Thursday, April 19, 2018

Tiger, Tiger : EverQuest

I didn't plan on posting tonight but Belghast's observation that he hadn't been able to log in to EverQuest because "the servers went down at 5:00 am EDT on the 18th and did not come back apparently until 2:30 am EDT on the 19th" led me to check the patch notes to see what was going on.

They are extensive to say the least. There's all the usual, expected, ongoing tweaking of content from the 19th Anniversary celebrations and the current expansion, Ring of Scale but there were also some changes that struck me as rather odd:

Tigers across Norrath celebrate by roaring in delight! Reverted tigers in older zones to their original appearance.

The Minotaur Hero will again terrorize the Steamfont Mountains. Newbie gnomes beware!

Handing in the Tome of Order and Discord to a Priest of Discord will again flag the character as Player Versus Player

Hmm. I believe all of those are reversions to changes made at various times over the years that were intended either to modernize the game, make it more accessible, or both. I'm sure I specifically recall The Priest of Discord being disabled to avoid the endless customer service problems caused by newbies handing in their Tomes without understanding the dire and irreversible consequences.

What's more, it was only a few days ago, while I was hunting in Emerald Jungle, that I was admiring the gorgeous tiger models there. I very nearly did a post specifically about them. Those are the models they have removed in favor of older ones. I wish I'd taken some better screenshots now.

I wonder what the older ones look like? I do remember when they changed the Dire Wolf models in Velious from the ones that looked like they came from a Tex Avery cartoon to the inferior ones we have today but I can't recall any goofy, cartoon tigers.

What this presages, I dread to think. There seems to be altogether too much of a "good old days" vibe going on in some parts of DBG. On the other hand, if they feel like reverting Freeport to its former glory they can change every animal model in the game back to 1999 spec and we'll call it even!

Not everything old is deemed gold, however. By far the biggest and potentially most controversial change is this:

Performed additional upgrades to both the client and server to utilize more modern hardware and operating system features.

- - EverQuest will no longer run on Windows Vista or older operating systems.

- - Please refer to the minimum system requirements on our website.
It  was only last week that there was a big discussion in general chat about Windows. The consensus seemed to be that EQ was best played on Windows XP, which was what most of the people expressing an opinion were still using.

EQ players generally do not like change. We'll see how this goes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

To Be Continued : EQ2

Somehow, I managed to post about finishing the second chapter of EQ2's most recent tradeskill signature quest, A Stitch in Time, then look forward to doing the third and fourth parts to finish it up, all the while remaining blissfully unaware that it is, in point of fact, a five-part questline. Given that a) I read the walkthroughs for all five parts back when it released and b) I had the wiki page open in front of me as I was both doing the quest and writing the post, it suggests either an extreme lack of attention or the onset of some form of age-related mental impairment.

I didn't even realize my mistake as I was working through parts three and four this morning. It took me around three hours and the time positively flew. The quests are perfectly judged for non-combat, managing to retain interest and maintain tension throughout, offering plenty of variety, yet never requiring a crafter to behave out of character.

The dialog is sometimes a little peculiar. EQ2 quest writing has always had a particular tone that sits somewhere between polite formality and casual conversation, not always comfortably. Of late, that balance has tipped slightly towards the informal, as though the current writer is younger and possibly less well-versed in the conservative social etiquette of the 1950s, which has always seemed to me to be Norrath's spiritual touchstone.

No combat doesn't mean no action.

There was even a Facebook joke at one point, albeit indirect. That was unsettling. Mostly, though, the questline was able to pull off that exceptionally difficult sleight of hand whereby your character is able to converse with Gods on something close to equal terms without the whole thing descending into bathos or self-parody.

It's a very difficult trick to master. Most MMO writers struggle with it. I particularly notice the way it paramountly fails to work in GW2, where game design credits each character with every Living Story benchmark anyone on the account has ever hit. For someone who sees all the characters as indiiduals it's jarring to hear every one of them referred to as "Commander" or "Boss" or greeted as old friends by NPCs they're meeting for the first time.

Even though I'm no fan of the "Player Character as Hero" trope, in EQ2 I find the conceit a lot easier to swallow. Because I have played through every stage of the seemingly never-ending soap opera that passes for a narrative throughline on the same character it seems quite reasonable when people I worked with to stave off the apocalypse-before-last credit me with sufficent initiative to make myself useful saving the world one more time. And that they remember my name.

Just one of the Gods.

What's more, because I've been playing versions of EverQuest since the turn of the century, I remember a lot of their names, too. And who they are and why I should be fond or afraid of them. When the plot suggests I might have to bring Inoruuk, the God of Hate, back from whatever well-deserved deific hell his daughter Lanys T'Vyl sent him to in a previous instalment, I don't need Varig Ro to tell me what a bad idea it is. I already know.

In GW2, when Palawa Joko returns from wherever he's been, it doesn't have anything like the same effect. I don't have either the recognition or the feels to support the impact the writers expect. I played some original Guild Wars but not nearly enough for it to matter. Ironically, because I was there for her inception, lived through her rise, her reign of terror and her fall, just the mention of Scarlet Briar's name, let alone any slight hint that she might be coming back, pushes all my buttons.

I'm not a strong supporter of narrative or story for MMORPGs. I'm not opposed to it; it can have a place, but I tend to find it presents more problems than solutions. Lore, however, I believe to be absolutely crucial.

I confess I didn't quite follow this part. I did a lot of work to bring this Phoenix to life and then I just left without intereacting with it in any way. Maybe I missed something...

Where the boundary lies between them is uncertain. The tradeskill quest I'm doing does have a story but it's mostly fluff. Supposedly I'm crafting some device to prevent one of Meldrath's malfuctioning devices having some kind of apocalyptic effect on Norrath. I can't say I've been paying attention. I know it doesn't matter because nothing is going to happen to Norrath even if I never finish the quest.

