Thursday, November 14, 2019

Would That It Were So Simple: EverQuest II

The crafting quest that comes with EverQuest II's 15th Anniversary Dragon Attack event turns out to be both straightforward and confusing. I've read two walkthroughs and there's still stuff I don't get. And yet I've been happily doing the quest anyway.

The wiki version is perfunctory but the EQII Traders write-up is much more comprehensive. Even that doesn't answer all my questions, though, or smooth out some of the wrinkles.

The basics couldn't be simpler. There are two new NPC camps, one in The Commonlands, the other in Antonica. Each has an NPC that gives a repeatable quest, asking you to craft items for the construction of a monument. The materials needed come from the corpses of the dragons killed in the spire attacks and from another NPC at the camp.

All you need to do is go to the spires and gather mats from the dragon's corpse until you have enough, then back to the camp, buy the fuel and the item from the NPC, craft the finished product and hand it in. Rinse and repeat.

The problems come in the detail.

The first thing that threw me was the way the recipes are granted. EQII already has several ways of handling quest and event recipes but naturally someone had to come up with a new one.

As far as I can tell, the recipes are automagically granted when you first speak to the NPC but they are also automagically removed when you do the hand-in, so you can only see the recipes when you have the quest.

I only ever saw them on the crafting table drop-down. I'm not sure if they appear in your recipe book at any time. I went to check on the mats needed for one of the items after I'd done the quest and it had vanished. That confused me for a minute or two.

When you take the quest you get three recipes: a generic one that everyone gets, a second for your crafting archetype and a third for your specialization. Counter-intuitively, the less specialized the combine, the more progress it gives for the project. Also, although you can make all three items and hand them in together and the NPC will accept them, if you do that you only get one reward instead of three.

Each recipe uses a number of standard and rare materials from the dead dragons plus one item from the vendor in the camp and some fuel that the same vendor also sells. The purchased items and fuel are as cheap as they possibly could be at one copper piece each.

All characters on the account can harvest five times from each dragon every time one dies. There doesn't seem to be any skill requirement. There are something like a dozen possible mats that can be harvested, some rare, some normal. You get can multiples of each and "rares"  are rare in name only.

All the dragons die conveniently right next to wizard spires so crafters of any adventure level can go rummage around in the remains. That said, as I already reported, the event offers a great opportunity to grab some adventure level, so why not take advantage?

There are several crafting tables at the camps and any item from any specialization can be made at any of them. I wouldn't really call it crafting. If you want you can just stand there and counter the potential errors and the items pretty much make themselves. I couldn't really see any significant difference in success or speed between my max-level Weaponsmith with all the AAs and my 70s Carpenter with very few.

Other than the xp itself, the rewards aren't that great compared to the dragon kills. Just handcrafted or mastercrafted mount items. Useful but not very thrilling. Maybe they'll improve in later phases.

Also unlike the dragon-killing and corpse-ransacking, there do seem to be some restrictions or requirements on who can get the quest. After my Fae Conjuror, also a lowish tailor, did her eighteen adventure levels in two kills last night she flew off to Antonica to craft something with the bits of dragon in her bags.

When she got there it was night time and very, very dark. At first I couldn't even find the questgiver, which seemed odd as there should have been a big, blue, glowing feather over her head. When I eventually made out her shape in the gloom, not only was there was no feather but the NPC wouldn't even speak.

This morning I tried it with my Channeler, who has has barely any crafting levels. He's a Qeynos-based goodie but he happened to be near the Commonlands camp so I went there first. The NPC had no feather but he did ask the Channeler if he'd like to help. I was very surprised to find the only reply I could give was a flat "Not interested". I can't remember seeing that before.

Thinking it might be faction-related, I took the Channeler to Antonica. The NPC there was happy to ask for help and explain where to go to get the mats but she wouldn't actually offer the quest.

My high-70s Carpenter, however, was able to take get the quest and complete it. Each turn-in was giving her about 80% of a level, making me wonder if there's a limitation at lower levels to prevent people from raising crafting at an overly-accelerated rate. Daybreak always seem a lot more protective of tradeskill progress than they are over adventuring so that wouldn't be a surprise.

To make things even more complicated, it's possible to think you have the quest when in fact you don't. At the end of the dialog there are two options. I didn't screenshot it and the servers are down right now so I can't give the exact phrasing but one has you asking where to get the mats while the other looks like you're accepting the quest.

You need to take the option that asks about the mats. If you don't, you don't get the quest. I took the wrong one and didn't notice. I was able to make the item, which is why I'm assuming it's granted at an earlier part of the dialog, but when I came to hand it in, nothing happened except that the item disappeared and I had to re-take the quest properly and make it again.

All of this could be individual bugs I experienced, of course. Maybe after today's patch it'll all work like gnomish clockwork. Actually, that's how it's working now...

Either way, I'm good with it. When the servers come up I plan on collecting the dragon mats from all the characters who have them and letting the Carpenter level up on the construction quest. It would certainly be faster than doing writs or regular crafting quests and I could do with a high-level furniture-maker.

Progress on the monuments themselves seems to be going attritionally slowly. Usually on events like this it's common to see hordes of crafters buzzing around the crafting tables like bees around the hive, but at the moment everyone seems to be out killing dragons instead.

