Tuesday, December 10, 2019

New World, Old World

It's been a good, long while since a news item on Massively:OP piqued my interest but the last twenty-four hours pinged a couple of blips on the radar. Blipped a couple of pings? Does radar even make a noise or do they just dub it in to make it more exciting in the movies?

First came a heads-up that Amazon had broken radio silence on New World. I haven't really thought about the game much since the alpha went offline back in May. I certainly haven't been following the Twitter feed so I was unaware that it had a) been inactive for months and b) had just come back to life.

This, of course, is why I still check M:OP every day, even though almost everything there, apart from the news itself, raises my blood pressure. There isn't any more comprehensive or timely coverage of the genre and I'm guessing there's not likely to be so I make the best of it.

When Amazon said they were taking New World back behind closed doors to "“design major new features” that were “large in scope and create changes to the world that could be disruptive.”", to quote Massively quoting Amazon, I saw no reason not to take them at their word. I was surprised (although I really shouldn't have been) to see M:OP taking a doom and gloom tack on the story back in May and even more suprised (again, why?) to see them still rowing that boat even now.

Amazon isn't some nebulous, sketchy indie, prone to making grand claims with no means of backing them up. It's one of the biggest companies in the world with a reach and scope that dwarfs even major game development houses. Why would they want to claim they were still working on a game when they actually weren't? True, they also have the resources to can a product in development if it doesn't seem to be going anywhere but, as we have already seen with Breakaway, if they're going to do that they won't be slow in telling us.

I have so many better screenshots of New World than the ones I can use here...

I always expected that New World would return, bigger and better than before (at least from its developers' perspective). It looks as though that day is coming. Possibly as soon as this Friday.

As far as I know, the NDA for New World's alpha is still in force. It was a pretty strict one, too. Still, I've always held the belief that very few developers worry about positive leaks. I really liked New World and I wasn't expecting to. The world was gorgeous, exploration was compulsive, the survival gameplay was accessible and satisfying and the lore was intriguing.

Combat was fine - reminded me a little of Black Desert - and in the time I spent there I saw no indication that the game was or would become a "survival gankbox", which seems to be the current buzzword among M:OP commenters. I realize alpha populations often don't represent post-launch behaviors but in the time I spent in alpha I think I got into a fight with another player precisely once. Most of the time, when players would pass each other, there'd be a wave and that was all.

Anyway, I'm excited to see what Amazon have to tell us about where New World goes next. It would be nice to see it return with more directed, narrative content, something its fascinating setting looks admirably well set to support.

Looks a bit like my Mara Estate in EQII.

The second news item at M:OP that caught my attention really couldn't be further apart and still be on the same spectrum. It relates to an upcoming MMORPG that had previously escaped my notice, although Massively had already mentioned it in despatches a while back.

The game in question is called Inferna and it was due to go into Early Access via Steam four days ago. That never happened. But it's still on, apparently.

The new "launch" date is December 20. The game has been held back "to firm things up" as M:OP put it, a process that involves "updates and new features", details unknown.

I watched the embedded gameplay video and found myself... intrigued? Puzzled, too. It looks for all the world like a trailer for an MMORPG from before the days of World of Warcraft. It actually reminded me of one of my favorite "lost" MMORPGs, Ferentus, a game I thought never made it out of beta (although maybe it did) but which apparently has - almost unbelievably - an active emulator project.

Horse Power!
Always up for another old-school, tab-target, hotbar MMORPG, I clicked through to the official website. It has to be the least-informative I have ever seen, particularly for a game that was meant to have entered Early Access last week.

The very, very few claims the website make are... vague. "Incredible Atmosphere", "Catchy Battles", "Get Awards". And... that's it. Doesn't even tell you the Classes or Races.

There are links to a slew of social media feeds - Facebook, Twitter, Instagram - and a Discord server. I thought the missing detail might be over there, somewhere, so I took the trouble to look. And... I'm really none the wiser. I even joined the Discord, but all I found under "Game News" was the new EA date and this:

"In the game you can slip into the role of a hero, who you can choose from 4 character classes. At the beginning you have to decide whether you want to start as a magician, warrior, assassin or semi-demon and within the class you can still choose your fighting style."

Well, it's more than I got from the website. It's also the first paragraph of the entry on the Steam page. Steam seems to have received the bulk of what little detail there is, i.e. not very much at all. We do at least find out the name of the world - Pangaeu. Also that "...the glory days of security and unity are over". Aren't they always? Why is it we never get to explore these empires at the height of their powers, only in decline or crisis?

There are two starting cities, Caratas or Jerro, from where you can set out to explore "numerous maps", something you'll want to do because "Various runs and dungeons await you". There are also quests "throughout the game" that will "give you an insight into the past, present and future of Pangaeu".

I surmise Inferna is going to be a pretty traditional, quest-driven MMORPG. More than that, who knows? About the only unusual aspect I can see is the checkbox on Steam for supported languages. There are a dozen and they all include "full audio". That would be impressive indeed, only nothing actually states outright that the game even has voice acting. There's none in the videos.

Two hobbits, three lizardmen and a snake. Think I bought a 12" by them back in the '90s.
I can't even tell if Inferna is primarily oriented towards PvE or PvP. It has an "online PvP" tag on Steam and there's mention of protecting the kingdom of your choice "against the darkness and the enemy realm" but other than that I see no reference to fighting other players.

Indeed, what little detail there is suggests a PvE orientated experience: "You will fight your way through hordes of monsters alone or in a team... We currently have a functional base game with the most important features ready (combat, party system for playing with your friends, various item upgrade mechanics, trading, multiple maps, quests and more)."

Another thing I can't seem to find is any indication of pricing. The game itself, when it finally launches, is going to be Free to Play. It says so in big letters at the top of the main page on the website. But, as we all know, F2P at launch doesn't preclude paid-for Early Access packs and/or a functioning pre-launch cash shop.

For now, though, Inferna has nothing like that. Maybe it really is free. I guess we'll find out for sure when it goes live on Steam in just over a week.

I do like the general, old-fashioned look of the game. If it turns out you can play at no cost I'll definitely take a look. I'm minded to give it a try even if there's a small entry fee. I might use my $15 Grand Prize from IntPiPoMo. If that doesn't cover the door charge, though, I'll probably pass.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Only Collect

I don't suppose EverQuest II was the first MMORPG to include Collections as a form of content, although it was almost certainly where I first ran into the idea. I've seen it in a few games since, most notably Rift, where Trion appeared to have lifted the system almost wholesale from EQII. It's a staple of the genre but one that's far from universal.

If there's an MMO that's taken it further than EQ2 I'd be interested to hear about it. In Norrath collections are everywhere. Every zone has them, every game mode, every expansion and holiday event. The wiki has a comprehensive list that has to be seen to be believed.

Wilhelm was satirizing Blizzard for asset re-use among its plethora of collectible pets but think of the icons EQII artists have to come up with! It's lucky there are a lot of bones and pages in there.

I couldn't summon up the willpower to count the current total number of Collections, each comprising anything up to a couple of dozen items. I'm guessing there must be more than a thousand by now.

Looking at my Berserker, probably my most-played character, I see he's Discovered 573 Collections so far. I'm hoping that's over half of everything that's out there but the goalposts keep moving. There are three new Collects for Frostfell, which starts tomorrow. Blood of Luclin, the upcoming expansion, will doubtless bring dozens more.

Of the 573 he's started, my Berserker has completed only 167. That's not even a third. But he's close on plenty more. Of the remaining four hundred and some Collections in his journal, eighty-four need just one more shiny to complete.

I could buy those from the Broker any time I wanted because in EQ2 collection items are tangible and tradeable. When you stoop to scoop up a shiny it doesn't trigger an update automatically, it puts an object into your packs. You can set a checkbox to trigger a pop-up window inviting you to add the shiny to the relevant collection (sometimes they can go in more than one) but you get to decide whether to use it, sell it or pass it on.

For a ha'porth of tar. Hang on - I think I've got one of those in the bank...

Collect items can sell for very, very large sums on the Broker. Seven figure sums, assuming anyone buys at those prices. I know people pay five figures because they've paid me that much, on occasion.

The value comes from the hand-ins. Every Collection in EQ2 comes with a reward and some of those rewards are highly sought-after. Completed collections can also lead to meta-collections, where the reward for completing the collection is another item that can be collected as you work towards an even bigger reward. There are even house pets you can feed to produce random collectibles (probably best not to think about how that happens). The food they consume, dropped by mobs, sells for good money too.

Collecting also used to be a very popular means of leveling. Each completed collection doesn't just reward an item, it gives level-appropriate xp, as would a quest. Only, unlike most quests, anyone of any level can hand in a Collection. A level ten can buy all the items for a collection that takes place in a Level 100 zone, hand it in to a Collector in the safety of their home city and gain several levels instantly.

These days not so many people level up the old-fashioned way and those that do are likely not in any kind of hurry. Even so,collecting remains a whole game mode on its own - or something very close to it.

Over the years I have bought a few items from the Broker to round out Collections, usually to nudge a character over a line so I could get some spell or ability I wanted or go to a zone that was just out of my level range. I've also made a great deal of platinum by selling my surplus finds to other people.

One thing I never really have done in fifteen years, though, is to go to a specific zone to hunt shinies for a particular colllection. That is a thing people do and always have done, just not me. All I do is pick up every shiny I see and let serendipity do the rest. Which, I guess, is why I have completed less than a third of all the collections I've started, on a character that was created nearly ten years ago.

No Neriak Necromancer's Lair is complete without a Vampire Piano.

Before last night, I can only remember one single occasion when I went somewhere with the specific intent of not coming back until I'd completed a Collection. That was for the once-famous Mistmoore Piano.

The collection was correctly called "Candles", the name it appears under in the Journal, although at the time everyone called it "The Piano" because a piano was what you got for finishing it. Every decorator wanted a piano. As I remember, the collection in Mistmoore was one of only two ways you could get one. The other was to do the Crafter Epic questline to the point where you received the Earring of the Solstice, which lets you see red shinies (shinies are like Kryptonite- they come in all kinds of shades). There was another collect for those.

I had to wait until I was significantly over-level for Castle Mistmoore to get the candles because it's a Heroic dungeon full of vampires. I ended up doing it on the Test server with my Necromancer, when when the mobs were still very tough for a solo player but not one-shot tough. Feign death made it possible but it was still a long afternoon.

Last night's enterprise was infinitely less challenging but almost as satisfying. It all began when I was browsing the Broker looking for something to wear.

For most of his nearly ten years, as hundreds of screenshots on this blog stand witness, my Berserker has dressed either as a Gaucho or a Pirate. I don't like to change the look of my chaacters too often but when I decide to do it I can get quite excited about the possibilities.

It was the Dragon Attack event that started it. If you spend that many hours standing around in huge crowds, waiting for time to pass, you inevitably end up looking at what people are wearing. And, as we all know, that sort of behavior leads to envy and discontent.

The red version. I'll be getting that as well.
So many people looked so amazing/impressive/ridiculous I began to think my Berserker a little drab. Time for a change of outfit. I'd been clearing my bags and bank vaults and piling stuff into EQ2's excellent Wardrobe feature, so I started my search for a new look there.

As a Plate Armor wearer, though, most of what I'd acquired seemed to be variations on a theme. It's one thing to play the role of a tank, another to look like one. Especially an old water tank that's somehow on fire.

I'm not a fan of the heavy metal look in gaming at the best of times. I wanted something lighter, fluffier, funnier. I ran through some of the many craftable options I could make for myself but they're all quite bland. Also many of them make you look like a disgraced 1970s children's TV presenter. Not exactly the look I was going for.

I moved to the Broker and began going through the options there, which was when I began to notice a number of outfits with a "Vesspyr" prefix. They were all Appearance items any class could wear, and they all had a clothlike texture. They mostly reminded me of fancy silk pajamas. I tried some on. They looked pretty spiffy on a ratonga. Trust me, not everything does.

The prices weren't outrageous but even with nearly a million plat in the bank I wasn't too keen on forking over a thousand just for the chest piece. I wondered where the clothes might have come from and if I could go get my own for free. "Vesspyr" suggested the Tears of Veeshan expansion. I thought they might be drops or, more likely, quest rewards but when I checked it they turned out to be rewards from completed collections.

I discovered that by way of one of the top results from a Google search: a table of Collections, yes, from the Tears of Veeshan expansion. The source was unexpected. Bizarre, even. It seems to be an FTP file associated with a website apparently entirely unrelated to gaming - The Viking Answer Lady Webpage, a serious website devoted to real-life Viking history. There's no mention of EQ2 or gaming on the website itself - I wonder if the table was even supposed to be publicly visible? Nothing, it seems, is invisible to Google.

In its zone of origin the pajamas are distinctly blue. And plush.

Whatever the provenance, it was just what I needed to get started. I scanned the list and decided to go for the Vesspyr Citizen's Elaborate Blue Tunic, a reward from the Withered Away collection. A quick map hop to Vesspyr Isles, a short flight to the sky island of Sothshae and there I was, hoovering up shinies and pages while my Merc despatched any wildlife foolish enough to butt in.

The mobs were green, which, thanks to EQII's insane power creep (more like power-sprint) these days means one-shot kills. I left a trail of death behind me as I circumnavigated the island scanning for shinies. As a max-level Weaponsmith my Berserker has the Track Harvestables skill, meaning I could see every ? and ! that popped. It made the whole process very manageable and considerably less random than I'm used to.

It took a couple of very relaxing and enjoyable hours to get all seven items. When I arrived I'd found ten or so spots on track. Some turned out to be pages for a book, the rest either items for the Collection I was there for or any one of half a dozen others. By the time I'd finished the collect I wanted I'd also completed one of the others, made significant inroads on all the rest and acquired a dozen or so duplicates to sell or pass on to my other characters.

I flew back to the hub village, Falinpol, where they have most facilities including an NPC who takes in Collections. He gave me my new tunic and I put it on.

It looked great. Just what I wanted. It also acted as a robe, covering the Chest, Shoulder and Leg slots. With the addition of my Circlet of Frost and Withering Hopes Cloak I had pretty much the look I was going for. Only Feet, Hands and Weapon to go.

Elsewhere they take on a grey/blue tone. It's like when you look at clothes under strip-lighting.

My usual selection of comedy weapons - Shovel, Anchor, Rubber Cockatrice - didn't seem to fit the mood so I looked at the flashier end of my rack. I picked the Blessed Aethersteel Greatsword for its blueness and sparkles.

Hands were a bit more of a problem. I didn't really have anything that matched but the closest was either the Fabricator's Gloves or the Frostfell Wonderland Plate Gauntlets. Decision-making wasn't helped by the fact that, as can be seen in the screenshots, the color of the outfit changes depending on the lighting of the zone.

As for the Feet slot, there the decision was taken for me. Not one pair of shoes or boots in my wardrobe would show up at all. It's the barefoot look for now until I can get a pair of Vesspyr Citizen's Blue Boots, which I'm hoping will play nicely with the tunic.

That means another trip to Vesspyr Isles and another session picking stuff up off the ground. Which is more than fine by me. After fifteen years I feel as though I've just opened a door onto a whole new way to play.

Going out and finding the missing items for a collect - or setting out to begin a new collection entirely - is a lot more fun than buying the same things off the Broker. Not that I'm above buying the odd item, when the rng gods aren't favoring me, but I don't intend to make a habit of it.

It amazes me that I've never taken shiny hunting seriously in EQ before this2. I  took it more seriously in Rift but perhaps that says more about how much - or rather little - there is to do in Telon, compared to Norrath, than it does about any inconsistency of approach on my part.

Whatever the reason for my late arrival at the Collectors Ball, I'm ready for the dance at last. Bring on the shinies! I've got a lot of catching up to do.

Friday, December 6, 2019

When The Party's Over: EverQuest II

The fireworks have finished. The bunting is back in the box. EverQuest II's 15th Anniversary celebrations are over. Yesterday saw the end of the Dragon Attack event, leaving nothing behind to show it ever happened, except for banks and vaults stuffed with mount and mercenary gear and a hugely disrupted economy.

There should also be two giant dragon statues, one above the Freeport dock in Commonlands, the other on the wild Antonican shore, close by the cloud-scraping towers of Qeynos. Unfortunately, something seems to have gone wrong . The "permanent, impressive statues" (my emphasis) are nowhere to be seen.

I'm sure they'll be back when someone realizes they were included in the script that cleared out the build sites and sent the questgivers back to their workshops. Maybe it requires an update to push the new zone art.

Unless it was all some kind of con trick... Maybe a couple of ratongas put together a balsa-wood-and-canvas mock-up behind our backs as we crafted, then took it down under cover of darkness and legged it back to Temple Street.

As for the left-over dragon parts, of which I have thousands, I'm hanging on to them for now. They're probably useless but you never can tell. I have plenty of room in my Depot so why take the risk?

I've spent more than four hours so far today tidying up my bags. I have a lot of saddles and other sundry horsewear. I also have an incredible amount of storage space so it's just a matter of deciding where to put it all. 

It's confusing because some of it is No Trade, some Heirloom and some fully tradeable. It also comes in several qualities, from Handcrafted to Mythical. Mounts these days have almost as many gear slots as characters and there are a lot of mounts. I'm sure it will all come in handy - one day.

A few of the pieces are worth a good deal of money on the open market. I already sold a couple during the event but I held a few more back in anticipation of prices going up when the supply dried up. That's already begining to happen. I also heard on the beta grapevine that mount gear is scarce in the new expansion so I'm not rushing to sell just yet.

The other common drop from the event was Mercenary gear. Most of that is No Trade, otherwise everything I said about Mount gear applies. I got complete sets of Fabled gear for most of my six max levels' primary mercs, plus spares. Lots of spares. Some of my mercs raised their stats by two orders of magnitude over the course of the event and when they level up and open more slots that will increase even more.

Tallying up after close of play, in addition to the huge upgrades to a dozen mounts and mercenaries, I also notched up
  • 800,000 Platinum from the sales of three items
  • 25 levels on my Beastlord (now Level 46)
  • 28 levels on my Channeler (now Level 49)
  • 48 levels on my Carpenter (now Level 100)
  • 83 levels on my Alchemist (now Level 110, although the final 10 levels came from quests)
It's been enormously enjoyable, particularly for the positive spirit that prevailed for the entirety of the event. I think it ran for just about the right length of time.

We have a short break to get our breath back before Frostfell arrives on Tuesday 10 December with the expansion, Blood of Luclin following just a week later. The main complaint I've heard over the past month is that there's just too much to do. There usually is in EQII.

In other "news", I discovered today that you can sort your bags by no fewer than twenty-one categories. I knew you could drop items on your character portrait and they would auto-sort onto matching stacks anywhere in your bags but I had no idea you could also set criteria at this level of detail.

By complete co-incidence, as I was looking at the sort window I'd just discovered by accident, a conversation broke out in General Chat on the exact same subject. It turns out that you can even sort the contents of your bags into alphabetical order by use of a slash command.

EQII has a plethora of such commands. Some simple ones like /stand are familiar from many MMORPGs but the arcane syntax of the coder pervades the outer regions of knowledge. What would be the chances of finding "/sort_bags 1 name a" by trial and error?

Whether I'll ever get around to setting paramaters on my hundreds of bags and boxes is another matter. Nice to have the option, either way.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Everything Is Everything Else

Yesterday I spent a couple of hours doing dragons in EverQuest II. The Dragon Attack event is drawing to a close but if anything that's only made it even more popular. There were enough people at each dragon spawn last night to spin up a second copy of the zone and it wasn't even close to prime time for the server.

The event is very well designed in terms of pacing. Each dragon respawns an hour after it's killed and it takes a crowd of fifty or so players seven or eight minutes to kill one. A rotation falls into place; the dragons spawn in a predictable order with a wait of just a few minutes between. Time to go bank or swap to an alt to gather crafting mats from the dragon corpse.

At least, that's how it's supposed to work. It was that way for the first couple of weeks. Some days it still is. At some point, though, some clever bunny came up with a short cut. Instead of the dragon taking anything up to ten minutes to die, it's dead in a couple. I've seen one burned down in less than thirty seconds.

I've been trying to find out how it's done but without much success. Google gives me nothing. I've asked in game several times but the only reply I got was "it's an exploit" without any hint of what the exploit might be.

Over the last couple of days I narrowed my investigations down to "something Necromancers can do". My theory is based on a couple of throwaway comments in general chat, where someone has made a crack about things going a lot faster if the necros "do their thing". Also, I noticed on a couple of occasions in Nektulos Forest, where the dragon summons a horde of elementals that take quite a while to kill, all the sparks suddenly died at once. The cause of death in every case was a "Vampiric Orb" attributed to an NPC Mercenary.

Vampiric orbs are created when a necromancer casts Vampirism on an ally. I have no idea if this is the proximate cause of the so-called "exploit" but it's about the only clue I have.

One reason I'm posting about it is in the hope that one of the handful of people who read this blog and also play EQII might know more about what's going on and chip in with a comment. Another is background to how I came to be looking at Chinese Post-Punk bands on YouTube.

The effect of the "exploit" or tactic or whatever you want to call it is that the elegantly calculated cadence for kills breaks down completely. What tends to happen at first is that all four dragons get killed in about twenty minutes or so and then there's a half hour wait for the first one to respawn. Sometimes the dragons end up overlapping and the order changes.

Either way, there are periods when everyone just stands around in a big gang for ten, fifteen, twenty minutes waiting for something to happen. That suited me fine last night because I had six characters running around gathering dragon mats and it gave me plenty of time to log them in and out. But even then I found myself with time on my hands.

I'd read all the new blog posts in my Feedly and blog roll so I started flipping through my bookmarks, looking for something to keep me occupied. I have a ridiculous amount of unsorted bookmarks, many of which go to things I've completely forgotten about.

One of them goes to a potentially fascinating resource called The Music Industrapedia. When I bookmarked this it was fairly new and didn't have a lot of detail but someone's clearly been hard at work since then. It varies an awful lot country by country but some of the entries under the Music Artist category are quite extensive.

I had a good browse through the Canada, Japan and France sections, which are very well-represented, and picked away at a lot of the smaller territories, which aren't. Then I took a look at China.

Chinese pop/rock music fascinates me. We've had so much discussion in the blogosphere lately about Chinese influence on Western culture and mores but it seems to me that's very much a two-way street. The Chinese government may think one thing is happening but the Chinese people seem to have different ideas. A lot of different ideas.

Glancing down the list I saw several names I rcognized from my own explorations in hyperspace: Carsick Cars, Hedgehog, New Pants, Queen Sea Big Shark... One reason I'm drawn to music and musicians from that part of the world is the amazing, evocative names of the bands. I spotted one I hadn't seen before, Streets Kill Strange Animals, and clicked the link.

There were two more links on the landing page; the band's Bandcamp and an article on Post-Punk.com, a website previously unknown to me. The article was fascinating. It told me in a few paragraphs more about the development of alternative music in China than I'd picked up anywhere else in years, although I have to admit I've never made any attempt to research the subject. I'm sure there are tons of journalistic and academic treatises out there just waiting to explain enverything if only I wasn't too lazy to look.

For the next hour or so I killed dragons to the backbeat of Snapline, Ourself Beside Me, Pet Conspiracy and more. I also watched a tremendously unexpected cover of "Bela Lugosi's Dead" by Massive Attack but that's by-the-by.

It struck me what a strange and wonderful world we live in. In the same moment I was sharing a virtual fantasy with a hundred strangers around the globe, learning about the aesthetics of cultures and the way they cross-pollinate, and planning a creative act to synthesize it all : this post.

And some people say video games are a waste of time...

Monday, December 2, 2019

Take Five

Five years ago I posted a list entitled "All The MMOs I Have Ever Played (And Then Some) Pt 1". Running alphabetically from Aika to Guild Wars 2, it covered forty-five titles. At the time that represented considerably less than half of all the MMORPGs I'd played in the fifteen years since I bought EverQuest in 1999.

I was planning on a a Pt. 2 and very possibly a Pt. 3. As I remember it, there were more than a hundred and twenty titles on the full list. I can't be sure exactly how many because the file seems to have gone missing. If I did a recount now, going up to the present day, I'm sure it would pass a hundred and fifty.

The reason I'm mentioning it today is that I never did get around to the second, let alone the third and final instalment, a failing I don't intend to repeat with my gloss on PC Gamer's list of twenty-five dead post-WoW titles. Parts One and Two are done. Now for Part Three. (Incidentally, I just noticed that link, which I filched from Paeroka's post, where I originally learned about the piece, goes to the Australian edition of PC Gamer. Curious...).

Telon always looks lived-in. Even untidy.
So, without further padding, let's get to it: the Final Five aka The Ones I Really Played.

 Vanguard: Saga of Heroes

Depending on my mood, this is either my first, second or third favorite MMORPG of all time. The top three hasn't changed in a decade - EverQuest, EverQuest II, Vanguard. The order changes all the time.

The recent sad and unexpected death of Brad McQuaid reminded me yet again how invaluable his contribution to the genre has been. I have a rule of thumb for collective enterprises like gaming, music and film: if I like a whole lot of things and there's a common factor, it's probably not a co-incidence. I may never know exactly what it was that Brad did but whatever it was it worked for me.

Is there any more inspiring sight in MMORPGs than your very own ship?

A vast amount has been written about Vanguard, no little of it by me, so I won't re-hash the details. I'll just say that the first year after launch was one of the best times I've had in MMORPGs and there have been plenty more good times since.

Thanks to the emulator project, which I can't plug too often, those good times didn't end when Smed pulled the plug. I don't blame him or SOE for that; as an obscure division of a less-than mindful multicorp they'd been able to pull off more than their fair share of pro-bono archival preservation but it couldn't go on forever. I have other axes to grind with Smed without blaming him for killing Vanguard.

Having given Brad credit for the worldmaking I should add a caveat, one that may (or, now that he's gone, may not) speak to Pantheon. Vanguard was a somewhat unforgivingly group-based game in the early days, as Pantheon proposes to be. It was only after he'd left, when SOE were trying to remake and remodel the game to fit their portfolio and regain an audience that it began to offer some of the best solo and, especially, duo gameplay in the genre.

Or better yet, two of them. A bug in Vanguard? Surely not!

Although I always loved Vanguard, starting with the open beta, the first time I had a PC capable of playing it, it was that long period in the middle, after the difficulty was toned down and before it was tweaked back up, when it really hit my sweet spot. That was the time when my Disciple felt immortal and we all had a reindeer that flew. I loved it.

Even if the emulator project ever completes and the full game comes back, those golden days are gone forever. Every MMORPG is a river. We have to accept it and move on.

Warhammer: Age of Reckoning

What is it with the colons? No-one ever calls these games by their full names. Why even bother with the subtitle? Presumably, in this case, just so they could use the acronym WAR.

My experience with Warhammer is a curious tale. It has close similarities to my relationship with World of Warcraft, which is both ironic and appropriate given the two games' quantum entanglement.

My second-favorite MMO class of all time (so far). Vanguard's Disciple is #1.

When WoW was generating the biggest buzz the genre ever knew, I barely noticed. From what I've read, excitement over Warhammer fueled a boom in MMO blogging the like of which we can now only dream. I missed that entirely, too.

I was barely aware Warhammer was a thing until long after it wasn't any more. I'm too old to have grown up with Games Workshop although I did run a Warhammer RPG tabletop campaign in the 1980s. It was a good system, if a little over-complicated.

That didn't generate enough affection for the I.P. to grab my attention when the MMORPG was announced. I also can't recall noticing that Mark Jacobs, the driving force behind Dark Age of Camelot, a game with which I have considerable history, not all of it good, was involved. I never even saw the infamous "Bears Bears Bears" video until many years later.

Warhammer was one of the games Mrs Bhagpuss and I tried in our wilderness years, when we'd run out of steam in the old games and there weren't any new ones on the horizon. We ran through a bunch of also-rans and rejects we'd not paid much attention to until we got desperate. WoW was one (actually, the last one, I think. We were that wary of it). Warhammer was another.

These shots are from the emulator. I seem to have lost all my originals.

I'm not sure how long we played Warhammer. My memory wants to say three or four months but I've found that, when I can find actual supporting evidence for this kind of thing, my memory usually underestimates so it was probably more like half a year.

I know we did an awful lot of Battlegrounds, or whatever they were called in WAR. I always found it felt like eating a bag of boiled sweets: delicious at first but eat too many and you end up with a sore mouth and a sick, empty feeling. I found battlegrounds enervating. I always ended up playing too many matches and it made me wrung out and nervy. And yet the next day I'd do it again.

Partly it was because WAR had one of my favorite classes in the entire genre, the Squig Herder. I played mine in Battlegrounds, specifically for the opportunity to blast people off of walls. Sometimes I'd go a whole session without getting a victim lined up just right. That was frustrating. But when it worked it was just about the funnest thing ever. I positively hooted.

The PvE game I liked. It had some depth and the world-making was excellent. The classes and races were varied - so much so I hardly scratched the surface of what was available. I loved the Greenskins. Mostly I played Orcs and Goblins.

Wot? Me, Sarge?

The capital cities, notoriously culled from six to two before launch, were awful, though. Some of the worst I've seen. So was the dismal crafting. The UI wasn't up to much, either and the textures were weirdly gritty. I used to finish a session of Warhammer feeling as though I needed a shower.

Open world RvR, the game's supposed U.S.P., was great when it happened. By the time we played that wasn't very often. Just like in DAOC, I spent a lot more time running around looking for action than I ever did having any.

We never fell out of like with Warhammer. We just ran out of steam and moved on. There's an emulator that's supposed to be fairly well-regarded. I tried it but the spark didn't flare. I'm happy to leave WAR in the past.

Free Realms

Free Realms was always an odd duck. Made at the peak (well, one of the peaks) of SOE's hubris, it was extraordinarily heavily hyped. I remember a series of post-launch press releases lauding ever-increasing take-up figures to confirm the game's runaway success.

Most of my Free Realms shots seem to be M.I.A. too. Not sure how these survived.

It was the first of SOE's free-to-play titles, hence the name, and it heralded the company's transition to a new business model for the entire portfolio. Ironically, despite its undeniable popularity, Free Realms eventually closed because "Kids don’t spend money" (a quote from a Smed interview I am no longer able to find online, although it's referenced in both an MMOGames piece and a reddit thread).

I liked Free Realms. I played a fair bit of it although I don't appear to have posted about it here. I had a character around Level 20 as I recall. I did some crafting, trained a pet, quested quite a bit, explored the world. Played it like a regular MMORPG, really.

The people who really loved Free Realms, though, were the intended age group. I think it's called Middle School in the U.S.  For them it was social media before that became something everyone did. It was the virtual equivalent of the treehouse in the woods, a telephone made out of two tin cans and a length of string. Smed's twelve-year old daughter played it twenty hours a week.

Not a great subject. Some barrels that sparkle. But you should see the ones I didn't use. Or not. Yes, let's not.

You can see the impact it had on peoples' lives from comments on the forums at the emulator website (because of course there's an emulator. There's always an emulator). Or you could, when the forums existed.

The Free Realms emulator project, Free Realms Sunrise, is as odd a duck as the game it plans to revive. The developers run a tighter ship than many official alphas. Access is strictly controlled and they must have a very effective NDA because information never leaks. When they do post progress it's impressive but updates are few and far between. The most recent was back in April.

If the emulator ever comes online for anyone to play I'll definitely dabble. It was never going to be a game I played extensively but it was fun while it lasted. I'd be happy to go round again.


Wildstar is perhaps the classic example of an MMORPG that was less than the sum of its parts. I was reasonably pumped for it during the lead-up to launch. Carbine released some very strong videos and much that I read about the game sounded appealing.

Wildstar looks utterly stunning in screenshots. In game, not so much, I found.

There were warning flags - the ludicrous "twitter" questing and the gleeful focus on hardcore mechanics -  but I took all that with a pinch of salt. When the game finally appeared, though, I wasn't sufficiently interested to buy a copy.

I can't recall why, exactly. Fortunately, by the time WildStar came along in June 2014 I had a blog so I don't have to rely on memory. It seems I was away on holiday for the actual launch. When I came back I found my feed full of posts about the new hotness.

From my post I see I played the beta (don't remember that at all) but I didn't "have time to play another MMO, at least not enough to make the box+sub cost worthwhile". I concluded the post with a cynical throwaway line that would prove prophetic: "Maybe I'll get a second bite at that cherry with the F2P conversion".

I take a lot of shots with my character as far from the camera as possible. Wildstar loves that.

That conversion came just over a year later on 29 September 2015, by which time I was deep in the Heart of Thorns. I was playing Wildstar in mid-October, but not with much conviction. The Halloween event was on but I wasn't committed: "Shade's Eve will have to fall in line behind Norrath's Nights of the Dead and Tyria's Shadow of the Mad King on my personal holiday calendar."

And that was pretty much where Wildstar always stood for me - behind a whole bunch of games that did much the same thing but quite a lot better. Combat in Wildstar was on the taxing-yet-tedious end of the spectrum, with a lengthy time to kill and a lot of makework jumping about (which I completely ignored, probably extending my TTK even further). Questing was lacklustre. I think there may have been some kind of overarching narrative but if so I forget what it was.

Syp was always a big fan of the housing but I felt that was only because he's never really appreciated the options available in EQII, of which WS's housing always felt like a mediocre copy. At least when Rift copied EQII's housing offer, Trion did a good job of it, in everything other than the monetization, that is. That was outrageous.

Grass you could cut yourself on.

My real problem with Wildstar, though, was something quite unexpected. I found the textures and the soundscape unbearable for more than a short session. It's one of the few games that both made my eyes hurt and left me with a ringing in my ears. Okay, not literally but metaphysically. I found the color palette and the ambient sounds teeth-grittingly jarring after an hour or so. It's strange, because the game looks fantastic in screenshots but as a real-time environment it was painful.

There's an emulator project in the works called NexusForever. I know nothing about it but this video was posted on YouTube just a couple of months ago. Could be awhile before we get to play it, I'm guessing. That's okay. I can wait. Forever, if necessary.


And so we come to the end. Landmark. Aka EQNext/Landmark. If Free Realms was an odd duck, what do we call this one? Howard?

I wish I could say I built that tower but it was a pre-made, something SOE added late on.

As with Vanguard, I've written plenty about Landmark already. The short version is this: I bought the $99.99 Trailblazer Pack for Mrs Bhagpuss's birthday and the $59.99 Explorer version for myself. She really enjoyed playing for a couple of months, which made the purchase considerably better value than some birthday presents I've come up with. Then she stopped and I carried on, after a fashion, until the game finally closed down in 2017.

I have always considered it money very well spent. I never really understood the criticism in terms of value. A lot of people felt burned because they thought they were buying access to EQNext, apparently, to which I can only wonder whether they actually bothered to read what they were signing up for.

As this PC Gamer article clearly explains, and as all the promotional literature I ever saw made very clear, EQNext and Landmark were separate enterprises. Yes, there was that whole thing about stuff you built in Landmark potentially making it into the landscape of EQN, but that was something you did in Landmark. It didn't mean you got to play EQN right away!

Water was wonderful in Landmark. Even in stills you can see the roiling motion of those waves.

I spent an inordinate amount of time building my clifftop Thomas Crowne Affair spy hideaway. Much of that time was spent mining rocks, chopping trees and learning how to use the unintuitive UI and the incalcitrant building tools. It was clear to me from an early stage that even the developers could barely control the tools. The only useful guides I ever read were written by players, some of whom clearly worked in the industry and had more skills than the people being paid to make the game.

As is clear from many of my posts here, I liked Landmark a lot. It was a toy, not a game and it should have stayed that way. It could have been a very good toy indeed.

Unfortunately, Landmark arrived at the zenith (pr should that be nadir?) of SOE's hubristic period. Astonishing, sweeping claims were made, by people who showed little evidence of being able to turn those pipe-dreams into reality. Landmark was going to be a fully-fledged MMO in its own right, we were told. A huge amount of effort was wasted trying to make that happen. It never even came close to succeeding.

Did Landmark really need combat? If it did, it definitely didn't need the kind of combat it got.

When Landmark closed just three years after that hundred dollar pre-alpha buy-in I did feel it was a shame. The "game" was never going to get much further but it was still a lot of fun for what it was. The fact, though, was that almost no-one was interested any more.

For all the outpourings of anger when it ended, the servers had been all but empty for a long time. The map was littered with abandoned building projects, many of them quite astounding in scale, detail and brio. It is a minor tragedy that all that work was lost but that's what happens when you build castles in the sand.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the talents and skill sets of many of its players, there's no Landmark emulator. There doesn't really need to be one. There are plenty of building apps and games, after all, and it was probably always easier to teach yourself 3D modelling from scratch than to learn to use Landmark's tools.

Anyway, I'm very happy with my memories, my posts and my screenshots. I don't need to spend any more evenings trying to line up bricks -just- so. I appreciate having my life back.

I guess I could draw a comparison there with the whole MMORPG genre. Best not go there...

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Monumental Success: EQII

The 15th Anniversary Event for EverQuest II has turned out to be one of the best I've enjoyed in any MMORPG. It didn't look like much on paper but in the game itself it has been popular, compelling and well-received.

Any event that runs 24/7 for a full month and can still draw a crowd just a few days before it ends has to be reckoned a major success. When those crowds are still upbeat and positive even after hundreds of repetitions that's pretty much a miracle.

The last time (quite possibly the only time) I saw an event on this scale go down as well was probably the demonic invasion in World of Warcraft that preceded the release of the Legion expansion. The two have some significant factors in common.
  • The events are open to all levels and classes (The tradeskill event does require Level 20).
  • They are easily accessible.
  • They give excellent XP.
  • They give desirable rewards.
  • They are extremely alt-friendly.

The adventure events all take place right next to the Ulteran Spires, a transportation network open to everyone, meaning you can be at any event in seconds. The areas around the spires are also close to 100% safe from wanderng mobs, meaning even Level One characters can and do join in.

For any characters under Level 100 the big attraction is abundant xp. Low level characters gain multiple levels on every dragon kill and even in the 80s and 90s the xp gain is significant, as is AAXP if toggled.

Loot is good, too. Every kill gives generous rewards, sometimes as many as four items. There's a huge variety and some of the best are tradeable so there's money to be made as well.

Killing dragons caught the imagination of the playerbase from the start but the crafting event was more of a slow burn. In the opening days, progress was slow and few people seemed interested but as time went on the numbers participating increased and a real buzz developed.

Today, on Skyfire, my main server, both the monuments are complete and they look magnificent. They will be a memorable addition to the permanent landscapes of Commonlands and Antonica.

Even though the statues are finished, the quests remain until the event ends in a few days time.  I was particularly impressed that the questgiver acknowledges this and has new text explaining why help is still needed.

For players there's an obvious incentive. The rewards for crafting, which were lacklustre compared to those for dragonslaying, have improved significantly now the project is done but the real reward for tradeskillers, at least those with levels yet to hit three figures, has once again been the xp. So far I have taken my Carpenter from 50 to 100 and my Alchemist from 20 to 90.

Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the whole event, however, has been the great spirit in which it has been taken by the overwhelming majority of players. There has been a real community feeling  about the whole thing, both in the co-operative and helpful way people have called out the timers for the dragon attacks and in the the many expressions of support for the crafting effort.

I have spent most of my gaming time this month killing and crafting dragons and I'll be sorry to see it all end on Thursday. It's been a worthy accolade for fifteen years of EQII and best of all, there will be permanent reminders in the form of two majestic statues on the coasts of Karan.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a few more dragons to kill.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Look Around You, Art Is Everywhere

I was digging around in the depths of my files yesterday and I came across a whole load of screenshots I'd forgotten. Since it's coming up to the end of IntPiPoMo and I just knocked out three long-winded posts in a row, I figured I'd give myself and everyone else a break with some pretty pictures.

Rift has to be one of the best MMORPGs I've ever played for taking landscape shots. The eponymous rifts, the stunning weather effects, the numerous, mysterious ruins and monuments and the rich color palette all lend themselves to virtual nature photography.

It also has more bleak, downbeat, lonely zones than just about any game I can remember. There's a huge amount of open space, much of it moorland or desert. There are, famously, no cities. It feels like a world coming to the end of its time. Maybe that's more appropriate now than ever.

Allods, by contrast, is bright, cheerful and does cities brilliantly. It's also hugely underrated and probably the MMORPG I most wish I'd stuck with and played to a higher level. It's still going so maybe that could happen yet.

The mittel-europa, art deco, constructivist montage works magnificently, especially in a genre over-stuffed with this kind of thing done badly. So many imported games use the Imperial Palace motif but almost all of them look like movie sets where no-one could actually live.

One reason Allods visuals work so well is that the artists get the physical and emotional scales just right. The buildings are huge and imposing but the doors, the windows and the rooms are human-sized. There are parks and bandstands and restaurants and advertisements. The whole place feels like it could taken straight from the pages of a National Geographic photo essay from the 1930s.

Not all imported MMORPGs look like they've been blown up to double size on a cheap color copier. Twin Saga looks far more beautiful than any game featuring guinea-pig mounts, houses on the backs of turtles and giant, bubblegum pink pussycats has any right to look.

It's another game I wish I'd played more of, although in Twin Saga's case the shut-off point came from ramped-up difficulty rather than dodgy monetization issues. I was going great guns until I hit a leveling wall in the 50s. Maybe I should just make a new character and start over. That never gets old.

Perhaps the most frustrating title among games I'm not playing as much as I feel I could be is Dragon Nest. As the screenshots here suggest, it's a quirky, characterful setting, painted in rather blurry brush strokes but oozing with personality and charm.

Unlike Dragon Nest M, the mobile version, which is brash, loud and garish. Which would be bad enough, but the PC version is still running in some territories, just not the one I'm in. Grrrrrrrr.

That's probably enough pictures for one post. I could go on for a while. Quite a while... My screenshot back-up file is 36GB. More than 30,000 files. And that's by no means all of them.

Sometimes I think the main reason I play MMORPGs is to take screenshots. I am a virtual tourist, first and foremost, after all. And a virtual travel writer.

Since it's Thanksgiving, even though that's a holiday not celebrated here, let me give thanks to the countless, unsung, uncelebrated artists who created all this wonder we take for granted. Not for them the kudos and reward of exhibitions or auctions, let alone the gravitas and honor of retrospective documentaries and movies about their lives.

I've always loved commercial art - advertizing, posters, spot illustration - and I guess video games are just the latest in a long line of work-for-hire exploitation. If you can call doing something you love and getting paid for it being exploited.

We're just lucky there are always people whose need to express themselves artistically outweighs their desire to be recognized for doing so. Thanks, to them all.

IntPiPoMo running total: 119
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide