Monday, December 10, 2018

Special Snowflakes : EQ2

As Wilhelm reported, Standing Stone Games have some very pricy pre-Christmas deals going for Dungeons and Dragons and Lord of the Rings Online. Daybreak, SSG's publisher, is also running a limited-duration holiday offer for EverQuest II but it's a different beast altogether.

The SSG packages both rely on long-term commitment. The DDO package includes two years of premium membership; for LotRO you get one year. In both cases you also get access to a very large amount of content that would take months to play through.

The EQII offer is called 12 Days of Frostfell. It does indeed last for twelve days, running from Tuesday, December 4, when this year's in-game winter holiday season began, until just before midnight on Wednesday, December 16, and it's much more about instant gratification.

It's also a somewhat convoluted affair, requiring nested purchases in both the cash shop and from an in-game NPC. It took me a couple of read-throughs and a bit of digging around in game to figure it out. The short version goes like this: if you buy specific packs (all labeled "Holiday") in the DBG Store during the promotion they come with a new currency called Glug's Chocolate Coins. You can then spend that currency at a vendor who lurks in the shadows near the wardrobe that zones you into the Frostfell Wonderland Village.

It might seem like an odd way to go about things but I guess you could argue that it turns a marketplace transaction into something more lore-appropriate. In doing so, it also connects what you're doing more strongly to your character, since it's they, not you, who makes the final purchase.

I would argue that, as it happens. Yes, it would be simpler and more convenient just to buy the items directly from the store but simplicity and convenience aren't everything.

Those are the means. How about the ends? What can you buy, how much does it cost, and is it worth it?

The "what" is simple enough. As is usually the case in EQ2 these days, what you can buy with your chocolate money is Mercenaries, Familiars and a Prestige Home. Mercs and Fams (No-one calls them Fams. Let's not start.) are mostly sold in the cash shop via randomized packs but the in-game vendor sells them directly, so you can get exactly the ones you want, first time.

(As an aside, DBG have managed to finesse lockboxes through the store in such a way that I see very few complaints. In fact, in a game where complaints are commonplace and the playerbase is frequently grumpy, lockboxes rarely get a mention, although this particular promotion has raised a few hackles. I believe the lockboxes are broadly accepted because the items inside are both tradeable and convertible to Status, the currency all high-end players crave and can't get enough of. I'm guessing people are more than happy to sell or salvage their spares. Probably some even buy them for that very purpose).

Getting back to the current promotion, while it's quite expensive, it does seem to offer decent value. The various bundles in the cash shop give coins in various quantities. Things like the unattuners that cost a few hundred DBC come with a single chocolate coin and the number you get scales according to cost all the way up to ten coins with the 4999DBC Mindbender Merc seven-pack.

Santa Glug's Curious Clerk, the in-game vendor, charges three, five and seven chocolate coins for the different Mercenaries. The Familiars are all three coins each except for the Blush Gumdrop, which is top of the shop at ten coins. That's because the Blush is Ethereal quality while the rest are merely Legendary.

The Prestige House, which the promo calls "Santa Glug’s Snowglobe Home" but which is known in game as Santa Glug's Cheerful Holiday Home, also runs to ten chocolate coins. The blurb says "This amazingly cozy winter home really has to be seen to be believed! " and fortunately you can do that without buying it if you go to the Prestige Home portal in game and take the tour.

Naimi Denmother did just that and posted a video but it only shows one of the three globes.
Denmum must have been tired that day (she works harder than Dulfy on this stuff and for a lot less reward, I bet) because you can visit all three globes on the tour. I just did.

As well as the one on the counter-top there's another on the mantlepiece and a third on the table. You just have to click on the tiny globe at the edge to swap from one to another. Snow falls constantly inside the globe and flying is enabled, making for some spectacular views.

The breakout zone for the new home (and it's been cofirmed there is one) would seem to be either the Baubleshire Inn itself or, just possibly, the whole of Baubleshire. Only on a Land of the Giants scale, since your character has been shrunk to a suitable size to fit inside a snowglobe.

I find this an immensely appealing prospect. I'm not particularly interested in the Familiars and Mercs (although having Santa Glug as a healer has a certain appeal) but I'd love to break out of the snowglobe and go exploring in the old, no longer accessible, pre-invasion Baubleshire.

(Another aside: one of the less well-known reasons that EQ2's housing is best in genre is the ability to "break out" of the homes into the surrounding area. This used to be a somewhat clandestine activity but is now fully sanctioned, albeit on an "at your own risk" basis. By breaking out you can effectively gain access to an entire zone, which you can decorate (and in EQ2 "decorate is a synonym for "build") just as though you were in the core home instance. The snow globe home has apparently been designed with breakouts in mind and the breakout zone covers an area larger than Antonica!)

To get ten chocolate coins is no small undertaking. Well, okay, it is a small undertaking in that it doesn't ask much more of you than a few mouse-clicks. What I mean is, it's quite expensive. It varies a little according to what Holiday Packages you choose, but it always comes in, near as makes no odds, around 5000DBC.

Five thousand in Daybreak Cash would cost you $45 (or £37). It's a lot less than the $200-300 SSG are asking but I'm not about to spend that kind of money on an imaginary house I most likely will never spend more than a few sessions messing around with. It's also very expensive compared to any other Prestige House, none of which breaks 2,000DBC.

And yet...

All the Holiday Bundles are genuinely useful: the Mercs and Familiars, as I mentioned, can be converted to Status and also traded on the Broker. You might even get a really good one that you'd end up using. Other bundles include things that always come in useful, like extra character slots, server transfers and item unattuners.

Even so, I still wouldn't spend $45 on a whim. Only I don't have to... As a result of SOE's notoriously idiotic policy of running regular double and even treble cash sales (sometimes cited as the reason they never made any money) plus the regular 500 stipend I get for being a member, I have over 20kDBC on my current main account and 17k on the old one.

I might as well spend it on something and five thousand isn't even going to make that much of a dent. So I'm thinking about it.

And because I'm seriously considering the offer, it also clarifies for me the reason why game companies like to put a either a time limit or a limited number on what is self-evidently an infinitely renewable resource. It makes purchasers decide.

If there was no time limit I'd tick the mental box that says "one day" and forget about it for now. And probably forever. I'm extremely good at feeling as though I've bought something just because I thought about buying it. Put a time limit on it, though, and I have to make an actual decision.

It's a wonderful house.

I really would like it.

Let's not be hasty, though.

Still got six days.

Don't rush me, I'm thinking!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Atlas Obscura

A couple of unrelated news items caught my attention at MassivelyOP yesterday. One was a report that Daybreak had laid off another sixty or seventy people. The other was the announcement of a major new MMO, launching before Christmas.

News of layoffs at any MMO studio isn't generally much of a surprise - worrying, maybe, but hardly unusual. I'm tempted to say the most surprising thing about this one was finding out Daybreak still had seventy people left to let go.

John Smedley flared up on Twitter with some choice quotes that look likely to come back to haunt him one day. I imagine he thought so too when he'd calmed down because they've both disappeared from his timeline, although you can read them in the linked M:OP post.

It's one thing to criticize the running of a studio and the care it takes of its employees but that criticism takes on an entirely different tone when it comes from the person directly responsible for arranging the transfer of said studio to its current owners in the first place.

The background to the story seems murky, as is usually the case in affairs of this kind. My dog in the fight is really the health and future fortunes of the current stable of games but as a longtime fan of SOE/DBG's style of MMORPG I'm also interested in what Daybreak might do next.

The good news, in so far as we know anything, is that the existing games seem to be unaffected by the latest round of redundancies. M:OP clarified the original report with some qualified reassurance: "It sounds as if the core MMORPGs are safe".

This opinion appears to have been derived by MassivelyOP directly from sources among the DBG staffers actually laid off, although the linked article from Variety does include a boilerplate quote from a DBG spokesperson: "we remain focused on supporting our existing games and development of our future titles.”.

Conversely, one of the most striking elements in the M:OP edit, the reference to "a secret game with a top IP", doesn't appear at all in the Variety story.  Indeed, on a first reading, the Variety piece appears to contradict M:OP's precis, with Variety reporting the DBG spokesperson as confirming

"“Our Austin office is not closing.""
while Massively:OP reframes that as:
"those laid off may have been working on a secret game with a top IP (at the Austin studio – now confirmed publicly by Variety)."

I guess both could be correct, if the layoffs are at Austin but Austin stays open with whoever's left still working on...whatever it is they do there... but it's a confusing picture to say the least.

What really struck me - other than the fact that Variety even knows DBG exists - is how little we know about anything major studios are up to behind the scenes. Given that MMOs take years to produce, and especially given the recent trends towards turning their development into some kind of reality show, I find it genuinely surprising to learn that there are still so many secret projects out there.

The other news story I mentioned is a case in point. ARK developers Wildcard are launching a brand-new MMO next week. Yes, next week!

If you get your MMO news from Massively:OP, as I do, you'd be forgiven for thinking the first anyone knew about this was when the trailer was shown at the Twitch Game Awards a couple of days ago. (I didn't even hear about the Twitch Game Awards until they were over, despite having a Twitch account, but leaving that aside...)

Checking YouTube, however, I see that there are several videos up for Atlas, which is what the pirate-themed survival MMO is called, going back at least four months. As my own channel has often demonstrated, if you want to hide something from the general public, you can't do better than post it on YouTube.

The Steam page for Atlas also contradicts the M:OP piece, which describes the game as "first person MMO", while the actual description on the page linked by M:OP clearly states that Atlas is

 "a massively multiplayer first-and-third-person fantasy pirate adventure" (my emphasis).

All sources agree that the game will offer a vast open world capable of holding up to forty thousand players at once, which is Massively Multiple by anyone's criteria, I'd say. Wildcard describe it as an MMO "on the grandest scale" and with claims like this, who can argue?

"Physically sail in real-time across the vast oceans with the proprietary server network technology. Explorers will voyage to over 700 unique landmasses across 45,000 square kilometers, with thousands of Discovery Zones, and ten distinct world regions..."

I'm not sure whether the part about sailing in real-time is a threat or a promise. I don't see much future in a game that requires two weeks of your life just to get from one landmass to another. I'm guessing they just mean no instant travel.

Although the game is described as a "a survival MMO", as you might expect from the makers of ARK, the Steam page makes it sound far more like a full-on sandbox. It will even have some theme-park content featuring "challenging main questlines".

If it all sounds too good to be true - and it does - then temper your excitement in the knowledge that next week's "launch" is in fact the start of a proposed two year period of Early Access. How much of the mind-boggling feature set will be in place by Christmas 2020 I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Wildcard does have an impressive record with ARK, though. I've never played it but I've read a ton about it and for all the teething troubles and complaints, most of what I read was people enjoying themselves. ARK's overall rating on Steam is "mixed" but its recent rating, from almost seven thousand votes, is "very positive", which to me suggests an Early Access project that produced a solid, successful game.

The official early-access release trailer is impressive even though you can see it's very much a work in progress. This article at PCGamer fleshes out a lot of detail about how the game might play. I'm not particularly a fan of pirate settings and I positively dislike ship-to-ship combat, but even so I'm very tempted. 

The 100GB download and the fact that my GPU might not quite meet the minimum spec is about all that's putting me off. Certainly the $30 price tag sounds reasonable and the option of playing on either PvE or PvP servers is perfect.

What I'm really left wondering, though, is what else might be out there? Who knows which studio is working on what project? We base our expectations for the genre on what we can see but so much is hidden.

We don't even know what that "top IP" Daybreak were working on was, let alone whether the layoffs mean it's been cancelled or just changed development phase. Was it an internal or an external IP? Did the last hope for EQ3 just die, or was that the rumored Planetside 3 that crashed and burned? Or was it an IP on license that we'd never even imagined DBG might be working on and so will never miss?

All we can say for sure is is there's a lot more going on than we ever know about. Until we do. And I like it that way. Long may it continue!

Monday, December 3, 2018

A Six-Footed Friend : GW2

This afternoon I completed the meta-achievement for the new Roller Beetle races in Guild Wars 2. It's not particularly difficult. You have to tick off ten achievements from a list  of seventeen. That would appear to give a wide margin for error, but not all of them count.

The ones that matter are getting either Silver or Gold in a time trial on each of the five tracks and completing fifteen laps of all five as well. Dulfy has a guide but you really don't need one. I didn't look at it until after I'd finished.

The reward is a nifty scarf that blows out behind you in true WW1 fighter pilot style. It's a shoulder-slot item with three dye channels. Although you have to choose just an armor weight - Light, Medium or Heavy - when you get it, whichever one you choose unlocks all three skins.

There is an upmarket "gold" version you can get if you can manage all five tracks in the very tight "gold" time limit. If they nerf a couple of them I might give it a try but as it stands there's no possible chance I'll be able to do Brisban Wildlands and I doubt I'd get Snowden Drifts or Mount Maelstrom either.

In any case, looking at the pictures of the two scarves on Dulfy, I can't see the difference. Well, I can: one is yellow and the other is blue. The caption, however, says the blue one is the Golden version so either Dulfy is colorblind, the artists at ANet are having a little joke or someone dyed the thing before they took the screenshot.

I think that, for an event of this kind, it's remarkably well done. The meta only requiring Silver puts it within the reach of most players while the ability to rent a beetle for just one silver per hour opens the races up to everyone, regardless of whether they have the Path of Fire expansion or not.

The tokens - Racing Medallions, to give them their proper name - the vendor takes come fairly quickly. Completing the meta and doing a few extra races along the way has netted me 289 so far and I haven't been doing the dailies, which would add quite a few more. 

The dailies are only around for the duration of the Sweepstake, which means they're with us for a month. Given that you get medallions for normal racing and that the Bronze, Silver and Gold time trial rewards refresh every day at reset, anyone who really cares should be able to buy anything they fancy on the vendor so long as they're patient.

The event has had one interesting and unexpected side-effect for me. As I say all too often, I don't much like GW2's mounts and although I enjoyed getting the Roller Beetle I had written it off completely as means of transport. It seemed both ridiculous and impractical.

Having spent a lot of time with mine, I do now feel somewhat differently about it. Once you get to grips with the controls it is, counter-intuitively, one of the steadier rides. It's also highly useful for crossing flat areas fast and there are quite a lot of flat areas in Tyria.

The beetle itself is also oddly appealing when you take time to study it closely. It looks rather like a little old man carrying a heavy load. It does have six legs but it stands upright on two of them, waves two about like arms and the other two form some kind of art deco portico out front.

The saddle your character sits on looks like a cross between a carnival ride and one of WildStar's hoverboards. It's entirely unconnected to the mount itself. You hang there in space at the back, looking pretty darned cool.

There are also resting animations that add a sense of ownership and indeed affection to the relationship between rider and mount. The beetle often does an endearing little shuffle from side to side, stamping its feet and "singing". Less frequently, your character reaches forward to pat the beetle firmly on the shell.

All in all this has been rather an impressive addition to the game. I'd take it over just about any episode of the Living Story, post Season One. I'm not at all surprised to see that the achievements for it appear in the Side Stories category. Yet again the supposed back-up team proves to have a much better idea of what constitutes genuine entertainment than the leads.

From here it's all downhill to Wintersday, I guess. As far as I can tell the dates haven't been anounced yet but I'm expecting it to start next Tuesday and run into the New Year. I wonder if we'll get a new race for that as well?

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Anyone Seen My Tortoise?

Although I opted out of playing on Lord of the Rings Online's Legendary servers I've been reading a fair bit about them. One of the issues that keeps coming up is the speed of leveling, when compared to the Live game.

The generally accepted view of leveling in LotRO these days seems to be that it zips past in a bit of a blur. I can't say that's been my experience and UltrViolet concurs, but concerns were expressed that, with just fifty levels to do and four whole months to do them in, much of the content would go untouched. Players would rocket to the cap then find themselves with nothing to do but stand around, playing their lutes and smoking pipeweed, trying to think of other games they might be playing instead.

Naturally concerned for such an outcome, and despite having made it clear this was not to be any kind of "Classic" reconstruction in the Blizzard or even the SOE or Jagex mode, Standing Stone opted to apply the brakes. As you can see from the linked thread, that was a decision greeted with less than universal approval.

No surprise there. The introduction of special ruleset servers to an existing MMORPGs is often a cause of worry for regular players. People who are passably satisfied with the status quo tend to interpret any attempt to cater for those who aren't as a direct threat. 

There are two commonly expressed fears. Firstly, the population will split, thereby weakening the existing game; secondly, changes to rules and systems devised for the new servers will bleed across. One of the main reasons PvE players often give for not having PvP in their game, even when it's siloed off onto separate servers, is that developers will inevitably end up altering skills and mechanics for everyone because it's just too awkward to maintain separate systems indefinitely.

On my way from the Lone Lands to Bree to get a ride to the Shire for the Fall Festival.
I remember seeing that argument on the EverQuest forums, all the way back in the very early 2000s, when EQ not only had multiple PvP servers but each of them had a different ruleset. As PvP slipped out of fashion in Norrath and the seemingly endless series of Progression Servers began to trundle off the assembly line, the same concerns passed to them and when Smed had the temerity to suggest the future for EQ lay in F2P, the roof just about came off (although, as time went on to prove, the wheels stayed firmly on).

There's a whole, long discussion to be had about the benefits, impacts and dangers of adding variant server rulesets. I might get to that another day. For now, let's stick to the topic at hand: leveling speed.

It's a truism of the genre that over time leveling gets faster. Is there any moderately successful MMORPG of a number of years' standing that retains the same pace of leveling it had at launch? Sometimes the acceleration is a direct response to a disgruntled playerbase but mostly it's just a natural, almost an organic, process.

Players like their characters to become more powerful. They also like convenience. They react well to things that support those preferences and badly to things that don't. They also acquire both knowledge and resources over time that mean their alts are more efficient at leveling than their mains used to be.

Fireworks! This must be the place. I hear it's great for fast leveling.
The further the end game recedes, the harder players work to come up with shortcuts to get there. Twinking, power-leveling, buying high-level characters, you name it, players will do it. All of this tends to cause a lot of bad feeling and places considerable demands on Customer Service. Rather than deal with that, developers tend to respond by trying to magic the problem away, making leveling smoother, faster, easier and ultimately irrelevant.

The problem then becomes what to do with all that extra content. For many its a non-issue. They skip to cap and stay there, as uninterested in what lies below them as the average householder is about the mineral rights beneath their home.

Some people do care, though. There's a not-insignificant demographic that plays MMORPGs specifically for the quests and another (probably much larger) that just doesn't feel right if they haven't completed everything in a zone before they move on.

These are the people who complain when leveling speeds up so much that quests start to grey out before they finish them. I have never understood this. 

It has always seemed to me that if what you're interested in is completing the quests then the easier the quests are to complete the more fun you're going to have. Yes, the rewards are going to be useless and you won't get much - or any - xp, but if all you're after is the stories and a sense of completion, so what?

Okay, now to grab a quest and watch that XP fly!
Still, it clearly bothers enough customers that developers find it worth taking the time and trouble to implement options to avoid it. That's not always just to please quest-hounds, either. There can be more pragmatic, less romantic reasons.

EverQuest2, for example, has sliders that allow you to choose what percentage of your xp goes to leveling or to alternate advancement. This used to be very important, because AA abilities are very powerful and AAXP becomes a lot harder to acquire at higher levels. It was, at one time, very much in a player's interest to put a character's leveling on hold while working on acquiring a hundred or so AA levels instead.

Options built into the UI are practical if prosaic but some games take their RPG heritage more seriously. LotRO has an item known as The Stone of the Tortoise, which switches xp gain off completely. It's mentioned in the linked thread above and when Wilhelm observed that he was having to avoid certain activities for fear of outleveling his chosen zones, Lathe popped up in the comments to suggest he might want to use it.

This seems like a sensible recourse. The weight of evidence suggests that most players either don't relish leveling at all or would prefer to scamper through at a brisk trot, if not a full gallop. It seems churlish for developers to insist everyone slows down and smells the slaughtered corpses when the role of Fotherington-Tomas-gone-psycho can be applied at will on a one-to-one basis. 

Despite this apparently benign solution, an obverse trend seems to be gaining traction. Flat or horizontal, the idea that all zones can be created equal has been in vogue for some time. I'm not sure I approve but at least  it's better than another card in the developer's pack, the scorched earth option.

Nearly an hour on a horse, two dozen beers, failed the quest, no xp at all. Stone of the Tortoise? Where's my sodding Stone of the Hare?
World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion is probably the most (in)famous example. Aion is the latest.  Instead of allowing players free choice on how and how fast to level, the developers simply carve out great chunks of content and throw them away. They then add a multiplier to xp gain on the existing content and call it job done.

I was playing Aion a while back. It made such a deep impression on me I can remember literally nothing about it. I'm not about to work myself up into a surrogate frenzy about the disappearance of content I never cared about in the first place.

If I was playing LotRO regularly, though, I might worry. A little. Players on special ruleset servers are often the strongest enthusiasts for the game and the most vocal advocates for it. Developers also tend to spend more time working on those servers and have more direct interactions with the players there than is usual on a regular ruleset server.

It would be no surprise to see a patch note sometime that mentions a change to Live server XP in some fashion or other. These things happen. If it does, you can bet the Legendary server will get the credit or the blame.

Really, though, these tweaks and changes seem inevitable. I was pondering whether MMORPGs really need to keep adding content but you might just as well ask if they can afford to keep hanging on indefinitely to the content they already have.

Don't ask me. I just play the things.

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