Monday, September 16, 2019

Looking For Grom'Gol In All The Wrong Places: WoW Classic

On Saturday morning I did a bit of this and a little of that, then after lunch I logged into Classic. The thing with Classic at the moment is, once I get started I don't want to stop, so I try not to start too early.

Before I went to bed on Friday I'd picked up several quests at the Raceway. The demented goblins there wanted various body parts from the local wildlife to further their course record ambitions. Or something. I was very tired and Goblins don't make a lot of sense at the best of the times.

Even though I hadn't had the energy to get started on the quests, I'd managed to scope out the options before I called it a night. I'd found there were several pockets of level 30-32 mobs in among the 34s and 35s. I generally back my hunter to win most fights with anything up to and including four levels above him so that looked good.

Since he got out of the starting area it's been his practice to take mostly orange quests. The enhanced experience and rewards far outweigh any deaths he encounters by overreaching but constantly punching above his weight  does mean he tends to need a rest after a couple of hours. Or, I should say, I do.

Hunting that way also relies on not getting adds. Well, not too many adds. I can usually handle two mobs a couple of levels above me at once, especially if they're animals. Scare Beast is great for that. It also helps enormously to have a wide open, flat space with excellent visibility. Shimmering Flats is perfect.

Or it would be, if it didn't have some of the most annoying pathing I've seen. The mobs aren't packed tight but they wander in hard-to-predict ways, zigging and zagging, stopping, going back in the direction they came, turning, carrying on. I'm sure there's a predictable pattern in there somewhere but you'd be a long time defining it and committing it to memory.

Bear down! Run away!

Everything also has a big aggro range, or it does when it's a few levels above you. It took me a good while, half an hour or so, to establish a fairly safe routine. Before that there was a lot of running away and small amount of dying. I also ran out of food and drink and they didn't seem to sell any at Raceway, so I had to take a trip to Gadgetzan to restock.

I love Gadgetzan. Not surprising. Goblin is my favorite Azerothian race. It's a full service town too, which is handy. They have a bank there and an Auction House with almost nothing for sale. Less than one screen for all the weapons! I thought it was linked to the Booty Bay AH , both of them being Goblin-operated, but maybe not.

Eventually I settled down to slaughter the desert fauna. The quest to rip some body part I forget from the twitching corpses of Scorpids went easily enough. Probably only had to kill three times the number of drops to get that done.

There was one that didn't need me to kill anything, just pick up thirty parts from old, broken race cars. That sounded like a lot but there were plenty of ground spawns. I had them to myself because Shimmering Flats was mostly empty of players. The odd person passed by on their way to somewhere else but in the couple of hours I was hunting I saw maybe just two or three others doing the quests. It was so peaceful. Apart from all the killing, but that was mostly me.

Eventually I had two of the four quests completed but it was plain that I wasn't going to finish the other two. I had twenty of the required thirty basilisk kills but the third type of basil I needed only came in flavors 34 or 35. As for the hardened shells from tortoises... after maybe two dozen kills I was 2/9. What gives? Doesn't every tortoise have a hard shell?

Night-time shot from Friday auto-leveled to look like daytime on Saturday. Convincing, isn't it?
I gave up on those two for the time being, handed in the ones I'd completed and took a break. When I came back I decided it was time to move on.

The guy I'd delivered the box from Ironforge to had given me a box of ammo to take to Hemet Nesingwary. As a pair of fetch and carry quests, that has to break some kind of distance record - a round trip from Ironforge to Stranglethorne by way of Shimmering Flats!

At this point, had I had the brains I was born with, I would have Hearthstoned to Ironforge and griffined to Duskwood but oh, no. I was on an exploring binge and nothing would do but to run the whole thing on foot.

I decided to retrace my steps as far as The Barrens, then find my way to the other Goblin outpost I remembered, the one on the coast where you can get a ship to Booty Bay. That did seem to make sense. Barrens had been a safe run  and Booty Bay is right in the zone I needed. If only I had remembered exactly where that Goblin town was...

I got back to the cliff lift with no problems. Had to kill a bunch of centaurs and cats. Got on the lift, set the pet to passive, legged it off the platform with Tauren guards in hot pursuit, switched the pet to aggro, pointed him at them and carried on running. Got a good lead, swapped him back to passive and kept going 'til they leashed. No-one died.

So far so good. And that was the end of my luck. Or, I should say, my judgment.

Oh, come on! I thought bears liked swimming...

Seeing Theramore to the East as I ran through The Barrens I decided that would be the quickest way to go. I thought I remembered the Goblin port was just North of there, along the coast.

It is, in fact, although not that close. What I'd completely forgotten is that Theramore isn't in the low level Barrens but the significantly higher-level  Dustwallow Marsh. I found that out when I veered off the road to take a shortcut through the undergrowtth and got sideswiped by some mob with a deathshead for a level.

Even then things would most likely have been fine if I'd rezzed at Theramore graveyard and carried along the road. Too easy. Too sensible.

I died again getting my body. Third time I got on the road and down to Theramore, where I came up with the stellar plan of swimming north, running along the shoreline when it seemed safe to get out of the water. That worked for as long as the only mobs in range were non-aggressive turtles. When I came to a tribe of high-30s Murlocs, not so much. I avoided them by heading inland, whereupon several spiders decided to have me for lunch.

I think I died three more times getting my body and slowly edging it over to the paved road. Could have been four. Then I died once more on the road itself, when I ran across a flooded bridge with hostiles in pursuit, only to find the water was deep enough to force me to start swimming. Swimming is slow.

Eventually I made it out of Duskwood and back into The Barrens with my armor hanging off me in tatters. Looking at the map I saw I was about two minutes North of where I'd turned off to go to Theramore. Not my finest hour as an intrepid explorer...

Leaving Ratchet. An hour late and half a dozen deaths down.

The rest of the trip to the Goblin port, Ratchet, as I discovered it's called, passed without incident. I repaired and took the boat to Booty Bay, another great town. I pottered around there for a while, bought a parrot pet for forty silver from a goblin selling "Pirate Supplies", checked the Auction House, which seemed better-stocked although not by much.

After a while I thought I'd better get on with my delivery. I checked the instructions. Nesingwary's last known location was North of somewhere called Grom'Gol. Sounded straightforward enough.

I had it in my mind that Nesingwary hung out somewhere in the North of the zone, so I headed that way. Coming out of Booty Bay into the Stranglethorne jungle, every mob was either a skull or eight or nine levels above me. Learning my lesson I stuck to the road. I got chased a few times but I got away.

As I went North the levels declined until I was seeing things I could kill. That made sense. I'd been given the quest at 28 so it would seem logical it would be in some area I could reasonably expect to handle.

I got all the way to the end of the zone, hung a left just before the exit to Duskwood, jogged up the path to where I thought I remembered seeing Nesingway the last time I played, a decade ago. Surprise, surprise he wasn't there. It's a different bunch of questgivers entirely.

I picked up a quest to kill crocolisks while I was there. If I'd set about doing it right away this post would be a lot shorter. Instead I headed off into the jungle in search of Grom'Gol. 

Everywhere was busy. Lots of mobs were being killed by lots of groups, making travel seem safer than it really was. I roamed around the Northern end of the zone, trying to open the map. I even killed a few things. It was fine until I hit the Venture Company's mining operation. Those hostile goblins were six or seven levels above me and aggroed from a long way off. They were also mostly casters. I was fireballed to death before I could work out which way to run.

My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Another couple of deaths recovering my corpse and attempting to get clear gave me a great idea. I'd noticed that even though discoveries made in ghost form don't clear the fog of war from your map, those discoveries do still flag up on screen. I figured it would be a lot safer to go looking for Grom'Gol as a ghost.

And it was. I covered the entire map, or I thought so, anyway. Hard to tell when there's no record of where you've been. As a ghost I couldn't see any mobs or NPCs so I might have run right over Nesingwary without knowing it but I wasn't looking for him. I was looking for the ever-elusive Grom'Gol.

Never found it. Still haven't. After more than an hour of staring at a greyed-out vision of the afterlife I gave up. I found my corpse, got back on the road and left Stranglethorne to go spend the rest of Saturday finishing some Duskwood stuff I had left in my book.

On Sunday morning I had a hospital appointment. That went quickly and smoothly. I was back in Azeroth and hunting by eleven a.m. I joined another player to finish the "Legend of Stalvan" questline, something few people seem to bother with, probably because 90% of it is running around. I also grouped for the last of the "kill a metric tonne of werewolves" sequence. I could have soloed both but it's more fun in a group, especially on a Sunday morning.

That done I couldn't put it off any longer. I gritted my teeth and headed back into Stranglethorne. To give myself an easy start I thought I'd knock out the croc quest. Crocs, naturally, live along the river bank. I dropped down to the river, killed an annoying fish that snapped at my heels as I swam across, then headed East along the waterline, looking for crocs.

About twenty seconds later I was handing my crate of ammo over to Hemet Nesingwary. His camp is right by the river in the North East corner of Stranglethorn Vale.

Where Grom'Gol is I still have no idea.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Jog On! : WoW Classic

The sheer amount of footslogging required by Classic WoW has made for a theme of sorts on a quite a few blogs I follow. Some people approve of it, some, like me, even profess to enjoy it. Others find it's getting on their nerves.

I spent a good deal of Friday night running. Saturday afternoon I ran some more. On Friday, most of my roadwork was voluntary. Saturday, it didn't always feel that way.

Midway through Friday evening I popped into Ironforge to train. Some dwarf (or was it a gnome?) asked me if I'd deliver a package for him. So far so typical. Only he wanted me to drop it off at the Raceway in Shimmering Flats in Thousand Needles.

Let's get real here - that's hardly a trip to the corner store. Thousand Needles is on another continent!
But he was paying thirty pieces of silver (where I have heard that before?) and even at Level 28 that's a purse. Anyway, I fancied a run. I said I'd do it.

The quickest way to Shimmering Flats would probably be to get the ship from Menethil Harbor to Theramore. At least that's the right end of Kalimdor. I would have done it that way too, only circumstances conspired. I ended up taking the scenic route.

I got on the griffin to Menethil. Didn't take long, over the mountains.  As I jumped off I saw a ship just pulling in to the dock. Even though I'd already taken both ships for previous quests I couldn't remember which dock  went where.

I sprinted for the ship and just managed to leap aboard as it pulled away. No time to stop and ask the harbormaster where it was headed. Naturally, it was bound for Auberdine. (Curiously, not one of the half-dozen Classic websites, wikis and info pages I've just checked has been updated to show that this route exists).

There was some quest in my book I'd never bothered to finish. It wanted me to go speak to an Elf in Ashenvale or some such name. (Astranaar, in fact). When I'd got it a few levels back I didn't know where that was and I'd decided it was too much trouble. Now it was on my way so I thought I'd knock it out. Why not?

Looking at the map, it seemed all I needed to do to get to Thousand Needles was start heading south and stop before I fell into the sea. I set off through the dismal, dark forests. Why Night Elves are in The Alliance and Taurens in The Horde mystifies me. Surely no nature-loving race could live in that eternal gloom? I think Night Elves might be no more than vampires with good P.R.

The "quick sidetrip" to finish the green quest did not go well. It was in some chapel I couldn't find, even though I took every track and side-road I saw. I even cut across country a few times. After about twenty minutes I said "Sod it!" and headed due south again

Due south lies The Barrens, the zone with both the worst reputation and the most misleading name in Azeroth. The infamous Barrens Chat isn't much of a thing when you can't even hear anyone from The Horde speak. I think I heard about three Alliance players pipe up in the whole time I was there.

As for the name, I can only imagine it was thought up by some fool Night Elf. Probably lurched out of  that miserable forest, got blinded by the glare of the sun, couldn't see a thing and assumed that meant there was nothing worth seeing. Couldn't have been more wrong.

The Barrens is a gorgeous zone. Wide, lush plains under a baking sun, spreading banyan trees for shade, wildlife worthy of a Safari. Why Hemet Nessingwary (of whom more later) is holed up in Stranglethorne when he could be here is yet another mystery.

It's also i n c r e d i b l y vast! I timed my run from north to south. I didn't stop once. I stayed on the road, heading in a straight line down the middle of the map, except for a couple of minor detours around Crossroads and a guard post or two. I had Aspect of The Cheetah up, giving me a 30% run speed bonus.

It took me almost twenty minutes. That's five minutes longer than crossing Norrath's West Karana at base run speed! It might be the biggest single, named zone I've ever run through. I loved every second!

Didn't love the abrupt halt at the sheer drop at the end so much. The Horde have a nice cliffside lift to take them down to Thousand Needles but they don't sell tickets to Alliance scrubs. They kill them.

They didn't kill me because I went for the Butch and Sundance option. I ran staight to the edge. The lift was at the bottom and two angry Taurens were at my back. I jumped.

I landed on a ledge halfway down and exploded on impact. Kidding! I'm a dwarf. I just made a dent in the rock. Still died, though.

Thankfully, my ghost arose in a graveyard in Thousand Needles. I ran back, got the lift, rezzed on it as we passed my broken body, rode to the top and then back down. Job done!

From there it was simple jog south, through canyons filled with centaurs and nasty mountain cats that pounce unexpectedly out of stealth. Everything was a handy two or three levels below me so I dealt summarily with anything that had the temerity to try interrupt a messenger in the course of his duties.

Finally, I emerged onto the blinding sandscape of Shimmering Flats. Well, it would have been blinding if it had been daylight like it had been when I started. By then it was night. Everything, including the sand was a luscious, moonlight blue. The mobs wandering the sand were a tad higher than me - some of them more than a tad  - so I picked my way carefully between them until I made it to the Raceway.

I used to love this area back when I played Retail (as, of course, no-one called it back 2009. What would they have thought?). I spent many happy afternoons and evenings hunting there and further south in dunes around Gadgetzan.

The Raceway is one of WoW's absolute highlights in my opinion. It has races, anouncements, demented gnome engineers, a friendly ogre and Daisy, The Race Girl. There's a wealth of amusing detail everywhere, should you care to take the time and trouble to look.

By then, though, it was time for bed. I settled down in a well-appointed, empty hut and logged off. If I hadn't been so tired I might have carried on to Gadgetzan, probably my favorite town in all of Azeroth. They have an Inn there and I don't like to miss my rested xp.

As it was, I felt almost as exhausted as if I'd done the actual running myself. All told, the trip must have taken more than ninety minutes. An hour and a half in which I killed nothing except a few mobs that got in my way and completed precisely one quest. One of the best sessions I've had so far!

This tale has grown a little longer in the telling than I expected so I'm going to split it in two. Read on next time for the journey to Stranglethorn in search of the great hunter Hemet Nessingwary. Another package to deliver...

SPOILER!   It took even longer but didn't go nearly as well. And I still have the package.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Out Of The Box? : WoW Classic

Kaylriene has a post up called "What Makes a Reward" in which he looks at the way loot has been re-positioned in World of Warcraft, from just one of the reward mechanics to almost the only one left. He references a comment made by Grimtooth on Shintar's post about inconvenience, which I bounced off yesterday. Today I'm going to get my trampoline out once again.

Grimtooth brings up a reference that used to be so prevalent in discussions of MMORPGs that it became something of a cliche. Also a bugbear, a shiboleth and a night terror.

I'm talking about the infamous Skinner Box, the popular name for the operant condtioning chamber, a physical box used to constrain experimental animals in laboratories. It was created by B. F. Skinner, an American behavioral psychologist, to further his research into free will, which he considered to be an illusion.

The gist of how a Skinner Box works is simple: it provides positive or negative reinforcement to the action taken by a lab animal by delivering either a reward or a punishment. Over time the animal will learn to pursue the actions that reward and shun those that punish.

In the early and middle years of the development of MMORPGs it was widely believed that the genre relied heavily on operant conditioning and that the games were virtual Skinner Boxes. This explained their supposed addictive nature, since a fully-conditioned rat can be brought to a state where it will press a reward lever indefinitely, even when no reward is forthcoming, until it dies of starvation.

Through the Gates of Ruin.
I have no idea if that supposed "fact" is empirically true. It hardly matters. It was popularly believed at the time and may well still be, for all I know. Things don't need to be true to have power.

The endless discussions of the time also focused heavily on dopamine, "often seen as the main chemical of pleasure" as Wikipedia puts it. The popular theory was that every time you get a reward you also get a "dopamine hit", a small burst of pleasure or satisfaction. This is supposedly the biochemical mechanism by which you become conditioned.

Unsurprisingly, as these concepts gained currency within the genre, players and commentators became increasingly antsy about them. No-one likes to think they're being manipulated. Most people like to believe they have free will.

Kaylriene's post touches on how these dopamine hits were delivered. He talks about Talents and Spells and Skill Increases, all of which appeared at frequent - but not too frequent - intervals. Most MMORPGs in what I'm increasingly minded to call The Classic Era used all of these and many, many more.

Gameplay in EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot or Vanilla WoW involved a never-ending conveyor belt of small, predictable rewards. You knew for certain that if you dinged you would get something. You'd also get a loud, triumphant noise and maybe even some visual flare, just to make sure you didn't miss it.

I got all the rewards I need right here in this tankard, thanks.
The predictability of this process was vital. The games also used random rewards, widely, to provide sudden, unexpected jolts of pleasure, but if you want to condition a rat to press a lever you have to make the lever obvious and be certain the rat can find it.

As I said, all this became more than a little controversial. Here's Tobold, posting about it in 2007.  Here's a  Kotaku article from three years later. In fact, a google search shows that articles and science papers on the subject are still popping up pretty regularly even now, although it's some time since I've seen anyone talking about it in this part of the blogosphere.

The Kotaku piece includes a paragraph that points to one way I suspect game design has, probably unintentionally, popped out of the Skinner Box: 
"Then there is the "Variable Ratio Rewards" system. A rat in a box will eventually figure out that if he presses the lever, the food is always going to be there. The trick is to have the food come at random times when pressing the lever. Think random item drops in any massively-multiplayer online game you've ever played."
In order to achieve the full conditioning effect you need both the placement of reliable levers and the variation of unpredictable timing. Your levels and talents and alternative advancement give you the first and loot gives you the second.

New recipes excite me more than  almost anything.
 As Kaylriene observes, Retail WoW has largely given up on the former. There are other reasons why people don't much care about levelling any more but the removal of predictable and satisfying rewards throughout the levelling path is a big one.

On the other hand, by loading up the loot hopper to the point where many players quite literally find sorting through it for anything worth keeping a chore, the sudden surge of dopamine that comes from an unexpected drop all but vanishes.

These days, most MMORPGs are like that. Guild Wars 2 is a particularly egregious example. One of the top complaints in the game is that loot is a bloody pain in the neck. There's far, far too much of it and almost nothing is worth having. I would estimate I get a genuinely exciting drop less than two or three times a year.

When loot becomes not just unexciting but tedious, it clearly loses any capacity it once had to condition the player through positive re-enforcement. If anything, you'd guess it might eventually have the opposite effect, acting as a punishment, conditioning players to avoid doing whatever it is that's annoying them so much.

Perhaps that's why game-hopping, barely even a thing in the Classic Era, has become the norm. If this MMORPG isn't giving you the hit you want, maybe that one will. The games themselves are becoming the levers and few of them come with the rewards to make pressing them worth the effort.

What players in WoW Classic are (re)discovering is that when you find yourself anticipating rewards that come just frequently enough to keep you playing but not so often you begin to take them for granted, your determination to keep pressing those levers increases.

I find myself anticipating the end of each level with unusual enthusiasm because I know I'm going to get a new ability, another talent point, access to different quests... And when a green item drops I have a brief moment of excitement. It might be an upgrade or I could sell it and make some much-needed money or send it to an alt or disenchant it and make something good - and increase my Enchanting skill for another dopamine buzz. The one time so far I got a blue drop I literally exclaimed out loud.

You never forget your first.
Classic WoW is drenched in these moments. All the Classic Era games were. Playing them meant a perpetual undertow of expectation. The next kill could give you a good drop or a skill increase. The next level might let you turn invisible or levitate or breathe underwater, gamechanging abilities.

The question is, do we really want to put ourselves back in that box? Were we happier as lab rats with no free will or are we happier now, rolling in loot like Scrooge McDuck in his money bin but with precious little to spend our wealth on that seems to matter a damn?

Don't look at me. I don't know. And anyway, I'm busy over here, pressing this lever.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Don't Let The Pigeon Drive The Bus: WoW Classic, EverQuest

If I was on Twitter, this would be a Tweet but since I'm not it's going to a be a very short blog post. (Yes, really).

I was replying to Telwyn's post about the problems he and his friends and family are having, keeping their characters in level range for their static group. Wilhelm's been having similar issues.

I was harking back, yet again, to my EverQuest days, talking about the way MMORPGs in the era running up to and including Vanilla WoW favored the world over the player, when I heard a voice in my head:

You're in our world now.

That was Verant, then SOE's trademark strapline for EverQuest. It absolutely nails the intent and focus of the development team at the time: we made this world. Be happy we're letting you live in it. Don't for a moment think you're in charge.

In 2012, SOE made the transition from a Subscription model to Free to Play. They came up with a more suitable mission statement for the brave new age :

Free to Play. Your Way.™

If that's not the difference between the Classic and the Modern eras, summed up in ten words, I'll eat my hat.

Well, my bear will.

An Inconvenient Truth: WoW Classic

WoW Classic is inspiring a deluge of thoughtful, detailed blog posts. It's been quite a while since we've seen such a response to a single game. Belghast has an excellent analysis of why and how Classic is succeeding, while SynCaine indulged himself with one of his trademark rants - not seen one of those for a loooong time.

Shintar also has a thought-provoking post up on the benefits of inconvenience, a topic upon which I have been musing for a while. (There's also a really well-argued comment there from Kring on another hot topic: why and how Classic and Retail are, and should remain, different and wholly separate games).

I'm not quite ready to post my thoughts, let alone my conclusions, on convenience vs inconvenience.  I may never be. It's an extremely complex and twisty concept.

I have, however, been making the odd note here and there, which would make a nice bullet-point list. I think most of these would fall under the rubric of "convenience" in some fashion or other. Maybe listing them out and footnoting them will help things fall into place for me. Or not.
  • Looking for shot in all the wrong places 
As a Hunter I have to keep a supply of ammunition on hand. This in itself can be seen as an inconvenience and certainly has been by many. You also have to have an Ammo Pouch or a Quiver, which only holds shot or arrows as appropriate. And it takes up one of your vital bag slots.

Blizzard removed ammunition from the game entirely with Cataclysm. They initially intended to replace it with "some new functionality that would continue to make ammunition a compelling element of game-play" but in the end they didn't bother. That in itself tells you something about how thinking may have changed within the company around that time.

Keeping your Hunter supplied with ammunition is also a significant expense or a major timesink if you want the best stuff, which is either crafted by Engineers or dropped in dungeons. For leveling, however, most people buy their ammo from vendors.

You'd think, then, that there would be vendors in all major locations,who'd sell it. According to this list you'd be largely correct. Of course, it's not that simple.

I ran out of shot somewhere in Duskwood so I went to Darkshire to resupply. There is someone who sells ammo there but they're a Fletcher and they only sell arrows.

Oh, will you stop growling? They'll have some at the next place. If they don',t you can eat the vendor. Promise.
From there I decided to go to Sentinel Hill, since there's a griffin route. Again, they only sell arrows. It would be more convenient to have ammo vendors who sold both but that's not how Azerothian society operates.

At this point it occurred to me to wonder whether this reflected the fact that it's mainly Dwarven Hunters who use guns, for which they get a racial bonus. Then I realized that Humans can't even be Hunters (the logic of how that could happen escapes me). The only other Alliance race that's allowed to hunt is Night Elves. Since there's a whole sector of Stormwind given over to Dwarves, whereas Night Elves are a relatively rare presence, it would seem to make more commercial sense for vendors to stock up on shot than arrows.

I ran to Goldshire, where I was sure there would be a General Goods vendor who'd help me out. The linked list (which I wasn't using at the time and have only looked at while researching this post) says there is but I couldn't find him or her.

In the end I had to go all the way to Stormwind. I believe some of that was down to my own incompetence - I probably missed at least one vendor who sold shot, somewhere along the way - but most of it was down to vendors having been placed with more consideration to the integrity of the notional community in which they operate than the convenience of players who might want to use them.

And that's part of why Classic Azeroth feels like Somewhere, not just an exceptionally fancy GUI.
  • On the road is off the map
Classic Wow uses two common RPG tropes: fog of war and discovery xp. When you enter a new zone your map is completely blank. It fills out as you run around and each new area you open gives you xp.

So far, so conventional. Azeroth, at least in the civilized and settled areas, also has a decent road network. Most players use it to get from one place to another without having to stop every ten yards to fight something.

Roads aren't one hundred per cent safe, especially for low levels crossing higher level zones, but they are a lot safer than trying to take cross-country short cuts. Few creatures hang out in aggro range of the highways and visibility is usually good, so those that do can be seen in time to avoid them.

If you want to know what they're hiding you'll just have to go and see for yourself.
I run along the roads a lot and yet, after a while, I noticed that pounding the pavement wasn't lifting the fog. If you stick to the roads, it's not just possible but normal to see the little arrow that marks your progress lost in a flat, ochre haze.

If you want to open your map up you have to step off the road and poke around in the undergrowth. That way you happen upon ruins, caves, camps and settlements and finding those is what triggers discovery xp and opens your map.

This is very inconvenient, particularly if you are trying to find a location some NPC asked you to visit. I have spent hours, first looking for some named location that I hadn't yet discovered and then going "North East" of there to find some camp, which, when found, turned out to be a discovery point of its own.

If I had a pre-opened map with no fog of war or quest pointers or any of the other modern conveniences, I could go straight to where I wanted in a fraction of the time, finish my quest and get out of there.

In doing so, I would miss any number of chance encounters, discoveries, sights, experiences and wonders. My gameplay would become a box-ticking exercise, the main satisfaction in which would be how quickly I could get it done and forget about it.

In this case, inconvenience would seem to lead to entertainment, not to mention immersion.
  • It's on my radar
One incredibly useful ability that Hunters get is Tracking. Several MMORPGs I play have some kind of tracking skill but Classic WoW's implementation is particularly interesting to me.

For a start, it's not a single skill. It comes in stages as you level up. You need to visit a Trainer and pay for each new version separately. First, entirely logically, comes Track Beast, followed by Track Humans, then Track Undead. I'm now up to Track Hidden although I have yet to stump up the coin to add it to my tracking portfolio. I haven't looked to see what comes after that.

I find all of the ones I have so far almost ridiculously useful. When I play other classes who don't have tracking it feels like I'm playing with blinkers on.

Unlike EverQuest and EverQuest II, where tracking brings up a sortable list of everything in range, which you can then use to target and find a specific individual, Classic Tracking adds a radar image to your mini-map. If you mouse over the dots you can see their names.

Listen, you fur-faced wazzock! I'm tracking and we are not stepping off this road. You want to be raptor food? Again?

This has several implications. You can use it to track specific mobs or NPCS by looking at all the dots until you find the one you want. Of course. you have to ignore all the players, who are tracked by Track Human, and their pets, who show up on Track Beast. It's fiddly and, yes, inconvenient but it works.

The display being restricted to the mini-map limits the range to what your character could reasonably be expected to see. If you want to track a quest NPC, for example, there's no use popping Track Human when you get the quest unless he's standing almost right next to you.

The most desirable function of the system, for me at least, isn't finding things at all; it's avoiding them. Using the radar functionality I can see every mob of a given type in a 360 degree field of view. By expanding the mini-map I can judge with good accuracy how to weave between the red dots so as not to get aggro.

In zones with poor visibility, which is most of them, this makes cross-country travel much less hazardous. It's a bona fide advantage that an outdoor specialist like a Hunter should have. It adds hugely to class diversity, which is a key factor in the whole "this is a real place my characters are living in" sensation.

Tracking could be too convenient and powerful, if, as in the original Guild Wars, the mini-map showed you every entity in range. Splitting it by creature type retains the element of surprise. In Wetlands, for example, I usually have Track Beasts up so I don't get sideswiped by crocolisks, who have a very authentic propensity for hiding in the rushes next to streams, where they are all but invisible.

As I move away from the water, I swap to Track Humans so as to pick up the scent of roaming Gnolls. ("Human" is a very broad category as far as tracking goes. They really should have called it "Track Humanoid").

Swapping is instant but even cycling between all the tracking options doesn't let you see all the threats. Slimes, for example, or Dragon Whelps. Maybe a max-level Hunter with all the options can see everything but they'd still have to keep switching constantly to do it.

Which would be very inconvenient!

Thet're on that ship. Undead! I can smell 'em. Wait, that's not you , is it?

I did have a few more examples but this has run on a bit (Never! Really? Who'd have thought it!). There's a great deal to say about the implications of convenience and the lack of it in MMORPGs, not least whether anyone designing the games is qualified to assess or predict the outcome, should they decide to change the parameters.

As I said in my comment to Shintar, "It would take a university research project, a team of psychologists and social scientists, a multi-million dollar budget and several years to come up with even a preliminary report!". I'm no more qualified to make these assessments than any lay player. Probably won't stop me trying, though.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Let's Go To The Moon: EQII

With all the focus on WoW Classic I still managed to find an hour to run through some of the pre-expansion quests in EverQuest II yesterday. There's a lot going on in EQII right now and I'm conscious of missing out. As Telwyn's finding, it would be very easy to immerse yourself in Norrath if it wasn't for all the other distractions.

I saw some grumbling on the forums about excessive timesinks, mostly concerning the number of mats that had to be gathered for some of the crafting quests. This seems to have been addressed in Tuesday's patch although the update notes don't mention  it.

That something has changed seems evident from the enormous discrepancy between the details on the wiki walkthrough I used and the actual number of mats required by the quest I was doing in the game itself.

According to the wiki, Shoot For The Stars requires
  • 54 solid ethereal filament found around Teren's Grasp 
  • 18 Salty Loam
  • 8 Rough Turquoise
  • 18 Tuber Strand
  • 54 Glowing Incense 
That's to make six Astral Transposition Acceptors, six Multifaceted Transpositional Spellshards and six Quadrolith Corporeal Sublimators. Don't you wish you got paid for making this stuff up?

In the game itself, though, the quest only asks you to make the Sublimators. No mention of the rest. And to make those takes just one of each of the mats plus the regular amount of fuel.

I'm assuming the quest was changed although I guess the wiki could just be wrong. I doubt it. As I've said before, EQII has one of the very best wikis of any MMORPG I've ever played. It's comprehensive, accurate and usually has full information on new content the day it appears in game, thanks to the ever-diligent crew on the Test server. As I also said, this time the quests weren't on Test before they went Live so there was a day or two's lag before the walkthroughs appeared.

 One Deepwater Coin for every six grimlings. Seems like a bargain. I'd kill the little buggers for nothing.
Given my recent comments on how refreshing it is to be playing Classic with nothing to help me other than the information relayed by NPCs when they pass on the quests, it may seem counter-intuitive, not to say hypocritical for me to be praising another MMORPG community's ability to provide comprehensive out-of-game help but it serves to emphasize something I'm coming to believe quite strongly: there are, and should be, many different types of MMORPGs.

I've played EQII for fifteen years. When I play new, low level characters there I still enjoy all the same running and exploring and detective work that so appeals to me in WoW Classic. When I play my max-level character, however, all that changes.

My Berserker is powerful and experienced. I don't get anything like the same satisfaction from spending 30-60 minutes taking him running and searching across a large zone, in which nothing is a threat, hunting for three or four small ground items that an NPC has helpfully told me are "somewhere" in the region. It's annoying and not fun.

In these cases I want to see the new content and gain whatever rewards it gives, not spend literally hours nit-picking through zones I know like the back of my hand. For the same reason, in EQII I absolutely love my flying mounts (or wings, as I prefer to use), not just for the sheer thrill of feeling like I can fly but also for the huge timesaving they provide.

That highlight isn't exactly giving much away, is it?
Equally, I love the unlimited Instant Travel available free for subscribers. I love being able to open the map, click on my destination and be there in as long as it takes for a loading screen to clear. I also do just about every new quest with the wiki's detailed and comprehensive walkthrough open on a Firefox tab.

I don't find these positions in any way mutually exclusive. These are different games but also different stages with in the life of those games. What is appropriate for one isn't necessarily appropriate for another.

And, of course, it's also a choice. If I wanted, I could play EQII just how I'm playing Classic. Only I don't want to and that's perfectly fine. We are allowed to want different things and we are allowed to change our minds. And change them again. As often as we like.

In this vein, I was interested to see that, for the pre-expansion quests, the map once again highlights the general area where you need to go. This feature was, somewhat controversially, removed in an expansion a few years ago (from memory I think it was Kunark Ascending), at least for new content. I remember Kaozz from ECTMMO being particularly annoyed about it and she wasn't alone.

Since then it seems to have crept back in. I'm not clear any more on what the official policy is, if indeed there is one, but I'd be very happy to have it re-instated as standard.

Using the walkthroughs, Instant Travel, flying and the map highlights I was able to knock out most of the repeatable quests, some of them more than once, in an hour. I liked all of them. They're simple but satisfying.

Doesn't look all that grim to me.

It was particularly pleasant to be sent to the Grim Shales region in Phantom Sea. I'd forgotten how misleading the name of this place was. It's a gorgeous area of natural woodland. I took tourist photos as I flew around picking up shards of Luclinite and smashing runestones.

You never have the chance to appreciate the scenery when you do this stuff at level, I find. Too busy trying to stay alive. It's always a revelation to return a few levels later and realize how much you missed.

I collected 22 Deepwater Coins and browsed the vendor. There was such a great choice (and most of it very cheap) that I couldn't decide where to start buying. Instead I resolved to spend a good few more hours doing repeatables over the next couple of months so I can have everything I fancy. I particularly want the hover platform which, at 50 coins, is the most expensive item in the catalog.

As yet I haven't touched the permanent quests. Those will require proper attention and a block of time. I'll get to it in due course, I'm sure. Before the expansion, I hope, but if not sometime later, by which time the extra ten levels and gear upgrades will no doubt have reduced the difficulty considerably.

Speaking of the expansion, I am now all but certain we're going to Luclin. As someone on the forums pointed out, one of the released PR shots is clearly The Nexus as remodelled by the Shissar. The excitement and enthusiasm for a return to the moon is already building.

Could be a great expansion. Here's hoping!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Born To Run: WoW Classic

As I said yesterday, WoW Classic does tend to make me think. Playing the game is a strange combination of laid-back relaxation and quite intense mental activity. The fact that I've somehow ended up choosing to avoid looking up anything outside of the game makes the whole enterprise feel considerably more intense than most gameplay I've been used to for a long while.

After yesterday's post, for which I received some largely justified criticism over making sweeping statements for which I really had no evidence, I'm going to try to row back on the generalities and stick to specifics. It's all too easy to let my mind fly off into wild imaginings about What Classic Means For The Future Of The Genre but it's ludicrously early to be making those kind of grandiose prognostications.

Instead I'm going to attempt, probably with limited success, to focus on things I can stand up; things I've personally experienced and how I feel about them. With luck it might even lead to some shorter, pithier posts. And yes, I know I always say that. I'm attempting some kind of positive re-inforcement here!

I mentioned a while back that I've been taking screenshots in lieu of notes. I'm still doing that to some degree but over the last few days I've been drawn so intensely into the gameplay that I haven't thought to record every interesting detail. I'm mostly relying on memory and we should all know how that goes by now.

It's a very long time since I felt so involved in an MMORPG I forgot to take screenshots. I'd probably have to go back seven years to the launch of Guild Wars 2 or at least four years to its first expansion, Heart of Thorns. I throw myself into each years' EverQuest II expansion with enthusiasm, but I always take small bites. I don't behave as if I'd been let loose, half-starved, on an all you can eat buffet.

Each day I'm playing more hours. A week ago I wasn't logging in until mid afternoon. I was clocking up about five or six hours a day over a couple of sessions. Yesterday I started just after ten in the morning and except for meals and a trip out to pay some bills I didn't stop until ten at night.

One reason I'm playing so much is that everything in game takes an incredibly long time - and I really, really like it that way. I'm finding the endless travel positively addictive, even though objectively much of it does look like intentional time-wasting on the part of the developers.

A familiar view. And if it's not, it will be.

In Duskwood, for example, (more about which anon), there are several multi-part questlines that require you to run the full length of the zone and back for every step. I bloody love it!

At least the drop rates there seem better, as if to compensate. I can imagine a developer sitting down and working out the time-to-complete for every quest and balancing it between kills, drops and travel to make every one come out within seconds of the next.

My Hunter was in Duskwood because by the time he hit twenty-two last weekend, he couldn't find much more to do in Wetlands. This probably has more to do with my insistence on never looking up anything out of game than any actual lack of content.

I'm only doing the quests I happen to find and if it takes me thirty minutes to find the mobs I have to kill or the NPC I have to deliver a parcel to, then that's the gameplay, apparently, that I didn't know I wanted but I do. It took me over an hour to find something the day before yesterday. I almost cracked and looked it up but I resisted and when I finally found the NPC and his camp, which with hindsight was exactly where the quest said it was, I felt enormous satisfaction.

It wasn't just relief that I could stop, the metaphorical negative pleasure that derives from ceasing to bang your head against a brick wall. It was that pure, meaningless, spurious sense of achievement, which is surely what games are for. Well, it's one of the main reasons I play them, anyway.

Before he left Wetlands, my Hunter took a look in his Journal. He had some quests in Redridge that had been red when he got them but which had now turned orange. He hopped on the griffin and off he went.

Finishing those took another day or so, by which time he was twenty-four. I still had some quests left in Redridge but it was insanely busy and anyway I like to keep moving, so I wandered off and found myself in Darkshire.

Duskwood (which I keep thinking is called Darkshire, since that would be a county rather than a town) is a very interesting zone. I remember it fairly well from back when I played Live. I recall finding it somewhat fun but also quite frustrating and eventually depressing, what with the complete lack of sunlight and all.

Baby's First Rare!
This time I found myself really enjoying it. The level range is very broad. I happened to come in at the lower end, where most of the mobs are 19-21 but ranging around I soon found myself running from things several levels above me.

I found the village and took some quests, all of which were orange or red. Orange is the sweet spot. I can solo pretty much any orange con non-elite mob so to do orange quests all I have to do is avoid adds. All! It is to laugh.

The xp, of course, is much better and the quest rewards and drops from orange mobs and quests are generally more useful. I do find drops and rewards in Classic peculiar. Most mobs seem to drop gear that's highly unlikely to be much use to the levels who kill them. I send almost everything to my growing stable of alts.

Occasionally something really good will drop. Yesterday I got a very acceptable green shoulder item (the one I was wearing was actually grey). The only problem was I got it while running back to turn in a quest, the reward for which was... an almost identical green shoulder item. Well, it was cloth, which wouldn't have been ideal. I'd still have used it, though.

One very exciting thing that happened in Duskwood was that I killed my first rare spawn. I was killing starving wolves for some quest (they wouldn't be starving if there weren't so many of them...) when I spotted one that looked a little odd. It turned out to be Lupos.

As a Hunter I should, of course, have tamed him, but in Classic that doesn't seem to be an option on the fly. I'd have had either to release my bear (not going to happen) or stable him, which would mean going back to town, by which time, of course, Lupos would be dead or tamed by someone else. At least, I think that's how it works. Hard to be sure when you're not looking stuff up...

Classic can be quite competitive, even though most people on Hydraxian Waterlords seem pretty cool about it. I decide I ought to go for the wolf in the hand rather than vacillate and lose him altogether. I set the bear on him and killed him fast. He dropped a nice staff, which I later passed on to my Warlock, who should be able to equip it in about five levels.

I do love rare spawns. They were always one of the highlights of roaming the wilderness in EverQuest and I very much appreciate every MMORPG that manages to find space for them. Running across one unexpectedly isn't just a thrill, it's a vindication of the roam-and-hunt playstyle.

Of course, you could look up the spawn patterns and camp them, but who in their right mind would ever do that?

The armor I make is there or thereabouts as good as the at-level or even slightly above level quest rewards.
I guess that's a good thing.

I spent much of Monday and pretty much all of yesterday in Duskwood. People were eternally triggering the final part of The Embalmer questline, which meant the Level 35 Elite, Stitches, was running down the road like a Number 7 bus. Sometimes he made it all the way to the village, where everyone would pile on with the NPCs to wear him down, like a pack of rats bringing down a snarling wolf.

Eventually, after I'd killed countless undead, werewolves and ogres, I took my own place in a group of three to kill Eliza and complete the very lengthy Embalmer questline. It was a total shambles in which all three of us died.

We were all DPS, all of us several levels below the level 31 Elite Eliza. I was the lowest at 26 and I was still reading General chat, thinking the other two hadn't got there yet, when the leader pulled Eliza and dropped immediately to half health.

Our deaths were spaced well enough for those of us still living to get Eliza down. When she died only I was still up, mainly because I'd started ten seconds later than the other two. Eliza's guards, seemingly confused by the disappearance of their mistress, ran amok among a bunch of other players waiting their turn, to whom they eventually succumbed.

I'd taken the opportunity to nip in and snaffle The Embalmer's Heart, needed for the quest, but I could see that the grave was still interactable. Unsure if I'd technically completed the quest, I clicked on it and spawned a new Eliza, complete with guards.

At this point I decided to cut and run. My groupmates had revived and were safe and the other group seemed happy to kill Eliza, although, thinking about it, since she was trying to kill them they didn't have a lot of choice.

I legged it to safety, pursued by a Level 31 guard. He stunned me a few times, killed my pet and left me at about 10% health but I pulled him far enough for his leash to snap him back. I sat down to get my breath, and my health, back.

Hang on! I'm not ready!
Naturally I had no food because when do I ever, so recovery was slow. Too slow to prevent a Venom Spider from spotting me and deciding on Dwarf for lunch. I had no pet and I was about 25% fit. I tried to fight then I tried to run. Then a second spider joined in so I decided to die.

Technically, I didn't die on the Eliza fight. I might have been smug about that, only I died a second time trying to get to the road after I'd done my corpse run. Spiders, low health, no food. I never learn.

All of that could be construed as unenjoyable, frustrating gameplay. Lots of running, incompetent, shambolic group play, multiple deaths. All to get rewards I couldn't even use (cloth shoulders and a shield!).

It was brilliant! I loved ever moment, from the zen-like pounding of my boots up and down the cobbled track to the chaos of the incompetent combat. What's more, today, recounting it here, I can remember every detail. Try and do that with a set of GW2 dailies!

Something about this kind of gameplay tends to encourage the laying down of episodic memories. I would guess that the kind of MMORPG gameplay we've become used to is more likely to lean towards the semantic. We need both but I know which feels more exciting.

Anyway, that's what I've been up to, when I haven't been pontificating about the State of the Genre. Also levelling my Warlock, starting her on Enchanting and getting my Hunter's Leatherworking to 135.

Today, as well as all of that, it's going to be Blacksmithing, Mining and levelling for my Warrior and possibly cooking for my Priest.

It's a full life in Classic!

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Now That I Think About It... : WoW Classic

If there's one thing Classic's doing, it's generating a seemingly endless torrent of interesting, thought-provoking blog posts. MailvatarMarathal and Azuriel all put up pieces yesterday that really made me think.

I replied to all of them but I also wanted to move some of those thoughts over here, where I have at least a slim chance of being able to refer to them in future, rather than leaving them to sink into the Lost Swamp of Old Comments on Other Peoples' Blogs.

Apologies to anyone whose already read this stuff. I'll try to freshen it up a bit!

Marathal was pondering the effect Classic's popularity might be having on Retail:
"The problem is that even though we have seen a resurgence in players coming back for Classic, we are seeing a drop off in those logged into retail.  Where I might have seen 25 people logged into Retail, now I see 10 and 20 logged in over on Classic. "
While this is only anecdotal evidence, I've seen a number of Retail players making similar observations. I would bet that Classic's success is impacting many MMORPGs right now, but quite possibly Retail most of all.

There's a really unfortunate and quite ugly schism developing between a faction of Retail players and those playing Classic. Actually, I'm not sure how much the Classic fans care or even know about it - the vitriol and snark seems to come mostly from the other side.

Gnomecore, a blogger previously unknown to me, pops up on a lot of Classsic threads making the anti-classic case. "I’m amused by hypocritic duality of those who play Classic", he observes, wryly, going on to list examples, most of which appear to be either straw man arguments that I've not heard anyone express in game or straightforward misunderstandings of other peoples' perspectives.

He's very far from being the only voice taking this perspective but one of the few who comments on blogs I read. I imagine the bulk of that conversation is taking place in the Retail bubble, where I rarely set foot.
I believe the antipathy is driven by a quite unfounded fear. As I said on Marathal's comment thread:
 "It’s counterproductive to compare the two as if they were versions of the same thing. They are two different games, appealing to two different audiences. The negativity and competition between the two groups is unfortunate, but it only exists because one group feels threatened by the other. Should one prove radically more commercial than the other, everyone knows their personal preference could suffer as a result."
My feeling is that the more successful Classic is, the better it wil be for Retail, for Blizzard and for the genre. It's a massive data point for the industry that can and should lead to real improvement in developers' understanding of their audience.

Moving on to Mailvatar's post, in which he gives a very fair and considered "outsider's view", I wanted to quote a chunk of my comment, in which I re-iterate my long-held conviction that one of the biggest reasons why World of Warcraft broke out in 2005-6 was its very wide appeal to people who didn't think of themselves as "gamers":
"Around the time WoW was blowing up, with the South Park episode and all, I remember hearing a ten-minute piece on a BBC Radio 4 current affairs show where the interviewer talked very sensibly and unsensationally to a couple in their 60s who played WoW. Sounding like anyone’s parents or even grandparents, the two well-spoken, educated, middle-class, late-middle-aged adults explained what they did in game (levelled, crafted, chatted to people they knew), making the whole thing sound as natural and normal as an evening at the pub or a barbecue at a friend’s house.

I was struck at the time by just how ordinary their experiences were. I’d been playing that way for years in MMORPGs but I hadn’t yet played WoW. It reminded me strongly of a number of reports I’d read about Star Wars Galaxies, where many people famously spent their time decorating, dancing and hanging out in space bars chatting."
I have never forgotten that interview. It rang so true to me from the people I'd been guilded with in EverQuest and Dark Age of Camelot and EverQuest II. I was forty years old when I started playing EQ in 1999 and over the next decade I found myself mixing with people not much younger, and sometimes a lot older, than me in almost every MMORPG I played.

I met guild leaders in their fifties and sixties as well as many guildies in their thirties and forties. Parents playing EQ with their children was not at all unusual. Most of these people played for months, years, many hours a week. Few of them raided, many didn't even do dungeons. Some barely engaged in any combat-related content at all.

Instead, they crafted and levelled and worked on making their characters look the way they wanted, all while chatting to their online friends about what they were doing both in and out of game. Once MMORPGs began to get housing, some of these people became full-time builders and decorators, only venturing out to try and get quest rewards or drops they could use in their home-planning schemes.

Vanilla WoW, with its hugely expanded casual access via questing and solo content and its relatively low player-skill barrier, made this kind of gameplay more welcoming than it had ever been. I firmly believe that explains a very significant degree of WoW's astonishing penetration into the mass market and into the mainstream culture of the time.

Sadly, video games are made largely by people who play video games. For every Domino there are a thousand bearded men in their twenties and thirties. Most of them are hardcore gamers and to them everything looks like a video game. It's the old "If the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails" thing.

Times change. Classic players are older and, I think, more articulate, or at least more confident about expressing themselves. Developers have, perhaps, grown up a little. too, and the industry is at least a little more diverse than it was fifteen or twenty years ago. There is hope that lessons might be learned and this time they might even be the right ones.

Finally, there's Azuriel's post, to which I replied in a somewhat tangential fashion, neglecting to address his main point, which he summed up as:
"WoW Classic is Something To Do. Which is not to be confused with “something to do.” "
I agree with this one hundred per cent. It entirely fits with the phrase Everwake used: 
"... it feels good to have a goal in my life that both feels important and without real consequences."
MMORPGS are entertainment, first and foremeost. Everyone will have their own criteria by whaich they judge whether or not they are being entertained. As I commented to Azuriel, "For me, what counts is “engaging” and “unengaging” or, if you will, “interesting” and “uninteresting”." I want my entertainment to make me think.

Where MMORPGs differ from some (not all) video games, though, is that as well as being entertainments they are also hobbies. Hobbies can make you think - and think hard - but they also have the ability to let your thoughts slow to a comfortable hum. A hobby is exactly that thing you do that has no "real consequence" but that "feels important".

Your partner and all your friends may well shake their heads and make jokes about your model railway layout or your terrible watercolors. You may groan inwardly as you force yourself to admire your aunt's latest embroidered antimacassar. It doesn't matter waht they think of you or you of them.

Hobbies settle people. They make life not just bearable but worth looking forward to. It matters that they don't matter - that's the point.

If you don't get that then you may (or may not) count yourself lucky. Many, many people don't have a genuine hobby. They don't want one. They don't need one. They feel fulfilled and satisified by doing the practical, purposeful things they need to do.

Well, bully for them. As I also said in the comments to Azuriel:
 "It’s equallly pointless to try and equate what’s interesting or engaging for you with what’s interesting or engaging for me. We are different people. We have different personalities. We respond to different stimuli".
A big part of the problem in the ongoing discussion over Classic is the propensity of people to tell other people why they're doing what they're doing. I'm at risk of making the same mistake myself, although I'm trying hard to ride the line.

As an academic manqué I can't help but over-analyze everything. It's another kind of hobby, almost. In the end, though, fascinating though the discussion is, what matters is what people are doing.

In Classic, right now, they're kicking back, relaxing and having fun. That ought to be enough to satisfy anyone.

Monday, September 9, 2019

Fight For Your Right (To Party): WoW CLassic, EverQuest

There was a time for me when weekends in MMORPGs were all about grouping. Admittedly, we'd be going back a long way. All the way to 2000-2001, I'd guess. I tend to think of my early days in MMORPGs as being mostly a solitary experience but that was never really the case.

I did solo a lot, partly out of choice, partly out of necessity. When I came back from the game store on that fateful day in November 1999, clutching the oversized cardboard box containing the EverQuest CD-Rom and accompanying book-sized manual, which I'd been reading on the bus journey home, I was more than a little nervous about where it might take me.

Stepping out into a virtual world was all well and good. I was up for that. I wasn't worried about the fantastic monsters that might try to tear my character limb from limb. I was much more wary of the real people I was likely to meet, people who might want to talk to me about... well, who knows what?

The first couple of sessions were so chaotic and confusing that talking to anyone, real or imaginary, was scarcely an issue. Working out what the heck was going on occupied all my mental bandwidth and then some.

After a few days I got the hang of the basics and started to plan. Yes, in those dim, distant days I did make plans... kind of. I read a lot of online guides about how I should approach this weird new world. I'd done quite a lot of research before I even bought the game, trying to decide between the then Big Three, Asheron's Call, EverQuest and Ultima Online,  a decision later tested to destruction when, inevitably, I bought both the others to see if I'd made a mistake. I hadn't.

Long before my curiosity got the better of me I had to work out what to do with the game I'd chosen. I knew it had some social elements but even a cursory search on Netscape Navigator (for which I probably have as much nostalgia as for any MMORPG I've ever played) brought up plenty of suggestions on how to play EQ as Billy No-Mates.

Most of those suggestions, some of which I still have, printed out and preserved in one of the three lever-arch files that sat next to my 14" CRT monitor as I played, were awful. Not just unhelpful but plain wrong. Whoever thought Dwarf Cleric was the best choice for a solo class/race combo in EQ in 1999 needed a sound slap with a wet haddock.

So I made a Dwarf Cleric. It took me two weeks to get to Level 11. Probably about 40-50 hours at least. It would have been 80-100 but by then I was already sharing PC time with Mrs. Bhagpuss. Looking over my shoulder as she played, at least as soon as she'd managed to stop laughing, she decided she had to play too.

For a couple of months we took it in turns, sharing an account in flagrant contradiction of the EULA and any shred of logic. Sharing an account is not a good idea for so many reasons.

One of us would play while the other sat in an armchair and watched, giving "helpful" advice and making "amusing" comments so, in a way, I wasn't even soloing when I was soloing. There was something of a team effort going on - or a sitcom.

Blackburrow, on one of EQ's Prog Servers. I forget which. Not exactly the authentic experience.
In game, I didn't really talk to many people directly. I tried a few groups early on, mostly in Blackburrow. They were disasters. I died so much I couldn't really see the point. I went back to making my own way, where I died less but levelled even slower

Meanwhile, Mrs Bhagpuss was networking. In no time at all she'd found a crew to hang with. I can remember a couple of their names even now. I carried on my own sometimes merry way, trying different classes, different servers, reading yet more mostly misleading guides.

By the time Ruins of Kunark, EverQuest's first expansion, appeared in April 2000, we had a computer each. Mrs. Bhagpuss played upstairs and I played in my "study" on the floor below. We still watched each other play now and again but mostly we were, literally, in our own worlds.

I played on Brell Serilis, then Test and later Luclin, Lanys T'Vyl and eventually on almost new server SOE opened to meet the ever-rising demand. Mrs Bhagpuss stayed on on Prexus, where we'd started, until somehow, a few years later, we ended up on the EU server Antonius Bayle. There we grouped together for almost two years. We made a whole raft of mutual friends and associates and it became the peak of my grouping career, but all that was still far in the future.

Kunark changed things for me in a number of ways, not least in how it changed my willingness to group. Within a few weeks of the expansion's launch I was in the habit of soloing my Druid in the mornings before I went to work and then again in the evening, when I came home. I got her into the twenties and started to hang out in what was, at the time, thought of as the armpit of Norrath, Lake of Ill Omen.

LOIO was the pre-cursor of The Barrens in World of Warcraft and of Paludal Caverns in Luclin era EQ.  /ooc was famously salty and ribald. The zone was always packed. There were always multiple groups forming and recruiting to work the many recognized camps, some of which were effectively small, open-zone dungeons.

I can't now remember how my confidence grew to the point where I felt not just able but eager to advertise myself in /ooc as available for healing and support duties (not that we called what a Druid did "support" in those days, but it was often the role I took, all the same). I'd taken to duoing quite often with a French-Canadian Paladin, hunting along the shores of the lake, so maybe that eased my social anxiety, which was, perhaps, higher then than it is now, although it's always been more a desire to have complete control over my time than any nervousness about talking to strangers.

My concern in accepting groups has always been "How do I get out of this when I want to stop?" rather than "What am I going to say to these people?". As must be evident from this blog, I rarelyl run out of things to say.

The pick-up groups (another term I can't remember us ever using back then) in Lake of Ill Omen solved that potential problem. They were fast-forming and fluid. People came and went all the time. Because most of the camps were either outdoors or in ruins with multiple entrances, when someone needed to leave it wasn't like trying to get a replacement down into a dungeon.

Sadly, all my screenshots from EQ before about 2005 seem to be lost. Here's one from round bout then.
Saturdays and Sundays became the time when I grouped. Particularly Saturday after breakfast until lunch, then again around late-afternoon. I'd have breakfast, log in, and see if anyone was recruiting. If they weren't I'd /ooc "22 Druid lfg". Just that, usually.

Contrary to Belghast's excellent and highly-recommended guide on getting groups, in EQ back then, public channels always got you groups fast. Well, they got me groups, anyway. I don't recall having to wait more than a few minutes most sessions. Sometimes I'd get a tell asking me if I wanted to group before I'd even asked. Druids were in demand back then.

I used to have my preferences. I loved the Sarnak Fort, especially Back Door. It was fast, frenetic, frenzied and you could run if things went totally south. As they often did. If I couldn't get the Fort I'd take whatever came. There was always something.

As I recall it, grouping like this didn't move my xp bar all that fast. There wasn't a lot in the way of exciting drops, either. It was faster than soloing but, at least for a Druid, one of the best solo classes, not by much.

What it was, though, was fun. Really good fun. Exciting, amusing, entertaining and, eventually, exhausting. About two hours at a stretch was enough for me. I'd break for lunch then solo in the afternoon, playing any of my army of characters on half a dozen servers, before coming back for another group session after tea.

When Scars of Velious arrived at the end of the year my Druid was just barely high enough to meet  the entry level requirements. In more than six months, playing anything up to forty hours a week, I'd managed to advance from the low twenties to the very beginning of the thirties. I did play a lot of characters but even so, leveling was slow back then.

Lake of Ill Omen, for which my Druid was now almost too high, gave way to Iceclad Ocean, where I spent my time pulling Dervishes from the base of the ominous Tower of Frozen Shadow. At the very bottom of the level range I found it harder to get groups and there was more waiting around but every Iceclad group needed Harmony and Ensnare so I usually got picked up eventually.

From there on the barricades were down. I zig-zagged between solo and group play at will and whim for the next few years, eventually ending up grouping more than I soloed for around eighteen months at the height of the Planes of Power/Legacy of Ykesha/Lost Dugeons of Norrath era, late 2002 to early 2004.

After that my desire to group faded, slowly. I grouped a good deal in EverQuest II for the first few months but my PC struggled in dungeons and I was playing second cleric to Mrs Bhagpuss on main heals, which wasn't ideal.

When EQII's population all but collapsed under the impact of WoW's far greater accessibility and much superior gameplay (before Scott Hartsman rode in on his white charger) we went back to EQ, where we changed servers and made a new set of friends for a while.

We stayed about six months, grouping sometimes but nowhere near as often as we had done on Ant. Bayle. We returned to EQII, where we played mainly on Test. We went to Vanguard at launch and stayed a year and a half. We came back to EQII yet again, moving to the Freeport F2P server when it opened, where we stayed until finally moving to Guild Wars 2 in 2012.

Another thing about grouping... I hardly take any screenshots. Someone tends to die if I do. Usually me.
Much safer to take selfies solo.

All of that I remember as the Duo Years. We learned to play as a highly effective and versatile team of two, plus pets, often playing classes that weren't ideally suited for trying to do with two people what the game expected would need four or five. I main healed as a Necro for years with Mrs Bhagpuss tanking as a Bruiser!

Duo play is a form of grouping, of course. Bearing that in mind I can honestly say that over twenty years, even though I tend to think of myself as a solo player, I have repeatedly chosen group play over soloing when given the chance. Even then, I bet I've spent far, far longer soloing.

In the last five years I've barely grouped at all. The all-pile-on open group/zerg playstyle introduced in Rift and exemplified by GW2 has made formal grouping seem almost archaic. I only group now if I absolutely have to.

It's a mindset WoW Classic is doing its best to change. I don't think it's any kind of exaggeration to say that in the last two weeks I've been in more groups than I've had in the last two years. They're classic pick-up groups like the ones I remember so fondly from Lake of Ill Omen. They last as long as they need to last and when I want to move on I say "thanks for the group" and off I go. I feel free, empowered, not trapped and claustrophobic, as I did in FFXIV Main Quest treadmill a few years back.

I spent much of Sunday afternoon dying in a determined but not very competent (no healer for a start) group in Redridge. All my armor fell off. I ran out of food My bear was complaining bitterly and threatening to leave. I had a great time. Everyone was upbeat and in the end we got what we'd come together for in the first place - the head of some orc with an unpronounceable name.

Then I spent forty minutes duoing in some orc-infested cave with a very competent and cheery Paladin three levels below me. I would have carried on longer only I had to stop for tea.

It felt like the old days. Weekend casual pugging for fun. When I finish this post I'm going to go do some more. It's so busy stil I bet there's a weekday pug scene. What could be better?

You can call it nostalgia if you like but I'd prefer to look at it as good game design. Whatever it is, I'm just going to enjoy it while it lasts. I might even try a dungeon run.

After all, what have I got to lose apart from the cost of repairs?

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide