The new thread resulting from Mike's non-apology can't quite match the size of the previous one but it's still near the top of page one and growing, with less than half as many posts so far but even more page views.

A lot of the conversation isn't particularly edifying. There's a deal of the usual to-and-fro between a relatively small number of ultra-committed opponents or proponents that these threads always see. Filtering out the trolls and professional complainers, however, it seems clear that, at the very least, ANet risks losing a deal of good will over this.

Or so you would think from reading the forums. Looking for some further context I went to Reddit. Couldn't really find anything apart from a thread about Wooden Potatoes destroying a Mount Adoption Certificate in his stream. Some good jokes in that thread but not much salt other than a few people calling the OP out for disrespecting Wooden Potatoes.

Starbound top and center.

So much for anecdotal evidence and reportage. How about a witness statement?

Last night, for no better reason than someone called it in map chat, I decided to go do Triple Trouble. I've been two achievements short of a meta there for months but I'd stopped bothering the Wurm after the last several "organized" attempts turned out to be a complete shambles.

This time was much, much better. Organized by QUTE, everything went very smoothly. All three heads came off and died. I went with Crimson, having first remembered to join the escort party (thanks to a sanity check via Dulfy, despite having been told by two people, in answer to my question in-game, that I didn't need to). I got the Phytotoxin Enthusiast achievement I was missing and the kill on the Crimson head. All I need now is a single kill on Amber and I'm done.

Before all that, however, there was half an hour of standing around the campfire at Firthside Vigil waiting for a critical mass of players to be taxied in, squads to be formed and so on. While we waited we were entertained by aerial displays from a squadron of multi-colored griffins including the undeniably impressive if utterly bizarre Starbound,.

I wasn't expecting it to be quite this big.

Also present was a green bunny skinned as a frog and the only mount skin I really like, the Twin Sands jackal. In short, there were a lot of people riding mounts skinned up from the recent and supposedly unacceptable loot box sale.

What's more, they all seemed to be very pleased with their purchases, to the point of wanting to show them off at every opportunity. With a full map and a lot of newer players (judging by the questions being asked) I didn't hear a single negative comment about mounts or skins from anyone.

That was also my experience in Lion's Arch, the traditional home for GW2's never-ending fashion parade. A lot of chatter about the new mount skins and all of it excited and positive. While the forum threads may be filled with vitriolic complaints and threats to quit, the response in game and on Reddit seems to be quite the opposite.

At the very least, the visual evidence within the game seems to be that these things are really selling. What's more, I would note that at time of writing I have yet to see even one player mounted on a 2000 Gem Reforged Warhound, the only mount skin available as a single, direct purchase.

It adds a whole other dimension, doesn't it?

Maybe that's because the Jackal is the least popular and least useful of all the mounts and no-one rides them anyway. Or maybe it's because 2000 Gems is significantly above what the market will bear for a single mount skin right now. I imagine it's a little of each. 

Either way, it certainly seems people are keener to pay 400 gems for a random skin than 2000 for this specific model. I know I would be.

I'm relatively neutral on the whole lockbox issue: I agree one hundred per cent that there are some serious concerns that need to be addressed over the accessibility of quasi-gambling activities to vulnerable individuals and minors but other than that I don't have any particular problem with items being available either only for real money or via a form of randomization or, indeed, both those things together.

Unless and until regulation applies I think we can safely say that developers will continue to make their decisions on how far to go with this approach based on how much money it brings in. If lockbox sales are outweighed by lost revenue from people leaving the game to avoid them then we'll see fewer lockboxes. If not, then we can expect such sales to continue apace.

Polly want a cracker!

When it comes to these particular lockboxes, I have more of a problem with what's in them than how they're sold. The addition of mounts to the game had an immediate and, to my mind, unflattering effect on the visual landscape. If we're to expect a steady stream of garish and bizarre mount skins - and we are, since that's clearly what sells - it doesn't bode well for what little immersion we have left.

Oh, well. It's no more than  bringing the look of Tyria in line with the looks of Azeroth and Norrath. I guess if I really wanted visual consistency I'd go play LotRO.

As for the commercial future of GW2, it would appear from the first financials since Path of Fire that Gem Shop sales will have to take up most of the heavy lifting over the next year or two. Expect ever flashier skins and even sneakier sales strategies.

I think I'll put my gold in tar and feather futures.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Musings On Returning To WoW

The Blizzcon buzz had its intended effect on me. All the talk of Classic servers, a new expansion, fresh adventures in worlds old, new, both and neither, led me to patch up and log in to World of Warcraft for the first time in maybe a year.

In fact, I can't remember when I last played. I know I asked for and was given Legion for my birthday a year ago but all I did with it was register the purchase against my account.

I clearly remember playing for a couple of months during the exciting Legion pre-release Invasion event, at which point I presumably must have re-subscribed because I had access to my higher level characters when I was doing it. After that I seem to remember doing something in Warlords of Draenor and rapidly losing the will to live log in. After that, nothing.

Looking at character select it seems my Dwarf Hunter, who topped out in the low 70s back when I played WoW the first time, is now Level 95. I can only assume that happened during the invasions unless I used some kind of boost on him but I don't believe I've ever acquired a level boost for WoW.

I could fact-check all this by flipping through my back pages of course. No doubt I posted about most of it. It's telling, though, that I can't remember. I like WoW but it doesn't make that much of a lasting impression on me.

There are two reasons for that. Two that I can think of, anyway. One is the Lore and the other the graphics.

In the Oxford Visual Dictionary this is the entry for "Depressing"

WoW lore is opaque to me at best. Mostly it doesn't even manage obscurity. It's simply invisible. I didn't grow up with franchise. I didn't play Warcraft. Until WoW appeared in 2004 I had never even heard of Blizzard and even after the WoW juggernaut began to roll it was years before I'd have been able to name another Blizzard title.

When I did start playing none of the overarching story meant anything to me whatsoever. Plot twists and revelations must have soared over my head, not that I noticed. I did the Death Knight introduction for example, which people seem to rate very highly in terms of both lore and story, and all I remember about it was how long, tedious and claustrophobic it was.

Consequently, the only level on which the narrative connects with me is the local. I can empathize with the problems of farmers being menaced by scarecrows. I can immerse myself in the investigation of a murder or the search for a missing child but the machinations of racial leaders, tyrants, demon-kings and dragons might as well be so much static.

That's the problem with the writing but there's an even greater issue with the illustration. I'm not someone who has to have state-of-the-art graphics and I like WoW's semi-cartoon stylization - in theory.

In practice, though, as I've mentioned before, the textures are problematic. Worse, the palette has a tendency towards the morose that can be - and often is - depressing. I think my memory chooses to protect me against remembering much about all that. I guess it must do or else I'd probably never come back.

I think I saw this scene on black velvet at a craft fair once...

I think it's not insignificant that, in my first and only lengthy, successfully enjoyable run in WoW, I began in Ironforge and spent my formative first days in the snowfields. Partly it's that snowy zones are by some margin my favorite terrain, climate and geography in MMOs but more than that it's that pure blue-white snow doesn't suffer so badly from either the textural or tonal difficulties I find in almost all of Azeroth's other landscapes.

When I do take another pass at playing, Blizzard's famous polish never seems to extend to the patching process. Every time I come back after a break it's a struggle to get the game to run, even though I'm using the same installation on the same machine.

This time I had to uninstall and reinstall the Batlenet app and do a few more tweaks before the game would update. Once the patcher started to co-operate there turned out to be over 5GB of new files to install.

With that out of the way I logged into one of my under-20s, the Worgen Druid. It transpired I'd left off playing her exactly one quest short of the very end of her racial introduction, so as soon I'd sunk a battleship (or, more accurately, vaguely wandered about behind some NPCs who sunk a battleship for me) I was free to leave the dismal, dark, foreboding rainfields of wherever the heck it is that Worgen come from for the dismal, dark, brooding rainfields of that hideous Night Elf place I loathe.

I was not best pleased to find myself back in Teldrassil but I felt momentarily happy when the first quest I took suggested I leave: less so when I fell off a cliff and died on a tree a hundred meters below. Then ran back, revived, fell off the branch and died on another tree branch another hundred meters below. Then ran back, revived, fell off the branch and died on a third tree branch another hundred meters below the last one.

Just the footsteps in the snow feel somehow joyous.

Fourth fall I survived. Just. I made my way to the marker on the map. Aiming straight for it was what got me killed in the first place but I'm nothing if not stubborn. All of this in the dark and the rain of Azeroth's real-time night cycle, a peculiar design feature that means that historically most of my WoW playtime has taken place in poor lighting except at the weekends. Another reason I like the area around Don Morogh the best - the snow reflects what limited light there is.

The next quest marker pointed to the other side of the bay. I could see the town there from the dock where I was standing. Naturally I jumped in and began to swim only to be hit with Exhaustion half way across.

I understand the purpose of this notional barrier when it's employed to prevent players leaving the playable area or bypassing obstacles intended to be impassable but in this instance it seemed perverse. I was compelled to swim back to shore and go speak to some NPC who put me on a griffin, whereupon the griff flew me back along exactly the line I'd just swum to exactly the place I would have climbed out of the water had I been allowed to continue under my own steam.

By the time I finally spoke to the next questgiver I was so irritated that just the sight of the execrable font Blizzard insists on using, almost unreadable as it is against the equally awful mudded texture and color of the background, that I logged out to search for and reinstall the excellent Add On that replaces WoW's clunky, ugly front end with GW2's smooth and familiar UI.

It's behind you!

Come to think of it, I already had that Add On active last time I was playing so where did it go? Wherever it went I wish it hadn't because getting it back was another fiddly exercise that resulted in the Battlenet patcher demanding to re-download the exact same 5GB it had already installed not an hour earlier.

As I said, my regular experience playing WoW suggests the famous Blizzard "polish" is something that happens to other people. I've never known the game operate any more smoothly than any other MMO and less so than some.

Anyway, it's done now and I have the thing looking a lot like GW2, which is a big improvement. I'm considering whether I want to resub for a while and get some Legion done before it's quite literally last year's thing.

Legion aside, I would like to play my Gnome Hunter some more. She's still playable for free at level 20 but I daren't do anything with her lest she level up and become "Inactive". I'd be playing a Hunter in Legion, too, with my aforementioned level 95 Dwarf, although I suppose I could take the free Level 100 Demon Hunter and roll with that instead.

At the very least the colors are upbeat...

Chances are that I won't do either. I'll probably just footle around with the Worgen Druid - if I can move her to somewhere less utterly depressing - and maybe roll someone new as well. I'm not sure I can justify subbing if I can't find the time to play - but then I've been saying that for a year now.

I suspect the real drag anchor stopping me is strongly connected to the aforementioned issues with Lore and Look. Other than in the big, social events like Invasions, I mostly enjoy WoW in the low-to-mid levels. The higher up you get the more portentous the narrative becomes and, as Syp has often pointed out, in all MMOs, end-game zones tend to be ugly, so the game doubles down on the things I already most dislike about it.

Maybe I'll play my Panda. Wilhelm says the Pandaria zones are "excellent" and I trust his judgment on these things.

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

Skin In The Game : GW2

ArenaNet's revelation that mounts would be the defining feature of Path of Fire, GW2's second expansion was widely seen as a spectacular climbdown, one of an ongoing series of U-turns made by the company since launch. Indeed, I find it hard to recall another MMO I've played where statements of policy are laid down so firmly only to be rescinded so comprehensively.

Some of this fundamental restructuring appears to rest on initial misunderstandings arising out of poorly-expressed principles. Others seem to owe their existence to purely commercial considerations or, in a few disturbing cases, panic.

Mostly, ANet's representatives take considerable care in their public statements to leave themselves at least a sliver of room to wiggle. The company motto might as well be "Never say Never".

For good or ill, mounts are with us now and likely to remain so. As Blizzard discovered when they tried to impose a flight ban in Azeroth, once granted such benefits are difficult to withdraw.

The inclusion of gliders in Heart of Thorns can now be seen as a toe dipped in the water. Gliding came out of the blue. No-one asked for it. No-one expected it. Most players were agnostic about it until it arrived but it turned out to be an immediate hit with almost everybody.

Gliding also opened a fresh revenue stream. In a game in which cosmetics represent a substantial element of both the gameplay and the business model, having a new visual adornment to sell is a big deal.

I forget exactly how long it was before the first purchasable glider skins appeared in the Gem Store but I'm pretty sure that record has been roundly beaten by mount skins. The first set popped up as part of the Halloween celebrations barely three weeks after the expansion's launch.

The sheer number of mounts in fancy dress demonstrated the popularity of that enterprise and with Halloween on the way out ANet wasted no time in building on success, choosing instead to double down on it then double some more.

Yesterday's patch saw Evon Gnashblade adding a slew of skins to the stable. Thirty to be precise. They cost 400 gems per skin or you can buy all 30 for 9,600 gems. That's over a hundred dollars.

With the exception of the Reforged Warhound (pictured at the head of this post and actually a skin for the Jackal mount), which is sold separately at a cool 2000 Gems, you can't buy the precise skin you want. In much the same way that DBG has been selling EQ2 Mercenaries for years, you buy an "Adoption Certificate" that grants you a random skin. Massively, predictably, attempted to equate this with lockboxes but there's a very significant difference that largely invalidates the comparison: you cannot duplicate skins by this method. You are guaranteed a unique skin that you do not already own every time you redeem a certificate.

One of the very, very few skins that actually makes the mount look like a different animal.
Credit to Dulfy for the image - that's her riding it, too.

Dulfy has a preview of all the skins. Most of them are so dull I find it hard to believe I would even know anyone was using one. A few are a lot more obvious, usually because they're on fire or have some kind of aura effect, but the underlying problem from my perspective, other than that I don't like mounts to begin with, is that they are skins.

"Skin" seems to be a concept derived from outside of MMOs entirely (other than EVE, but repainting a spaceship has a very different philosophical import to reskinning an animal). In every MMO I've played before GW2 mounts are individual creatures or devices.

The idea that you could keep the same mount but slap a different look on it just seems weird to me although the extreme commercial benefit it represents over having to make actual new mounts is obvious. And, of course, it is exactly what other MMOs do when they add new mounts that use the old frameworks - they just don't present it so baldly, artificially and unromantically.

It's all part and parcel of the ANet approach that makes resisting the temptation to give them money so very easy for me. I actually like the random element of the Adoption Certificates. I love the idea of not knowing what I'm going to get. 400 Gems is a fair price. I can afford it and I'd pay it - if I was told I was buying a new mount.

For a skin for the mount I already have,though? Nope. Not interested. I managed just fine with the basic glider until I bought the Magic Carpet and the Broom and in both cases it was the fact that the purchase added the function of flight to an item I owned or wanted that attracted me, not the ability to add the look of the item to a function I already owned.

It's a fine difference I know but it matters to me, if not so much to the many, many people excitedly discussing the new skins in Lions Arch map chat last night. One player said it was the best $120 he'd ever spent. Another said that getting the new skins was the most excited he'd been about a present since he got a bike for Christmas when he was eight years old.

However sniffy I might be about them, I think we're going to be seeing a lot more mount skins from now on.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide