Saturday, September 15, 2018

In My Element : EQ2

I count myself lucky, growing up in a culture that worships irony as a god. I've have never had much difficulty holding two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time.

It seems quite normal to me and it's a skill that comes in very handy at times. With the ink scarcely dry on my last post, the one with all the entitled whining about the formulaic nature of current-day GW2, here I am again, posting in praise of something equally predictable, happening in another MMO.

The way that I found out about the upcoming EQ2 expansion and the associated event came with ironic overtones of its own. Massively OP reported it ( not once but twice), both times off the back of tips from Wilhelm at TAGN. That made me wonder about a couple of things.

How come a website like MassivelyOP, which exists primarily to recycle puff pieces from MMORPG comany PR departments, needs to be informed by a reader about the official announcement of a new expansion for a well-known game that they cover regularly? Do DBG not send out press releases any more? Or is MassivelyOP no longer on their mailing list?

Maybe it's just that no-one at M:OP has time to read them. We're all busy these days and I imagine Massively gets a lot of mail. Perhaps that's all it is; a simple oversight.

Or maybe they're having trouble with their feeds, like I seem to be. After all, how come Wilhelm, who rarely plays EQ2 these days, knows about these things before I do? Particularly since I have both EQ2Traders and the main EQ2 News from the official website in my Feedly?

You're a big man but you're out of shape.
I can at least answer that one. I just checked the RSS feeds and the EQ2 News one was dead. I fixed it and now it's fine so I should be as up to date on all things EQ2 as anyone from now on. Feedly claims there's nothing wrong with the EQ2Traders link so I guess I'll just have to keep a closer eye on it. Maybe I should add it to my Blog Roll. I use it far more than Feedly these days, anyway.

Sources nothwistanding, I do now know that there will be an expansion for EQ2 this November. Then again, contrary to Massively's suspicions, we did already know that. It was in a Producer's Letter sometime back in February. The thing we didn't know is that it will be called Chaos Descending. Odd name. Then again, we had Kunark Ascending a couple of years back and I guess what goes up must come down.

Other than the name, all we know so far is that we're staying in the Planes. In the last expansion, Planes of Prophecy, we visited the Planes of Magic, Disease and Innovation as well as dropping in on the gods Karana and Solusek Ro in their respective fortresses (Bastion of Thunder and Sol Ro's Tower).  We also got to spend time in what appeared to be the lobby to the Plane of Valor without ever setting foot in the plane itself.

Oh, and after we put Innoruuk back together we got to visit the Plane of Hate, too. Which was nice. Or rather it wasn't.

Can't say I didn't warn him.
None of those are actual elements, though. This time round we get to go to the proper Elemental Planes: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Or as we call them in Norrath, the Earthen Badlands, the Kingdom of Wind, the Burning Lands and the Unresting Waters.

And then there's the Great Library. Is that a Plane? Oh, wait, you don't think it might be... the Plane of Knowledge? Now that really would be some nostalgia, right there. I hope that's what it is.

At this point I was going to speculate on what the expansion might contain. There's an established pattern that goes back the best part of a decade to The Shadow Odyssey in 2008: one or two overland zones, a bunch of instanced dungeons, a couple of raids and a Signature Quest to take us through all of them. Then there are a few mechanical innovations (aka gimmicks) and a new gear tier.

Every two or three expansions brings a level cap increase. We had one last time so we won't be getting another. Indeed if, as is rumored, this is the final expansion for EQ2, we'll be staying at Level 110 for ever.

For the past few years we've also had a pre-expansion event and it's always been roughly the same. Something Strange starts to happen all over Norrath. A team of investigators, representing one of the many academies, colleges, churches or governments, sets out to get to the bottom of whatever's going on.

Hit things 'til they break? I can do that.
No matter which institution is in charge they always follow the same methodolgy:  bribe a bunch of adventurers with trinkets to go and kill anything that looks weird and bring it back in bits to be experimented on. This time the Strange Thing is raging elementals and the investigating authorities are the Mage Schools of Freeport and Qeynos.

I spent more than two hours helping Freeport’s Academy of Arcane Science this morning. The introduction to the event was even more perfunctory than usual and the quest itself took less than ten minutes, half of which was finding the main questgiver, who was hidden away in the sub-basement of the Academy in a room whose intentionally obscure access protocols reminded me what very different games MMOs were back when EQ2 was young.

This looks like a good spot, Hattie.
None of that mattered a jot when I got stuck into the gameplay. It's exactly what I want from an MMO. There are Elemental Tempests in over thirty of EQ2's open world zones, allowing characters of any level to join in. Each spawns a series of raging elementals, which you get to kill for pleasure and profit, before you deal with the Tempest itself.

The Elementals need to con at least green to your character so I went to the highest-level zone, Plane of Magic with my max-level Berserker. Even though most of the mobs are two-ups and flagged "Heroic", they turned out to be so weak I had trouble targeting them before my Mercenary finished them for me.
Got. Got. Got. Want!

I found a lovely spot on the East zone rim where there are four spawns in a row. The Tempests have a five minute respawn timer which was just about right for doing them continuously. All the elementals drop whatever any elemental might and the Tempest always drops one Elemental Storm Shred, the event currency.

There's also a collection which requires twelve body drops from the elementals. That was how I came to spend two hours there. Collections have that annoying diminsihing returns thing going on, where the more items you have, the harder it seems to be to get the ones you still need.

And of course it often is harder, because developers set the drop rates and they like to make some rarer than others. I set myself a limit of one hundred Shreds and when I hit that buffer I still had one spot in my collection unfilled.

I am very glad I stayed as long as I did because although I didn't know it at the time the rewards are fantastic. Not in the way the Days of Summer rewards are (those are very significant combat and progression upgrades for any casual or semi-casual player) but in the exact way GW2 rewards almost never manage to be.

Cool and refreshing!

EQ2Traders has a great gallery of the full list of things you can buy but even there the pictures don't do them justice. Lots of the house items have particle effects or moving parts and many of them just look beautiful.

The two outfits are truly splendid, with glorious elemental effects. I am going to get them for a few of my magical types - they do look very wizardly. And it goes without saying I have to have the kitten. Prices are extremely reasonable and at the rate I was getting the Shreds I foresee no problems in farming as many as I need. And enjoying it, too.

As the lead-up to the expansion continues we can look forward to the now-traditional Gear Up, Level Up event, intended "to help you get your characters ready" for the expansion. What with that and Yun Zi's help it does make me wonder just how tough the new zones and instances are going to be if we need all this gearing up before we even get there.

Whther my characters are ready or not, I definitely am. The simple fact is, I'm more energized and excited by this underwritten, under-resourced content,  predictable and formulaic as it undoubtedly is, than anything I know of coming down the pipe in GW2. It's not that content needs to be original or fresh or inspired - it just has to be what I want. And this is exactly what I want.

It's going to be very sad if this time next year I can't sit down and bash out a post about how much I'm looking forward to the next EQ2 expansion. That's very much been a theme of this blog almost since the beginning. Fingers crossed those rumors are wrong. Maintenance mode would be fine for GW2 but EQ2 can do so much better - and deserves to.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Faults In Our Stars : GW2

Guild Wars 2 has the honor of being the first MMORPG I have played where I actually groan when I hear there's going to be new content. Specifically, new Living World content.

There was a time when I looked forward to the story moving forward. As I've said all too often, we never knew how well off we were when we had Scarlet to entertain and infuriate us. Even in recent times there have been some moments. That trailer...

Mostly, though, things have become teeth-grindingly formulaic. It's been getting harder and harder to summon up any enthusiasm let alone excitement. Today I hit an all-time low. Flatlined.

There's a new trailer for Season 4 Episode 4, which goes by the name "A Star to Guide Us". It appears to have been designed to send us to sleep. I don't believe I have ever seen a promotional puff with less, um... puff.

Composed almost entirely of flashbacks, with one of those voice-over narrations directors like to use when they aren't confident anyone will know what's going on otherwise, the compilation of clips centers on the young dragon, Aurene.

Aurene is a cipher at the best of times and her character model gives her the unfortunate appearance of a badly-maintained carnival float. I have always struggled to take her seriously, although she did a pretty good job of changing that at the end of the last episode when she... but, no. Spoilers!

Yes, some people still haven't played through Episode 3. I know this to be a fact because one of them is Mrs Bhagpuss. She lost interest in the plot years ago and since she also detests the boss fights she tends to put off doing the instances until the last minute. In the case of Episode 3 the last minute has yet to arrive.

I did finish it. It wasn't as bad as some. I thought at the time, though, that I'd had about enough of riding on this roundabout. I no longer have much interest in even exploring the new maps, far less farming them. I think the last one I spent any significant time in was... no, it's gone.

Looking on the bright side, there seems to be remarkably little combat in the new trailer. Actually, none at all. I suppose it would be too much to hope for an entire non-combat Episode? That certainly would break the mould.

As for the rest of the update, it looks staggeringly uninteresting. There's aforementioned story and map, as per usual. Minus points for making the map Branded - the ugliest visual theme in the game. Then there's a raid. Never going to see that. Don't care. And a new Legendary weapon. Ditto. Oh, and let's not forget a Mastery for Mounts. Or rather, let's. I hate mounts.

So far so meh. There are two properly new things but I don't like the look of either of them. What's more, I don't trust them, either.

One is an "Upgradable Armor Set". As someone asks at the start of the forum thread on it, "What does this even mean?" I don't know but I'm guessing it's a) grinding and farming and b) wriggle room for ANet over the "no more gear tiers - ever!" promise. If you can't go high, go wide.

The other innovation also threatens to scratch an itch, which sounds fine until you remember that scratching just makes you sore and irritated. Sun's Refuge is an "upgradeable instance" modelled on the one in the Nightfall expansion for the original Guild Wars. I didn't like the concept then and I doubt I'm going to like it any better now. It's an annoying, cheap and deeply unsatisfying way to imply the game has housing without actually putting any housing in the game. Much like the existing "personal Instance". Only worse.

What with all this "upgrading", the recent revamp of the ArenaNet website and even the World Boss widget in the Gem Shop, I strongly suspect we are being softened up for something. Possibly an expansion announcement, possibly a new game in the franchise (a mobile game, undoubtedly), possibly some kind of app.

I could do without all of it. I'm reaching the stage with GW2 where I'm beginning to wonder if I wouldn't actively prefer "maintenance mode". After all, WvW has been in effective stasis for years now and I still play it pretty much every day. If anything, it's most likely going to be the major revamp that finally gets me to stop.

And I do my dailies every. single. day. without fail, even though they're the always the same and have been for years. Not just on one account but three! And I do World Bosses regularly even though most of them haven't varied in style or substance for longer than Scarlet's been dead.

GW2 has an infinitude of repeatable content already. Some of it competitive, some of it co-operative, some of it solo. Sometimes you have to  wonder if we really need any more. The same could be said of many MMORPGs.

In the end it's the illusion of change that we chase, anyway. About the only MMO that genuinely rips up the playbook every couple of years is World of Warcraft and the rumbles of discontent over that are growing ever louder. And someone may be listening, because isn't Battle for Azeroth the most "more of the same" expansion yet?

Of course, all ANet have to do is release a blisteringly good episode with a fantastically satisfying implementation of all those new ideas, a thrilling narrative, a stunning new map and some amazing gameplay and I'll have to come back next week and eat crow. (Not that I'd ever eat a crow. I love crows).

Here's hoping.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Easy Pieces

On Sunday I researched and wrote a massive post on Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and his recent investment in Daybreak Games. It took me several hours and naturally only one person commented (thanks, Mailvaltar!).

I knew that would happen. It's one of the unwritten rules of blogging: the more time and effort you put into a post, the less attention it will receive. If you want feedback, post a single paragraph, preferably one that makes some kind of off-the-cuff, smart alec point that popped into your head thirty seconds before you sat down at the keyboard. Even better if it doesn't take much longer than that to type it up.

Lenny Bruce had a routine based on the Lone Ranger. For anyone not old enough to remember either of them (actually, I don't, since they both reached the peak of their fame in the 1950s), Lenny Bruce was a vitriolic and highly controversial stand-up comedian. The Lone Ranger was a television series about a masked cowboy, famous for righting wrongs then riding into the sunset before anyone had time to thank him.

I first heard the routine on a vinyl double-album I had when I was a teenager. Those of us growing up in what Lana del Rey perceptively and evocatively called "the freedom land of the 70s" often felt surprisingly less free than we imagined teenagers of the 1960s or even the fifties must have been.

We also felt we'd been short-changed by the culture. The 1950s had the beat poets, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. The sixties had... well, the 60s had everything. We had Marc Bolan and The Bay City Rollers. It didn't seem quite fair.

So, I spent a good deal of time burrowing about in what then seemed to me like the deep past - ten or even twenty years before. Much the way adolescents right now are mining the nineties and beyond for what seem to them to be lost, forgotten gems.

The near past was an inexhaustible treasure-house and in those days it had the added frisson of being barely accessible, too. With no worldwide web and everything analogue you took what you could find in the bargain bins and junk stores and counted yourself lucky if you found anything at all.

I have Woolworth's tenpenny bins to thank for my cut-out copy of William Burroughs Jr's "Speed", probably the title I'd quote if asked for a book that changed my life, although it did nothing of the kind. No book ever has. It did set me up for a lifetime of vicarious self-indulgence, though, for which I'm grateful.

As the sixties' dream died, a few astute businessmen must have noticed the interest youth was showing in age. There were some re-issues. Lenny Bruce's notorious autobiography, "How to talk Dirty and Influence People" was one. The first two Velvet Underground albums were another. I bought those.

There seemed to be a trend towards repackaging once-dangerous material to make it look and feel as innocuous as possible. The VU double retrospective (known as the Coke Bottle album) collected the songs from the first two albums and replayed them in a different order, diluting some of the impact.

Still, that was almost archival reverence compared to what was done to Lenny on the heavily bowdlerized collection of some of his most famous routines, ironically titled "The Real Lenny Bruce", which came out on vinyl in 1975. To my memory there's not a single swear-word on it, which is a bit like producing postcards of the Mona Lisa with the smile tippexed out. I bought it anyway.

Getting back to the point, assuming I ever had one, the message the adolescent me took from Bruce's Lone Ranger bit was that there's no point doing anything in the hope you'll get thanked for doing it. Or appreciated. Or even noticed. You should do it for your own satisfaction or not at all.

It's an understanding that's served me very well for almost half a century, which makes it deliciously ironic to find out, as I just did when I listened to the unexpurgated routine for the first time (not having heard any version in over thirty years), that I may have misunderstood the entire thing. Hearing it now I'm not entirely sure I know what Lenny thought he was going on about. Maybe he wasn't, either.

Nevertheless, the life lesson he taught me, intentionally or otherwise, stands. It really is a very bad idea to do something in the anticipation of getting a particular and specific reaction. People are people and people aren't you. They'll take from what you say just exactly what they want to, which most likely will be nothing at all.

Blaugust is long over so I don't know why I'm here giving blogging tips, if that's even what I'm doing. I meant to post a short response to Syp's post on Feature Bloat. That didn't happen, obviously...

I particularly didn't want to write another long post that required research because not only did I do that on Sunday but this morning I spent three hours writing two thousand words and recording myself talking about one of my old characters for an academic project. That will make a post in itself one day, when the project completes, or I hope it will.

No, I just wanted to sit down and bash something out, but this is what happens when I freestyle. The result is a little like what I imagine noodling must feel like, if you can actually play a musical instrument.

If anyone thought this was going anywhere, it's not. It came, it was here and now it's gone. And so am I. Toodle-pip!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Doctor Will See You Now : Daybreak Games

The final piece of this week's news jigsaw fell too late for me to fit it into Thursday's portmanteau post. This is the first chance I've had to write about it.

The upside of the delay is that at least I've had time to mull it over. Otherwise I'd have been reduced to posting a giant 🤔

Wilhelm wrote at some length about the possible reasons for Pearl Abyss's acquisition of CCP  (which I only learned this week is an acronym for Crowd Control Productions). So did Nosey, who posited my favorite explanation for the unexpected move so far - improved access to the vast  Chinese gaming market.

I have no dog in that fight although I'm very happy to watch. I do, however, have a major interest, both emotional and practical, in the current and future stability of Daybreak Games, publisher of two of my favorite MMORPGs, EverQuest and EQ2.

Unlike Nosey and Wilhelm, I have neither the academic background nor the personal experience to parse these kinds of financial transactions. I have worked for a couple of businesses that were acquired, bought or taken over and I've seen how that changed both internal practice and external presentation, but I don't think any of that is particularly relevant.

Anyone can google, though, and anyone can read Wikipedia. The entry on Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire behind the "strategic investment" leading to the "joint venture" between NantWorks and DBG, is intriguing to say the least.

Dr. Soon-Shiong has a background worthy of one of the current flurry of highly-popular novels examining the Asian-American experience. He was born in South Africa to Chinese parents who had fled the Japanese occupation in WWII. He grew up in South Africa and got his first degree there before moving to Canada for his Master's. From there he moved to the U.S., where he went on to found the bio-tech firm that eventually made him America's 47th richest person, with a current estimated worth of $9b.

None of which appears to explain why he would want to buy in to a relatively obscure company running a series of somewhat elderly and largely over-the-hill gaming franchises. Dig a little deeper into his extensive biography, though, and you find a considerable interest in both media and technology.

Earlier this year he bought both the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune for something over $500m. One might consider that buying newspapers in the current digital climate is not that far away from taking a financial interest in a gaming company whose products come from a bygone age.  Perhaps it indicates nothing more than an interest in our recent cultural history and a desire to preserve it.

The Doctor isn't just a nostalgist, though. Nor is he "just" a bio-tech entrepreneur. For the last decade much of his drive seems to have been directed towards the new digital world, particularly the infrastructure that supports it. His NantHealth company focuses on "fiber-optic, cloud-based data infrastructure to share healthcare information".

NantWorks, which seems to be the catch-all holding company for all the Nant projects, is also the company that has now taken an interest in Daybreak Games. It has a stated mission to "converge ultra-low power semiconductor technology, supercomputing, high performance, secure advanced networks and augmented intelligence to transform how we work, play, and live." Now we're getting somewhere!

NantWorks, curiously, is also the only one of the many Nant-prefixed operations listed in the wikipedia article not to have a hyper-link to a Wikipedia entry of its own. It does have a website.

There are nine Nant variants listed there (so far), handily laid out on the main page, each with a brief mission statement. The ones on the right are all directly concerned with healthcare. The ones on the left seek to cast their nets far wider.

NantStudio ("Sharing knowledge through education and storytelling") owns and operates "The only next generation soundstage easily configurable to both traditional and virtual production with a pre-lit 360° green screen and compatible with real-time compositing". It's "Conveniently located in Culver City" which is near L.A.

The other relevant Nant would seem to be NantMobile, which "provides technology solutions that harness powerful image recognition technology with artificial intelligence to create immersive augmented reality experiences". At this point I think it's becoming clear that Dr Soong-Shiong does indeed have interests that overlap with those of gamers in general and Daybreak Gamers in particular.

According to the DBG Press Release, the intent is to co-develop a "Next Generation Game Publishing Platform" which will "Establish E-Sports Leagues Across Multiple Games". All that unecessary capitalization is because I ripped the quotes from headlines, by the way.

It also involves the creation of yet another Nant, "NantG Mobile, LLC, which has been formed to develop and publish mobile versions of Daybreak’s current games – H1Z1 and EverQuest – and to build and publish video games across all platforms". Presumably the "G" stands for Gaming. Let's hope so, anyway.

NantG, naturally, has some mission statements of its own, the most intriguing of which promises "creative problem solving to create fresh possibilities for new gameplay, improved quality of games, and increased fair play." Fair play? Hmm, now there's an idea...

There's more that I could excerpt and comment on but I think that's enough to give the general idea. This does not appear to be either a cold financial purchase for arcane accounting reasons we'll never know nor a Curt Schillingesque rich man's whim.

On the contrary, it appears to be a move that involves #2 on Wilhelm's list : "Entering a Market". Possibly with a smidge of #3: Tech of Expertise.

What I definitely don't think has much to do with anything is #4 : Brand. Yes, H1Z1 may be the "first-ever standalone battle royale game" but being first isn't what counts. PUBG and Fortnite ate H1Z1's lunch long ago and even PUBG doesn't have the kind of brand recognition that gets your name banded about by politicians and used in banner headlines aimed at terrifying middle-class parents. Only Fortnite has that.

As for EverQuest, much though I love Norrath I'd dispute whether the EQ name even has brand recognition among MMO gamers any more. Try starting a discussion about EverQuest in General chat in your MMORPG of choice and see who bites. Most players haven't even heard of it, unless they have some vague recollection of the EQNext debacle. You might as well try talking to Drake fans about The Last Poets.

If you step outside the MMORPG niche, EQ's brand recognition hasn't just faded, it never existed in the first place. Even gamers didn't know what EQ was until WoW gave them a hint and anything they once knew they've long forgotten. As for the non-gaming public...

All of which puts me in an odd position. I can see why this latest injection of capital is potentially far more beneficial to Daybreak than the purchase of SOE was to Columbus Nova (who, as we now know, never bought anything, ever, wasn't us guv, honest!). Dr Soong-Shiong or his people evidently have an actual, material interest in what DBG does, namely develop and run multiplayer games.

That's certainly not something that could be said of Columbus Nova. We all struggled back then to understand why whoever it was who'd bought SOE had done so, or what they thought they might get out of it.

It seemed that about the only explanation was that someone thought the EverQuest and H1Z1 brands were going to appreciate in value. H1Z1 was a hit and EQNext was still in development. When EQNext got canned for being the pipe-dream it always was and PUBG executed a headshot on H1Z1 it did look like the jig might finally be up.

It wasn't. Instead, the games all trundled on. H1Z1, like a true zombie, staggered back to its feet and lurched towards a minor comeback courtesy of the PS4. The EQ duo acted like nothing had happened, which, from the perspective of the astonishingly insular and blinkered playerbase for both games, it pretty much hadn't. Their reduced teams just kept pumping out content and everyone carried on being as grumpy about it as they had been for decades, while still paying their subs.

As for DCUO, well, for all intents and purposes it might as well be owned by a different company altogether. And then there's Planetside2, which just got a new map and, rumor has it, may spawn Planetside3 some day.

Meanwhile we supposedly have mobile versions of H1Z1 and EverQuest to look forward to. Possibly with ARG and VR versions now NantStudio is in the mix. Not to mention that promised development  "in video games across all platforms". We can't rule out a PC EQ3.

All of which makes me even more inclined to believe the rumors from earlier in the year had substance. I now expect to hear confirmation that this year will see the final expansions for both EQ2 and EverQuest.

I would expect the EQ games to continue in something more than maintenance mode but less than full development, adding small content drops in updates or at holidays and anniversaries, as they have been doing for the past few years between expansions. That's the sort of thing that can be handled by a very few developers or designers, allowing the rest to be moved to new projects.

I'm confident we will see an EQ-branded Mobile game of some description. Given the lack of brand recognition in any other field, it seems pointless for any such game to be anything other than some kind of MMO or RPG. Whether it will be any good or not is another matter, but Villagers and Heroes amply demonstrates that a full-feature MMORPG can work on mobile devices.

A new EverQuest game - an EQ3 - on PC seems a lot less probable. Also, oddly, less attractive. If one does come, it will undoubtedly use action gaming controls, which means almost no existing or former EQ or EQ2 players will go within spitting distance - other than actually to spit at it. It will be something I'll dabble in at most, I imagine.

As usual, for the time being it's all about waiting. Wait to see what happens to the existing games. Wait to see how that works out for the players. Wait to see what new projects are announced. Wait to see if they ever happen. Wait to see if they're any good.

As is my wont, I am cautiously optimistic. At the very least this seems to augur better times for the games and the franchises than either fin-de-siecle SOE or the immediate aftermath of the sale. DBG have managed the games well, particularly in the last couple of years, and this would seem to remove the immediate risk of either a fire-sale or financial difficulties.

Watch this space for further developments and in the meantime, keep on keeping on.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Days Like This

It's been one of those days, hasn't it?

I came home from work this evening, chatted with Mrs Bhagpuss, had my tea, then down at the PC to see what Feedly had for me. The first thing I saw was this:

"EVE Online developer CCP Games bought by Black Desert Online studio Pearl Abyss"

As MassivelyOP so astutely put it "I bet that’s not a headline you expected to wake up to!" No, nor come home to, either.

I have never played EVE but I've read a lot about it, mostly at The Ancient Gaming Noob. Wilhelm has the full details and links to the many people talking about this surprising turn of fortune.

As I said in the comments there, it could be worse. Pearl Abyss don't have a particularly bad reputation, despite the accusations that they favor Pay to Win mechanics, and Black Desert Online has been one of the more popular, successful and accepted transitions from East to West of recent years.

Al the same, I would bet most EVE players would rather CCP had remained independent and I would be surprised if there's much of a shift in that feeling over the next year or two. MMO players don't like change, even when it's objectively in their own best interests.

The EVE buyout was such a huge story it eclipsed another piece of news that would have been a main headline on another day:

"THQ Nordic has bought up the rights to 38 Studios’ Project Copernicus and Kingdoms of Amalur"

I'd all but forgotten Curt Schilling's ill-fated attempt to re-create his EverQuest raiding days by funding his own MMORPG. If you build it they will come, perhaps. Only he never did build it.

Instead the whole thing turned into what MassivelyOP describes as "one of the biggest messes the MMORPG genre – and gaming itself – has ever seen". I don't imagine anyone ever expected to see Project Copernicus return in a playable form after that and maybe we still never will, but THQ Nordic (no, me neither) must have bought the assets for something so who knows?

After all that I needed a bit of a change of pace so I went and watched Eggheads for half an hour. I am old. Don't mock me.

I came back, glanced at Feedly before logging in to EQ2 and stap me if I didn't see this:

"WildStar and Carbine are shutting down"

What are we doing? Playing MMO Industry Bingo? One buyout, one acquisition, one closedown - HOUSE!

WildStar, of course, has been living on borrowed time while drinking at the last chance saloon for years now. Many pundits have pondered over NCSoft's apparent unwillingness to pull the switch on this failed experiment in hardcore gaming.

Was it fear of a backlash after the desperately badly-received decision to close the then-profitable City of Heroes just because it wasn't profitable enough? Or had they simply forgotten WildStar even existed? God knows that would have been easy enough to do - most of us managed it years ago.

I never entirely got on with WildStar. It was too brash and too jarring to be relaxing, something its cuddly anhropomorphic characters seemed to suggest it should be. Still, I had some good times there, on and off. I don't suppose I would ever have played it again but I'm sorry to see it go.

I hope WildStar gets another chance in that grey zone where emulators operate. If Earth Eternal can do it, anyone can. Although I imagine EE's code is a lot less complex than WildStar's.

However you want to paint it, that's a lot of news for one day. I scarcely dare check Feedly again. I've been typing this for half an hour - who knows what MMO might have closed down or changed hands since I last looked?

Wilhelm and I have been corresponding recently on those rumors about Daybreak Games' future plans. As he pointed out, some of them have already happened. Come to think of it, there was some talk once about Daybreak or SOE acquiring CCP, wan't there? I did say it could have been worse!

We're still waiting on any news about this Autumn's EverQuest and EQ2 expansions, beyond the bald assertion that they will happen. I am now braced to hear that they will also be the last.

Whether that means the end of a chapter or the closing of the book remains to be seen. After a day like today I'm not going to make any predictions about anything.

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Once More, With Feeling : Earth Eternal

It was inevitable. If you unexpectedly discover an old MMORPG you thought was lost and gone forever, still up and running, what else are you going to do?

It's not that I was knocked sideways and overcome, mind you. It wasn't as though someone had found Rubies of Eventide at the back of the cupboard, dusted it off and set it running. Now, that would be fireworks and cake!

I was never in love with Earth Eternal. It had almost everything I wanted but none of it was ever exactly what I wanted. My dream MMORPG would use tab-target and hotbar mechanics. It would have anthropomorphic animals as player characters. It would take place in a virtual world with a fantasy setting, have levels and quests, crafting and player housing.

Earth Eternal has all of that but somehow it never gelled for me. The very simple graphics weren't the problem although they don't help. I'm not a full-on graphics snob but I do like a bit more eye candy than EE has to offer.

Twenty-two races!

No, what kept me from falling hard for Earth Eternal wss the way it played. I always thought it was just a little bit dull. It's hard to put a finger on why. It's really not all that much different in tone, style or execution from any number of MMOs I don't find boring at all but it lacks some hard-to-define element of compulsion. It's short on zing.

The quests can seem a little bit worthy. They're certainly on the dry side. Combat is familiar and comfortable but rarely exciting, even though it's tuned quite well. I recall dying quite often but never feeling out of my depth.

I remember gameplay as consisting of a lot of running to and from quests, working my way around mobs and areas I couldn't handle, dying not infrequently and having to start over. It should have felt like early EverQuest, where I did all those things, happily, for years, but it never really did. Mostly it just felt too slow and not fun enough.

Still, I liked it. I must have put in twenty or thirty hours, at least, back in beta. It was a pleasant enough kind of place to spend an hour or two. Reassuring and amiable.

I spent an inordinate amount of time playing with the colors and then I went with this. I'm still not sure about it.

Indeed, everything about Earth Eternal is amiable. The animal characters look affable, the NPCs are friendly, the countryside is well-kept, the color palette is pastel. Everything looks homespun and artisanal in a picturesque village kind of way.

The lore, which is extensive, is impenetrable. The setting is... peculiar. The game supposedly takes place on a version of Earth after all the humans have died in some self-inflicted cataclysm. Most of the playable races are animals but you can also choose to be a robot, a demon, a cyclops or a yeti. There may be a lore reason for that or maybe someone just thinks robots and yetis are cool.

Once you escape from one of the shortest tutorials I have ever seen (kill three spiders, grab a hammer, fix a boat, sail away: Congratulations, you're done!) you arrive on Corsica. Why Corsica? Why not?

As you step onto the beach, the meet-and-greet NPC sends you to talk to Sir Lancelot of the Round. The round what?  The round nothing. Just The Round. And come to think of it, why is Lancelot in Corsica? I have no idea. He just is.

22 races and just four classes. I get your priorities.
It goes on like that. It's not badly translated. It's an American MMO and all the quest and lore text is written by Americans in good American English. It's just...peculiar.

All of this came back to me when I was finally able to log in last night. That wasn't as easy as it could have been.

The registration process was long-winded. It seemed overly concerned with security for a private server for an obscure MMO but then there have been all too many examples of bad behavior on such servers in the past. I suppose it's best to be cautious.

Downloading the game was quick and easy but getting it to run was not. Installing Earth Eternal didn't put any icon on my desktop so I had to go looking in the files. I'd accepted the default instal location but of course I hadn't bothered to pay any attention to where that was. I eventually found it buried in AppData under Users, somewhere I would never normally think of looking.

More of a Ranger, I'd say.
It wouldn't run from there so I reinstalled it and put it in file of its own out in the open. It wouldn't run from there either. The updater seems to be trying to run the game from the old web address at which doesn't exist. The executable (as we used to call the thing that makes the game appear on your screen) just throws a generic error.

I googled for help but didn't find much. I tried the website, which has a FAQ that includes a section called Installing the Game Client, which sounded promising. I clicked on it and got the message "You are not authorized to access this page".

At this point I was about ready to give up but I thought I'd just try installing it once more. Third time through I noticed there was an option right at the end of the installation to "Play" the game immediately. I took that and it worked.

It's going to be somewhat inconvenient to have to reinstall the entire game every time I want to log in but it's a sixty second install so I guess I could. If I was that interested. Which I'm probably not. Or I might be. It's hard to say.

Once I was in I did get a frisson of nostalgia. Not a surge, just a trickle. It's true, I did have some good times here once, I thought. Not amazing times, not even especially memorable times but still, y'know, times.

I don't believe I got all that far back then. I know I did finish Corsica. I went to the next zone but I can't remember what it was. Where would you go from Corsica? France? Italy? There must be a lot of the game I never saw, plus the new part the current operators are adding as well.

The thing is, had Earth Eternal limped along and never closed down, I wouldn't be wondering whether or not to play it now. I would categorically have forgotten all about it. I'm only considering giving it another try because I thought I would never have that chance.

And this is where I left him. He may be there a while.
Does that make sense? To play a game because you can but you thought you couldn't, even though when you thought you couldn't you never wanted to anyway?

I don't know. I do know I'd rather have the option even if I never take it. And I might take it. I haven't decided and so long as the servers stay up I don't have to. I like the idea of being able to choose to play and choosing not to a lot better than not being able to choose but not caring that I can't. It's a subtle difference, I know, but I can feel it.

Anyway, good luck, Earth Eternal aka The Anubian War. I'm glad you're back even if I never missed you while you were gone. I think one or two people who might be reading this might get more out of the game than I have. If so, I hope they'll offer up a few posts and let us know how they get on. I'd most likely enjoy reading about other people's adventures there than I'd enjoy having my own.

Monday, September 3, 2018

East Goes West

If playing Bless last month had any impact on me at all, it was to make me feel nostalgic for other Eastern MMOs I've tried. Over the years I've played quite a few. Most of them I've enjoyed but none of them have I stuck with for more than a couple of months at most.

Let's see how many I can remember off the top of my head...

The first must have been Silk Road Online. Mrs Bhagpuss and I tried the beta and I remember being quite excited that we were seeing something we'd never seen before - an MMORPG made by and for people from a culture significantly different from our own. I wasn't all that struck with it but Mrs Bhagpuss liked it enough to mention it fondly for a few years afterwards, whenever the topic of imported MMOs came up.

I think Ferentus was the first game where I saw player-placed street vendors.

Then there was Ferentus, a beta for a long-forgotten MMO (also known in some territories as Xiones or Herrcot) that never went Live. Ferentus was the opposite of Silk Road in that it was almost indistinguishable from a Western MMO of the time. We both really liked it even though it was very rough and unpolished. Almost unbelievably, it still has an active Reddit ,where ex-players still hope for some kind of emulator, one day.

Runes of Magic, on which Wilhelm occasionally reports, was the first successful Eastern attempt to play the West at its own game. It was also one of the first generic WoW clones and the standard bearer for the Free to Play payment model. Once again, Mrs Bhagpuss and I beta-tested it and found it lacking, although a decade later I find I can remember it in surprising detail.

After that, the flood gates opened and playing imported MMOs became just something I did rather than something worthy of comment. Back then, I used to be in the habit of playing a number of MMOs super-casually, usually for an hour or so at the very end of the evening, right before going to bed.

That was in the days before I had a Tablet. These days I lie in bed watching American sitcoms or searching for ever more obscure bands on YouTube. I'm not convinced that's progress.

I did take some screenshots of NeoSteam but I have no idea what happened to them. I think I saw this thing once, though.

NeoSteam filled the late-night MMO slot for quite a while. I really liked that game. I was a seven foot tall tiger with a giant hammer - what's not to like? Neo-Steam was around for a good few years and had quite a following at one time. There were a lot of levels and zones but I never saw much more than the first few of either. I'd play it now if it was still running.

I also liked Argo, which arrived a few years later. That one came and went and came back and then vanished. Surprising how often that happens. Argo didn't have much to recommend it but it did have that indefinable vibe that made it feel like a place. Hard to describe but I always know it when I feel it.

Before that, there was the one whose name I always get muddled up with another, Western, title. Earth Eternal? No, it's no good, I'll have to google it...

And this is why we fact-check!  No, it wasn't Earth Eternal. Earth Eternal was the all-animal MMO originally produced by an American indie called Sparkplay Media. Mrs Bhagpuss and I betaed that one too and although we both liked it we found it a tad slow and repetitive.

After Earth Eternal failed in the West (twice) it had a run in Japan, where it was known as Ikimonogatari. According to wikipedia, no version ever made it further than Open Beta bit it still picked up a strong following.
I also have no screenshots of my time in Earth Eternal. Nor did I ever play a frog.

As if to prove that nothing on the internet ever goes away, I am astounded and delighted to discover that there is an Earth Eternal emulator! Now known as The Anubian War, it's even had an expansion, Valkal's Shadow, and the game is still up and running. I'm downloading it as I type!

Getting back to the topic at hand, the Eastern MMO I was thinking of was Eden Eternal. A natural mistake, even more so when you consider that in EE I played a mouse. A large mouse, I'll grant you, but a mouse all the same.

Eden Eternal was probably the first Eastern anime-influenced MMO I tried. It's bright and bouncy and not at all serious, which should please Wolfy and Jeromai. It was also, I think, the first time I came across the wonderful auto-quest feature, something I wish all MMOs would adopt.

Eden Eternal is still up and running. It even has a Back to School event on right now, which tells you something about the demographic that plays there. I don't think I'm going to download it again but it's an Aeria game and I have their launcher on my desktop...more on which later.

Blurry when stretched. Then again, aren't we all?
Then came Zentia, probably the best Eastern MMORPG I ever played. Mrs Bhagpuss and I downloaded the beta one Saturday on a whim and neither of us played anything else all weekend. The game had a unique style - cheerful, whimsical, lighthearted - that was exemplified by the giant dragon mount that players could hop on as it passed by, like boarding a bus. You could even do trivia quizzes in the central square of the main town.

The whole gameworld had an upbeat, happy atmosphere that was mood-elevating just to be around but it was also a very solid MMORPG, with traditional questing and combat that felt solid and satisfying. It's a game that deserves to be revived but sadly no-one seems to have bothered.

I think most of those games pre-date this blog, although I did write about Argo back in 2012. I also played, and briefly wrote about the oddly (and inaccurately, given how little time I spent there) named Loong, one of many games tipped by Kaozz of ECTmmo. She finds and plays even more obscure MMOS than I do, although currently she's with the crowd in WoW.

Almost the definition of Generic Eastern Import, Loong appears still to be available from Gamigo under the name of Loong Dragonblood

Since Inventory Full arrived, most of the Eastern imports have been relatively big news. In no particular order (least of all chronological) there's been Blade and Soul, Black Desert Online, Revelation Online, Aion, Riders of somewhere-or-other, that one about Dragons that SOE licensed and of course Final Fantasy XIV, which is a whole different story.

Bless Online is the latest and it's... okay. I wouldn't put it much more strongly than that. As I said at the beginning of the post, Bless's main impact on me has been to remind me of other imported and translated MMOs I like more. Two in particular: Dragon Nest and Twin Saga.

Not that Bless is anything like either of those. It's just that I remembered, while playing Bless and reading about how badly translated it was supposed to be, that there's a particular style of translated quest text that I love. Twin Saga is dripping with it and so is Dragon Nest.

It appears we've crossed out last bridge in Dragomon Hunter.
It's as though they'd found a really articulate, bi-lingual seven-year old, with a vivid imagination, and given them a completely free hand to translate the original quests - without worrying too much about whether the finished version made much (or any) sense. It's almost like naive art.

I tried to find my old installation of Twin Saga yesterday but after booting up several Hard Drives without success I gave up and re-installed it via Steam. As it was downloading I thought to google "Twin Saga", which I probably should have done at the start.

Turns out it's also published by Aeria Games, for whom, as I mentioned above, I have a generic launcher on my desktop. They also published Dragomon Hunter, another quirky import I liked a lot, which has sadly closed. The launcher itself is also dead. You have to download and update directly from the website now - or use Steam.

Following that discovery I was able to find the original installation buried in the Aeria Games folder on my C Drive so now I have the blasted thing twice! I linked my Aeria account to Steam and now I'm up and running with my old character, who turns out to be level 50! Proof that I really did like Twin Saga when I last played.

Best name prefix ever!
Dragon Nest is more problematic. It has a convoluted history of versions and territories. Last time I tried to play I couldn't get it to run. I'm running short of drive space right now so I don't think I'll download it again just yet but I guess I shouldn't wait too long. Grab 'em while they're still alive seems to be the motto for some of the less-celebrated imports.

Anyway, that wasn't the post I sat down to write. I was going to muse over returning to MMOs and how it can vary from impossible to ecstatic. That'll have to wait for another day. This has run far too long and there's double XP in Norrath that won't last forever!

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Make Mine A Double - A Public Service Announcement On Behalf Of EverQuest And EQ2

It was never my plan to stand in as a news service for Norrath but every time I post one of these alerts someone thanks me for bringing it to their attention so I feel I probably should keep sharing the love. No-one else seems to have noticed but both EQ and EQ2 are running double XP weekends right now, presumably because this is Labor Day in the States.

I didn't notice it myself until five minutes ago, when I was idly tabbing around various bookmarks as I waited for Twin Saga to update on Steam. Something I saw reminded me I hadn't done this week's Yun Zi quest so I thought I'd pop in to do that while I waited.

As I logged in, right there on the launcher I saw a news item announcing Double XP, Double Currency and a 25% Off Sale in the cash shop. SOE launchers used to be something of a joke but over the last five years or so they've refined themselves into some of the best around, reliable and informative.

Having a regularly updated news page right there at log in is very handy. Of course, you do have to be logging in to see it...

I didn't log into EQ2 yesterday so I missed the start of the event, a very long "weekend" indeed, running from 12:01AM PT on Friday, August 31, 2018 until 11:59PM PT on Thursday, September 6, 2018 according to the official website, which for some still unexplained reason always comes to me via the French Language version these days, even though the bulk of the text is in English.

These events come with the Firiona Vie Seal of Approval.

The EQ2 event is for All Access Members only, so of limited interest to casual players, but I thought it was worth mentioning. I'll be taking advantage of the accelerated xp to push my Wizard through the final level to the cap and I might even do a few levels on the Warlock, who's maxed his Sage skills but is lazing around at Level 100 in his adventuring.

I also notice that the event is extended for an exrtra day for the Antonia Bayle server only due to a server merge. This is something else I'd missed. I'm guessing that's the long-postponed merger with Stormhold.

I have a character on Stormhold who might like to do a few levels so maybe I'll take him out for a spin.

The EverQuest version is more limited, lasting a day less and not including double currency, but the xp bonus applies to all players, regardless of account status. You have to be a Member to get the 25% store discount, though.

Double XP is actually a lot more of a big deal in the older EQ. I haven't played for a long while and I'd pretty much abandoned my attempts to level my Magician further into the 90s. It is tempting, all the same, especially as she's on the account which isn't subbed and double xp events for freeloaders are relatively rare. Maybe I'll get in a session or two.

Anyway, there it is, for what it's worth. Double XP all round!

Resurrection Shuffle : GW2

Last night was re-linking in World vs World. It happens on the last Friday of every even-numbered month. The link system began in the Spring of 2016.

For North America that meant the elision of two dozen servers, then competing in eight tiers, into a dozen, fighting in four. The twelve most populated servers became "Hosts" while the rest became "Guests". All servers kept their names and behind the scenes the Glicko score of the guests continued to tick over but from then on Hosts got top billing and guests got to see their names in small print.

As with anything ANet has a hand in, the system has undergone numerous iterations since then. The way population is calculated has changed. We now use a two-hour Skirmish system with points to keep score rather than raw Glicko as we used to do. We also currently labor under a "one up, one down" promotion mechanic that makes everything a lot more predictable and a lot less volatile than it used to be.

For a long time the whole enterprise was wildly controversial. Prior to the linkings "Server Pride", while not as strong as it once was, still meant a good deal to many. For months after the change, the forums dripped with anguished threads about loss of identity, while more pragmatic players created server guilds to keep the flag flying.

At the time, many people - probably most people - felt it was the end for the dozen servers that had lost their ability to headline a match. The feeling was that after a decent interval those names would be quietly expunged and we'd have de-facto server merges.

Didn't happen. Instead the guest servers carried on, sometimes in more than just name. Crystal Desert, which missed the original cut, even managed to claw back Host status, replacing Darkhaven. That resurrection appeared to be the exception, however. Until recently.

Here I am this morning, thirty seconds after logging in, on my way to retake Hills. It never stops.

WvW has always been prone to bandwagons. Sometimes it happens when self-appointed Community leaders decide to rah-rah for a specific project, as when the attempt was made to drag the eternal bottom server, Kaineng, all the way to Tier One. Mostly it's more a form of self-interest as people try to attach themselves to a rising star.

With the announcement that WvW would be receiving a top to bottom revamp in which all existing worlds would be removed and replaced with a system of Alliances, a number of high net-worth individuals (aka Guild Leaders aka Wrecking Balls) took it upon themselves to game the existing system while it lasts, partly for profit but mostly out of pure devilment.

In addition, as Server Loyalty and identity continues to fragment and both guilds and individuals seek to ask not what they can do for their World but what they can do for themselves, the game mode moved into a period of high volatility, with guilds transferring at an ever-increasing frequency, often fracturing and splitting communities in the process.

The results have been spectacular. In the last round of links at the end of June, Kaineng returned from link purgatory to Host status, displacing Crystal Desert. Yesterday saw that process accelerate, with two switches as Anvil Rock and Sanctum of Rall regained their independence after two years in the shadowlands.

If that wasn't surprising enough (and it surprised the heck out of me when I logged in this morning and read the new linkings) then the Worlds that went grey most certainly were. Out of the Hosting business go Dragonbrand and... Jade Quarry!

Dragonbrand has always been a strong server, largely due to having the word "Dragon" in its name. Certain demographics have very strong affiliations to certain images and ideas and the mere use of a word that brings those to mind will strongly influence server choice.

I felt sufficiently motivated to put my Charr Warrior into full exotics. She's been in a rag-bag of Rares for the best part of six years.

Many Eastern players, as I understand it, find the Dragon an appealing banner to fight under. The same reason led to Jade Quarry attracting a large number of players from outside of the Americas. (This, incidentally, is why I replied to Keen's post on choosing a server with the opinion that the name of the server is the most important indication of its likely community, outside of the ruleset itself).

Jade must have been even more magnetic a draw than Dragon because Jade Quarry dominated the WvW rankings for years. For the first three years the server never fell out of the top three and it has remained a major force and title contender throughout the life of the game. Until now.

To see JQ drop to link status is akin to seeing Manchester United relegated to the National League (formerly The Conference). It's something that just can't happen. Only, in GW2, it just did.

In some ways this is good. I have a soft spot for Anvil Rock, who were Yak's Bend's very first link and who have partnered with us several times. They had great spirit, some strong commanders and were always good company.

One of the nicest commanders I ever ran with, Frozen, formed a server guild called Anvil Resistance to keep that spirit going. They're still around. I often see the tag. I hope Frozen is still playing and glorying in the well-deserved resurgence of his World, even though I imagine it's a very different place right now, stuffed to the gills with carpet-baggers.

Sanctum of Rall, which was famously named after a player who died before GW2 began, owes its resurgence to a campaign started by Foghladha to see out the final days of the old matchmaking system in some kind of glory. There were some doubts expressed as to the motives behind the move but the results are plain for all to see. Sanctum of Rall has its name back.

It all comes down to this in the end.

It's also good to see the whole bag of marbles shaken up once in a while. Earlier in the year WvW felt very stale. Now it feels unpredictable and chaotic. That suits me fine.

On the other side of the argument I can see some serious problems. The matchmaking system and scoring are already in disrepute. Many players don't see the point of keeping score at all when we know the whole system is going away and even those who do feel the current scoring method is deeply flawed.

Add instability on this level to the mix and you risk WvW turning into nothing much more than a free-for-all where everyone fights for the sake of fighting. Some people like that but I'm not one of them.

On balance, though, I like where we are now better than where we were a few months ago. No-one expects the proposed revamp to happen this year. I wouldn't be surprised to see it attached to the third expansion as some kind of feature, which would mean mid-late 2019 at the very earliest. Until it gets here we need some motivation and the current resurgence of certain World identities adds that.

It also puts the fear of Zhaitan into the rest of us. If Jade Quarry can fall, no-one's safe, not even mighty Blackgate, currently, unthinkably, languishing in Tier Three.

Yak's Bend is enjoying a mini-renaissance of its own right now. Half a dozen medium to large guilds left last month, which you might think would be bad news. As it happens, they were mostly "fight" guilds. They and a few others had had a fairly long run on YB, changing the culture from our longstanding siege meme to something less hated but also less interesting.  I was happy to see them go.

Superstar Commander says "Look into my eyes..." Also "Get that cat out of the way"
Even before they left things were starting to change back. Not only did our own King over the Water return from another of his sabbaticals but he somehow persuaded his long-lost helpmeet and ally, thought gone forever by most, to return as well.

Those two, along with a number of others, some of whom have also re-appeared, were the foundations of Yak's Bend's infamous Golden Age of Arrow Carts. ACs themselves have been heavily nerfed and things right now do feel a little more like a re-union tour, where everyone just wants to hear the hits, but it's a huge improvement on what we had to put up with under the previous so-called leadership.

In a final twist, the other World I play on, Ehmry Bay, was linked with Yak's Bend for (I think...) the first time ever. For the next two months I have all my characters not just in the same match but on the same side! Seeing as how I chose EBay for my third account because of the famous alliance between YB and EB against SBI in the first WvW tournament Season, it feels like we've come full circle at last.

It's astonishing how WvW still manages to dominate my GW2 gameplay six years on, despite all its manifold faults and shortcomings. It's ridiculously addictive. I hate to think what it would be like if ANet ever managed to balance the combat and come up with a meanigful scoring system too...

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide