Sunday, 17 September 2017

Come Back! : GW2

Heartless Gamer resurfaced for only the third time in two years yesterday with a self-recursive post about GW2. Writing as though it had been no more than a day or two since last he blogged, Heartless confirmed he was likely to buy the upcoming Path of Fire expansion.

"Why you might wonder?" he asked, as though it was a question we'd been itching to ask him all these long, quiet months. Answering himself, he said: "I can come back to GW2 whenever I want and pick up where I left off."

Well, so you can. As Heartless observes, GW2 has no subscription. Once you have bought the box the game is yours to play as long as Anet keep a server up.

Over the years, I've heard many players of MMOs cite the cost of a subscription as a reason either to stop playing or not to start (or start again). Avoiding that internal discussion clearly gives GW2 a significant advantage, although it's perhaps one that's been eroded by the increasingly popular option of maintaining a sub using an in-game currency.

There are other barriers than the mere financial to coming back to an MMO after a long lay-off. GW2 neatly sidesteps some of those too, as Heartless summarizes: "Sure I may have to invest some time in reading up on the most recent meta builds or grind out some mastery skill, but for the most part GW2 is pick up and go-go-go for any returning player.".

This is broadly true. By eschewing any increase in the level cap, something that it has been long confirmed will be the case as long as the game survives, GW2 avoids some of the worst of the end-game gaps suffered by many MMOs.

Whereas WoW and EQ2, to name just a couple, where I have recent experience, need to run extensive and well-publicized catch-up events prior to an expansion, GW2 just needs to let former players know there's new content available. The free Level 80 boost that comes with PoF is a cherry; most returnees will already be sitting on a character perfectly capable of jumping into the latest open-world maps and doing just fine.

Even if they didn't, leveling a character to 80 is trivial in GW2 compared to just about any MMO you care to name. You can craft your way from character creation to end game in not much more than an hour if you have the mats or the money and each anniversary brings a scroll that jumps you 20, 30, 40, 50 levels, while Tomes of Knowledge that give an instant level on use drop like rain.

There are other reasons why GW2 is particularly easy to pick back up. Still, I'm not sure I agree with Heartless, when he says it "reminds me of days gone by when games were games and not just a series of money-sucking crates, DLCs, keys, etc."

If there's one thing the old-school MMOs weren't it was easy to come back to after a break. In the
days before cash shops sold level boosts and XP potions, when expansions remorselessly added another ten levels each time regardless of whether most people were done with the last lot, the only way you could come by an instant max-level character was an astonishingly expensive, ban-risking transaction on EBay.

It seems like another life but max-level characters in EverQuest really did change hands on EBay for many hundreds of dollars. Other games too. In those days anyone not pulling their weight in an end-game group might be accused of buying their character off EBay. Whether that was better than just being called "bad" and group-kicked, as would happen now, is a moot point, I guess.

In the run-up to the second expansion there's been a very noticeable influx of "resting" players. Accounts have been lighting up on my friends list that haven't glowed in months or years and every day on the battlefield reveals a flurry of names from the past.

Many of those players will be confused for a while. GW2 is an MMO. It changes, constantly. Compared to the older model, though, its innate design ameliorates the effect. Anyone who hasn't played for a while will need to re-orient themselves but they should be able to do so while stumbling through the same, unfamiliar new content as those of us who never went away.

Or so you'd think. Heart of Thorns didn't quite work out that way. Whether Path of Fire will do a better job of re-integrating the curious we will find out soon enough.

Only I won't be there to see it. I'll be in Italy, riding the rails. Could have timed that better. Luckily, I'll be able to jump straight in, when I get back, without having to worry about chasing the bubble so
there's that at least.

I'll be sorry to miss the feeding frenzy, all the same. Nothing like that Day One rush.

Monday, 11 September 2017

The Medium Was Tedium : EverQuest, EQ2

Wilhelm has a post up in which he asks what better PvE would look like in New Eden. He suggests that the most time/risk/reward efficient of the current options is so "deadly dull" that he "cannot bring [him]self to run more than one or two on any given day".

I can't speak to EVE but in my lengthy experience of fantasy MMOs I can attest that PvE players will put up with almost any degree of boredom and repetition if it means they increment a counter faster. Forget the more exciting, interesting or challenging alternatives.  Efficiency's what matters.

Oh, of course they will complain, bitterly and loudly, that there's no fun in it, no challenge. They'll say that anyone who does do it is lame.

None of that will stop them doing it themselves, even though they will threaten to quit because of it. This content they feel they have to do for reasons of optimum efficiency may be mind-numbingly tedious but it gets the job done and that's what counts.

Then, when the developers belatedly appreciate just how much damage the content they foolishly, thoughtlessly, recklessly or naively created is doing to the game, and decide to nerf it, those same players will threaten to quit again because they aren't allowed to do it any more.

I will cite two examples, one from EQ, one from EQ2:

It appears I have never "progressed" any of my Shrouds. I wonder why?
Monster Missions were added to EQ with Depths of Darkhollow. They were a headline feature of the game's tenth expansion. Players used a "shroud" to change into a creature or race not normally playable. Doing so, they acquired a very limited set of abilities, completely different from anything related to the character's class.

Once transformed they needed to go to a mission zone, often located somewhere inconvenient and awkward. There they would have to find a group and, using those few, very specific abilities and only those, complete a mission. The missions varied but players soon worked out which were the easy ones and which gave the best rewards.

Since Monster Missions offered the best xp/aaxp and also some handy item rewards, soon no-one was doing anything else. It became hard, then impossible to find a group willing to play as themselves. Some people absolutely loved it. Many did not.

Eventually SOE nerfed and then re-nerfed the most unbalanced of the missions. People stopped doing them and returned to playing their characters as they were originally designed to be played.

Too late for Mrs Bhagpuss and me. We were already so fed up with the dearth of regular groups we "quit" EverQuest and went back to EQ2 - which we'd left to come back to EQ only a few months before. Not the last time we pulled that switch, either.

Hall of Fame? Hall of Shame, more like!

EQ2's version of Monster Missions turned out to be the Player-Made "Dungeons" that were introduced with the Age of Discovery expansion in 2011. I really liked the Dungeon Maker. I made several dungeons with it, ran them with my characters for fun and enjoyed seeing other people run them.

There was a ranking system and some very amusing and entertaining dungeons were made by the highly creative EQ2 community. And then there was the other kind.

The dungeons gave no loot per se, only a special currency, but the mobs you killed inside them did give xp. Very good xp. At least, it turned out it was very good if the dungeon-maker stuffed a few rooms with high-value, weak mobs, all piled up to be AE'd.

The most efficient mob slaughterhouses quickly rose to the top of the Dungeon Creator rankings and for the longest time almost all you could hear in /lfg was people forming groups to speed-run them. They had no story, no dialog, no script, no entertainment value of any kind. They were the definition of repetitive tedium but they were efficient so people did them. Over and over and over again.

The real Depths of Darkhollow. Sad thing is, it was one of EQ's best expansions - apart from the Monster Missions.

The developers tweaked them and tried to make them less mindless but players kept doing them. In the end (and it took three years) SOE went for the nuclear option and removed xp from player-made dungeons altogether. After which, no-one ever ran one again.

I could come up with plenty more anecdotes like that from plenty more MMOs. Players are their own worst enemies when it comes to entertaining themselves. They would literally click on a button in an empty room for hour after hour if that gave the most xp or the most tokens. Complaining about it in general chat all the while.

You wouldn't. I wouldn't. They would. I know they would. I've seen them doing it. Often.

And I've seen the developers stopping them, eventually, every time, although rarely fast enough. As Wilhelm observes, people claim they want developers "to make PvE more challenging, dynamic, exciting" but what they actually choose to do for themselves is to make it predictable, consistent and rewarding.

I didn't grind Monster Missions or Dungeon Maker Dungeons but I've done other things just as dumb. I lied when I said I wouldn't. Everyone has his price.

What's yours?

Sunday, 10 September 2017

It'll Be Nice When It's Finished. If! I Meant If...: Sacrament

This morning I found myself flicking through MassivelyOP's list of MMOs in development. My attention was initially drawn by this unfortunate and unpleasant headline. It was the first thing I saw in my Feedly feed after sitting down at the PC fresh from a lively breakfast discussion chez Bhagpuss concerning the normalization of scatology in entertainment intended for the under-10s.

I can't say I've ever felt that what's been holding the MMO genre back all these years was the shocking lack of attention paid by developers and game designers to the excretory functions of player characters, but what do I know? To me it's just one more reason not to pay any attention to Star Citizen but then I was already paying about as little attention as I can spare. I'm not sure there's much more Chris Roberts can do to make the "game" any less appealing to me, although he and his team certainly do keep trying.

It's been a good while since I looked at what used to be Massively's forthcoming attractions list. Indeed, Massively was probably still called Massively when I followed it regularly. The whole trend towards buy-in Early Access, much though I found it exciting when it began and even though I still, on the whole, approve of it, had the unexpected and unintended effect of weaning me away from participating in alphas and betas of games that interest me.

Nowadays I mostly prefer to follow them at a distance. I'll Kickstart the occasional likely prospect but mostly as a kind of quasi-pre-order or with the specific intention of getting a few blog posts out of the initial flurry of interest when the game hits beta. My days of actually playing MMOs in beta (let alone alpha) as though they were already Live are, I think, over.

There could be exceptions and if there were they would almost certainly be those MMOs that seek to revive and revitalize the glory days of EverQuest. I may be a big exponent of the fun, accessibility and sheer entertainment value packed into modern MMOs but I do hanker after some of what was lost along the way.

Plucky Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen has been the standard-bearer for updated old-school for a while now. By dint of sheer persistence and some convincing evidence of actual content, finished work and solid gameplay, Brad McQuaid's small and stubborn team have shifted perceptions on this ultra-niche title from derisive disbelief through grudging admiration to cautious optimism.

Pantheon is by no means the only potential spiritual successor to EverQuest to have raised a flag these past few years but it's the only one I'm aware of that appears to have made significant progress. As I was glancing down M:OP's extraordinarily long list, clicking on the many names I had forgotten about or never even heard of, I came upon Sacrament.

It's a new one on me. It had a quite spectacular Kickstarter fail in 2016, when it managed to attract just over $3000 in pledges against a goal of $250k. The elevator pitch was absolutely to the point: "An evolution of EverQuest meets today’s game engines and systems" and I might have backed it on that alone - had I ever heard of it.

Like many would-be Kickstarter-funded projects, evidence of extreme lack of interest from the games-playing public did little to dissuade the creators that their idea still had merit. Funding moved to Patreon, where the goal is a rather more modest $850 a month. At time of writing that pitch has attracted five people to donate $117, which seems unlikely to go very far towards the salary bill for the 25 "experienced" staff listed in the breakdown of responsibilities.

I wouldn't be mentioning this at all if it wasn't for the extraordinarily detailed information laid out on the solid and encouragingly retro website for the game itself. Whereas most as-yet unreleased MMOs suffer from a surfeit of vagueness, hand-waving and wishful-thinking, Ferocity Unbound's strength seems to be in writing detailed, coherent, convincing design documents.

I'm not sure I've ever read so much hard information about a game that doesn't exist. It's not merely the traditional wishlist of features plucked out of thin air that we've seen in so many MMO pitches from Horizons onwards. There are reasons for the more unusual design choices and explanations for what's in and what's out. A surprising number even make sense!

The point at which I decided to bookmark Sacrament for further attention was when I came upon a specific entry for Inventory Management. Seriously, any developer who thinks it's worth explaining how bags work before their game is even in pre-alpha is someone I want making my MMOs. Plus they plan on having twenty classes and more than twenty playable races...

Sadly, I suspect Sacrement's footnote in the history of MMORPGs will be a link to the website at the Internet Archive. If that. The ambition here seems monumentally out of sync with both the market interest and the available funding.

I really hope I'm wrong. If they could pull this off it would be one heck of an MMO. I'm not saying I'd go so far as to throw a few dollars into the Patreon hat. That would be crazy. If they ever get a playable build running, though, I would absolutely play it. I'd even buy an alpha pack.

Seeing Star Citizen and Sacrament together on the same "in development" list, it's more than a little depressing to compare the relative attention and concomitant funding enjoyed (or not) by the two, especially set against my own preference as to which might actually get made.

Still, I guess Sacrament  could make it to the finishing line. Stranger things have happened. I just can't seem to think of any right now.

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Mutual Friends: Pantheon

Lest we forget, Brad McQuaid and his trusty team are still plugging away on Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. While the would-be true sequel to EverQuest always figures somewhere in the background of my thoughts when it comes to MMOs that might prove worth an emotional investment, I haven't been lurking on the official forums like Keen, so I tend to be vague on details of the game's current status, let alone the specifics of its avowedly niche design.

I did know something about the "Perception" system. I remember some discussion of the mechanics in  one of Visionary Realms' lengthy "Let's Play" videos but until I read Massively OP's short piece on it this morning I'd never really thought about the implications. All I'd really taken in was that quests would pop up automagically according to your character's ability to perceive them, which seemed to amount to nothing much more than a stat.

That would be an interesting design choice in itself. The idea that you would need to raise a stat in order to receive quests is arguably a more elegant version of the longstanding MMO convention that quest access can be tied to faction or reputation. Instead of working to get the questgiver to like you more you'd work to make yourself more capable of seeing what the questgiver wanted.

It's a neat reversal that could have the welcome emotional effect of making your character seem more like an intuitive, insightful adventurer than a desperate, needy supplicant. Apparently, though, Pantheon isn't planning on replacing the old system so much as adding more layers:

Factors such as a character’s insight and investigation skills, class, race, and faction standing all influence whether or not a particular quest will unlock.

Fair enough. Nothing there to frighten the horses. Then we come to:

Yet if you’re part of a group and just one member can get that quest, he or she can share it to everyone else.

Pantheon has always been promoted as a group-centric game. Brad McQuaid has made it clear that there will be solo content and that players can solo and enjoy themselves, but as in EverQuest, those who chose the solo route will be well aware that they're taking a harder road, one which is unlikely to give them the same rewards as their more social counterparts.

The thing about EQ at its height - one of the things - was that it wasn't just a group-oriented game, it was a social game. Even solo players tended to rely on others, even if they didn't actually want play with them. Before you set out to do lonely battle in some far-flung corner of Norrath, depending on your class, you would want to prepare by meeting a Cleric, an Enchanter and maybe a Shaman with the intention of buying buffs.

Buffs in EQ lasted hours not minutes and they changed hands for cash. Anywhere players congregated in safety prior to setting out to earn experience you'd hear Clerics selling their hit point buffs, chanters hawking clarity and KEI, shamans offering a whole range of stat boosts. Open chat channels would ring with their calls, often augmented by Beastlords, Paladins, Druids and even Rangers - anyone who had a buff that lasted an hour or two that someone might find useful.

Suitably buffed, possibly with player-made potions stuffed in their bags, these would-be rugged individualists would then often call for a taxi. Druids and Wizards, able to teleport in seconds to zones that might take literally 30 minutes on foot, were much in demand. So much so that those who didn't relish an evening running passengers to and from North Karana or Dawnshroud Peaks were forced to set their identity to "Anonymous".

In these days of concerns over microtransactions, F2P business models and Pay-to-Win it's perhaps been forgotten that in the Pre-WoW era almost everything was for sale. Indeed, EQ's in-game economy relied almost as much on the sale of services as it did on the auctioning of items (something that was itself far less subject to restrictions like Bind on Equip or No Trade back then).

Even today many MMOs have a thriving, legal secondary economy in which players sell access to supposedly restricted items or areas to other players. EQ2, for example has developed a whole culture known as "SLR". The acronym stands for "Selling Loot Rights": those willing to pay are invited to join instances where a group or raid boss has been downed so that they can loot the No Trade drops, which can't be sold directly.

Pantheon's perception-gated quests will magically become available to the under-qualified by the simple means of joining a group. This will, without any doubt whatsoever, lead both to groups selling invites to individuals for quest access and to qualified individuals offering their services to groups for a fee.

This, I would contend, is almost certainly the intention behind the design. One of them, at least. For roleplayers who exhibit self-discipline then, yes, the Perception system has considerable potential to enhance immersion and feed lore. For regular players, however, it will become nothing more than a business opportunity or an operating expense.

I think that's fine. I liked EQ's idea of an in-game economy as much as most and more than many. The manifold ways that players both could and did interact commercially contributed significantly to the sense of a Virtual World. Perhaps counter-intuitvely, it made the whole place feel more magical rather than less.

The more I pay attention to the details of Pantheon, the more I like the sound of it. No-one has ever been entirely clear what exactly it is that Brad McQuaid does but I am increasingly of the opinion that, whatever it is, other MMOs could do with more of it.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Silent Joys And Broken Toys : GW2, EverQuest et al

Keen has a short post up today focusing on EverQuest's Enchanter class. It neatly sums up the difference between modern MMOs and those of a decade and more ago. It's tempting to say "before World of Warcraft" but, although I didn't experience it for myself, what I have heard suggests even Vanilla WoW didn't completely jettison everything that came before.

The real change came later, when WoW became a true mass market phenomenon. At the time disdainful genre veterans liked to call it "dumbing down" but perhaps it would be fairer to describe it as one form of complexity replacing another.

Modern MMOs aren't simple; not by any means. The older ones are mired with baffling legacy mechanics and suffocated by layers of mis-matched content that make them some of the least-accessible entertainment imaginable for a newcomer. Even brand new MMOs are famously confusing and off-putting for anyone who hasn't played something similar.

No, it's not that the genre has been simplified per se. It's more that the focus has changed. Back when I began, developers seemed to expect players to entertain themselves a lot more than they do now. These days devs apparently feel they need to do most of the heavy lifting themselves.

In the early years there was very significantly less narrative, almost no voice acting and quests were considerably less overwritten. Dynamic events were much rarer, although it's true GMs were more likely to appear unexpectedly and create content on the fly.

There were few automated processes for bringing players together. If you wanted to meet up you had to talk to people, often at length, sometimes in several simultaneous conversations, almost always in text. You had to arrange a meeting point and then travel overland to get there. A good portion of a session could consist of finding people to group with and getting them all to the same place alive before you could even think about starting to kill stuff.

Yet, for all the talk of Holy Trinities, the process of forming a group was far more flexible than it is today. Yes, you almost always needed someone to hold aggro and someone to heal (although kite groups could dispense with both) but the candidates for those roles were thick on the ground. There was a huge range of options and yet sometimes it seemed almost impossible to find exactly what you wanted.

Crowd control, the role which Keen assigns in his post to the Enchanter, was really everyone's responsibility, as was DPS. Enchanters liked to think of themselves as Crowd Control royalty (actually Enchanters all thought of themselves as Royalty, period, at least in my experience) but Bards could do as well if not better. I knew a Necro or two who could give an Enchanter a run for her money when it came to keeping a killing zone tidy, come to that.

And Crowd Control was just one of the many components of a functioning group. I've gone on about the multiplicity of roles required in EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot and other MMOs of the period too often already. Suffice it to say that there were a lot of jobs that needed doing and a wide choice of classes available to do most of them.

That's the kind of complexity that developers have, by and large, chosen to remove. At some point they seemed to discover a previously dormant desire for both clarity and convenience. After that, anything that required players to stop killing and start talking to each other was seen as a problem.

Automated Group Finders began to handle recruitment, slotting everyone neatly and interchangeably into one of three archetypes. No more arguments over whether a group really needed to wait for a Warrior or whether the Shadowknight currently LFG mightn't do just as well. No more maverick Enchanters insisting they could tank. No more main-healing Necromancers. No more conversation.

The games began to choose the teams and deliver them seamlessly to the content as if by magic - and yet very much not. The whole enterprise began to feel less like setting out on a magical, potentially life-threatening adventure and more like going to Ikea for a wardrobe.

Crowd control as we once knew it was just one of the casualties. With only three set roles to fill, tanking, healing and damage, everything else - and there had been a lot that fitted none of those slots - became at best an added bonus, at worst an increasingly distant memory.

Curiously, when Guild Wars 2 arrived, threatening to "break the mold", determined to have nothing to do with any Trinity, holy or otherwise, the perceived impression was one of utter chaos. GW2 gameplay gained a reputation for skilless zerging above ground and anarchic nihilism in dungeons.

Players who stuck with it developed strategies to make things manageable and in time those strategies themselves became a problem to be solved. The developers re-tooled the game to bring what they called "Crowd Control" back to the fore but sadly it was a form of CC no EverQuest Enchanter would recognize.

CCs in the modern parlance are nothing of the kind. They are what we would, back in the day, have called "debuffs". Debuffing was itself an honorable and necessary role but no-one ever mistook it for Crowd Control. Worse, the main function of the debuffs in GW2 is to degrade a "break bar". The actual effect each condition has on a mob is secondary; pushing down that bar so that everyone can pile on the DPS is all that matters.

It's still not simple though. Nor simplistic. Watch groups and zergs fail to apply those new CCs. Hear exasperated players try to explain what's needed and be amazed at how many fail to grasp the principles let alone manage to execute them. You'd be surprised where people can find complexity.

Meanwhile, in raids in MMOs everywhere, the innovation and improvisation of the past is replaced by the arguably more tasking requirement to execute dance steps of ever-increasing difficulty. Flawlessly. Seamlessly. Synchronously.  While not dying in a fire.

The new model pleases many but it doesn't please me. Well, that's not entirely true. I do like the convenience. Who wouldn't? But it's a lot to give up just for a comfortable bus ride with your headphones on, not having to talk to anybody.

It must be why I play so much more PvP these days. PvP, particularly large-scale realm versus realm, is perhaps the last bastion of the kind of off-the-cuff, let's do the show right here, come as you are gameplay that used to get me killed when it didn't make me high.

Yes, there's a meta. Yes, there's voice chat. Yes there are know-it-alls and bullies and bad language. But there's creativity and freedom and a place for anyone who wants to make a place for themselves. And there's even crowd control, despite no spells or abilities lasting more than a few seconds, because, when you're fighting an intelligence that's not artificial, two seconds of immobility can be a death sentence.

It's not ideal. But it's something.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

A Rush And A Push : EQ2, EverQuest

I seem to have a million things to do at the moment, most of them things I'd rather not be doing, which makes blogging something of a challenge. It's tough enough finding the time to play the MMOs let alone write about them.

Typically, Daybreak decided my busy period would be a great moment to drop a five-day double xp "weekend". And as if that wasn't enough, they make it open to everyone - no membership required - and run it in both EQ and EQ2 at the same time. They never play this card when I have a week off work and nothing particular to do. I should send them my diary.

Anyway, enough with the moaning.

Like Keen, I'm aware of the paradox in preferring the journey to the destination, while still welcoming anything which gets me through it faster. Although, looked at more closely, perhaps its not such a paradox after all. The upper levels in many MMOs aren't so much a journey as a forced march. Even after all these years of what's generally imagined to be a downward spiral of difficulty and commitment, every one of the later levels in both the EverQuest titles take hours rather than minutes. Or days. Sometimes weeks...

In EQ2, on the account I currently  have subbed to All Access, I have three Level 100s, the current cap. Only one of those, the Berserker, got there the hard way. The Inquisitor and The Necromancer were beneficiaries of free level 100 boosts. My Warlock also got a leg-up but in his case it stranded him at 95. 

He's been laboriously grinding his way through those last five levels for what seems like years now...mostly because it has been years. Not years of gameplay, obviously. Even I don't level that slowly. No, years of getting the odd session in here and there, whenever a double XP weekend happens to co-incide with... well, with not much else going on.

When SOE made the peculiar and short-lived decision to increase the level cap in increments of less than five levels at a time, going from 90 to 92 and then from 92 to 95, if I recall correctly, they also chose to extend the expected leveling curve to make each level seem like a lot more than just the one.

They also added Prestige Points at the end of every 20% of the level so that you get what sounds and feels like a "Ding!" five times before the number next to your characters name rolls over. Maybe they thought that without that kind of encouragement people would just give up. They needn't have worried. EverQuesters are too stubborn to know when to stop.

Playing today, I had full vitality (+100% xp), Veteran Bonus (+20% for each max level character on the account, total 60%), Server Bonus (+100% for the XP Weekend) and I was running a Veteran's XP Potion for an additional 110%. Grand total +370% XP bonus. I think there may have been an item bonus in there somewhere, too.

With that much of a following wind it still took me an hour and forty five minutes to do the second half of level 98. Just imagine what the flat xp rate would be. No, don't.

I chose to do it as though I was playing normally. I did a daily solo dungeon quest, two weekly solo overland quests and a chunk of the main solo storyline from 2014's Altar of Malice expansion. It was a fun session.

It might have been faster to chronomentor and run laps round Chelsith or clear Sebilis for the hundredth time but the AoM zones are gorgeous; all open sea, blue skies and lush, tropical islands. I'd rather be there than a dank dungeon any day.

And I really like the story in The Shattered Seas. It's recursive, meandering, complex and often funny. It may be nonsense but it's quality nonsense. I even learned a new word: vilipender, although I'm not at all sure it means what the writer thinks it does...

The rewards are worthwhile, too. Everything's an upgrade, although the significance of that diminishes almost to nothing when you realize that in just one more level you'll be 100 and able to equip gear that's literally orders of magnitude more powerful...then in a couple of months the next expansion will arrive, bringing entry-level gear to make most current best-in-slot items redundant. So it goes.

Fortunately, there are other rewards that don't date. Some superb housing items for a start and, if you make it all the way to the end, a Pteranodon flying mount.

My Warlock is close to getting his Anchor of Wanderer's Dock, which is one of the most useful items I have ever had in any MMO. It's a no-cooldown, unlimited use clicky that teleports to you to the eponymous dock, next to which stand a banker, a broker and a crafting vendor. Better yet, there's a World Bell there.

It's like an infinite transport system and utility center in your pocket. My Berserker has used his several times every session since the day he got it and the Warlock can't wait to have one of his own. It is entirely worth doing the questline up to that point just to get one. There are always benefits you don't get for just taking the easy road.

One more level to go, then. Might finish it this weekend.

As for EverQuest, where my Magician is currently beached in the low 90s, I think that's going to be too big an ask. One does not merely log in to EQ and level up. I don't think I have the time (or stamina) for the prep, let alone the fights.

Shame, though. Maybe I could at least fit in a Lesson or two, somehow...

Monday, 28 August 2017

I Should Be So Lucky : GW2

I like lockboxes. There. I said it. I do, truly, unironically, like lockboxes.

What I don't like, of course, is paying for them with real money.

In-game money - gold, karma, reputation, pretty shells you pick up from the beach - that's fine. I don't mind paying imaginary money to open imaginary boxes. Where I draw the line is paying money I could use to buy something more tangible like, oh, I don't know, food?

I'm a huge, huge fan of RNG in MMOs. If I had my way there would be at least an element of chance in every possible transaction, from whether a crafted item turns out to be exceptional or below-average to the standard path to upgrading your armor. As for drops, as we call them, I freakin' love drops!

What I find tedious, dull and unimaginative are trading systems where you earn tokens and buy things from a vendor. That is too much like real life.

Dragon's Stand. Please clear inventory before arrival.

GW2 has its share of token systems but fortunately for me ANet are much more obsessed with delivering loot of all kinds inside boxes. Boxes and bags. It's long gone beyond parody. After any major event it can take me up to half an hour to go through my inventory and open all the bags and boxes I've acquired.

Seriously, it has actually taken me half an hour in real time, although to be fair some of that was time taken clearing space to receive each new burst of goodies and not-very-goodies. I did Dragon's Stand tonight and it took me almost twenty minutes to open everything I got.

EQ2 likes to use flashy ground chests but generally the game tends more towards direct drops because, for all the ridiculous things SOE and DBG have done over the years, at least they never invented "Magic Find". Magic Find is a ludicrous stat used in many F2P MMOs under various names. It purports to increase your chance at getting better drops.

Not in my experience.

Originally GW2 included it as a stat on gear but that proved controversial, with people being kicked from Dungeon groups (remember them?) for wearing Magic Find gear rather than something useful for killing the mobs that drop the loot in the first place.

These days it's a character stat instead. On my main account my Magic Find is 330%. I'm not going to explain how that works. Just roll with it.

Magic Find is bloody useless. With a handful of exceptions it only works on direct drops, although you'd hardly know it. In theory it includes hyper-rare items like the Precursors for Legendary Weapons. In five years, on six accounts, with thousands of hours played, Mrs Bhagpuss and I have received one precursor each. I hate to think how much worse that drop rate would have been if we didn't have MF!

The reason ANet loves putting drops in boxes is that it protects them from Magic Find. First they add the stat, then they make it useless. Brilliant. The first rule of magic find is we don't use magic find and that's also why we can't have nice drops.

Of course, no matter how bad something is, it can always get worse. In the upcoming Path of Fire expansion we are apparently getting a new system wherein loot will drop as "unidentified". We'll then either have to take it to an NPC and pay to get it identified, at which point we'll find out if it's worth anything or just fit for salvage. Or we can cut out the middleman and salvage it unidentified.

This is proving controversial, although not very. The main thread on the topic didn't manage a hundred replies. I'm betting most GW2 players don't know about the change yet so the real shouting won't start until launch day. Who knows, maybe it'll be popular. At least the unidentified items stack.

Anyway, I like opening my bags and boxes and so, as long as no real money changes hands, I find lockboxes are 100% acceptable as well. They're fun. More than that, they're exciting. They have interesting things in them, as you can see from the recently-added inspection feature, although in my experience most of those interesting things stay inside the box.

It's like the Bizarro World version of Developer Appreciation Week
They certainly did today, when I logged all my accounts in to grab the free "Customer Appreciation Package" from the Trading Post. It turned out to be a Black Lion Chest (aka lockbox) and a Black Lion Key to open it.

I opened one on each account, three of them (F2P players aren't "customers" apparently, which I guess is technically true if not something game companies usually say out loud). The only remotely interesting thing I got was a dye. Everything else was embarrassingly dull.

Leaving aside the name, which I can only assume is a marketing department in-joke, the clear and obvious purpose of this free taster is to encourage players to buy Black Lion Keys, which by an exceptional co-incidence happen to be on sale right now.

I did once work in Marketing. It was a long time ago but I think I can still remember how it goes. Something about getting people to use your company's products or services more, not shun them like a fatal disease.

I'd have thought it might be worth rigging the odds on these infrequent freebies so that everyone gets at least a halfway decent item. The dye would do it. A mini, perhaps. Nothing amazing, just not a Bank Express and a 30 minute booster.

Had there ever been the slightest chance that I might one day buy a Black Lion Key to open a Black Lion Chest (there wasn't) this utterly pathetic experience would have put the can on it. As a promotional device it's up there with "Two For The Price Of Three" (an actual promo run by a London bookshop once - it did at least get them some free publicity on national media...).

None of which is going to stop me squealing with excitement and linking it in guild chat next time I get a Black Lion Key for free (they do drop, incredibly rarely, and you can often get one for completing a map). I still love lockboxes!

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Tunnel Vision

The official announcement of GW2's second expansion, Path of Fire and more particularly its unexpectedly imminent arrival, has had an all-too-predictable effect on my gaming these last few weeks. Prior to the drop I had been juggling several games quite effectively but now it seems to be all GW2 all the time.

Large numbers of familiar names are reappearing, both in the open world and in WvW, some of which I can't remember seeing for a year or more. As Zoso observes, there's nothing like a new expansion to remind people an MMO actually exists.

Unlike some other MMOs - probably most of them, now I come to think of it - there isn't a lot anyone needs to do to prepare for a GW2 expansion. All you need is a Level 80 character and you get one of those with the download.

Not only that but it comes fully equipped and ready to go. Decently equipped at that. I recently used the Level 80 boost I got when I added Heart of Thorns to my second account and I've been doing HoT content and WvW very comfortably in just what came out of the box.

EQ2 came under some considerable criticism last year for the inadequacies of the gear that came with its max-level boost. Kaozz was by no means alone in her disappointment over both the initial difficulty of the expansion and the unfriendliness of its systems and processes towards those who keep a large stable of alts.

This time it seems they have taken considerable steps to avoid those pitfalls, not least with the excellent "Days of Summer" series of quests. Just to make sure there's no doubt that this year will be different, Kander makes it plain:

"Alts and new players will have virtually no pre-reqs for expansion 14 content. We’re even going to gear your alts and new players for said content before they begin. The plan is to make the new content easier for alts to go through after the initial pass."

We'll see how that goes when the still-unnamed, still-no-release-date expansion arrives. I'm sure that no matter how carefully DBG prepare, the general attitude will be that it's not been enough.

The only significant pre-expansion warm-up I had in mind for Path of Fire was a quick run-through of Guild Wars "Nightfall" expansion to give me a chance of recognizing at least a few of the threatened promised flurry of references and in-jokes.

It's not going all that well. The initial cakewalk, when I was heavily over-levelled, didn't last long. Now the mobs are mostly a couple of levels above me and everything's a slog. I have a few basic tactics down but I'm just not interested enough to practice placing my Heroes properly. Mostly I clump them up around M.O.X. while I stand back and try, not very successfully, not to get killed.

For all that GW veterans like to rip on the writing and storytelling in GW2, I can's say I'm finding the older game an improvement. The dialog is mostly hokey, the voice acting, when there is any, is stiff (as are the cut scenes, but that's an aging game thing) and the plot has yet to grab me.

As for the Heroes and their many catchphrases, clearly a cracker factory somewhere missed out on a valuable joke-writer when ANet snapped them up. I really don't think "I can kill you with my brain" works as a battle cry, even for an Asura, although "I've been thinking about the Charr. I think they can be domesticated." did raise a smile.

At the moment I can't entirely see the point of finishing Nightfall but I will probably grind through a few more sessions before the sequel arrives. At which point I don't imagine I'll be playing anything else for quite a while.

Whether that's a good thing I'm not entirely sure...

Friday, 25 August 2017

This Is The Modern World

Yesterday, Keen posted in support of a tweet from a particularly disgruntled game developer, who made the controversial - some might say bizarre - claim that "In a world of $5 lattes a game with 50 hours of content is worth $1,000." Wilhem responded with a hilarious rebuttal, which Zubon saw fit to reblog, so by now the topic has probably had about as much publicity as it needs, at least as far as this corner of the blogosphere is concerned.

It's unfortunate for me that the analogy chosen happened to be chain store coffee. I already have such a strongly negative, pre-determined position on the coffee-shop phenomenon that the mere mention of it in any discussion drives all other considerations clean out of my mind. Luckily there were plenty of more rational responders in Wilhelm's comment thread, easily able to dismantle and dispose of the entire spurious argument.

It only occurred to me this morning that there is a potentially relevant and apposite analogy to be drawn between the modern coffee and video game experiences. Comparing a $5 latte to the video game itself is ludicrous but comparing that same purchase to the purchase of a consumable within the game is not.

Indeed, once you step in front of that particular train, the argument in favor of video games being at a disadvantage when it comes to separating consumers from their cash gets knocked into next week and then some. Just open up your current MMO of choice and browse the virtual shelves of the in-game cash shop and see how the prices for boosts and buffs compare with your local coffee dealer. Then think about the production costs and marginal costs. We've come a long, long way from the days of the Ten Dollar Horse.

That $5 latte's beginning to look like a bargain, isn't it? No? Okay, but if it's still an insanely overpriced rip-off then what does that make a $2 Revive Orb?

The game developer who kicked all this off, Michael Hartman, is someone of whose existence I'd previously been as unaware as he surely is of mine, but it turns out he's behind a game that's been, very vaguely, on my radar for a while: Stash. And when I say "vaguely" I really mean it - apparently Stash went into Steam Early Access last year, something that completely passed me by, although it was reported on MassivelyOp at the time.

Michael Hartman is President and CEO of Frogdice, which claims to have been "arguably the first video game studio to utilize the "free-to-play" (F2P) business [model] in 1996", a model the company defines as one in which "players can play the game for free and have the option to purchase additional content, customization, cosmetics, boosts, etc".

His Linkedin entry goes on to say that F2P is "currently the hottest business model in the industry and Frogdice has 20+ years of experience with it". All of which leaves me somewhat confused as to why Mr Hartman was railing against customers' unwillingness to part with cash for games upfront in the first place. Maybe it made more sense on Twitter...

Talking of things that don't make much sense, given Keen's open hostility to the F2P business model and his deep suspicion of Early Access, he and Michael Hartman do seem to make unlikely allies but then I guess it makes about as much sense as the original proposition. I think I'd best leave them to it while I drink my tuppenny instant coffee and open the unsolicited free gifts that shower down around me in my own MMOs of choice.

In the end it comes down to this: make something I want, sell it at a price that's worth paying and I'll willingly give you my money. On the other hand, if you insist on shoving things at me, things that I also want, far more of them than I can possibly find time for, and all of it for free, then you can hardly complain if I take those instead and spend my money on something else, now, can you?.

If I promise not spend any of it on  a $5 latte, will that do you?

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

The Secret World: GW2

When GW2 started it looked for a while as though it might follow the development model I've always preferred for MMOs; one where regular, permanent content is continually supplemented by one-off, never to be repeated, "you had to be there" events. It used to be close to the norm for the genre but as commercial success moved MMOs further and further along the mainstream curve, this particular expression of "exclusivity" fell out of fashion.

I consider this not just to be a mis-step for the genre but a fundamental change in its function. Unrepeatable content that yet left an impact that could be seen years later by players who weren't there when it happened was one of the defining features of playing online - that and talking, competing and co-operating with strangers. The shared experience of such events, events which had a beginning, middle and end and which left lasting changes to the landscape or structure of the game, contributed hugely to the sense of MMOs as Virtual Worlds as opposed to merely games.

Mrs Bhagpuss's Charr Mesmer modelling the Catmander Tag
ArenaNet struggled on with this concept for a long while, even after the very first flagship event, The Lost Shores, crashed and burned. The entire first season of The Living Story relied on content that appeared, hung around for a while, then vanished. Often it left the physical environment altered, sometimes in ways that now appear mysterious and strange.

I sometimes wonder what new players make of locations like North Nolan Hatchery or Cragstead, which seem to exist without any in-game purpose. That thought came back to me last night, when Mrs Bhagpuss ported me into the hidden area behind the waterfall in The Desert Borderlands so I could buy my Catmander Tag and Mini.

It occurred to me as I explored the cave behind the waterfall that someone at ANet, possibly a lot of someones, have never given up the fight, even though an increasingly intransigent, demanding segment of the audience, arguably although not necessarily the majority, has, over the course of the last five years, driven the developers into a corner.

The requirement is that everything that's added to the game must remain - at least theoretically - available to everyone forever. It can be gated by whatever means you like - real money, time played, luck - but the possibility that anything there ever was can be yours, whether you've played since launch or started yesterday, is sacrosanct.

A young quaggan misunderstands the Pirate Ship Meta

The most recent example and probably the most cynical (because acquisition is gated by lockboxes purchased through the Gem Store) is the addition of  a vendor that sells signature items from Living Story events that can no longer be replayed. Some of those, like the Selfless and Thoughtless potions, once the rewards for lengthy grinds, remained until now badges of honor - or at least effort - for those who displayed them. Others, like the Minis from Lost Shores, were increasingly scarce, highly valuable trading items on the exchange.

Now you can have them all - in theory, at least. This is ANet's "if you can't beat 'em, exploit 'em" response to the barbarians at the gates. There is, however, a much more subtle, almost subliminal faction quietly at work beneath the surface.

Yellow Catmander puzzles over the futility of life.

As The Living Story limped on into its third season, bound both to instances and a funereal cadence, it began to be supplemented by something known only as "Current Events". These were patched in much more frequently, with no fanfare other than one solitary, enigmatic line in the update notes and sometimes not even that.

They spread by word of mouth (and Dulfy, of course) and they only began to appear in your Quest Journal Achievement List after you happened to stumble across them in-game. I found them to be reliably and consistently more interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking than the Living Story content itself.

Caution: Moving Parts
These, too, have now been consolidated and codified, hardened into the game as official Achievements accessed through their own tab. Like everything else, they must always be there for anyone who wants them, evermore.

And that's fine, provided there are more unpublicized pleasures to come. ANet have arrived at a bizarre state of doublethink, in which the entire landscape of the game, both in and out of instances, is now, by canon, snapshots in time. Every Map is frozen in stasis. How we as players figure in that or where we can find the part of the game that occurs in "the present" escapes me but I'm sure someone, somewhere understands it.

Against this chaotic, incoherent and unmistakably fudged backdrop, the struggle continues. The weapon of choice for this insurgency? Cats.

I forget exactly when collectable cats began to appear in the game. It was earlier this year, I think. Tyria has always had a lot of cats, along with rabbits, owls, hawks and various other "ambients". They never interacted with players in any way until, suddenly, they did.

Who would notice that a cat had an interactive speech icon when targeted? Someone must have. Then Dulfy knew. Then  we all knew. Knew to speak to cats, to feed cats, to find cats installing themselves in our Home Instances.

Can we watch another channel? I'm bored!

After that, Catmanders. As far as I can tell, this wasn't documented in the Update Notes but somehow, someone knew and word spread fast. There are two Catmander Minis (vanity pets), two Commander Tag Variants (with cat ears) and two Catmander Home Instance spawns, which come with kittens, who do battle with each other.

The Blue Catmander can be purchased near the end of the Alpine Borderlands Jumping Puzzle. The Yellow Catmander is in a hidden cave behind the waterfall in the Desert Borderlands. Dulfy has everything you could possibly want to know.

Television is all very well but you can't beat the thrill of a live performance.
Everything, that is, except anything at all about the amazing cave itself. I always wondered why there was a huge waterfall and an idyllic lake in a hidden corner of what was a) a desert and b) a battleground. I've wandered around there several times, exploring and, naturally, I'd gone behind the curtain of the waterfall, looking for secret caves, because that's what you do when you see a waterfall.

I'd never found one but there was one there. You have to drop down from the top, edge along, drop again, go behind the water, jump up, edge along some more and finally do a little dink and you're in. After I got ported inside, after I'd gosh-wowed all round and taken my screenshots, I came out only to realize I'd forgotten to feed the cat some chilli to get the house pet, so I had to find my own way back in. Even with the video to follow it took me half a dozen attempts.

Catmander inspects the troops at a training session.
What I'm wondering, after all that, is this: was that cave always there? Did some designer, some artist, create that back in 2014/15, just to let it sit there, unknown until now? Was it always filled with quaggans and cats or were they added when someone came up with the Catmander pun and thought it was too good not to use?

There's more: why are all the quaggans children? Where are the adults? Why are the cats being trained to fight? Why are the training dummies all frogs and why do they have buckets over their heads? Why is the quaggan working the puppet theater dressed as a ghost?

Is that a television that quaggan is watching? What does that orrery represent? WHY DOES THIS GAME NOT HAVE A FULLY FUNCTIONING HOUSING SYSTEM?

There is more going on here - more that makes me think, makes me feel I'm somewhere real, for a given value of reality - in this hidden cave than in all the episodes of LS3 put together. Much more.

This is what we were promised. The fight goes on!

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Bleedthrough : GW2

A couple of weeks ago, while I was hanging around in Krennak's Homestead, an NPC dive in Wayfarer Hills that I like to use as a surrogate home when I'm in the area, I was startled to hear a conversation strike up behind me. The Norn family that live there, none of whom I'd ever paid  much attention before, began to run through some kind of comedy routine.

It was a pretty funny little skit and quite a long one, too. I laughed out loud a couple of times but my amusement was heavily outweighed by my confusion and surprise. I mean, I doubt I'd be exaggerating much if I said I'd spent a dozen hours in that hut over the life of the game. I camp there almost every time after I've done The Frozen maw and I frequently afk there to web browse or write a blog post.

Since I have the sound of the game set to continue playing while I'm tabbed out, I can absolutely guarantee that, had the Norn Family piped up, I'd have heard them. I never had until then.

Since then I've heard them exchange the same banter so often I could almost recite it by heart. It starts up every time I enter the lodge and replays often if I stay there. It's gone from amusing to annoying to "I really have to find somewhere else to afk".

It would seem very strange for ANet to have paid writers and voice actors to add this kind of flavor to
such old content so my best guess was that it had long been bugged until something in some patch nudged it working. That explanation didn't entirely convince me but it was the best I could manage.

Anyway, I soon stopped wondering about it as the dialog became part of the soundscape of the game. Then today I happened to be in Plains of Ashford when something happened that surprised me even more.

I'd logged in my Free to Play account to take the screenshots for my Elite Spec Beta post (because reasons) and since I had it logged in I thought I'd check whether F2P accounts are allowed to claim the free promo item currently in the Black Lion Store (yes, they are).

After that I thought I'd just do the Dailies and one of them was Plains of Ashford Events. My F2P ranger is a Charr and I used to love doing my dailies in Ashford so much I once wrote a guide on the subject (albeit the long-lost and much-missed "Kill Variety" kind), so that was too tempting to ignore.

First I went to the cave under the waterfall to spawn the Rampaging Skale. As I was standing there waiting, I thought I faintly heard a sound I'd almost forgotten: Drottot Lashtail demanding devourer eggs.

Drottot is a Charr given the unenviable task of teaching cubs how to catch and raise devourers for the Legions. His charges are sassy, the work is tedious and as far as I knew he'd given up trying about three years ago. Not his choice: he was retired as part of the New Player Experience patch that, among other things, strove to do away with many non-standard events that supposedly sent delicate new players into a tail-spin.

This particular event required you to activate some small devices that look and sound like old-fashioned gramophones in order to distract female devourers so you could break into their nests and steal their eggs. It was fiddly enough that a three-year old child might have taken five or ten seconds to grasp the mechanics so it had to go.

Well, it's back! I did it this morning. It was joyous. So good, in fact, that I did it twice. With other people. Still busy in Ashford on daily day I'm happy to confirm.

Of course, now I'm beginning to doubt my own memory. I can't find any sign that I, or anyone else, ever wrote about the event going away, much less anyone commenting on it coming back. If it wasn't for that absolutely, definitely, for certain sure new to me after five years, dialog in Wayfarer Foothills I'd think I was losing it (whatever "it" is and always assuming I ever had it in the first place).

Oh, and there's this, which does prove things get changed under the hood now and again without ANet coming out and making a big fuss about it.  I note that was also a belated acknowledgement of mistakes made in the New Player Experience.

Co-incidence? I think not.

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