What I have been paying full attention to is the way the quest elaborates on and opens up the relationships between various members of the Norrathian pantheon. To learn that Varrig Ro has carried a lifelong torch for Errollisi Marr, or that there's an even less desirable contender for the Throne of Hate, going by the even less pronounceable name of Ullkorruuk, adds far more to my appreciation for and understanding of the game than any plotline could hope to do.

I'm not alone in finding the lore far more appealing than the plot. Wilhelmina, the longsuffering European equivalent of Niami Denmother, who was once almost driven from the game by Smed's odious deal with PSS1 but who's now, thankfully, restored to her rightful domain, was sufficiently involved to record the entire dialog for the whole questline.

They also serve who only hide in corners until it's safe then run out and scrape up mephit vomit.

 Wilhelmina's website is in French but the dialogue is available in the English version at EQ2Traders and is well worth a read for anyone interested in the study of Norrathian comparative religion. Even for anyone who's done the questline itself, it's useful to be able to read it all back at lesiure. Some of those conversations took place in circumstances where it may not have been easy to concentrate on the nuance!

It was only as I approached the end of Part 4 that I began to wonder if I'd missed something. It was starting to feel very much like that moment near the end of a book when you realise what you're reading must not be a standalone novel after all but the first volume of a trilogy. Having constructed all my various devices, eavesdropped on the Mistresses of Hate, located Innoruuk's earthly vessel and prevailed on Varrig Ro to change his mind, it was apparent that  I was at least a chapter short of a denoument, and so it proved.

I had been hoping - expecting even - to finish the Stitch in Time questline today but three hours is about my outer limit these days. A closer reading of the wiki revealed that there was indeed a fifth chapter. What's more it looked substantial, as a climax should be. I decided to leave it for another day.

I'm looking forward to coming back to it later in the week, suitably refreshed. The rewards are fantastic but best of all, if the first four parts are anything to go by, it's going to be tremendous fun.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What Does Lisa Like? First Impressions: Auteria

There was a time when I would regularly trawl the dustier corners of the interwebs, looking for MMOs I hadn't tried. I was on a mission to play them all - or at least download them all. Mostly what I'd do would be make a character, walk around the starting area, log off and never return.

I made a list a few years back of all the ones I'd "played" and it came to over a hundred. It's probably over a hundred and fifty now. Even so, there are some major gaps. I've never played EVE, Age of Conan, SWtoR...

While my enthusiasm for the genre continues to burn as brightly as it ever has, my obsessive desire to collect every MMO as though it was a Pokemon (never played Pokemon either...any version) has dimmed considerably. For many years there weren't enough MMOs to satisfy my curiosity but those days are long gone, drowned in an ocean of WoW clones and cheap imported knock-offs.

Only, here's the thing; even those days of plenty are in the past. The tide peaked a while back and now it's receding. As has often been discussed around this corner of the blogosphere, shrunken and withered as it is, the prospects on the horizon are both few and poor.

All of which makes it particularly surprising whenever I happen on an MMORPG I've never even heard of. Yet more so when that MMO turns out to have been up and running for more than a decade.

The MMO in question is Auteria. According to the History section on its website it began development in April 2007. At some point between then and now it entered Open Beta, where, as far as I can tell, it remains. The last time it got an update, according again to the history on the website, was in June 2010 but it's still there and you can still play it.

I ran across Auteria entirely by chance when I was reading a Reddit thread about obscure MMOs. I'd found myself on reddit because I'd been googling "Mimesis", another obscure MMO that never made it out of beta. I was googling that because I'd just found an old log-in and password for it and I couldn't recall whether I'd ever actually played the game.

Most of the obscure MMOs the redditors came up with I'd played at some point, or at least heard of, but there were a few that were new to me. I checked them out and they were either long gone or those 2D sprite things that look like someone knocked them up on a ZX Spectrum in 1985. I don't count those as MMOs.

Auteria, however, had a proper, functioning website and the screenshots showed a genuine 3D MMO. One that looked quite interesting. The in-game shots looked not unattractive and the captions were...odd.

I downloaded and installed it, which took about thirty seconds. Then I let it patch itself up to date, which took maybe another five minutes. I hit Play and found myself at Character Creation, which was where I made a crucial error.

In most MMOs I've ever played the process of making your account is separate from that of making your character. Not so in Auteria. I filled in my email address (well, an email address...), made up a User Name and password and hit Enter.

Next thing I knew I was standing in the world, looking at the back of my head. The "User Name" turned out to be my character name, which is a shame because the name really doesn't fit the default character from the character creation screen, which unusually happens to be female.

It matters less than it might because I couldn't find any way to move the camera so as to see my character from the front. That trope, where it doesn't matter how long you spend getting your character to look just so because you'll spend the entirety of your game time staring at the back of their head? It's literally true here.

When I arrived in Tergratia (that's the name of the country where you begin) it was nighttime. Night in Auteria is dark. Very, very dark. And long. I ran around a little before realizing I was going to get lost pretty fast in the darkness. 

I stood next to the fire where I could see at least a little way and spent ten or fifteen minutes familiarizing myself with the controls. They are, shall we say, non-standard. Movement is WASD but almost everything else is not what you'd expect. Hitting "M", for example, doesn't open a map. It opens the crafting interface.

Hitting "I" doesn't open your inventory and nor does "B". That's because you don't have one. Yep, this may be the first MMO I have ever played where your character has no bag-type inventory at all. She does, however, have Storage in a hut. And things she loots (by running over a bag that drops on the ground - took me a while to figure that out) go straight onto one of the ten slots on her hot bar.

I futzed around for a while with all that then I set out to explore - darkness be darned! I found a big bridge and crossed it. There was a boat on the far side marked "Teleport" so I clicked on that and ported myself to the nearby town. It was still dark although they had some nice streetlights. In fact, the lighting effects were the best part of the game so far.

At this point I decided to log off and come back when it got light. While I appreciate the attraction of having recognizeable "Night" and "Day" in your MMO, I have always thought that making night so awkward that players log off to avoid it is a design error.

When I logged in again a few hours later it was 9am in game. I knew because there's a handy on-screen clock. I could see what I was doing at last, so I set about the life's work of the newbie - talking to anyone who'll talk back and doing anything they ask you to do.

In this case there's not much choice: you can talk to Lisa, a young woman who looks like she's about to go for a nice dinner at a fashionable beach-side restaurant sometime in 1986, or to her pet, a talking bear cub called Little Paw. Little Paw wants you to announce yourself to all and sundry in General Chat.

You might think that, in an eleven year old, semi-abandoned MMO so obscure that Massively OP doesn't even have an entry for it, speaking in chat would be safe enough. No-one's going to hear you, are they? Oh yes they are! There was a lively conversation going on when I logged in and during the time I played I must have seen half a dozen players speak. Someone plays this game.

I kept my own counsel and declined the bear's attempts to get me to socialize. Instead I completed a series of tasks for Lisa, every one of which required me to run somewhere then run back to her. I ran to three signposts, her garden, the nearby town, two of her friends and a dragon.

The dragon let me ride on his back for a sightseeing tour of the area. I don't generally suffer from motion sickness in games but this was one of the most emetic experiences I have ever had in an MMO. I was reduced to looking away from the screen, glancing back occasionally to see if it had stopped.

On the way to the second signpost I encountered an ant, which attacked me. It was a big ant. There's a joke there but I'm ignoring it. I couldn't work out how to fight back and the ant killed me. Death by ant is an ignominious beginning (or end) to any would-be adventurer's career. I respawned in the starting village, the appropriately named "Hometown", where I had to stand for a moment in the Healing Hut to recover.

That seems to be how you get your hit points back. A bit like going to an Altar in Neverwinter, if I'm remembering that correctly. I did find out later that mobs drop Healing Potions so there's a way to keep going without having to run to the hut every other fight but I didn't kill the ant so no potions for me.

I'd already been to the town when I found the teleport boat in the night so when Lisa told me to run there I cheated. Then, naturally, I needed to go back and tell her I'd done what she asked (even though I really hadn't), which meant running back - only I didn't know the way - because I'd cheated. Cheaters never prosper.

I got around that by cheating again. I ran into the countryside until I found something to kill me. Ranger Gate we used to call it, back in EQ. In Hometown once more, Lisa sent me to see her pal in a little hut outside the village and he finally - after about an hour of entirely non-combat gameplay - gave me my first combat quest: kill ten "little beasts". Why? For two very good reasons; they're "annoying" and "Lisa doesn't like them".

So I  did that. It took me a long time. Combat in Auteria is basic to say the least. The controls are very odd for an MMO from 2007. Attack is entirely by use of the left mouse button. You have to press "Q" to go in and out of combat mode, then either keep pressing LMB or hit "F", which autoattacks.

After the first couple of little beasts (pretty sure they were spiders) I took to tabbing out and reading the website. When my character's squeals and the beast's grunts stopped I tabbed back in, checked if I needed to use a potion or visit the Healing Hut, targetted another beast and did the same again.

By the time I'd killed ten and gone back to Lisa's friend I'd had enough excitement for one evening. I'm not sure whether I'll be visiting Lisa again. There are surely better ways I could be spending my time.

That said, like a few less-celebrated MMORPGs I could name, Auteria has...something. Graphically it looks like a game from much further back than the late 2000s. Visually, it reminded me quite a lot of Istaria (nee Horizons), which launched in 2003.

The scenery is sparse but not unappealing; the skybox is striking and attractive and as I said the lighting effects are delightful. The interiors of some of the buildings are bizarre. One room I saw looked as though actual fabric designs from a homeware catalogue had been overlayed onto some basic furniture shapes.

The way the characters are dressed in smart casuals that wouldn't look out of place at a suburban dinner party is weirdly endearing, too. According to the useful Help section on the website there are armor quests but I have no clue how you woiuld even equip armor and in any case I quite like the idea of fighting evil in blue jeans and a skintight blouse.

The whole game has the sweetly idiosyncratic sense of being someone's passion project. It wasn't much of a surprise, digging into the depths of the web page, to find that, like Project: Gorgon, Auteria is the result of the hard work of a real-life couple, Thomas and Elke. As they put it, "We both like to play computer games, and Tom to develop software especially games, thats how Auteria was born."

I doubt that Auteria would have changed anyone's life even ten years ago and it certainly won't now, when development on it has long ceased, but I'm glad I found it and I hope it hangs around a while longer.

I may well be back, if only for some sweet Ant Revenge.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Slow Club : EQ2

Since I seem to be incapable of playing more than two MMORPGs in rotation these days, my unexpected return to EverQuest pushed EQ2 off the wheel. Prior to that I had at least been harvesting my two shrubberies for mats and rares every day and keeping up with the basic requirements of the simple daily that funds the purchase of veteran rewards for characters who haven't been around long enough to earn them the slow way.

I was also - slowly - leveling up my Inquisitor towards the level cap by way of the Signature quest line from the last expansion. Last time I saw her she was Level 106 and facing a shortish grind on repeatable quests to max her Sphinx faction. Not something I was looking forward to, although it would only take an hour or so.

The main thing I was supposed to be doing was the Tradeskill Signature line. It wasn't ready when the expansion launched. It got patched in earlier this year and I waited a while before starting it back in the middle of March.

The god Karana, looking like your grandad on a weekend when Grandma's gone to visit her sister.
It comes in four parts. All the walkthroughs make a big deal of how long it takes, suggesting you allow several hours to do the whole thing. They go on about how much running around there is, how you might die to the Heroic or Raid level mobs that you're required to sneak past and how very lengthy and slow the combines are. Part of the reason I waited so long to begin was because the walkthroughs made it sound like a nightmare.

I suspect that some of the caveats derive from the experiences of the guide-writers as they plowed through the quests on the Test Server. I know from long and bitter experience that guinea-pigging any new content on Test can be like tap dancing in snowshoes compared to the eventual, tuned, debugged and eventually nerfed-for-convenience Live version.

Part One went fairly smoothly. I made a couple of elementary errors that got me killed but really the only thing that made it occasionally seem a little slow was the way I insisted on tabbing out to read the walkthrough, just to be sure I didn't take longer than I needed to. Yes, I know...

Please stand well back from the wyvern when it breathes fire on solidified lightning. It's only common sense.
I would have carried on from there but the very next day I started messing around on the Vox server over in EQ and bang! There went a month. Yesterday I finally got around to Part Two. Once again there were all kinds of warnings on the wiki about how long it was going to take me:

"The combines for this timeline are VERY long. Without potions they are taking 3-5 minutes EACH. Plan accordingly. There is a LOT of running on the quest. Bring as many evac items as you can manage. A floaty cloak is also useful to save time getting down from the towers".

Well, not really. The combines seemed to me to take a lot nearer three minutes than five, although I didn't actually time them. The thing is, I don't think three minutes is all that long for a combine. I'm sure I've done many longer ones over the life of the game and I seem to recall there was a time when three minutes wouldn't have seemed particularly unusual for a regular combine you might do while leveling up a tradeskill.

I certainly never felt the need to blow a potion on any of them. It was a pleasant, relaxing little crafting session. As for the running around, I do more of that every single day in WvW.

Thank you, Captain Obvious. Is it any wonder Voonark gets snarky?
In point of fact, I've probably done more running between writing paragraphs of this post, chasing across the map to defend Air Keep then back to our spare Bay, the one we're holding on Sea of Sorrows Borderland, to fend off attacks there. Not to mention that it often takes me longer than either of those to run from Plane of Knowledge to wherever it is I'm going to hunt that day, pretty much any time I play EQ.

It depends what you're used to, I guess. Whoever wrote the walkthrough clearly values his gaming "downtime" more than I value mine. I do seem to spend an inordinate amount of it just moving from one place to another or watching a progress bar fill. Or moving stuff from bags to boxes and back.

I did dig out my "floaty cloak" and put it on though. And swapped into my crafting gear. It's not like I want to go slowly for the sake of it. More like my idea of slow is stuck somewhere back in the late 20th Century, when "slow" meant "probably going to take a week or two".

Far from being slow on any terms, this tradeskill quest so far has been a lot of fun. It's an exemplary erm... example...of how to design an active, involving, exciting quest without combat. There's also minimal use of puzzles and no platforming, so it doesn't lean heavily on other genres. 

Dinging three levels at once was so loud it made me jump and I messed up the screenshot.
Mostly it sticks to gathering, crafting and not getting killed, which is quite enough to keep my interest and attention engaged.There's also a generous helping of utterly nonsensical plot, some incomprehensible and confusing lore and a hefty portion of snarky NPC chat - so EQ2 questing as we have come to know and love it, really.

I did worry a little that, with Domino gone, tradeskill quests would either fade away or begin to ressemble reskinned adventure quests but this one seems both substantial and authentically crafty.It also gives a humungous amount of xp. Granted there was a double crafting xp weekend running and I used my Veteran's hammer to refill my tradeskill vitality but even so to do six levels in an hour seems extreme.

As a result my weaponsmith is now maxed at 110 with half the signature line to go. Still, despite having capped out half way through, even if I wasn't enjoying the quest itself, which I very much am, there's plenty of incentive to finish it. The next step unlocks Guild Harvesting Missions, which I had no idea were even a thing, and gives my gathering pony a couple of new tricks, while the final stage puts two extremely powerful recipes in my book.

I think I might give part three a go tomorrow.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

A Compilation Of Links To Useful EverQuest Guides, Hints, Tips and Resources: Updated for 2018

I have a feeling I did this once before but if I did, I can't find the post. Never mind. I've stumbled across a few more resources since then anyway, so I think it's worth taking another run at it. The caveat is always Check The Date. Some of the information, even from recommended and reliable sources, can be outmoded or just plain obsolete. If in doubt, log in and try it. It won't kill you. Probably.

An awful lot of the things any EQ player would be better off knowing are buried somewhere in these links. Best of luck digging them out. If you can't find what you need, the best possible advice I can give is start playing and "just ask". Someone probably knows and if there's one thing EQ players enjoy even more than a double XP weekend it's a chance to show off their superior knowledge of the game.

Here are the links:

Almar's Guides

Fanra's Everquest Wiki incorporating Rasper's Repository

Allakhazam (especially the Wiki/Database)

EQ Traders

Brewall's EverQuest Maps

EQ Resource

Paul Lynch's EverQuest Guides inluding Pet Focuses and All The Good Quests

Hazmil Skelyd's EverQuest Resource Page

Pak'Cafan: EverQuest

EQ Interface

EQ Official Forums (especially the Returning Player Mage Thread for anyone starting a Heroic Character at Level 85).

EverQuest Reddit

And now, the gloss:

The reason I'm revisiting this topic is that there seems to have been a slight uptick of interest in playing EverQuest lately. Not just from me, either. UltrViolet tried it and didn't like it. Belghast just rolled an SK on Vox to see if recent negative comparisons with Project : Gorgon were justified. Keen has been  running out of partners while playing on Coirnav and although Kaozz hasn't mentioned it recently she's always there or thereabouts.

I've even had the odd comment asking for advice on starting or returning to EQ. I'm not sure that's something I'd advocate to just anyone. As has been discussed many times, MMORPGs come with a significant learning curve even when they're new and that curve can turn into a cliff face when the game's been running successfully for a few years, let alone nearly two decades.

Without any doubt, the single most forbidding aspect of playing EverQuest these days is the sheer volume of hidden detail. The gameplay itself remains relatively simple but the systems that support it are mysterious, arcane, convoluted and very frequently almost entirely obscure.

Over the years the developers, be it SOE or DBG, have made heroic efforts to retro-fit modern MMO conveniences onto the aging chassis, with varying degrees of success. For example, in my opinion, EQ currently has the best loot system of any game I play. It allows a degree of control that other MMOs either simply don't offer or, if they do, lock behind achievement or pay walls.

EQ long ago added a quest journal and quest tracker that offers all the utility you'd expect. It's far superior to GW2's kludgy version. There's a fantastic Atlas facility that not only shows you every one of the hundreds of zones but will build a path for you from anywhere to anywhere else and provide you with a glowing trail that shows you how to get you there.

The game even has a Calendar to let you know you when holiday or special events are coming. Hardly anyone seems to know it exists. Almost every day while I'm playing, someone will ask when an event begins or ends, only to be told to type /calendar. The response is usually "Wow! I never knew that even existed!".

I pick up most of of my tips from chat channels. That's how I discovered I could buy and sell through the Bazaar without having to go there. Yesterday I learned that you can control which spells and abilities your Mercenary uses by means of the /blockspell command or its menu-driven equivalent.

This is so counter-intuitive as to be positively perverse. Here's a detailed explanation. The way you can affect the behavior of your NPC Mercenary in this fashion is potentially game-changing, allowing you to solo (or, as the jargon has it, Molo) content that was previously out of your reach. I have no idea how you would ever discover this exceptionally useful function unless someone told you about it or you deliberately set out to read everything you could possibly find about the game before you started.

These are just a few examples of the scores of time-saving, ease of access, user-friendly systems available, many of which effectively change the way you might approach the entire game. And that's just the options open to everyone.

Once you begin to consider the range of Alternative Abilities you need to level up (around 10,000 of them according to Almar) I shudder to think how many more wrinkles there must be that I don't yet know. EQ doesn't go out of it's way to tell you about any of this. You have to find most of it for yourself. It's scarcely exaggerating to say that I discover a new trick every time I play, although sometimes they're tricks I used to know but long ago forgot.

Bearing all that in mind, there are several ways you could set about playing such a well-established MMORPG, one that hides 90% of its essential systems beneath the surface. You could take the "sink or swim" approach, treat it like any new game and just jump in. You'll probably sink but, hey...YOLO, right?

You could find a friend who plays and get them to handhold you through the scary parts. If you don't have such a long-suffering friend on tap, you could - as I have seen many players do - begin your new adventure by spamming chat for an active guild. Might take a while.

Or you could do some research. Every long-running game that was ever any kind of success has a legacy of guides, databases, wikis, Add-Ons and discussions that point back into the deep past like a comet's tail. The problem is, for good or ill, MMORPGs define themeselves by perpetual change. The issue isn't finding information - it's finding accurate information that's still relevant.

Still, it was ever thus. And it's not like games come with a manual any more, is it? Not that most people ever read the dam' thing back when they did... 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Already Home : EverQuest

To no-one's surprise more than my own, my leveling adventure on EverQuest's Vox server continues apace. I've logged in every day since I fortuitously rediscovered my then-Level 6 Necromancer three weeks ago. He's now Level 34.

Given that my average session lasts about an hour that's astonishingly fast progress by the traditional pace of EQ. When I finally settled on a Druid as my focus character sometime around January or February of the year 2000, I think it would have been May or June of that year before she reached the mid-30s - and I played her for maybe twenty hours every week.

The Druid is a good solo class but the Necromancer is supreme so it seems odd that I never really stuck with playing one. It would seem on paper to be a perfect fit for me, plus I played with several truly amazing necros, who showed me the incredible versatility of the class. Mrs Bhagpuss also played a necro with great skill and success for some time but even that didn't prompt me to give it a fair run.
It may have something to do with the way my necromantic career was brutally cut short by the infamous Test Server Wipe in June 2000. I've alluded to this extreme low point in SOE's checkered history before so I won't go over it again. Suffice to say it cost SOE three-quarters of their active testing community and it was years before anything like trust was re-established.

I was one of the 75% who took SOE up on their abashed and apologetic offer of a free transfer from Test to Live but my Necro, transplanted, never really flourished. Over the years I've dabbled in the necromantic arts many times. I even played a Necro as my main for five years on EQ2's Test server - a nervous return that worked out well - but in the elder game I settled for the Necro's boorish cousin, the Shadowknight.

This time things may just be different. The necromantic moons may finally be in alignment. It's not so much that I'm planning to level this one all the way. It's more that I already have a boosted Level 85 necro sitting unplayed on my All Access account and the main reason he's unplayed is that I don't know how to play him.

I'm figuring that by the time my Vox necro gets to, say, Crypt of Decay or even Dragonscale Hills I should have the class down well enough to jump ten or even twenty levels and carry on. I could even dual-box the Necro with my 92 Magician (For those keeping score, she hasn't suffered a horrible de-leveling accident. You can't do that any more. I was wishfully exaggerating last time, when I claimed she was 94).

Meanwhile, it's been truly fascinating to observe the culture - especially the leveling culture - on Vox. I've been mixing things up between nostalgia (Qeynos Hills, Blackburrow, Lake Rathetear, South Karana), hot zones featuring Teek's Tasks (Paludal Caverns, Nedaria's Landing, Dalnir) and my need to make some quick Platinum.

Having a Mercenary makes leveling up both easy and relaxing. I absolutely wouldn't be without one. I think they are the single best addition to EQ in the game's 19 year history. They do begin to get expensive around the mid-20s, though, if you don't take care where you hunt.

What with my Merc charging me several plat an hour and spells starting to edge towards double figures, hunting mobs that give great xp but no coin or valuable vendor drops became a luxury I couldn't really afford. I've been making liberal use of my discovery that you can /barter from anywhere and it is indeed as game-changing as I thought it would be, but low-level drops that people want to buy are fairly rare so I can't yet live off that alone.

For one brief moment there was someone buying High Quality Bear Pelts for 150pp each. I rushed to the bear caves in Nedaria's Landing, a spot I know of old to be the best at lowish levels for farming HQ bear. It was there that I came to appreciate just how very powerful a solo class the Necro is - especially when backed by a Cleric who never complains about bad pulls.

The bears turned out to be deep red cons. I tried to single pull one with the pet but two came and then two more added. Four red cons in a confined space - certain death, xp loss and a long run back if I was foolish enough to want to try again.

Only...I won. It was very close and involved a lot of swearing and bears being feared in all directions but in the end they died and I didn't. A couple more chaotic scenes on respawn and eventually I got a pattern worked out, found a way to single pull to the tunnel and kept the spawn broken and the room cleared until I had plenty of pelts to sell.

By which time, naturally, the guy who was buying them wasn't buying any more and hasn't been since, so I have a load of HQ bear pelts clogging up my packs. Much more valuably, I had the glimmering of an understanding just how powerful my character was becoming.

From there I went on to hunt deeper red cons further in Nedaria's Landing. I got in over my head with a horde of sleek panthers and timber griffawns, which gave me good practice in how to make distance from spawn before feigning death. I also discovered that, left alone, a Cleric merc will chain heal herself for what seems like hours while taking no offensive action whatsoever, which means it's a very bad idea to FD at 2% health and zero mana because it's along wait before you can reset the encounter.

All good learning experience. As were my first and second attempts to break a room in Dalnir. It's a very long run to Dalnir from pretty much anywhere so I didn't want to Gate when things went south, which they did remarkably quickly as red con roamers started to pile on. Fortunately I was the only one in the dungeon so my frantic sprint to the zone line didn't require me to fat finger the traditional /yell of "Trsain to Zojne!"

In a relatively short while I had a room nicely broken in Dalnir. XP was good but loot wasn't. It was at that point that I decided to swallow my pride and go hunt Sand Giants. At 30 I thought I might be a tad low but I seemed to be consistently underestimating what I could kill and there's only one way to know for sure.

I headed to South Ro, where, in the revamped version, there's a handy spawn of Sand Giant Elites up in a quiet corner. I have camped them before on other characters and other servers when I've needed some quick cash and I've always had the place to myself. Not on Vox.

First time there was a 38 Druid camping them. He'd killed most of them and he was medding up when I scampered in on my Worg. I debated whether to be super-polite and cede the camp immediately but I really wanted to know if the SGs were doable for me at 30 or not. So I pulled the one still standing.

And killed it. Quite easily, although giants do have a lot of hit points. The druid was probably preparing his /petition to customer service over abuse of the Play Nice Policy but he never had to send it because I looted my giant and moved on. I had to stop anyway and I knew what I needed to know.

Next evening I came back and the giants were camped again - by a level 84 Shaman. Outrageous! Not like I've ever done it... So I moved to Rathe Mountains, where the Hill Giants live. It's further to travel and not so convenient because the HGs roam whereas the SGs stand still but this time I had the place to myself.

I stayed there until I'd made 500 plat or so. I spawned the Tainted Hill Giant, a named mob for some Epic weapon quest or other. I killed him and the Corrupted Hill Giant immediately spawned in his place. I'd just read the tainted up on Allakhazam, though, so I was standing well back.

When I dinged I gated to Plane of Knowledge, went to buy my new spells, and promptly made more money in two minutes re-buying crafting mats off the spell vendor and selling them on /barter than I'd made on giants in an hour. So it goes.

Lat night at Level 33 I took Franklin Teek's task for Level 35s. It sent me to Stone Hive, where, for the very first time since Level 6, I finally died. Not because the bixies were too tough. Oh no, they were just fine, even the red cons and even when I overpulled.

What got me was the mob that spawned when I killed a drone. I'd made the mistake, while passing through Plane of Knowledge, of taking a random quest: Skal's Waking Nightmare. I should have remembered this opt-in death sentence from the last time I did it but that was so long ago...

Suffice it to say that when a red con Enchanter mob spawns instantly on top of you after a long fight that's left you low on mana, then proceeds to chain-stun you with a stun that lasts 48 seconds, things do not go well, even if you have a Mercenary to chain heal. If you then decide to accept your Merc's offer of an in-combat 50% rez on the spurious grounds that you'll be able to sprint a few yards then FD, well more fool you.

Even then, it might have worked, had another player not arrived to help just as I stood up. Before I could do anything the Walking Nightmare charmed me and set me on the new player. As I said to him, while I watched my necro (fortunately flat out of mana and therefore completely harmless) flailing away "I haven't had this happen to me since about 2002".

In fact, I thought they'd put a stop to mobs charming players long ago but apparently not. After a long fight in which I took no part other than observer and during which the Nightmare also charmed the other player and both our Mercs, although not all at once, my new acquaintance finally got the better of the situation. We congratulated ourselves on surviving and I retired to a quiet corner to finish my level. I must remember to delete that quest.

The reason there was another player there in the first place is that Stone Hive, like all the zones in The Serpent's Spine expansion, now forms part of the Golden Path, a preferred leveling plan that, at least on Vox, is well-attended.

There were a dozen people in Blightfire Moors, the previous zone and ten in Stone Hive. Most were an appropriate level although there were some high levels there on buffbot duties. People were even grouping.

Whereas old lags like myself, Wilhelm and Keen mostly bang on about the very old days and suggest hunting in places like The Karanas, Crushbone, Blackburrow or Unrest, the real meat of the low-mid level game these days is in the Serpent's Spine. If you want to start playing EQ and have an experience that's recognizable as something from the post-WoW world, that's where you should go.

Luckily for me, I was playing EQ when TSS launched. Or, to be more accurate, Mrs Bhagpuss and I made one of our periodic returns to EQ specifically because SOE decided to sell an expansion with a new race, new starting area and new set of leveling zones. We made new characters on a fresh server and levelled up in TSS all the way to the 60s or 70s, which means I can go there now and get a moderate nostalgia hit as well as great xp and decent loot. Try doing that in Unrest and see how far it gets you!

Every session I play I remember something, learn something and realize how very much there is I still don't know about EQ, both past and present. Right now I feel like I want to play EverQuest more than I want to play any other MMO and I have more ideas for things I'd like to do than I can come up with for any other game.

We'll see if that lasts. At the moment I can knock off a level in an hour like shelling peas. When that goes to a bubble an hour - 20% of a level - as it will all too soon, we'll see if the whole process still seems so satisfying. Should have another good twenty or even thirty levels before that happens, though.

However long my interest and enthusiasm lasts this go round, it's astonishing to see how much life there is in the old game yet. Long may it continue.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Got Live If You Want It (I'm Not Sure I Do) : Shroud of the Avatar

It's been almost a year since I last paid a visit to Shroud of the Avatar. Since then I certainly haven't been chammering at the bit, waiting for Richard Garriott to throw wide the gates, cut the red ribbon and declare SotA officially "launched". If I'm honest, I can't remember all that much about it. I was just left with the vague impression that I rather enjoyed myself.

Of course, "Lord British", supremely unaware of my existence as he gazes down from his orbital weapons platform, doesn't set his calendar by my interest (or lack thereof) in his earthly works. On the 27th of March he gave his formal nod of assent for SotA - finally - to drop the fig-leaf of Early Access and step proudly onto the stage as a Finished Game. Well, kind of.

As we all know, MMORPGs are never finished, nor meant to be. Not to mention that as soon as you start selling "Packs" and charging money your game is de facto "launched", regardless of what euphemisms you care to employ so you can sleep at night.

I always seem to be in my own shade. Maybe if I lit this torch...

Anyway, it's out there for real now. You can buy it and play it and if it doesn't work Portalarium can't hand-wave your complaints away by playing the "still in development" card. What practical difference that makes is less clear. No MMO ever worked flawlessly and having a purchase receipt and a subscription agreement never guaranteed anyone a refund beyond what might have been required by law.

No-one in this corner of the blogosphere seems to have been paying much attention, anyway. The only post-launch posts I noticed were Wilhelm formally recording the fact and Syp giving it a quick once-over.

Wilhelm opined that he couldn't see when he'd find the time, which sums up how I feel about any number of current and forthcoming MMOs. Syp, who did at least make the effort to log in, sounded like he wished he hadn't bothered. He summed up a frustrating and lacklustre session with one of those 'I'm not angry - I'm just disappointed' anti-rants so beloved by dads the world over:

"Shroud of the Avatar isn’t as engrossing or connected as it should be. And it really should be, which is the shame here."

I did manage to patch the thing up on launch day but that's as far as I got until this morning, when I decided to give SotA another run. For science. Or at least for a blog post.

That's a feature you don't often see.

A week and more having passed there was, naturally, more patching to do. The SotA patcher is swift so that passed painlessly enough. I logged in using my free trial details and my character was there, waiting, just as I'd left him. That was the easy part. From there onwards things went downhill - slowly, like a glacier.

It wasn't anything to do with the game itself. I didn't get as far as playing the game. Last time, when the thing was supposedly in "pre-alpha", I don't recall having any particular issues with performance. There's plenty in the couple of posts I wrote that echoes Syp's confusion over SotA's idiosyncratic systems and design choices but nothing about stuttering, frame-rate lag, buildings popping in out of nowhere or every new zone taking literally minutes to load.

Today I found SotA all but unplayable. My PC was constantly grinding away on 100% disk access. I checked to see if something else was going on but it seemed to be entirely down to the game itself. I would have googled to see if it was a known issue but tabbing out to look anything up was impossible. I could move about in the world, provided I didn't want to open any doors, interact with any NPCs, check my inventory or basically do anything more than peer cautiously around me. Making no sudden turns.

I'm going to jump...I think...

I put up with it for about an hour, in which time I achieved absolutely nothing other than to take some screenshots. The game has taken a considerable amount of criticism for its supposedly old-fashioned graphics but it looks quite good to me. It may not be cutting-edge but it's certainly not 'EverQuest with a new coat of paint' like Project: Gorgon. Then again, I can play P:G.

If the scenery seemed fine, the animations were less satisfactory. My character knocks his ankles together as he runs and one time, when he was sliding down a rocky riverbank, it looked as if his leading foot was going to come off altogether. On the other hand (or foot), when he ended up in the river itself, the swimming animations were pretty spiffy, so it's a mixed bag.

Yep. I jumped.
Syp complained about the absence of a zone or mini-map. That puzzled me because I had both. Hitting "M" brought up a map of the city I was in. It wasn't a great map but it worked. There was also an overview map of the connections between zones but that only appeared in the peculiar "Overland Travel" area that serves as SotA's nod to fast travel.

I also had one of the collectible maps Syp mentions, which I imagine I must have bought from an NPC or found somehow last time I played. That seemed to function like a mini map, although it kept disappearing while I was trying to read it. It was also annotated in some made-up language, which is probably very immersive if you commit to the game but quite annoying if you're just trying to get your bearings at the start.

Who wrote this? Elves?

I had a quest tracker up on screen. I would have used it to complete something I'd started a year ago, if I could have found my way back to where I'd been, but I couldn't work out where to go, even with all the maps.

It'd sure be nice to accomplish something.

The quest journal itself is attractively designed and the quests are well-written but with the frame-rate issues and the extraordinarily lengthy zoning times there was no chance I'd be able to navigate my way to where I needed to be before my increasingly frayed patience wore out.

Red light means danger.
My willingness to struggle on was further undermined by the D&D style random encounters that dragged me into a private instance every time I tried to travel from one Adventure area to another. Not to mention the fact that my weapon was broken and I couldn't remember how the combat system worked anyway.

Grey light means dead.

My unfortunate encounters with packs of wolves and gangs of skeletons did at least mean I got to see what happens when you die. I don't remember it from my last excursion. You have to go find an Ankh, which revives you, or wait five minutes if you can't be arsed.

There's probably more to it than that. I'm sure there's more to it than that. Shroud of the Avatar is one of those MMORPGs where there's always more to it than that. That's a good thing, or at least I think it is, in theory, but as I said last time, I may just be getting too old for this level of "realism".

This map suggests a lot of content - content I will never see.

I'm definitely too old to deal with three to five minute zone transitions and appalling performance issues. A little lag I can handle but this is way too much. Now it's finally "gone live", SotA might be an  MMO worth exploring but until I can actually play it I'm never going to know for sure.

Perhaps I'll give it another run if I hear the performance issues have improved but until then there are less frustrating places to be.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Honey Trap : Ashes of Creation

When I opened my inbox this morning, I was surprised to find not one but three emails from Intrepid Studios, developers of Ashes of Creation.  All identical, all headed "Want to help us test Alpha Zero?".

There's no easy answer to that question. Wilhelm and I had a brief discussion on the subject of alphas and betas in the comments section at TAGN just yesterday. He'd received an invitation to alpha test the upcoming WoW expansion, Battle for Azeroth, an invitation he intended to decline, saying "I long ago discovered my own problems with alpha and beta access.  Nothing diminishes my desire to play a game once it goes live than playing it before it goes live".

He also observed that pre-launch testing by definition means that what you experience at launch isn't new, leading in turn to the oft-expressed complaint that "it was better in beta". I've been known to make that claim myself and I completely agree that unwrapping the present before the birthday can lead to disillusionment and ennui.

That's why I'm much more circumspect about seeking or accepting alpha and beta offers than I would have been a few years ago. Other than a swift visit to get a few screenshots and a blog post, I'm no longer interested in the least part in testing expansions for MMOs I'm already playing. That does seem to be something almost guaranteed to lead to disappointment.

I'm also not particularly keen on testing new MMOs at an extremely early stage of development, even though I have had some very good experiences doing so in the past. It's always interesting, because most MMOs undergo enormous changes in development, to the point where different builds seem almost like different games, but it can weigh heavily against your appreciation of the final product.

I wrote a good deal about City of Steam, which I played in all its various stages from the Sneak Peak through alphas and betas into release and eventual sunset. It was scarcely the same game twice and, much as I enjoyed what it eventually became, I would unreservedly claim that it was at its very best in the early days.

Rift, famously, was considered by many to have been at its best in late beta. I had fun in every iteration of Landmark, another "MMO" that went through some very significant revamps without ever finding either a true direction or an audience, but I had the most fun in the first few months of "pre-alpha".

In all those cases my preference for the earlier versions rests on the gameplay rather than the novelty. All those MMOs changed in development in ways I'd have preferred they hadn't. I enjoyed them after launch but it was always with the knowledge that, had they not changed direction, I would have enjoyed them more.

Vanguard, on the contrary, kept improving throughout. Of course, I only saw it from late beta onwards. I'm sure there are plenty of veterans of the earlier stages who could make a case for the game having been better back then.

My Vanguard beta experience was much more similar to my time in the late beta weekends for The Secret World and Guild Wars 2. I came to those at a point when what was changing was more a matter of detail and emphasis than ethos or philosophy.

Those experiences, with what was almost a finished product, at a time close to launch, had the effect of stimulating my appetite for more. I found myself waiting impatiently for the day when I could throw all my energy and enthusiasm behind a permanent character. When the time came, far from feeling jaded from having seen it all before I was thrilled to see the gates flung open and the world revealed for me to explore.

Then there were the betas that acted as a warning. Testing the original FFXIV was a surreal experience. There was a strict NDA, so it felt like watching a huge juggernaut heading towards a cliff edge, with no way to warn anyone of the impending disaster. The Horizons beta had something of the same atmosphere.

With all that in mind, whether or not to try an MMO before launch is a tricky decision. Over the past few years that decision has often been taken out of my hands by the increasing willingness of developers to let anyone and everyone "play" the game while they're making it.

With so many flavors of pre-alpha, alpha, beta, open beta and early access available either for free or at a price the decision on when to start "playing" is problematic. It certainly seems unlikely that I would still have the same enthusiasm for an MMO at "launch" that I might have had when I first began "testing" it anything up to three years earlier.

As a blogger I also have the issue of whether to poke my head through the curtain at various stages so I can take a few pictures, make a few notes and get a blog out of it. I have to try to balance quasi-journalistic curiosity with not spoiling my own fun.

These days I try to limit any intense involvement to the period directly before launch. If I can achieve the anticipatory escape velocity I experienced before Vanguard or GW2 then I know launch-day will be joyous.

In the case of Ashes of Creation, I bought into the Kickstarter at the level that guarantees access to the final, closed beta. By then the game should be close to its finished form. If it's going to be my next Big MMO, I'll be able to tell.

Having made that choice, should I throw away all caution and restraint and jump into the AoC pre-alpha just because I can? Well, fortunately that's a decision I don't have to make. On close inspection, the whole thing turns out to be a tease:
We are introducing a new opportunity for our Glorious Ashes Community to gain additional entries into our Alpha Zero raffles! From this point forward, all social media followers will gain added entries into our raffles.

For each social media account you subscribe or follow, you will gain an additional chance to help us test our Pre-Alpha builds!  All you need to do is subscribe or follow our official YouTube, Twitch, Twitter or Facebook.

It's just a marketing gimmick. Good. That means I can forget about it. Which is just as well, because I don't know whether I'd have had the willpower to resist, had the email contained an actual pre-alpha key.

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