We've got until Thursday, December 5th to get the statues (or whatever it is we're building) up, which I am guessing also means we won't be seeing the expansion until December 10th at the earliest, since that's the first Tuesday after Dragon Attack ends and everything in Norrath begins on a Tuesday for some reason. Although now I think about it I believe expansions sometimes do begin on a Thursday...

On Skyfire the Monuments are currently somewhere around 0.3% of the way to completing Phase One. I think there are three phases, with new rewards for each. Supposedly progress speeds up in the later stages. It'll have to. At this rate we won't have the things done in time for the thirtieth anniversary, let alone December.

Not to mention that Frostfell will be arriving about then, too. It's going to be a busy old winter in Norrath.

IntPiPoMo count to date 62.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Growing Up Fast: EverQuest II

This week I have mostly been killing dragons. I've done my dailies in Guild Wars 2 but I haven't logged in to WoW Classic since Saturday. Instead I've been cycling all my max levels through the four dragons currently attacking wizard spires in EverQuest II to get the dragon mount/illusion on all of them.

This is not normal gameplay for me. I lean towards being a once-and-done player in events like this. Quite often that might stretch to twice if it's a fun event but six times? Unheard of! And that's not the end of it, either.

At the Nektulos Forest spires on Monday night, someone announced in general chat that they'd brought their fresh Level One character to the fight. When the dragon died they gleefully informed us all that the character was now Level Fourteen. And after the next dragon they were somewhere in the mid-twenties.

Now, there's a peculiar phenomenon in MMORPGs that I've discussed before. Even players who don't find levelling too slow or tedious will often jump through hoops to have that process go faster. I've read plenty of posts where people with a history of supporting slower leveling talk about jumping back into a game because there's bonus xp being handed out. I've done it myself, often.

I think it's the satisfaction of getting something for nothing. More reward for less effort and a frisson of somehow "beating the system", even though it's the system that's giving you a pass. Also, these events are always of limited duration, so it's a case of making hay while the sun shines rather than a slide into acceptance of a new normal, as happens when xp gain is raised permanently.

Dragons are big.

Also there's the perennial question of alts. Something that's fun the first time, or even the first half dozen times, may not be so much fun when you hit character number ten - or twenty. That may sound like a self-made problem (because it is) but there are reasons why a player might have a stable of characters that big.

EverQuest II has twenty-six classes and twenty-one races. Even after fifteen years of semi-continual play I have only played half of those classes to any meaningful level and there are nine races I've never even tried. And the differences aren't just cosmetic. The classes play very differently and the races have some substantial variations.

Last night, after I got the dragon mount on my fifth Level 110, I swapped to my Level Fourteen Fae Conjuror on the Antonia Bayle server. She was someone I'd levelled a few years back on one of the Progression servers which was then either rolled into Ant Bayle or we got free transfers off. I forget which.

I took her to Loping Plains, a zone intended for the level 75-80 crowd, back when there was a crowd in that range. That's where the next dragon attack was due.

Because the Dragon Attack event involves dragons attacking Ulteran Portals, one of Norrath's main transport hubs, getting there wasn't a problem. All I had to do was go to a portal in a zone in my level range and click on it. Or if that seemed like too much trouble, as an All Access Member I could just open my map and use the Fast Travel option, which is what I did.

The Nektulos Forest dragon doesn't just have a knockback. It has a knock up.
When I got there the dragon was already in play. I stood at the edge of the combat zone and started casting my kindergarten spells. The dragon lashed his tail and sent me flying (the event features some spectacular AE knockbacks). The trip didn't hurt me. The level seventy-something wolf that happened to be standing just where I landed did.

I revived in a graveyard halfway across the zone. There was no possibility of running back through a gauntlet of mobs sixty levels higher than my little Fae and since you can't Fast Travel to the same zone you're already in I took the scenic route. I opened the map, fast travelled to Moors of Ykesha, where there's a nice, safe wizard spire, used that to come back to Loping Plains and carried on where I left off.

The dragon was still fighting. The crowds are thinning a little, a few days into the event and in mid-week. There were "only" about fifty people there. More to the point, quite a lot of them were well below max level. Word on the xp has gotten out.

The reduced numbers and levels means the dragons are taking longer to kill. This fight lasted fifteen minutes or so. I positioned my conjuror with her back against the spires so she couldn't be knocked back and this time the dragon hit her with an AE and poisoned her to death.

The Everfrost dragon is kind enough to appear on a nice, open, flat ice field. Makes for easy zerging.
Another trip around the maps and back she came for round three. This time nothing killed her although it was a close thing once or twice. The dragon died and a deafening multiple DING! told me I'd levelled. Thirteen times. My conjuror was now Level 27.

I took her through the spires to the next dragon, already up in Everfrost. Everfrost isn't as high level as Loping Plains but it's still out of a Level 27's league. Even so, I managed not to die this time. I only got five levels though. Diminishing returns but then you have to factor in the increased time those five levels would have taken. Still a bargain.

At that point I stopped. I wasn't really intending to start playing on a different server, although I do have a Level 90+ character on Ant. Bayle. I was mostly just testing the waters.

Today and for the rest of the week EQII enjoys double XP (and double status) for All Access Members (and double Familiar xp for everyone) as part of this year's "Level Up Gear Up" preparations for the expansion. I'm keen to see what that does to dragon-kills. I have a few characters left to level on Skyfire including a Beastlord I might actually play one day.

And this wasn't the post I meant to write. I was going to do something on the Tradeskill side of the Dragon Attack event. Maybe I'll get that done between dragons.

IntPiPoMo count to date 59.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Keeping The Dream Alive

A few days ago I was reading a post at How Not To Write About Music about a London-based band called Hurtling, variously described as alt-rock, shoegaze and dream pop. There's some considerable Venn Diagram overlap in that but I thought Everett had the right of it when he name-checked Madder Rose. I can hear those echoes.

They're currently picking up some wildly enthusiastic reviews for their debut album, Future From Here, although not everyone is going nuts about them. I like what I've heard well enough, although I wouldn't go putting out any flags quite yet.

But I didn't come here to talk about Hurtling. Not today, anyway. I'm more interested in what happened after I read about them.

For some reason, rather than just watching the embedded video in the post, I clicked through to the YouTube source and found myself falling down a dream-pop rabbit hole. (I had a joke here but it was so labored I had to take it out. You can thank me later).

Anyway... I watched three or four of Hurtling's videos, each of which I liked a little bit less than the one before. So I started browsing the suggestions to see what else might be new.

YouTube's recommendation algorithm is notorious flaky. It comes up with some jaw-dropping non-sequiters but I love it all the same. I've found so many great bands and performers through that sidebar. 

I tend to go for odd names and boy, were there were plenty: Wayne's So Sad, Mary See The Future, Hello Nico... plus a whole boatload I couldn't even read, like 大園國際高中 熱門音樂社 期末成果發表 and 万能青年旅店. (That's "Dayuan International High School Popular Music Club Final Results " and "Universal Youth Hostel" according to Google Translate).

I started with Wayne's So Sad but I didn't take to them. Say Sue Me sounded like an odd name for a non-Western band even by the high standards already established so I tried them next and that went down a lot more smoothly.

While they played I glanced at a few of the things people had posted about them. I may have mentioned before how much I enjoy YouTube's much-derided comments. I generally find them not only entertaining but useful, too. You can get a lot from them, one way or another.

What I got this time was an idea for a blog post. There was a comment by someone called Jimmy Stetler that got me thinking. It read, in full, "HELLO Dream Pop. Glad young bands are keeping it alive. These guys are excellent."

It's odd, isn't it? When you stop to think about it. The way musical trends and movements just keep going.

Dream pop is what C86 grew up to become but the C86 phenomenon, such as it was, began and (you'd have thought) ended over thirty years ago. What is it that makes people who weren't even born until a decade after a movement peaked decide, when they discover it, that it's their sound? If I'd done that when I started a band in my late teens, instead of punk we'd have had to play... what? Swing?

Even more puzzling, why does it keep happening, all over the world, in countries that never had any connection to the original scene? Say Sue Me are from Korea. The rest of the bands in this post are Taiwanese except the last lot, who come from Japan.

Okay, Japan probably did have some C86 -influenced bands in 80s but the others? I kind of doubt it.

I picked all of them pretty much at random, going mostly by the names and the thumbnails. YouTube animates those now, like they were GIFs. Not sure how I feel about that...

It's not as though there was much else to go on. Almost all the text other than the names was in Mandarin. Well, I'm assuming Mandarin. Google Translate just says "Chinese". I had Translate ready to make some sense of the various Bandcamp, Facebook and similar sources that came up when I tried to check who these bands might be, where they might come from and whether they were still going.

It was kind of the point that they were still going - or at least had been until very recently.  I was trying to prove to myself that, as Jimmy suggested, the dream really was still alive, so I was focusing on videos from the last twelve months or so. And while I was doing that I thought of the post title and knew I'd have to write the damn thing.

Choosing the bands took less than an hour. It could have taken a lot less if I hadn't spent so much time googling as I went. Honestly, I could have thrown a dart at my monitor and hit a dream pop band almost every time. And broken my monitor and possibly set the house on fire. Good thing I didn't do that. But there are hundreds of them.

Not that I'd really call all everything I ended up going with "dream pop". Say Sue Me and DSPS seem to be heartland twee/C86. The Fur and Super Obvious (or Obviously - the correct translation seems to be in dispute) are dream poppy for sure. Hormoneboys seem to shade from dream into some kind of woozy, 80s indie funk, with just a hint of whatever it is that Rex Orange County calls that thing he peddles. I've never been exactly sure what that is.

Astro Bunny is more just "pop" than dream pop, I think, although quite ethereal and very lovely but by the time I hit Deca Joins I'd clearly lost the thread. Are we at chillwave, now? As for No Buses, that's 90s indie with a strong post-Britpop vibe, surely?

All musical categories are notional, of course, although I do find it entertaining, trying to keep up with them. In the end all that matters is whether something sounds good. I think everything I've linked here passes that test admirably.

I picked the videos on Sunday after I got the EverQuest II dragon illusion/mount for my second character on Sunday and I put the post together in the gaps between dragons on Monday and Tuesday evening. Combining three separate hobbies (obsessions if you prefer) - MMORPG gaming, music and blogging - makes for a potent and satisfying cocktail.

I've linked the various social media and related sources at the end just in case anyone's interested, which I sincerely doubt. Not really bothered about that. I had a lot of fun doing this and it's my little contribution to...

Keeping the dream alive!

Monday, November 11, 2019

Underpromise, Overdeliver: EverQuest II

When I first read the official announcement  outlining the events Daybreak had scheduled for EverQuest II's fifteenth anniversary celebrations I was underwhelmed. Granted, anniversaries that end in five generally carry less significance than those that end with a zero - and fifteen is definitely neither ten nor twenty. Still, fifteen years of continual operation is a notable achievement for an MMORPG. It deserves recognition and respect.

For what was described as "our big 15th Anniversary event" we were promised something called "Dragon Attack": dragons were scheduled to attack the Ulteran Spires in four zones, Thundering Steppes, Everfrost, Loping Plains, and Nektulos Forest. Backing this up came a tradeskill event, in which we would be tasked with "constructing permanent, impressive statues commemorating the 15 years that have passed since the Age of Destiny".

Is he looking at me? He's not, is he?
The list of rewards from the crafting quest looked a tad thin and there was no mention of the pay-off for protecting the spires from dragons. The press release also tied the annual Heroes Festival, which falls at this time each year, into the anniversary celebrations as if it was part of them. That seemed a bit cheeky to me.

It didn't help that there was a 15th Aniversary Celebration Bundle in the store, stuffed to bursting with really tempting treats including a crafting table that works for any tradeskill, a 66-slot bag, a 100% fee-reducing, 100 slot broker crate, speed-enhancing boots, a mount and lots more. Very good value at $34.99 but perhaps a little galling when compared with what I thought were rather lackluster in-game rewards.

And then I logged in and discovered I was wrong on every count. The event is excellent and so are the rewards. I spent most of yesterday killing dragons and having a rare old time. As I sit here now I'm alternating between writing this post and killing more. Whether by good fortune or good design, EQII's fifteenth birthday party is turning out to be one of the most enjoyable I've attended for quite a while.

Note bunny and shovel from previous events. Cloak too, probably.

Dragon Attack and Heroes Festival mesh a little chaotically but work well together. Structurally very similar, they each consist of a series of public quests in which very large creatures with quadrillions of hit points appear at easy-to-access locations on a fairly predictable schedule.

All the mobs are raid-level so it relies on a good turnout if things are going to go smoothly. We certainly have that for now. Heroes Festival is a little more forgiving on numbers, although not by much.

It features "clothwork" puppets representing famous villains from the lore. They're notionally operated by a theater troupe of NPCS and are nothing more than giant pinatas. I'm not sure if they even fight back. Dragon Attack features guess what? Dragons. They do fight and there are even some tactics required, as outlined in the wiki.

You can't fool me. You're not a real dragon!
All of the dragons and most of the puppets appear right next to a wizard spire, meaning anyone can get to them with the minimal of travel time. There's a ten minute warning before they arrive and once they're in place there's a nominal timeframe in which they have to be killed, something like 90 minutes.

Each dragon has a one-hour respawn time and right now they're taking five or ten minutes to die. With people doing them in a fairly strict rotation that means the next is along in about the same time it takes to kill one, if not sooner.

Indeed, because the two events are on different schedules, there's frequently a dragon and a puppet up at the same time. It's possible to chain-kill with no more than a few five or ten minute intervals now and again. I did that for about four hours at a stretch yesterday and it was a lot of fun.

Everyone lines up along the crater rim for this one. People are weird.

There's a real carnival atmosphere at the moment, on this first weekend. Every dragon and puppet draws a crowd, even on my low-pop server, Skyfire. Yesterday afternoon and evening there were sometimes enough people to spawn second instances of the zones. I crashed twice because of the strain a hundred players, their pets and minions put on my graphics card.

General chat is busy with people asking which dragons or puppets are up and with people who are killing them reporting the progress. We even had someone roleplaying a TV reporter for a while. I've heard no complaints save one - someone was moaning that having these two events plus the expansion beta all at once meant there was too much to do!

My haul from Saturday,
not including the stuff I equipped.
As for the rewards, which I turned my nose up at when I read about them, I was completely wrong. They're great! Very generous and sufficiently desirable to bring people out of their usual instances to get them.

The Dragons drop very good gear for Mercenaries (every piece I've had has been a major upgrade), Illegible Spell Scrolls (needed for spell upgrades and something I virtually never see drop as a solo player), and Infusers for gear (which I'm saving to use on the inevitable upgrades from questlines in the upcoming expansion).

The most important drop for me, though, is Mount equipment. Levels and gear for mounts was a keynote feature of last year's expansion, Chaos Descending, but it was one that I spent most of the year ignoring. Until this weekend none of my mounts had a single piece. Now I have a saddle and some barding equipped and more than a dozen more mount items in my bags.

Last, and very much not least, there's an Achievement for killing all four dragons. I'm not much for Achievements in general but it's different when they come with one of the best "mounts" I've ever seen in the game.

It may seem odd that I'm sounding so enthusiastic about a mount when only a few weeks ago I was bemoaning their very existence but the name of the mount in question should go some way to explaining why that is: Reveal Inner Dragon.

Technically an actual mount, this is really an illusion. You place it in your Mount Appearance slot (you can put it in the main Mount slot if you want but it doesn't have very good stats) and you become a dragon. A really good-looking dragon at that.

Look at me! I'm a dragon!

I want one for all my Level 110s. The Berserker has one and the Warlock will before I finish this post. That leaves four more. I may well get it for the lower level characters on other servers too. While the dragons are Level 110 Epic X3 raid mobs, you get credit for just being there when the kill happens so any level can complete the achievement provided they don't mind dying now and again.

That's the adventurer side of Dragon Attack. To keep this post to a manageable length for once I'll cover the crafter's version separately. Suffice to say it's pretty good, too.

As for the returning Heroes Festival, which I so glibly dismissed on sight as "more of the same", I'd completely missed the part of the press release that mentions the five new collections added this year. Even if I'd seen it, I wouldn't have known that the rewards for those include three new mounts.

Not really! Don't kill me!
As for the new items added to the Heroes Festival vendors to be bought with the currency you get for doing the event, if it wasn't for the invaluable EQ2 Traders I wouldn't have known there were some wonderful old school paintings (the ones without the horrible new frames) and one of the best sets of appearance armor I've seen in the game for years. The PR team might have mentioned that...

Dragon Attack runs until December 6th and Heroes Festival to November 19 so there's plenty of time to get everything done. At the moment everything is buzzing and it's easy and fun but as people run their alts through the cycles and get all the rewards they want I imagine it will quieten down considerably.

I wouldn't leave it too long - all the targets are raid mobs and I can tell you from experience that even with the puppets that don't fight back it takes a handful of players an awfully long time to whittle one down. I imagine that's why the event allows an hour and a half for the kill.

All in all I give this anniversary celebration a hearty cheer. So much better than I thought it was going to be. Thanks and congratulations to the dev team once again. Maybe someone needs to pop round to the PR department and have a quiet word...

(IntPiPoMo count 55)

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Fifteen: EverQuest II

Sometime round about now, approximately, give or take a day, marks the fifteenth anniversary for EverQuest II. As Wilhelm explains, the exact date is in mild dispute.

I've been playing the game a little longer even than that, although once again I can't give an exact date. Mrs Bhagpuss and I decamped from EverQuest to join the EQII beta in either late August or early September of 2004 along with several friends from the guild we were in at that time.

We stuck it out there until launch, playing the beta "as live" through numerous changes, some of them major, not all of them wise. It was probably then that I came to believe, as I still do now, that many MMORPGs reveal a version of their best selves in beta.

Not that there weren't technical issues. In very late beta, no more than a week or two before launch, the game suffered rubber-banding so bad as to render it virtually unplayable. And yet we still played. We were that much in love with what we imagined it could become.

I've played a number of astonishingly broken MMORPG betas, where the promise was that a "miracle patch" at launch would somehow fix everything. The original FFXIV was the poster child for that. In all those years the only time I've ever seen such a patch actually happen was EQII.

The game was very far from perfect when it launched but all of that was down to a series of misguided design choices. The technical problems that bedevilled late beta right up to the moment the sun went dark vanished when the game went Live.

Although the game ran well enough, the first year was still very rough. Coming off a five year run as creators of the West's best-selling and most successful MMORPG, a game that had already lasted longer than they ever expected and which showed little sign of slowing down, Sony Online Entertainment attempted to do two things with their sequel. They tried to build in safeguards to prevent all of the customer service issues that had so dogged the original and they tried to future-proof the look of the new game so it wouldn't date as quickly and badly as its ancestor.

The result was a game that handcuffed players to a series of protective procedures that made gameplay stilted and frustrating. It also ran badly and looked worse on anything less than a state-of-the-art gaming PC. My modest rig struggled any time I was grouped and overheated and crashed if I was crazy enough to take on a dungeon run.

Still, Mrs Bhagpuss and I carried on playing, even though in the end we were almost the only members of our EQ guild who made the transition. The handful of players who came with us lasted no more than a few weeks before drifting back to EQ or on to the recently-released new sensation, World of Warcraft.

We joined a new guild and for a while things were lively as we explored the new lands and became enmeshed in the game's exceptionally needy and co-dependent tradeskill system. The pressure of having to spend hours at the crafting tables, churning out interim widgets for other crafters, drove several people to quit but the guild stuttered along into the early spring, until one Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a guild event, our guild leader announced he'd had enough.

He quit on the spot, logged out and we never saw or heard of him again. In a very short time the guild was dead and within a few more weeks there was barely anyone left playing that we knew at all. Mrs Bhagpuss and I hung on a little longer, until the final person left on either of our friends lists anounced he was moving on. Then we, too, left.

And that might have been that, had it not been for Scott Hartsman, riding in on his charger, sweeping away much of the clutter, dismantling the barricades that prevented EQII from flourishing, giving the game a second chance. It wasn't quite the spectacular re-invention Square Enix funded for FFXIV but it wasn't that far from it.

The EverQuest II that Scott rebuilt was scarcely the same game. Out went much of the forced grouping and most of the nannying restraints. In came solo content and choice. Players were able to interact socially and practically because they chose to, not because the game made them.

Best of all, the passive-aggressive crafting system got an extreme makeover that laid down the foundations that would eventually turn EQII's tradeskill offer into a gold standard for the genre. Few MMOPRPGs get a Hail Mary pass the way EQII did but even fewer catch that ball and run with it the way EQII has.

Fifteen years later, EverQuest II has grown into one of the broadest, deepest, richest gaming experiences you could wish for. It has so much quality content for adventures, explorers, crafters and decorators it would take literally years to do justice to it all. There's been talk around the blogosphere lately of playing just five games in a year: with EQII you could realistically play just one game for five years.

EverQuest II had a very unfortunate start. Not only did its developers make a number of deeply flawed decisions over the design, it also managed to launch directly on top of what would turn out to be a paradigm shift for the genre. WoW, Blizzard's cultural juggernaut, changed the MMOPRG landscape for a decade. It was more than most games could do to compete. EQII did well just to survive.

There have been plenty of times when I thought the game was on the verge of going under, moments when I wondered if it had another six months left in it. That it still remains popular and successful enough to justify annual expansions and to be considering holding fan festivals again is nothing short of astounding.

And yet here we are, celebrating fifteen years with a great in-game event that, yesterday, was drawing enough players to pop additional zones even on my low population server, Skyfire. More about that in another post. Next month (guaranteed to arrive before the 31st of December, according to the pre-order promo) we get the sixteenth expansion, Blood of Luclin. I wouldn't bet against a seventeenth next year. Indeed, I'd bet on it.

Even I can't imagine EQII lasting another fifteen years but perhaps, if we're very lucky, we might see the game hit twenty to match EQ's achievement earlier this year. Fingers crossed for five more years!

(IntPiPoMo count 47)

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Seasons In The Mists : Guild Wars 2

I take a lot of screenshots. I always did and since I've had a blog I've taken even more. In seven and a half years I have accumulated in excess of twelve thousand shots of Guild Wars 2 alone. Almost as many of EverQuest II. Every MMORPG I've played for more than five minutes contributes at least a few hundred to the pile.

I snap anything and everything I might use in a post, often from several angles, but most of those shots never see the outside of a folder on my back-up drive. I see them, though. Some of them, at least. I flick through the stacks, now and again, looking for illustrations for posts or just wallowing in nostalgia. And I always have a screenshot folder set to pull up desktop backgrounds on a ten minute refresh. But I don't remember to change the folder as often as all that. I never see more than a small fraction of the whole.

One reason I welcome IntPiPoMo each autumn is that it always spurs me to dig a bit deeper. I never have to make an effort to hit the fifty picture target because I use more shots than that every month of every year but for once I thought I might dig deeper and come up with one or two pure picture posts. So naturally here I am typing up a storm...

If we're talking words, some of my favorite shots are really just that. In games that have the "speech bubble" function I always have it on. If I say anything I find particularly amusing or perceptive I screenshot myself saying it. I am that solipsistic.

What passes for "amusing" in our house is something of an acquired taste. Mostly it's snark passing between Mrs Bhagpuss and myself, often in character, frequently with spelling and grammar reflecting the juvenile - no, infantile - personalities of... well, I was going to say of our characters but realistically more like those of the people playing them.

Sometimes the in-jokes, fractured phrasing and twee quotient surpass even my ability to parse. Take this cryptic exchange...

 "Sostidges" can mean "sausages" but it can also refer to players from the Sea of Sorrows server. This shot wasn't taken in World vs World, though. It looks like it's from the area in Divinity's Reach where the Queen's Gauntlet holiday event takes place.

"Farrens" refers to an NPC by the name of Lord Faren (note both the mispelling of his name, almost certainly because I associate it strongly with one of my all-time favorite writers, Mick Farren, and the lack of capitalization, which is just my sloppy typing).  As his extraordinarily lengthy and detailed wiki entry attests, Lord Faren has played a significant part in GW2's convoluted storyline but he may be most famous for his speedos.

Mrs Bhagpuss was not impressed but I can't see why we'd have been talking about his legs as sausages. Or maybe I can.

These days we rarely group, so opportunities for recording any banter are few and far between. I don't play much GW2 any more, mostly just dailies. Mrs Bhagpuss plays more than I do but far less than she used to. When we are playing it's usually at diferent times and even when our sessions co-incide we mostly talk in Guild Chat, which doesn't show up in speech bubbles.

Given the erudite and sophisticated nature of our interlocution that's a great loss to posterity.

The word "baddies" has a secondary meaning in video game terminology these days, someone who doesn't know how to play their class, but we use it in the way it would have been employed at the Saturday Morning Pictures, which, of course, neither of us ever attended. My cousin, a few months younger than me, apparently did, so I guess we could have done but I always think of them as something that died out in the 1950s. It seems not.

"Baddies" here appear to be members of one the other teams in WvW. Possibly some sostidges. Mrs Bhagpuss seems to find them quite amusing. She's literally rolling around on the plankworks, helpless with laughter. Another joke lost to The Mists... of time.

World vs World was vibrant back then, around the time of the first Season. We were clearly enjoying ourselves, even if there were some drawbacks to the way the competition had been organized.

The way the event was set up involved some achievements that were considered a grind by many. Use of siege equipment had never been so fraught. ArenaNet changed most of that for the second Season but even so the stress burned many players out. It's the given reason why there have been no more WvW Seasons since. We had a great time, though, and I have the evidence to prove it!

Naturally, this being Yaks Bend, everything played out in a rather particular fashion. The server had a playstyle that made it infamous for several years although few playing today seem to remember. Don't let anyone ever tell you server culture doesn't exist...

I miss those days. We will never see their like again but these shots bring it all back.

WvW in 2019 is a wasteland by comparison. There's a school of thought that believes the coming of mounts to the game mode was the final nail in the coffin and heaven knows I'm as anti-mount as anyone, but maybe we only have ourselves to blame.

This seems to have turned into a nostalgia post about World vs World. I had a whole boatload of snappy snaps sorted, some of them quite possibly a deal more amusing than the ones I've ended up using, but IntPiPoMo has a while to run yet. Plenty of time for those.

Let's finish with a dedication to all those comrades lost forever in The Mists. These are real character names of people I used to run alongside every day. Not seen either of them for years but a screenshot never forgets.

And a shout-out to my all-time favorite Guild... to kill. What could be better for a Charr than Cat Biscuits?

 Just ignore the guy photobombing in the foreground. They only do it for attention.

(IntPiPoMO count for the month so far - 41)

Thursday, November 7, 2019

There Has To Be A Pony: Dragon Nest Mobile

I logged in to Dragon Nest Mobile today and everything was... different.

First there was an update. Then I was asked if I wanted to join a new server. There was no option not to, so I said yes.

The game closed and took me to the Google Play store. I was prompted to download and re-install the client. I did that. Then it patched again.

At this point I was about ready to find my character (who I only made a few weeks back) gone but no, all was well. Well... for a given value of wellness.

Welcome back to somewhere you've never been.
I logged in and found myself somewhere completely unrecognizeable. It did feel familiar, though. It reminded me very strongly of the plaza introduced late-on to City of Steam, about the time that game finally morphed from an MMORPG into a collection of fairground attractions based around a lobby.

Which seems to be pretty much what's happened to Dragon Nest M, only even more so. I spent the best part of an hour following on-screen prompts, opening screen after screen of Rewards, Upgrades, Activities and who-all knows what until I felt positively dizzy.

There has to be a pony. Oh, wait, there is!

There seem to be scores of new ways to upgrade or progress or modify your character. Everything has a star rating or comes with its own currency or requires a jewel or a gem or defaults to its own store. It was like trying to play a dozen games at once, except there was no actual "play" involved, not that I could see.

There was still a 3D space where my character could move around although it was pretty hard to see either her or her surroundings through the astonishing screen clutter. Eventually I stumbled through an opening and found myself back in the old starting area - or an approximation thereof.

Get used to the clutter. If you can.
The new lobby is an extension of the old but where the actual MMORPG has gone beats me. I did manage to find the NPC that used to direct the main story quest, eventually. Maybe it still does (it's a robot, hence the non-gendered pronoun) but it wasn't saying any of the things it usually does and I couldn't find a way to get back to where I left off last time.

I did finally succeed in getting the game to put me into an instance where I could fight mobs for some kind of "quest" but it had nothing to do with anything I've seen in Dragon Nest before. Worse, many of my combat skills seemed to have changed and the way combat worked was significantly altered from how it's been for the many years I've played.

Call that a gun? This is a gun!

It appears I now have a pet duck that fights for me. I can also place turrets. I still have my robot butler to tank and my big gun, albeit a different big gun because I got purple legendary one as a login reward.

One of the windows I opened offered me a "Moniker Promotion". I thought "Moniker" for "Name" went out in the 1950s although a quick google suggests it still has currency. I clicked on the button in front of me and received the said promotion:

What can people have been calling you if "Vagrant" is a step up?

I was offered the chance to specialize, something that took me many, many sessions to achieve in the original game but now seems to happen in minutes. Having done that I was asked if I'd care to add a second specialization to my specialization.

I accepted the offer and got sent into an instance which was too tough to complete, although not by much.  If I'd had time to familiarize myself with my new abilities and the way combat now works I'd probably have succeeded. I don't get the impression the game wants anyone to fail. Not yet, anyway. Have to get them hooked first...

Remember that MMORPG you used to play? Skip it, eh?
Digging through the many, many unfamiliar items in my backpack I found a token that will upgrade my character to Level 120. I didn't use it. I'm confused enough already. Also, I don't actually know what level she is now. Sometimes my character portrait says 16, sometimes 127.

I get the impression the game I used to play has gone somewhere else, probably into a dark corner where it can rock backwards and forwards and whimper. This might be the update that breaks me, too.

Oh, for a Dragon Nest Classic...

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

It'll Squish: World of Warcraft

Perhaps the most interesting news to come out of BlizzCon this year, for me at least, was the full reveal of what's been called the "Level Squish" for World of WarcraftRumor and speculation have been rife for some time concerning Blizzard's desire to cut the amount of levelling needed to reach the cap in WoW but now we have some actual facts about how it's going to work.

The official press release sums it up like this:
"Every Level Is Meaningful: Shadowlands will introduce a new leveling system, meant to provide a meaningful sense of advancement with every level achieved. Current max-level characters will begin Shadowlands at level 50 and work toward the new level cap of 60."
There's a lot more to it than just slashing the number next to your character's name by more than fifty percent. PCGamer explains some more of the detail:
"...when you start a new character they will start at level one in an entirely new zone designed to better showcase what makes World of Warcraft special and fun. Once you're level 10, you can choose an expansion to level through that will take you the entire way from level 10 to level 50. From there you can go onto Shadowlands. Each and every level will also unlock a new ability, talent, or some other upgrade so that each level is meaningful."
That's still only scratching the surface. Massively:OP posted a much more nuanced explanation of what's being proposed, drawn directly from the Shadowlands panel at BlizzCon, complete with screenshots of the PowerPoint presentation. The gist here is that, to quote Justin "Syp" Olivetti, "World of Warcraft’s leveling process will be more like a choose-your-own-adventure than ever before… at least for veteran players and their alts. For brand-new players, however, it’s more of a strict path".

The idea is that players coming fresh to WoW will begin in a brand new zone called "Exile's Reach". They'll stay there until Level 10, whereupon they'll "tackle a mini-dungeon with two bosses, visit their respective capital cities, and then be off to a one-two punch of Battle for Azeroth and Shadowlands for their 10-60 run."

Veteran players rolling alts will have a choice of Exile's Reach or any of the current starting zones. From there, after a trip to their faction's capital, they'll be able to speak to an NPC called "Chromie" to pick an expansion from any of those released before Shadowlands. That character will then be locked into the chosen expansion, which will provide sufficient xp to take them all the way to Level 50, after which it's into the latest content to finish the final ten levels alongside everyone else.

If you really balk at being railroaded this way then fine, Blizz is cool with that. You do you. As Syp puts it, "If you don’t really care about doing a specific expansion, you will have the choice to roam the world and do whatever you like".

Good luck with that, though. XP gain will also be increased (for everyone, whichever leveling path they take) by an estimated sixty or seventy percent. Since current Live rates already make it impossible to see more than a fraction of the content before outlevelling it, after Shadowlands releases Azeroth is going to zip past the windows of your speeding level-train in a blur.

I've been thinking about all of this quite a bit since I first heard about it. My initial reaction was something of a splutter. Really? How is this a good idea? Fix the problem of people not finding leveling engaging or meaningful by making it even less engaging and meaningful?

It seemed that the lesson Blizzard had learned from the enthusiastic take-up of Classic was "people like getting stuff for levelling so let's give them stuff every time they ding and make it so they ding faster so they feel like they're getting even more stuff!". They seemed to have missed the point that the reason people found that process so satisfying was a) because it felt like a pay-off for significant investment of time and effort and b) the new abilities received with each Ding made the characters feel more powerful, more flexible, more capable and more able to handle what came next.

By fast-forwarding the rewards so they come so thick and fast there's no time either to look forward to getting them or appreciate the difference they make to gameplay seems likely to defeat the entire object. It's hardly thrilling to gain the ability to breathe underwater if you never need to go swimming in the first place because none of your main sequence quests require it, for example.

Once the initial shock and outrage had faded, though, I began to come round to the proposed changes, at least somewhat. Playing Classic right now, I am already running into a bit of a wall through the combination of repeated content, lengthy travel and slow xp gain. What feels compulsively entertaining on a first run-through starts to seem less so on a second and third, especially when playing several characters of the same faction, concurrently.

This is largely a function of the retro nature of the Classic experience. Playing an unfamiliar MMORPG, it might take many months, even years, before the content begins to go stale, something that was even more true back in the Golden Age, when the genre itself was less well-understood. But Classic isn't new any more and neither are MMORPGs; that process doesn't take as long.

Retail WoW is already a very different beast from either Classic or the WoW of various periods in the past. And we have Classic, for those who want something approximating the original experience. In the future we might even have Classic servers for all the various Expansions, if the demand exists. Who knows where Blizzard will take the concept over the next decade?

Meanwhile there's the main game. And it is a game now, not a virtual world. The people in charge of WoW's future clearly see it as belonging to a very particular audience: people who want to Raid. Retail WoW has become a conveyor belt to some very specific content and the Level Squish is designed to make that belt move faster and deliver its passengers more smoothly to the endpoint.

Curiously, the specific way they've chosen to do it could have positive implications for players with no interest in raiding. What the new approach to levelling does is split the whole fifteen-year package into separate games, all of which end in raiding. At which point, if you don't like raiding, you might decide you've "won".

I've often suggested that one way to avoid the problems of power creep and content decay that plague every long-lasting MMORPG would be to maintain all the expansions as discrete entities. I imagine a system where characters have to graduate (or, as I'd lay odds it would be called, "Ascend") from one expansion to the next, maintaining continuity and integrity for the individual characters but, for the player, effectively starting over afresh each time.

WoW's new levelling game isn't quite that but it's a stepping stone towards it. Of course, it still points inexorably towards an end-game which, I believe, is of interest to far fewer potential customers than the original open world approach that once saw WoW reach twelve million paying subscribers. I don't believe the Level Squish will return the game to its former commercial success, let alone revive its lost cultural significance.

It might, however, make for an amusing series of vignettes. By focusing entirely on the storyline of each expansion and re-tooling the game so it can be played as a series of narrative-driven video games, each with its own, clear ending, Blizzard can lay WoW to rest as an MMORPG once and for all.

The extended virtual world motif never really suited a company that places far more importance on narrative than the form is able to support. By reverting to a focus on directed gameplay in service of a pre-written story, perhaps Blizzard will be able to take back control of a vehicle that long ago outpaced their ability to steer it in the direction they intended.

Looking back at posts on this blog it's clear I rather enjoyed the tight, disciplined storytelling in starter zones like Kezan and Gilneas. That's the direction WoW has been taking ever since the Vanilla era ended and perhaps it's where they need to go. WoW won't really be an MMORPG any more but maybe it will be a better game because of it.
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