Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Archetypal Behavior

And we're back. We had the best holiday for a long time and we're pretty good at going on holiday so that's saying quite a lot.

The whole of the Iberian peninsula was in the grip of a ferocious heatwave. There were huge forest fires all over the place, some extremely serious. Temperatures broke records. The nightly news was filled with multicolored maps and spiraling numbers.

We spent a lot of time in the mountains, in forests or by lakes. We avoided cities, staying in small, dusty towns and villages. We drank a lot of water and sat in the shade.

As we traveled we marveled at how many new wonders still remain to be discovered even in places you've criss-crossed so many times before. Also, how readily those old fantasy tropes become real.

We took to parceling up the landscape by race. We passed through wood-elf country into the lands where humans and elves intermingled. Half-elven hinterlands slipped into dwarven stonelands. In the peaks the evidence of giants and rock trolls lay all around us.


Little wonder these images are so prevalent or that they come so easily to mind. In times when it took days to travel from town to town, under the hammer of the sun, surrounded by birdsong and the drone of insects, every new horizon must have shimmered with strangeness and change. They still do.

We drove along dirt tracks to a Visigoth church, whose stones were piled close to a millennia and a half ago, to find it filled with music, the keyholder sheltering from the sun, playing his guitar in the dim, dirt-floored interior, waiting on the off-chance anyone should happen by. We stumbled across pocket castles not much bigger than cottages and craned our necks looking up at sprawling fortifications half the length of a city.


I had good intentions of posting at least once or twice while we were away but technology frustrated those hopes once again. Wi-fi has improved in availability since the days it was listed as an occasional luxury but it has yet to improve significantly in any practical sense. Most days I counted myself lucky if I was able to keep a connection long enough to book ahead for the next night.

I didn't do myself any favors, either. I took three internet-capable devices with me - my Teclast dual-OS 10" tablet, my aging Android 7" and my ancient iPod Touch, now almost a decade old.

I forgot the charging cable for the Teclast and it wouldn't charge from any of the several other cables I did have. The 7" died completely three days into the trip. In the end I relied mostly on the iPod touch, which performed stolidly. One up to Steve Jobs.


It seems that a mobile (cell) phone is expected these days if you plan on staying in anything less well-equipped than a three-star hotel. The Rural Hotels, private apartments and rooms above bars I was picking all expect you to call them by phone when you arrive so the owner can pop on their sandals, put down the pruning shears and trot round from their home several streets away to hand you the key, after which you never see them again.

Mrs Bhagpuss had her iPhone so that shouldn't have been a problem - except that her network, O2, has a known bug wherein it adds spurious extra digits to any non-UK number. I, of course, don't own a mobile at all.

We couldn't phone anyone, anywhere, ever. That led to some shenanigans. We eventually got in to every room I'd booked although there were times I thought we might not. Always depend on the kindness of strangers. Still, I'm taking a mobile next time and I'm buying a local sim card to put in it when I get there.


We agreed that we made for the very model of the Explorer Archetype throughout, with a fair portion of Achiever thrown in (we took a lot of video and photographs and ticked off a lot of culturo-historic Points of Interest). The repeated performance of the Ritual of the Keys gave us a decent smattering of Socializer cred. The only Bartle box we didn't tick was Killer - unless you count the thousand tiny insect bodies smeared across the front of our car.

Due to a peculiarity of this year's working schedule it's less than three months until we go away again. I can hardly wait!

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Magic Carpet Ride

Things are likely to be slow around here for a while. We're off on our travels again.

I did by a keyboard you can roll up so there's an outside chance I might post while I'm away.

Probably not. We'll see. If not, I'll just have to make up for it when I get back.


Meanwhile, always remember, fantasy will set you free. As Pizzicato 5 never said. That was someone else entirely.

Monday, 5 June 2017

Give A Dog A Bad Name... : GW2, EverQuest

Here's a controversial proposition: Heart of Thorns was a good expansion.

I know, I know...it stalled GW2's commercial progress dead in its tracks, almost killed World vs World for good and ended up having to be nerfed into the ground to appease the pitchfork-and-torch-waving crowd.

For an encore, six months later Colin Johanson, the guy responsible for HoT's design and direction and the game's prime mover, fell on his Legendary Greatsword and left the company. From that point on GW2 has been in recovery and repair mode, trying to fix the damage wrought by the first, botched xpack.

Or so the narrative goes. Factually that's not an inaccurate summary. Only problem is, it misrepresents almost the entirety of my experience in the jungle itself.

From the day I first stepped into the sweltering heat of the Maguuma heartland I was having fun. Yes, it was a tad over-tuned to begin with but not unusually so. Almost all MMO expansions come in hard and soften up later.


Benchmarked against the harshest expansion I've ever slogged through, EverQuest's notorious Gates of Discord, HoT isn't just a walk in the park; it's a sun-lounger on the beach with an ice-cold beer in your  hand and a chillout mix on your iPod.

Okay, unfair comparison. GoD was not just hellishly hard; it was actually broken. The developers knew that but released it anyway. John Smedley later called it SOE's "worst mistake in five years." and despite many unwitting attempts to unseat it since, GoD still  wears the crown.

Giant Bomb has an excellent overview of the expansion itself, with a coda that partially explains just why EQ players who were there recall the game's seventh expansion with a sense of horror:

"... the seventh expansion ... was largely unfinished with many encounters either not working properly or simply unbeatable. It was later revealed that the development team built much of the expansion's content with the idea in mind that the level cap would increase to 70, but that did not happen."

Well, that would make a difference, wouldn't it? What's more:

"GoD brought about an entire overhaul of EverQuest's graphics engine, issues with the world's geometry were affected throughout the world of Norrath, both new zones and old.

This is why Daybreak's new Undercover Classic server, Agnarr, stops at the sixth expansion, right before the gates to disaster open. A shame, really, because once they'd fixed it, and with its companion, eighth expansion Omens of War in place (the one that actually had the level cap increase) it turned out to be a pretty good era as Norrathian adventures go.

Too late. Too late. Reputation once lost is hard to recover, ironically.


The main reason I'm thinking about this right now is that I finally applied my half-price HoT code to one of my two base-game-only accounts. I figured with the second expansion almost certain to arrive before the end of the year, dragging free HoT access for all behind it like a White Elephant no-one's going to be allowed to refuse, I might as well get the benefit while there was still some paid value left.

I wasn't particularly relishing it. Not because I don't like Heart of Thorns; I always liked it. Check pretty much any of my many posts on the topic. The tone is bemused but happy. I never expected to like it but it turned out I did.

In the year and a half the expansion's been with us I've only completed the main story-line once. It's okay. About as good as any other ANet story. Faint praise, I know.

What I have done, though, is explore the entire jungle to a degree I have still never managed with Core Tyria to this day. I have Heart of Maguuma map completion in multiple zones on multiple characters and I loved doing it.

I've done the lengthy Ascended Weapon "collections" ("quests", translated from Anet Newspeak) on every class and I really loved doing those. I've filled out almost all the Masteries and the few I haven't I've only left because I don't feel I'll ever need them. Most of those, again, I thoroughly enjoyed doing.


There's more. On top of all that designated content I've spent hundreds of hours over the last couple of years just gliding the updrafts in Verdant Brink for sheer joy. I've spent happy winter evenings doing the ninety-minute Dragon Stand event, not because I needed anything from it but because it's bloody good fun.

Even so, I was a little apprehensive about returning to the Heart of Maguuma on a fresh account.

The thing about modern MMO design is that all your characters bar the first are twinked by design.
Once I'd run one character through the entire storyline and opened all the maps, every character on the account could take advantage of the enhanced travel and survival options. Not only did I know where everything was, I knew all the shortcuts and had all the passes and permissions. It got easier and easier each time - and as I said I dispute the widespread belief that it was ever very difficult in the first place!

Going back to yesterday's post on Survival games and how they key into progression mechanics that have always worked well for me, it shouldn't have been the surprise it was to find out that Heart of Thorns without all the shortcuts is even more fun than I remembered. Having to get around with only the most basic gliding skill, the one that only keeps you aloft so long as your endurance bar lasts and that's not long at all, turns out to be exciting, satisfying and entertaining.

Not being able to just bounce on a mushroom to get up a cliff, having instead to work out the paths, dodge roll past the Pocket Raptors and glug Elixir B like cooldowns were going out of fashion - is that frustrating? The hell it is! It's thrilling.


Naturally, in the tradition of every MMO ever, your goal in having fun is to acquire the means to avoid having to have the fun you're having ever again. As my Mastery points accrue and my xp bar fills (soooo slooooowly - must use boosts...) soon I'll be bouncing and leaning with the best of them.

That's fine. There's new kinds of fun to be had with each new skill. I'm already planning my path to becoming a Scrapper. I'll need all the tricks. After that my fourth ranger (or is she my fifth?) can get Druid.

One thing that concerned me a year or more ago was whether anyone would still be "doing" Heart of Thorns as the expansion aged. Back then it seemed unlikely.

The expected exodus may still happen one day, as the next expansion or the one after that arrives, but for now the maps are hopping - and not just with Itzel. Anet have done a sound job of tying desirable rewards to the content in both HoT and all the LS3 maps that followed.

Map chat is busy with people organizing Hero Point runs or calling out events. Better still, the improved LFG system successfully fills maps with like-minded players set on achieving specific goals. HoT's not the hysterical, overheated chaos it was for a few months after launch but it's a very long way indeed from being dead.

Tomorrow sees the latest WvW revamp. That's going to take up most of my game-time this week, I'd imagine. Then we're going on holiday for a while so I won't be playing at all.

My latest run through the jungle will have to go on hold but it's off to an excellent start. If this was Anet's "bad expansion" I can't wait to see how the next one turns out.

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Hybrid Vigor

It occurred to me the other day, when I was reading Azuriel's post about "Crafting Survival", that I have never played a Survival game, crafting or otherwise.

I know what Survival games are. I know the names of several. I even have a vague idea what they look like and how they play; at one time or another most of the MMO bloggers I follow have written about them, often at considerable length.

By and large they're games that sound interesting, on the surface, but I've never translated that interest into action because I can't shake the feeling that, more so than almost any other sub-genre of video game I can think of, Survival games are objectively pointless.

They do, of  course, share the single purpose of all leisure activities, which is to pass the time in an entertaining manner, and time spent enjoying oneself cannot be considered to be time wasted. Still, there are many ways to keep yourself entertained; countering a set of pre-determined conditions in order to achieve stasis has never struck me as being one of the more appealing ones.

Games - or perhaps they could better be described as entertainments - where surviving is merely a backdrop to achieving another goal, those are a different matter. Minecraft, when played in a certain way,  may require the player to focus on surviving a number of threats but, once that's achieved, other, more creative goals take the place of simply not dying. At least, I believe so: I've never played it.

Conversely, looked at from the outside, titles like the reflexively-named "Don't Starve" seem to hold as their ultimate goal a state of Nirvana in which, finally, nothing happens, nothing changes. It's a state that can never be achieved because the game is coded in such a way as to ensure that, no matter how long you postpone the inevitable, in the end you will starve.

Enjoying these entertainments probably requires a similar mindset to that which seeks to experience and record incremental improvements in anything: a runner trying to improve her best time; a raider trying to improve his DPS; either by even the smallest measurable margin. Such a mindset may be the signature of someone as, or probably more, interested in process than in outcome.

In the comment thread to Jeromai's post linked above I asked "Is there any reason we couldn’t have a Survival MMO with persistent characters?", a question to which Jeromai gave, most likely, a fuller and more convincing reply than the question deserved.

It wasn't really a very intelligent question. Just how would I expect a "Survival MMO" to work, anyway? What would the players do once they had "survived"? Pacifying an unruly landscape and bringing civilization to the four compass points is a healthy ambition for an empire but settling down to a quiet, virtual existence in a safe, stable and peaceful world scarcely seems a viable endgame for an MMO intended to run on (and take money)  indefinitely. (Then again, Second Life...).

Presumably this is why sandbox MMOs, which frequently require a good deal of surviving, also tend to include the endless existential threat of player versus player violence. It's either that or never-ending waves of AI attacks (wasn't that one of the USPs of both Rift and the original Horizons?).

Ashes of Creation, currently taking three million dollars to the bank along with the title "Most Successful MMO Kickstarter Ever", doesn't look as though it will start you off in a cave with a club and a loin-cloth, while expecting you to pull yourself up by your bootstraps to become Emperor of All The Nodes, but it does have a faint whiff of survival about it, at least on a meta level.

Supposedly, all your works there, like Ozymandias's, can turn to dust. Were this a survival game that would, presumably, signal game over and a restart, whereupon you, the player, would attempt to last longer or build bigger, so as to beat your personal best.

Since AoC is an MMO, with persistent characters and a persistent world, that can't happen. The Emperor and his acolytes may lose face along with all their nodes but all the players who counted on their protection will find most of their progress wrapped up and packed away for a quick and painless return. More like moving to a new apartment than starting a new life.

Persistence is both a problem and a predicate of the MMORPG genre. Many MMOs start out as survival games of a kind, where the player-character begins with literally nothing more than a worn vest, a badly-sharpened stick and a dream of slaying a dragon. At the start it's all scrubbing for a living and trying not to die; by the end it's DPS meters and dance parties with a couple of dozen of your new best friends.

After two decades of this it's increasingly hard to see how the two ends fit together. Often they don't. For those of us, who find the grubbing about in the mud for a piece of old armor the rust might not have eaten all the way through yet the most enjoyable part, a reset now and then is a requirement. That's why we play alts or change servers or move to a new MMO every once in a while.

Endgamers, meanwhile, curse the leveling curve as a waste of time and resources, while developers increasingly treat it as legacy content, once required but now best leaped over with boosts, preferably paid-for. The difficult introduction to the world, first surviving then consolidating, that seems like an anachronism.

Going back to "Don't Starve" for a moment, does anyone even remember the days when you had to eat and drink in MMOs? I struggle to recall the details now but in original EverQuest, if you failed to keep up your liquid intake, didn't you cease to regenerate health? Or maybe it was mana. I'm sure there were other MMOs where running out of food meant, if not the end of your character's life, the end of their progress for that session.

Despite the strong showing of Survival games over the last few years I sense no desire to re-appropriate such mechanics to the mainstream of MMOs, either theme-park or sandbox. As the wheel turns and MMOs emerge, gasping and spluttering, from their long submersion and MOBAs begin their slow, inexorable slide, it may be that Survival's short, Edwardian summer is also drawing to a close.

Conan Exiles appears to have stalled. H1Z1 "Just Survive" is choking through lack of interest. ARK appears to be on a one-way trip to self-parody. The Battle Royales that are currently raging, as H1Z1 King of the Kill gives way to PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, are surely too far removed from anything we recognize as "MMORPG" even to count as belonging to the same genre. 

If Battle Royales and Arenas are scarcely even distant cousins, MMORPGs, Action MMOs, MOBAs and persistent Survival sandboxes all have closer ties, a shared DNA. Perhaps the next stage in the evolution of the strain will draw from the strengths of all of them.

Wasn't that yesterday's seven-day wonder, Crowfall's, plan? A genuine MMO with restarts? Is a true survival MMO what we'll find when we enter Amazon's New World? Will the Ashes of Creation give birth to a Phoenix that burns brightly with the combined energy of everything Intrepid threw into the flames?

Or maybe we'll just find ourselves sifting through another generation of muddled compromises. And
perhaps I should at least try a survival game before writing about them at such length. Y'know, just so I can pretend I have the shadow of a ghost of an idea of what I'm talking about...

Nah. Life's too short to just survive.
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