Saturday, 18 February 2017

Triple Threat: Smed, Domino, Dociu

For many years one of the things I found most confusing about the MMO scene and the people who follow it was the way individual game developers would sometimes be talked and written about as though they were rock stars. It seemed to me as peculiar as if the owner of a refrigerator were to praise the vision and skill of the factory worker who put the parts together.

It seems odd, my attitude, in retrospect. Not only did I come to MMO "fandom" fresh from a couple of decades reading comics, during which time I attended conventions, presented panels, interviewed artists and writers and wrote extensively for fanzines, but also I played video games throughout the 1980s.

Those were the days when the typical media representation of a video game creator was either a precocious social outcast coding his way (and it was always a "he") to a million from his teenage bedroom or an eccentric, bearded quasi-hippy expressing the kind of offbeat individuality more usually found in second division provincial prog rock.

The twin ideas, then, that a collective, commercial enterprise could be driven by the vision of individuals and that video games were a form of personal, creative expression, should have been well established in my worldview. Nevertheless, by the time I came to understand that MMOs weren't simply the inevitable byproduct of technological progress but something made by humans, those logical links seemed to have fractured.

It used to annoy me quite a lot when, on forums I frequented, people would refer to developers, designers or producers by name, according them the kind of stature, respect or admiration that a music fan might routinely give to a favorite songwriter or instrumentalist. It seemed deeply inappropriate, uncomfortable, embarrassing. To be frank, I thought it was gauche.

Over time, as I became embedded more and more deeply in the MMO milieu, some of the discomfort faded. I became familiar first with the names and later with their achievements. I began to develop some knowledge and even understanding of the history of the medium and the form and with this context the constant name-checking began to feel less like bizarre affectation and more like technical jargon.

Although I adopted, almost by osmosis, the coloration of the environment within which I now moved I still struggled badly with the overwrought emotional intensity that sometimes came with that territory. I was comfortable with reference but not with deference. I recognized that the games were made and that named individuals made them but still it seemed to me that this was a technical rather than an artistic achievement and should be addressed accordingly.

This persisted for a long, long time. It can't be that many years ago, certainly in the life of this blog, when I first came across "Developer Appreciation Week" and felt my hackles rise. Why I might have reacted that way, only five or six years ago, somewhat mystifies me now.

Over the intervening years I have, at last and not before time, come to share most of the opinions and attitudes towards the people who make these games and this hobby possible expressed so well by Rowan in his opening paragraph here. While I, too, may criticize as much, or more, than I praise, even that criticism comes, these days, with full recognition and understanding that everything we see, hear and do in our MMOs derives directly from the imagination, effort and endeavor of named individuals.

All of which is a very long preamble to contextualize my reaction to a trio of apparently unrelated news items from the past week.

First there was the announcement that John "Smed" Smedley, last seen going down with the good ship "Hero's Song" as captain of the doomed PixelMage Games, had bobbed up, not clinging to the wreckage but safe on board a much larger vessel, indeed back in the Captain's chair, at Amazon Games.

Second came the departure of Daniel Dociu, GW2's art director and the man who "has been defining the art direction for ArenaNet since 2003". Shamefully, until I read the news that he was leaving, I could not have named the man whose influence and oversight led to what I have frequently referred to as the jewel in ArenaNet's crown, its ineffably confident, secure and professional visual style.

Thirdly, freighted with the most emotional heft by far, came the news that Emily "Domino" Taylor is leaving Daybreak Games. Domino is not only my personal pick for the most consistently reliable MMO developer with whose work I am directly familiar but also the one who is most clearly emblematic of what I believe a developer should be.

Her work is not just sprightly, lively and fun but also logical, coherent and constructive. In two lengthy stints, first with SOE and then with DBG, she both created a wealth of excellent content herself and inspired an extended period in which development around her appeared to take a healthy, positive direction.

Also she once posted a comment on this blog, which, apart from being pleasing for my ego, demonstrates a degree of involvement with the wider hobby that exemplifies why my own attitudes towards the people who make it all possible have changed so much over time. We really are all in this together.

What these three personnel changes mean for the industry as a whole and the MMOs I play in particular is not yet clear. That. naturally, won't deter me from speculating.

As far as impact on existing games goes, probably the move that will impact players the least is Daniel Dociu's departure. The look and feel of GW2 is by now surely too established to change significantly. What's more, Daniel is succeeded in post by his son, Horia, who has himself been working on the same team for as long as his father. I would expect business as usual to be the watchword there.

Domino has left Norrath before. Based on previous evidence I wouldn't expect to see any radical change of direction in EQ2 either. Last time crafting, Domino's prime, although not sole, area of influence, carried on by and large along the same heading. You don't just slot in another visionary of Domino's class, though, and while it was steady sailing without her last time the difference when she returned was immediate and marked. She will be missed but how much depends on who replaces her and what resources they are given to empower their own vision.

Smed, of course, doesn't leave a game behind him from which he could be missed. Hero's Song crashed and burned. The MassivelyOP thread following the announcement is filled with conspiracy theories pondering the timing and the provenance of that simple, uncomfortable fact. Not to mention how very closely the staff of Smedley's new San Diego operation reassembles that of Pixel Games. Oh well, at least everyone got their money back. Somehow.

Looking to the future, the prospects for us as players and the three developers (if we can call Smed that) seem more vague. There seems to be no information available yet about where Daniel Dociu might go or what he might do. All that's said is that he's leaving ArenaNet. He's 59. He might be taking early retirement. He might be ill. He might be changing career paths.

Dociu certainly has no shortage of options. To quote his own biographical details, "Daniel is a prolific freelance artist, contributing to numerous publications, advertising, film and world wide educational and public speaking engagements. With his skill and talent any MMO would be lucky to nab him but I'll be quite surprised if any does. Even Amazon.

Domino already has a new job. She's just not ready to tell us what it is. Unless she's remote-working it won't be Amazon for her, either: "it feels like time to return home to Canada, and remember what shoveling snow is like" she commented with typical whimsy. With her management background it could easily be any kind of supervisory position but her heart always seems to be set in gaming so it would be a surprise to see her re-appear in an unrelated industry. Does Canada have any MMO developers though?

All of which just leaves Smed, who one Massively commenter memorably described as a cross between a cat and a cockroach because he always falls on his feet and would probably survive a nuclear war. I savored that comment because otherwise it's disturbing the way the tone of the comments on Massively have veered of late towards some kind of rehabilitation for Smedley.

The previous knee-jerk reaction that could be relied on to paint the industry veteran as some kind of mustachio-twirling villain from a Victorian melodrama is being replaced by an equally un-nuanced picture of Smed as The Old Lion brought down by hyenas. To me he seems more and more like a management executive who, whether by inclination or imperative, has donned the clothes of a creative. He reminds me a little of the great Rock Managers of yore - Peter Grant or Colonel Tom Parker or, perhaps most tellingly of all, Malcolm McLaren.

What games Amazon want or expect him to make we have no idea. It would seem odd if it was anything entirely different from the games he's famous for but whether it will be something old-time MMO players will want to acknowledge or own as an MMO I wouldn't be so sure. Early talk of "an ambitious new project that taps into the power of the AWS Cloud and Twitch to connect players around the globe in a thrilling new game world" suggest something most people reading this probably will only download out of curiosity.

Whatever the future holds for these three significant players in the field I wish them all well. Even Smed, although where he's concerned I mostly hope Amazon keep him the hell away from any MMO I'm trying to play. Oh well, I guess if anyone has the infrastructure to shrug off a DDOS attack it would be Amazon.

Video games in general and MMOs in particular are strange. Here we are, talking about these people and the impact their job changes may have on our entertainment and yet the youngest of the three, Domino, must be in her early 40s, while Smed is in his late 40s and Daniel Dociu almost 60. The average age of the people who make our MMOs seems out of kilter with what I see in other media I consume, where the drive and innovation comes mostly from people twenty or thirty years younger.

If there's to be a real step-change in MMOs I'm not sure it can ever come from giant corporations like Amazon or industry veterans like Smed. While I'll watch what they do with interest it won't be with any great expectation. When change comes it will be sudden and from a direction no-one's looking.

Or we can hope so, at least.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Backsliding : GW2, EQ2

Jeromai appears to be reaching the very limit of his patience with GW2 and the people running it and who can blame him? He makes some extremely apposite and valid observations, both on his own blog and in the comments to this one, about how a game one touted by its developers as a shining example of inclusivity caved on its principles to become the very opposite:

"Guild Wars 2, an egalitarian enjoyable game, bent over to cater to the strident demands of the "we need raids and like the exclusivity it brings because then I can feel better than others" subset and ripped apart the community in the process."

It's true. It's also utterly confounding. Over the lifespan of GW2 other MMOs, almost across the board, have progressively withdrawn from exclusivity in favor of a variety of mechanisms designed and intended to open up previously elite content to the widest possible audience.

WoW introduced "Looking For Raid" to facilitate pick-up raiding. Rift created Intrepid Adventures "to give all players a chance to experience some of the lore of the high level raids". LotRO redesigned Fellowship Quests so that they could be soloed rather than requiring a full group.

There are many similar examples of MMO developers re-tuning their games to reflect reality: players are less social than they were, they don't play as often or for as long as they did and they have a lot less patience for anything that they don't find fun. As Jeromai points out "Wildstar should have been an object lesson in catering to only one small subgroup and expecting the bills to be paid."

Of the MMOs I play the one that has benefited the most from this change of attitude is EQ2. It's a game that has always had a storyline but for many years it was a narrative largely recounted in raid instances. 

At some point when I wasn't paying close attention this began to change. When I returned after a break and played through the 2012 and 2013 expansions Chains of Eternity and Tears of Veeshan I was surprised to find the entire storyline laid out for me, not just in the open world zones but in specially-created Solo and Advanced Solo instances that mirrored those for groups and even raids.

By the time we got to last years Kunark Ascending the sales pitch made that realignment abundantly clear: "All new dungeons for Solo, Heroic, and Raid parties alike". Note that equivalence. It's important.

The move towards inclusivity extends to open world content as well as instancing. ESO recently flattened the level barrier with the "One Tamriel" initiative and EQ2 has long had the option to recalibrate your character's level to match the zone.

Then there are the open world, raid-like events that bypass traditional raid requirements. Generally considered to have originated in Warhammer Online's "Public Quests" before being refined and formulated by Rift with its "rifts" and "invasions", this kind of all-pile-on, zerg-friendly content perhaps reached its apotheosis of public acceptance in last year's pre-event for WoW's "Legion" expansion.

GW2 was an early adopter and something of a market leader for this kind of thing. The game has auto-leveling maps and well before launch ANet made a huge play of the "Dynamic Events" system. However original, let alone mold-breaking that may have been in 2012, nearly five years later it appears little different from the industry standard.

Rift certainly did much of what GW2 does back when GW2 wasn't even in beta and EQ2 has been dabbling with this kind of open-access, inclusive, large scale content since 2011's Destiny of Velious expansion, albeit with mixed success. The current iteration that came with Kunark Ascending, however, is proving extremely popular.

Four months after the expansion arrived, every day at the time I play, which isn't even during North American prime, there's a good chance there will be multiple instances running for Obolous Frontier, Jarsath Wastes and Fens of Nathsar. General chat pings constantly with calls for OF2 or JW3 and ad hoc pick-up raids form, although there's no requirement to be in a raid to participate. 

It's all remarkably good-humored. Other than the occasional request that someone drops a mercenary to make space for another player I have seen absolutely no histrionics, arguing, complaining or elitist jerkism. 

The events are fun although the aging EQ2 engine does make it hard to tell what's going on at times. They are popular primarily, though, not so much for the gameplay as because they are immediately accessible to anyone of the appropriate level and they offer a good chance of desirable rewards.

In this respect Blizzard and Daybreak, like Trion before them, seem to understand something that ANet have never acknowledged, namely that giving people what they want will get them to log in and play. In GW2 the expectation is always that you won't get anything you want from doing an event; in other MMOs you know it's not guaranteed but you feel you're in with a fighting chance.

Contrary to popular belief, GW2 mobs do have desirable drops. Every mob has an infinitesimal chance to drop a variety of "good" items, while "named" mobs such as World Bosses have specific items on their loot tables. The problem isn't what they can drop. It's what they do drop. GW2 has always been exceptionally ungenerous in its in-game rewards. Even though the frequency has been tweaked upwards over the years it remains far and away the most miserly of any major MMO I have played.

This ethos of scarcity (or should we call it meanness?) doesn't extend only to drops from mobs. It even includes holiday events. Compare the recent Lunar New Year event in GW2, in which about the only interesting item (and that's stretching a point) was to be found as a very rare drop from Lucky Envelopes, with the holiday running in EQ2 right now, Erollisi Day.

Erollisi Day is Norrath's analog of Valentine's. It's a relatively minor holiday in the Norrathian calendar. It brings with it nothing much more than ten repeatable quests, six one time only quests, ten achievements, nine books of crafting recipes, a collection, a race and two vendors selling holiday items of all kinds.

Every year the developers add something new and occasionally they retire something old from the line-up. This year they added a short quest called You Don't Bring Me Flowers, which I did with my Berserker on the Skyfire server. It was simple and straightforward and it netted me a pink, patchwork baby dragon for my house.

That was a reward worth considerably more to me than the small effort it required. I logged in my Shadowknight on the Time-Limited Expansion server, Stormhold with the intention of getting him a dragon too. I then found myself wrapped up in all the other entertainment on offer. I ended up taking him racing, doing the collect and completing several of the older holiday quests until eventually I ran out of time before I got around to the doing the thing I came for. I'll be going back again for the little pink dragon and I'll try to get it for several of my other characters as well.

Before that, while I was there on my Berserker I noticed some calls for a Public Quest in Kylong Plains. I didn't know there was a KQPQ. I traveled there by world bell, asked for a raid invite in chat, clicked on the window that popped up, flew to the spot on the map and joined in what turned out to be one of the best PQs I've seen in EQ2 and certainly the most visually appealing.

All of this I did instead of what I'd expected to be doing, namely the new GW2 stuff that came with last week's update. I did it because it was fun, it was easy and it was inclusive. It was, in fact, the very antithesis of  "preparing to have fun rather than just having fun".

Those, by the way, are the three words I used to associate quite specifically with Guild Wars 2: fun, easy, inclusive. The addition of instanced raiding (now with even more elite "Challenge" mode!) and the tuning of more and more content, including both open world and solo instances, towards players able to demonstrate skill sets honed in and for a raid environment, seems to me to mitigate strongly against all of them.

It's painfully ironic that it's GW2 that seems to be focused on adding elite content right at the time other MMOs are tearing it down. For a game that Mike O'Brien promised wasn't about to "fall into the traps of traditional MMORPGs" it seems to be making a pretty good fist right now of jumping feet first into the very same traps those traditional MMOs finally escaped.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

If You Like This Sort Of Thing, This Is The Sort Of Thing You'll Like: GW2

What is there to say about the fourth installment of GW2's third Living Story season? I've been pondering that question for a few days and I'm not sure I have much in the way of an answer but the phrase "More of the Same" keeps pushing itself to the front of my thoughts.

I share a considerable frustration and discontent with Jeromai, who's posted several times on the update already, over the general direction and approach the game is taking. There was a brief period following the sudden departure of Colin Johanson, when it seemed GW2 might be returning to the inclusive, casual-friendly, supposedly mold-breaking tenets of the now-infamous Manifesto, but those days proved to be short-lived.

GW2 in 2017 is primarily a game of instances. The original concept of a sprawling open-world game in which "you can just naturally play with all the people around you" is long dead. Or, rather, part of it is entirely dead, fenced off in Raid instances accessed only by the typical self-appointed "elite" that clusters in  the velvet-roped curated spaces of every theme-park MMO, while much of the rest is on life-support, sustained by the artificial stimulus of map-specific currencies and daily rewards.

Jennah's first dome: created without explanation and later expanded without explanation to cover the entire city. I want to play that Mesmer.
Indeed, each of the new supposedly "open-world" maps added with the four chapters of the current Living Story might as well be instances. An ANet developer was reported recently as saying that open-world maps in GW2 represent historical periods rather than the current timeline, something that is self-evident yet rarely acknowledged. With these maps, tied as they are to a fixed narrative, all of which plays out in personal instances, that has never been more obvious.

The thrilling promo video for "Head of the Snake" led many to hope, some to fear and a few to assume that Divinity's Reach might be due for the treatment previously meted out to Lion's Arch. A re-run of Scarlet's assault on the pirate city seemed altogether too much to hope for and indeed so it proved.

At risk of spoilers, although it's apparent from the screenshot at the top of the post, which is the view of the Human capital as seen from Lake Doric, the walls of Divinity's Reach do not fall. In fact, contrary to the evidence of that video and the in-game cut scenes, they don't appear to suffer any significant damage whatsoever.

Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
When Scarlet was rampaging across Tyria, pulling godlike ex-machina plot devices from her seemingly bottomless bag of tricks, she was roundly condemned as a Mary Sue of the worst possible stripe. That assessment was, I always felt, tempered somewhat by the later discovery that she was the catspaw of an actual, quasi-godlike entity, the elder dragon Mordremoth.

Who, then, perhaps we should be asking ourselves, stands behind Queen Jennah's newly-acquired, miraculous powers? How is it that this former poster-girl for hapless, helpless love interest, the Penelope Pitstop of Kryta whose plaintive calls for help caused Logan Thackeray to abandon Snaff to his death, collapse all hope of defeating the crystal dragon Kralkatorrik and bring to a chaotic and acrimonious end the dragon-slaying guild Destiny's Edge, can suddenly cause instant death with a flick of her wrist and raise and maintain an impenetrable dome across an entire city at a moment's notice?

It may be that, as with Scarlet, there is at least a semi-coherent explanation but if so it remains, like the influence of Mordremoth, at best dimly sensed and obscure. Or it could just be bloody awful plotting. Either way, we are not getting a two or three month long version of The Battle for Lion's Arch. We're getting a permanent map that forever records the short few hours of Minister Caudecus's futile revolution.

Let me talk to him, Your Majesty. I'm fluent in the universal language of quest-markers.

Kind of a living tableau rather than a Living World. Disappointing. Unambitious. Tame. Also practical and apparently very popular if both the current buzz in map chat and the outpourings of praise on the forums are any guide.

The sad and inevitable conclusion seems to be that not enough people wanted the vision of that manifesto. As we have discussed many times, the distance between what people claim they want and what they actually want is like interstellar space.

I have a worrying feeling that had ANet chosen to make their sequel to GW2 something that followed rather than broke with the existing MMO conventions of it's time then it might have become the closest thing to the fabled "WoW-killer" the genre has seen. It could have been FFXIV: A Realm Revisited a year earlier in other words.

Backwards into the future? Here's hoping.

They did not choose that path and they have paid the penalty. They made a game that wasn't quite what their market segment wanted and when they shifted to accommodate those expectations the market itself changed away from them. If someone in ANet towers is drafting a design doc for GW3 right now I imagine the words "survival" and "sandbox" are somewhere prominent.

We are, as they say, where we are. Not only is there no hint of a GW3 (and since the official position is that GW2 will run as the company's primary product indefinitely that's not a hint we're likely to be given for a long time yet) there's still no official news or even announcement of the second expansion.

What we have are these increasingly formulaic assertions of "content" that arrive under the flag of the Living Story. It's not nothing. It is, arguably, an improvement on Living Story 2, although I struggle to recall, without going to look it up, what actually happened in that season.

If only all of Kryta looked like this.

The new map is a fair size and quite interesting. The events are, perhaps, less rigidly organized than Bitterfrost or Ember Bay. There is, to some slight extent, a more organic, unpredictable pace.

The art department, ANet's one indisputable star asset, has done its usual, expected best but this is Kryta they've been given to work with and there's only so much you can do with scrub grass and dirt. Not to mention there's a war going on.

The promised challenging, group-oriented "leather farm" (oh, the mental pictures that conjures...) turns out to be a big hill with hundreds of fast-spawning centaurs. As Jeromai reports it benefits from a full zerg rather than a mere "group" but since what's farmed turns out to be almost entirely the wrong kind of leather, whether zergs will be easy to come by seems less than certain.

Anybody fancy the Leather Farm? Guys? Please don't report me!

As for the story, the usual fear of spoilers prevents me from going into too much detail. Suffice it to say that if Queen Jennah is not being mind-controlled and if Countess Anise is not revealed to be a major villain at some point then we as players are effectively being asked not just to condone but to endorse fascism. It's a queasy scenario. I hope the writers know what they are doing.

The story arc of the chapter, something most players take to be intended as solo content, ends with one of ANet's trademark annoying, pointless, attritional boss fights. These are always inappropriate to the context but we are all by now inured to them. This one, however, was so execrably tuned that forum outrage erupted (again) and a very swift and quite severe nerf to difficulty followed.

I completed it on the first attempt under the original difficulty. This is not any indication of my skill as a player. I happened to be doing it on my heal-specced Druid and I simply bored the Boss to death. Even so I died about half a dozen times. Mrs Bhagpuss, on hearing about it, declined even to attempt it and now hasn't logged in to the game for three days.

This made me laugh.

There were plenty of things I enjoyed. Some of the dialog and cut scenes were above par. Countess Anise infuriates me so much that I literally shout at the screen when she's on. That has to count as successful writing or voice acting or both. Canach has become one of my favorite NPCs. I laughed out loud several times at his snide, drawling sarcasms.

There were also plot developments that surprised and intrigued. I do think that trying to tell a coherent narrative in this extenuated, disparate fashion would challenge even the best of writers and video games do not generally attract the best of writers or, probably, the second or third best. Still, they are making a fist of it and I remain involved.

But then I'm a sucker for meta-textuality.

Mechanically there was one worthwhile innovation. At various points there are interactive objects or even creatures that respond only to one class. I spotted a turret only engineers could use and my druid was able to tame an attacking mob mid-fight and turn it on its trainer. That was oddly satisfying.

Also of note is the addition of vendor-purchasable paintings and furniture that can be placed in Guild Halls. Our tiny guild has no guild hall (although the large WvW guild I'm also in does) so the reason for the excitement this awoke in me when I happened upon it isn't perhaps obvious.

You really want that thing in your personal instance?
I'm calling it here: this is laying the foundation for some kind of personal housing in the expansion. As is the otherwise incomprehensible obsession with cats. There are a couple of new ones in the update - a ghostly one in Lake Doric and a very odd, bloodstone-tainted example in Caudecus's Manor. If these aren't future housing systems undergoing live testing then Anet are even more inscrutable than I imagine.

In summary, then, "Head of the Snake" is not by any means a bad update. It's adequate; satisfactory, even. Had it been the first chapter of this season I imagine I would be almost fulsome in my praise. The problem is one of diminishing returns. Having found a format that the playerbase appears to deem more acceptable than either the open-world sprawl and bi-monthly cadence of LS1 or the shut-down, buttoned-up isolation of LS2, ANet unsurprisingly seem keen to play it for all it's worth.

I'm just not sure how much that is or how long the goodwill can be sustained before the inevitable ennui takes over once again.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

A Toe In The Water : Aion

Today I downloaded Aion. I wasn't planning to. It's probably fair to say it wasn't on my agenda for this year let alone this week. But there were several comments on yesterday's post from people whose opinions I respect suggesting it might be the sort of thing I'd enjoy and what with the GW2 update being a day late thanks to snow in Seattle, I thought I might as well give it a try.

Well, I say I downloaded it. I downloaded some of it. I thought it looked suspiciously light at just over 5GB. That turned out to be the feint for a 40GB sucker punch.

The download comes in nine stages. Once you get those first five gigs you can log in and play while the rest fills in behind you. In theory.

At a steady 3mb/s the first part didn't take long but unfortunately it added a three second skill lag to GW2, playing hob with Mrs Bhagpuss's defense of the home borderland, so I had to wait for a convenient break in the action.

In the meantime I visited the website, which is slick and confidence-inspiring. There's plenty of detailed information including a level-by-level guide on where to go and what to do from creation to cap. I flicked through the race choices (two, both human) and the classes (the usual four plus two slightly more interesting variations) and read a bit about the general gameplay.

He's behind you!

I'm not entirely sure why I was so uninterested in Aion back when it was new. The meaningless, bland name didn't help (I say "meaningless" although Wikipedia takes another view entirely). Neither did the lack of interesting playable races. It always looked uninspiring in the screenshots I saw, with a particularly insipid color palette and a fussy aesthetic. Then there was the compulsory PvP at level 25, too. That was off-putting back then.

Looking through the information and pictures in the website guides, though, not much seems to match that faded impression. It looks and sounds like most any other mainstream MMO of its era. Even the "compulsory" PvP seems to be more of an option than I remembered and anyway I've played so many MMOs since then that supposedly make you PvP in the course of leveling (Allods, ArcheAge, Black Desert...) that it's a non-issue by now.

Once the necessary files were installed I hit Play and the launcher crashed. I tried again and it worked that time. Character creation was impressive. Lots of sliders, yes, but all the ones I tried did actually change something I could see without a magnifying glass. There were plenty of presets too for those who don't want to micro-manage their eyelashes. You can also make a character so short it might as well be a gnome or so bulky it could be an ogre if you really want to. I didn't want to - yet.

Start as you mean to go on, I always say.

I managed to get a character the look of which I really liked. In close up, that is. In third person from behind, as I'll see her for most of whatever time I play, she looks as anonymous as every other F2P human female but at least she should look good posing in front of a sunset.

What she sounds like I can't say because although there were a range of voice choices and a button to test them, all that emerged was an electronic beep. I picked one at random. I hope she doesn't yell too much.Or cackle. Can't abide a cackler.

The game recommended a server for me. In fact it recommended all the servers that were available. I went with the one that was highlighted, which turned out to be the "Fast Track" server. It seems Aion has a server that runs double xp all the time. That's a novel solution to helping new players catch up to the pack.

It's also one of those games with "channels" as well as "servers" meaning you can hot-swap from Fast Track to Standard. I found that out because I was trying to escape the insane rubber-band lag that made the game almost completely unplayable.

I might have overdone one or two of the sliders just a tad...

Whether that was my connection or, as I suspect, a side-effect of the other 35GB choking my pipe in the background, I'm not sure. I guess I'll find out when I have the whole lot downloaded. I gave up around 20GBs. I'll get the rest when we're both asleep or out of the house.

I did manage to bounce as far as the nearest village. Oddly there seemed to be no quests at all where my Technist (Engineer or Gunner to you) spawned. Or indeed any NPCs. Just some odd creatures that, naturally, I killed to see what they would drop. Gold was all.

Visually the game had that same, overstretched, flat look I associate with almost all Eastern imports. It reminded me a lot of Argo, an MMO I liked quite a bit. Starting areas in most MMOs are very plain so as not to frighten the nervous so I'm not going to read too much into what I've seen so far.

Daeva already has some connotations that probably weren't intended
without adding "Teenage" to the front of it.
In the village I managed to find two quests. Neither of them was anything like I expected. I thought someone would want some rodents killed or a wasp nest cleared from an outhouse but no. The very first person I spoke to wanted me to buy her some flowers from the in-game store. Usually they wait until at least the fifth quest before pulling that one.

The other guy wanted something I didn't quite follow and I didn't take a screenshot and now I can't remember what it was, just that it confused me. Both quests were reasonably well-written in idiomatic English, though, so that's a positive. Quite funny, too, one of them.

And that's as far as I got. When I'm going to get the time to explore further I have no idea. The GW2 update finally dropped about five paragraphs into this post so I stopped and did that for about four hours before I came back to finish up here. I'd guess that will occupy the rest of the week at least.

Still, Aion looks interesting enough to investigate further, provided the lag lets up. We'll see.

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

The Snake That Eats Itself : GW2

This is going to be one of those posts that rambles on about how there's so much going on in the MMO world no-one can possibly have the time to get around to it all so how can anyone say the genre's in the dumper, I mean, honestly, you guys! Well, maybe not exactly one of those but you have been warned.

I am a really bad witness for this sort of thing and not just for MMOs either. I've been told (by another grumpy fiftysomething) that I'm extremely atypical for my age because I think modern music is every bit as good as the stuff I grew up with and because I think the writing in young adult novels in the 21st century doesn't just stand up to anything I was reading when I was "that age" but gives most contemporary adult fiction more than a run for its money and basically because I think doors are opening not closing most of the time.

It's odd. I would never have painted my own portrait with my glass half full. I'd have thought I was no-one's vision of an optimist. It was only about fifteen years ago that I finally stopped describing myself as a nihilist (I must post the free verse nihilist manifesto I wrote when I was seventeen or so sometime - it's only six pages of A4 and it has tigers).

I'm still not sure that tearing everything down and starting over's such a bad idea. It's more that I'm getting too old to relish the inconvenience the way I once would have done. Still, somehow I seem to have ended up on the kittens and rainbows bench and I never saw that coming. I guess the culture has just moved past me when it comes to cynicism and black despair.

So, if you ask me when  the Golden Age of MMOs was I might as easily say "tomorrow" as anything else. And today's looking pretty golden too.

I'm sitting here freestyling this, listening to the blandly-named but rather chunky Rah Rah, one of the flurry of Canadian, Indonesian or Korean indie bands the wonderful world of YouTube has opened for me these last few days, as I eagerly anticipate the arrival of GW2's fourth episode of Living Story 3, "The Head of the Snake".

There's something about Canadian indie that seems almost unbearably sweet. I love all the home-made videos set in the woods or in small towns that don't look quite of this world. It reminds me of Northern Exposure and yes I know that was Alaska, even if most of it was filmed in Washington State. It's all Northern, innit?

Where was I? Oh yes, GW2. So, apparently Divinity's Reach is next in line for the Lion's Arch treatment. Is there any MMO developer so blase about trashing its own best work as ArenaNet? They do seem to take a positive joy in self-destruction.

We'll know in a few hours whether those siege engines are really going to wreck one of the most perfectly-realized cities in MMOdom. My money's on not. Either way, that video got my pulse racing, which was, I guess, the intention.

 I was also sufficiently motivated by the news that the promised housing update for The Elder Scrolls Online has gone live to go ferreting among my loose hard drives looking for where I had the thing installed. I had three hard drives in my old PC but when I replaced it last spring I took them all out and stacked them by the bookcase.

Seems ESO isn't on any of them. Nor is it on either of my two USB portable drives. Nor my 64GB USB stick that I use to take the MMOs on holiday that I never play. I have no idea where it is. It must be somewhere because I almost never uninstall MMOs. I just buy more drives. I still have two full installations of Landmark. I think I even have Zentia somewhere "just in case"...

If I can't find it, and it looks as though I can't, then I suppose I'll have to download the entire thing again. It's not something I want to do because MMOs these days are huge. Also, as I was discussing in the comments over at Going Commando, I might want to download SW:tOR sooner rather than later and I bet that thing has a footprint like a yeti.

SW:tOR is one of a short list of MMOs I don't particularly want to play but feel I probably should just for completeness sake. Aion's another. And EVE of course. It's always easy to keep shoving them to the back of the list because I don't actually want to play any of them, I just think I probably should. Space settings don't appeal to me much and there was something about Aion that just put me off right at the start. I think it was the colors. Or maybe the name.

EVE going F2P means I really don't have much of an excuse not to try it eventually but equally it means there's no urgency. SW:tOR is arguably a more urgent case since BioWare, these days one of my less-loved developers although I can't really put a finger on what they might have done to offend me, upped the ante with a two-month xp blitz and not any old double xp either but a 250% ramp.

Paradoxically, as someone who professes to prefer low levels and slow leveling, I'm a real sucker for accelerated xp. It pushes all my bargain-hunter buttons, makes me feel I'm getting something for nothing, even though what I'm likely getting is rushed through content I'd enjoy more if I took it slower. Oh well, a rational consumer I'm not.

For an MMO I don't especially want to play anyway, though, I guess it does make some kind of backwards sense. If I don't like it it would be over faster and if I do I can stop and come back later when the foot comes off the pedal.

Let's be realistic here. I don't have time for ESO or SW:tOR. I added Legion to my WoW account three months ago and any window of free time that opens up between now and the next GW2 expansion (where IS that, anyway??) is penciled in for Azeroth.

I'm about finished up on the last EQ2 expansion at least as far as my Berserker goes. The main story's all done and he's nicely geared for solo. Next comes the gear grind to upgrade everything, the spell grind, the faction grind, all that good stuff that keeps people subbed 'til next time. I can skip that.

There's a level 100 Inquisitor and Necromancer to take through the story though. I might chip away at them over the coming months. And there will be a new "Race to..." server soon, I'm sure. Always something going on in Norrath. No urgency right now though.

The Revelation Online beta got extended by a week but I've not played any more. I like it but not enough to whittle away on characters that won't be around in a month or two. I'll get back to it when the launch comes, which can't be long. Then forget it in a matter of weeks and never play again.

So fickle. But there's just so much to choose from and so much of it's so interesting.

Here's a little list of the MMOs I want to be playing enough to think about them but not enough to, y'know, log in:

Dragon Nest Oracle
Black Desert
Blade & Soul

And those are just the one I have installed on my main drive.

I patched up Rift yesterday. Been a while. And going to be a while longer, I fear. After a 3Gb download I logged in to find my character in freefall between the above-the-sky and below-the-world on an infinite loop. Nothing would stop it, not even the /stuck command. I even joined an Instant Adventure, as recommended for stuck players in the in-game tips, and was able to complete quests and gain xp all from an entirely different zone while still falling. Trion: leading developers of the idle MMO.

Dragomon Hunter also eludes me since I lost my log-in and password. It's from Aeria Games who also publish Twin Saga, which I have downloaded but have yet to try because I wanted to use the same details. I guess I should make a new I.D. and start both from scratch but I'm not sure I want to play either of them that much.

Anyhooo... that killed an hour while I wait for the GW2 content patch to drop. Not that we're content-starved in Tyria you understand. (Where's that frickin' second xpack???).

If I ever actually get any of these games updated and get around to playing them I'll maybe have something to say about it. Meanwhile, have another from Rah Rah. No, thank you - for getting this far.

Saturday, 4 February 2017

Moving Away From The Pulsebeat : Tanzia, Antilia, Ninelives

Like most of the quondam MMO blogs in my Feedly, Massively OP, whose very raison d'étre used to be MMOs, has diversified somewhat as the genre has drifted from the spotlight. Consequently it didn't come as much of a surprise this morning when I saw yet another post covering something that professedly isn't an MMO.

It was more unusual to find the game in question - Tanzia - isn't even going to be online when it launches, supposedly later this year. Of course, the question of what is or isn't "online" is hard to parse these days. Tanzia is already on Steam, which, for my definitional purposes at least, makes it an online game even if it has an offline mode too.

Leaving nit-picking definitions over distribution platforms aside, what really interests me here are  the possibilities for massively multiple online gaming with the massive, the multiple and the online all taken out. On the face of it that's reductio ad absurdam. An MMORPG without the MMO is just an RPG, isn't it?

Except it isn't. I've tried to play a few RPGs over the last decade and a half and more since I first caught the taint. In the early years, coming down off RPGs like Return to Krondor and Might and Magic VII, I managed a couple more before the MMO train picked up speed. Baldur's Gate 2 was the last one I finished. That was sixteen years ago.

Somehow I just haven't been able to settle into any offline RPG since I discovered EverQuest. They seem flat and empty and pointless somehow. You'd think that would be the futility of solitude. Only I'm not sure that's true.

Increasingly over the years my MMO play, like most peoples', probably, has been self-focused. Even when we play with others nowadays it's often not in the way it once would have been. For a decade and more almost all the direction of developmental travel for the genre has aimed towards self-sufficiency. Short of whatever passes for an end-game, at least.

Outside of raiding, which has always been considered a minority interest within the hobby, the entire thrust of MMO gameplay has passed from group to individual. Questing is largely a solo activity these days as is leveling. Crafting interactions are generally limited to transactions through an NPC moderated brokerage.

Even supposedly group-oriented activities like running dungeons or taking down overland Boss Monsters get handed on to automated group-finders, leaving players to run in packs, sharing buffs and heals and bouncing aggro without the time-drag of having to organize or even speak to each other. The UI and the matchmaking algorithms handle everything so much more efficiently, after all.

Given the way we play now - the way I play now - what should I be missing in an offline rpg? Why do they feel so off-kilter, so skittery-wrong? It could be the lack of conversation, perhaps. For all the supposed solipsism and insularity fostered by modern MMO mechanics I, for one, talk as much in game as I ever did, which is a lot.

I was one of the people making Lake of Ill Omen /ooc infamous back at the turn of the century. Not, I hasten to add, for any trolling or filter-testing profanity but for yakking incessantly about in-game stuff as if everyone cared what I thought about every little last thing. I've rowed back some over the years but I still would as soon jump into a debate as tab out.

And chat channels in MMOs are as buzzing as ever they were. In GW2 map and EQ2 general the stream of consciousness never stops. It's like radio for the eyes.

So maybe that's why offline rpgs don't work for me? Well, I thought that too, until I played Ninelives. Ninelives was going to be an MMO before developers Smokymonkeys found they'd bitten off more than they could chew and turned it into an "open world online RPG".

That history resulted in a game that looks, feels and plays exactly like an MMO with the two Ms dropped. Unlike Syp, who didn't take to it when he visited, I found myself instantly at home there. Partly that was the wonderful, bleak, elegaic feel to the world but a lot of it was the very familiar mechanics and structure.

As Syp observed, "It’s an MMO in feel but completely devoid of a mark of any other player" but for once I never felt that lack for a moment. It didn't matter that there were no other player characters running past me on the roads or pushing in front of me at the bank. I never even noticed the absence of chatter. I was too busy exploring, questing, gearing up, sorting my bags...

Too busy playing my own, personal MMO. In the end is that it? Does it come down to the mechanics? Is that why this genre has the hold over me that it does?

It's a given of any discussion of why people go on playing MMOs for so much longer than they play other video games, why they play them long after they even claim to be enjoying themselves, that it's all abut the community. Supposedly it's the relationships you form inside the games, the friends you make, your guilds and your buddy list and the times you shared. All about that.

Well, some of it's about that, sure. Mrs Bhagpuss and I sometimes reminisce about people we grouped with back in 2004 in just the same way we remember people we used to go drinking or partying with back then. But we don't see those people any more and yet we still play the games. I, in particular, even still play the very same MMOs, even though not a single person I knew back then plays any of them now.

So, what I'm wondering is this: has playing MMOs, for me, always been more about the mechanics than the people? And if so, and assuming I'm far from alone in feeling that way, even though it may not be socially or culturally acceptable, yet, to admit it, then why have MMO developers been so reluctant to cash in? Why are there no offline spin-offs from WoW or EQ or Runescape or Lineage or the rest of the long-running titles with tens or hundreds of millions of current and former players?

What's more, when each ex-successful MMO sunsets, as the Asherons Calls did this month, instead of taking a PR hit for doing nothing, instead of letting private servers and emulators soak up the disenfranchised, why not package up some existing assets, throw an offline version together and sell it for those tear-stained nostalgia dollars?

How hard can it be? I mean, you already have all the art assets and game systems. Psychochild points out some technical difficulties in his comment to TAGN but how many of those problems would be intractable with a non-networked offer?

That's a tangent though. Emulators will serve the needs of the nostalgia market well enough for any MMO large enough to have a commercial market in its afterlife. My real interest is in the prospects for offline, single player MMOs as a self-sustaining sub-genre.

The outcomes that I'm aware of so far haven't been great. Smokymonkeys, which is basically two guys in Japan plus a musician and some community help with the translations, threw in the towel a while back. The game is still up for now but development is suspended. It may remain playable as-is but as a game running on someone else's servers, not your own PC, any progress you might make or attachment you might feel is unbearably fragile. I could wake up any day and find it all gone which puts me off trying.

Another game I've had my eye on - Antilia - is nowhere even that close to being a permanent presence in anyone's life. This one seems to be a single-developer project. It was going to be an MMO but that proved too much to handle so now it's aiming to become a "sandbox-style RPG, featuring both single and multi-player game modes".

I hope it makes it because it looks very much like a game I'd want to play. More so, really, than the brasher, brighter, flashier, faster Tanzia. Tanzia, though, looks like it might actually happen and happen this year, at that.

If it does I'll be giving it a go. I'd like to find out once and for all whether an internet connection really is essential to play the only kind of game I've wanted to play these last seventeen years.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide