Saturday, July 11, 2020

This Year, Next Year, Sometime, Never: New World

Just over three weeks ago I wrote this about Amazon's New World:

"Closed Beta starts in just over a month. That really doesn't give it much time before the supposed launch date, 25 August. A month, in fact.  Either they're sure it's ready or they don't intend to keep that date at all. Or they've given up all hope.
I guess we'll find out which, soon enough."

Yesterday Amazon posted this on the New World website:

 "...we will be changing our launch date - and correspondingly, our final beta test - to spring 2021."

We found out, all right. Even sooner than we expected.

The reasons given are curious:
"... We want to ensure that the most dedicated players have plenty of middle and endgame experiences as they venture through Aeternum."
Translation: alpha testers told us they got bored because there wasn't anything to do. PvP players make their own entertainment but a PvE game is like a five year old's birthday party. If you don't fill every moment with cake and clowns you're going to have to listen to a lot of crying.

 "We want our players to feel completely immersed in the game..."

Translation: We finally remembered that MMORPGs are supposed to run for years. It's not like making a single-player, where you hoik it out the door, collect the cash and forget about it. Get it wrong and you're lumbered with a white elephant that bleeds money until you have to shut it down, then listen to everyone saying "We told you so".  

"... and know that our studio stands for quality and lasting gameplay you can trust..."

Translation: Someone from the home office dropped by, took us all outside and pointed to the name over the door. Then stared at us, really hard.

"... that means added time to get things where we want them before we fully release. "
Translation: We don't want another Crucible. Actually, no-one wanted the first one. That was kind of the problem. Let's not do that again, hey?

It's easy to be cynical about the whole affair. Giant megacorp with limitless resources thinks normal rules don't apply; finds they do. We all laugh.

Friendly fire enabled.
On the other hand, isn't Amazon doing exactly what we've been begging, demanding games studios do for years? Namely, run real alpha and beta tests, pay attention to the feedback, change things that need to be changed, take as long as it takes to get everything right. Don't just throw stuff out the door and pray.

Even pulling live games back behind closed doors for a rethink and a refit seems like something we, as players and as customers, ought to be encouraging. What's the alternative? Leave a failing game to flounder, hope everyone forgets about it, then close it down when no-one cares any more? Is that better?

I don't know? Is it? There's potentially a very instructive comparison to be made between the way Amazon is handling the development of New World and how Grapeshot (née Wildcard) have handled Atlas

I bet you forgot about Atlas, didn't you? I know I did and I own it. I bought it when it went into Early Access back in December 2018, played it a handful of times, got a few posts out of it and moved on. It's still in "Early Access" now, by the way.

The notion to take another look has flitted through my mind a few times, mainly because the game's still there in my Steam library, its icon on my desktop. And very, very occasionally a news item pops up to remind me it exists. 

I even heard something about the entire game maybe being stopped and restarted, with a full character wipe, or something. I wasn't really paying attention and from the crickets chirping when the announcement was made I guess no-one else was, either.

Are those vultures?
Wildcard may not be Amazon but the claims they made for Atlas in advance of its release were far more hubristic than anything anyone ever said about New World. I seem to recall it was going to be the biggest MMO ever, with 40,000 players on the same server at the same time. Current Steam stats suggest an average closer to one twentieth of that optimistic figure.

I'm really the worst person to be commenting on any of this. I'm way too easily satisfied. You'd think I'd be mad I spent however much it was on a game that turned out to be nothing like the makers promised, one which remains so radically unfinished a year and a half later it apparently needs to be completely remade. 

Only I'm not. I enjoyed the short time I spent in Atlas. It wasn't really my kind of game but it was fun to explore for a while. I felt I got my money's worth in the couple of weeks I spent messing about there. I still own it so I could go and have another run around any time I feel like it. Not going to happen, probably, but it's nice to know I have the option. 

Also, as Wilhelm says, "A company’s promise is an empty and worthless thing". Companies are not your friends. It's always good to remember that, going in. Then you won't be disappointed.

I could say the same about any number of MMORPGs. I realize that, as Amazon say, they're all supposed to provide "lasting gameplay" but that's something of a Catch 22, isn't it? The more games there are that manage to clear that bar, the fewer games we're all going to play. I mean, do we all want to end up in our own equivalent of Project 1999, still deeply satisfied with a game we bought when we were in short pants? Or at least college?

Authenticity? Who needs it?
So, no, I don't really have an issue with how Amazon is handling the development of New World. I can see how it must be becoming quite embarrassing for them but it's good that they're prepared to look a little foolish in the service of getting things right.

No, my problem is with what they appear to be doing to the game itself. As I said last time, I really liked the game I played back in New World's original alpha. The game they showed off in this video doesn't look anything like as much fun.

There's only so much you can glean from a promo, though. You really need a hands-on and despite the launch being pushed into next year, it looks as if I'm going to get one next month. Amazon
"will be providing a special opportunity for our Beta sign-up and pre-order customers (plus our Alpha testers, thank you!) to play the full game of New World - in its current state, for a limited period of time starting on August 25th."
I have a pre-order and a beta sign-up so I'm looking forward to getting my invite.

There'll be some kind of NDA, no doubt, but there are ways and means around that. It'll be nice to have some kind of record of what we could have had to look back on when we get whatever it is we get.

My money's still on the best version being the one I played in the first alpha.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Present, Past And Future

So we finally got the release date! No, not Shadowlands. Who cares about that? I'm talking about something much more exciting!

When I saw the news (on Pitchfork, not Stereogum, which I don't even follow, so I have no idea why I linked to them first) my immediate response was to go to Amazon and pre-order. Assuming they were doing pre-orders, of course.

Which they were. Despite what she was hoping back in December last year, it turns out Lana isn't going to bind all the copies herself and hand-deliver them to local bookshops. That would have been both indisputably magnificent and extremely annoying all at the same time.

Even so, it's not as simple as just ordering a book. Why would it be?

There is a book. A hardback featuring original typescripts and photographs by the author. It won't be available until 29 September but it's coming.

There's also an eBook, naturally. That's available on the same day. Simultaneous publication, I think we used to call it, back when publishers thought things like that mattered.

The end of September feels a long way off, sure, but I'll just have to wait, won't I? It's not like I have a choice.

Except, oh, wait! Yes I do!

At the end of this month, 28 July, Violet Bent Backwards Over The Grass pops into existence as an audiobook, Lana reading her poems over music composed by Jack Antonoff, who collaborated with her to such devestating effect on Norman Fucking Rockwell

That sounds even better than a hardback collection. I love Lana doing spoken word. A whole album of her reading her own work would be sublime. There's absolutely no question. I'm going to buy that...

Only there's yet another option. In fact, two. And on different dates again.

The album, audio-book, call it what you will, comes out in vinyl format on 28 August and on CD on 2 October. Why? I don't fricken know! Why does everything have to be so complicated?

What to do? I had a pre-order for the CD in my Amazon basket before all of this registered, when I thought it was going to be easy. I had to put that on hold, force myself to take a deep breath and think.

I want the book, that's a given. I can't have it until the end of September but I work for a bookshop so as soon as it's available I can get it for half price, always assuming I'm back at work by then and haven't been made redundant. It makes no sense to pre-order it from Amazon at full price only to get it at exactly the same time. I'll just wait and buy it in the shop when it comes in.

I also want the CD. I listen to all my music on my iPod Touch or Kindle but I still like to own the physical object. There's a tactility there that I'm trained to expect and I haven't yet been able to evolve past it.

The CD is the very last version to appear, though. I don't have the self-discipline to wait for that! And I am definitely not buying bloody vinyl just to get my hands on the prize a month sooner. I thought we'd seen the back of that filthy stuff years back and good riddance.

The Audiobook it is, then.

Except the only source for that I can find is Audible. I don't have an Audible subscription and I don't want one. Amazon constantly try to tempt me with free trials and "three months for 99p" offers, all of which I have strongly resisted so far. I am certain I would never find the time to listen to audiobooks so why even start?

Except, this isn't quite an audiobook in the usual sense, is it? It's a spoken word album. A spoken word album by Lana Del Rey. And in that context I definitely will listen to it, and again, and often.

Not to mention that if I take the Audible free 30-day trial I can have "Violet" for nothing. And keep it, even if I cancel the trial and never subscribe.

So, I could start the trial on the 28th of this month, listen to the audiobook as many times as I like, cancel at the end of August and keep it forever, all without paying a penny. That seems like a deal.

Then come September I'll buy the hardback for half price, using my staff discount. I'll put the CD on my wishlist and in November or December, with a bit of a hint here and there, someone will give it me as a present.

That way, I'll get Lana's first poetry collection in three different formats but I'll only pay for half of one.

It doesn't seem right, somehow.

Thursday, July 9, 2020

Take The Cash: EQ, EQII

Back when Sony was running the show, someone there came up with the less-than-stellar idea of holding frequent double Station Cash sales. Towards the end of that age of decadence SOE even threw a few triple SC beanos. For a weekend or even longer you could get two or three times the imaginary money for the same price. There was even an insane moment when you could buy expansions and pay your subscription with it.

I imagine it brought in a useful chunk of revenue at a convenient time for someone. Shifted a few needles on some dials in a direction they needed to go. In terms of the long-term health of the game, though, it was a kind of slow suicide.

The moment the company changed hands that was the end of any such nonsense but the damage had already been done. Even I, who never really bothered much with the cash shop, hadn't been able to resist the lure of seeing dollars go on sale for not much more than thirty cents apiece. What with a few weekends like that plus the dripfeed of five hundred a month that came with the sub, by the time Daybreak took over I already had close to twenty thousand DBC stashed away on each of my two main accounts.

The problem was finding something to spend it on. I'm terrible at buying things in cash shops. They never seem to have anything I want.

Housing was good for an occasional splurge. I bought a couple of Prestige homes. The problem with that was, once I'd bought them I needed to do something with them, and that takes time and effort. Not to mention that I already had more than enough imaginary homes already. I'm not going to be buying any more in a hurry.

I can't remember what else I bought. I know I have a couple of thousand less than I did at the start of the year (I can see the figures in screenshots) but I have no recollection of what I spent the money on.

Whatever it was, it was about time. In recent years I've rarely managed to get through my monthly 500DBC stipend before the next rolled in. I'm guessing that's a common problem because a while ago Daybreak started offering heavily marked-down mercenary and familiar crates as an alternative. I took one, once, but generally I prefer the cash, even if I don't end up using it.

About the only thing I spend DBC on regularly are the scrolls that give any class the ability to track mobs for five hours. Those come in stacks of five for 50DB and as a Member I get a ten per cent discount on that. At 45DB for twenty-five online hours of tracking I rarely get through a single stack in a calendar month so that's not making much of a dent.

When we got the Overseer system earlier this year I finally found something to spend my imaginary money on. Not in EverQuest II, where the feature plugs along perfectly without any intervention from my wallet, but in the original EverQuest, which until that point I wasn't playing any more and which I honestly never expected to play seriously again.

Whereas EQII's Overseer is good for gear, EQ's is fantastic for levelling. I've added ten levels to my Magician since it started, something that would have taken me years if I'd tried to solo it the regular way. Not only have I been logging in every day, in the last week or so I've actually started to go out and kill things again!

To get the best out of the Overseer feature in EQ is a trickier proposition than it is in EQII. Not only is it a deeper mini-game in its own right, requiring closer attention when setting the missions, but the timers it uses are significantly less forgiving.

You're allowed ten missions a day but only five at any one time. All missions run for a multiple of six hours. I've seen six, twelve, twenty-four, thirty-six and forty-eight hour missions so far.

Here I am, jumping on Meldrath's bed. I owe it all to Overseer quests!
The ones that work best for me are the twelve-hours. If I remember to set my first quintet after breakfast I have time to collect the rewards and set the next five before I close my computer down for the evening. If, that is, I don't forget.

But sometimes I do forget. It's half an hour after the time I meant to stop for the evening and I'm logging out of My Time At Portia or Elder Scrolls Online and I suddenly remember I haven't set my Overseer missions in EQ.

On the face of it, that's easily solved. Log in quickly, grab the rewards, take five or ten minutes to get the next set rolling, log off, job done. Except all that does is push the problem into tomorrow.

Next day, when I log in at the usual time, instead of last night's missions sitting there finished, waiting to be cashed out, they'll still have an hour or more to run. I could just wait, but then the next lot won't be ready until later in the evening than I want to be playing. And if I make another mistake and forget again I'll be into some kind of fail cascade I can only fix by skipping a set altogether.

Luckily there's a very simple solution. Daybreak, who love to monetize every possible interaction in the game, much to the chagrin of those players who haven't noticed the world moving on since 1999, have implemented a handy Finish Now! button. Press that and all your time-shifting problems are over.

Yeah, sure. When I first saw that button I assumed the cost would be eye-watering. It certainly is if you want to buy more Agents to send on Missions, which seem to be priced to catch whales. Dim whales at that, since you get more Agents for free in game than you're ever going to be able to use. It costs nothing to look, though, so I pressed it and prepared to be outraged.

I know there are people who can work themslves into a state of righteous hysteria over a misplaced apostrophe in a pizza delivery flyer but I challenge anyone to get up a head of steam over this one. To complete a twelve-hour mission that has an hour or so left to run costs around four Daybreak coins. It varies a little according to the quality of the mission. I think I payed as much as seven, once.

The current rate of exchange, at its least favorable, is one cent to one DB. Four cents definitely counts as a genuine microtransaction in my book. Most of my missions are the regular sort so for my monthly 500DB I could clear over a hundred mistimed quests. If I messed up my timing that often I'd deserve to pay a penalty charge.

As I've mentioned before, despite having a perfectly good All Access subscription, in good standing and fully paid in advance for a year, on which I play EQII, I'm not playing EverQuest on it. Don't ask. It's too tedious to explain.

That might be an issue - or at least it might mean spending a little real-life money - if it wasn't for the situation I outlined at the start of the post. This account, the one I'm using for EQ, is Silver (grandfathered-in slightly better than F2P) but it used to be my main account, back when SOE was in charge (Hah! Irony! "In charge"!). My pockets there are stuffed with barrel-loads of double and triple sale SC from when that was a thing, not to mention all the years of unused monthly pocket-money.

At time of writing I have fifteen thousand two hundred and twenty DB on that account. I think I've spent a few  hundred correcting timers since this whole thing started. Some days I did shift more than just the odd hour. I seem to remember paying about 24DB one time. Crazy, I know!

My magician is Level 103 now. She makes about 10% of a level most days. A lot more when there's a server bonus like last weekend. I fully expect her to hit the current level cap before the end of the year, provided I remain sufficiently interested in getting there. At the rate I'm going I'd have enough Daybreak cash to last me more than a year and a half, even if I messed up my timing every single day.

Since I have no intention of levelling any other characters the same way, that's way more than I need. I would seem to be well set. And in practice I make my timers most days, anyway. I probably only buy my way out of trouble a couple of times a week.

Looks like I'm going to have find something else to spend my imaginary money on.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Summer Forever: GW2

Unless I missed a memo, we still don't know who's in charge at ArenaNet. Let me re-phrase that: we know someone called John Taylor is "the (top) game director at ArenaNet" according to Massively OP, but we have no clue who he is or what his plans are, since he doesn't seem to want to talk to anyone.

ANet's P.R. department has been doing a pretty fair job of whipping up interest in the ageing game without his help. More importantly from a players' perspective, Guild Wars 2 has improved quite noticeably during his elusive tenure. I guess that's a lot better than making big promises and breaking them. Long may he keep his counsel.

Yesterday we got a suggestion of what the game can expect over the summer - or "Q3" as whoever designed the graphic unromantically chose to call it. That does smack a little of someone's draft being sent to press by mistake but maybe it's supposed to come across all businesslike.

There are five events for us to look forward to over the next three months. That should impress those who only, or mainly, play GW2. It's certainly an improvement on some previous Tyrian summers. It looks a little thin to me but as an EverQuest II player I'm probably spoiled. 

Sitting in judgment.

Icebrood Saga Episode 4.

Due towards the end of this month. I've heard mention of the twenty-fifth.

Based on the first three episodes (and the prelude) I'm cautiously optimistic. I confess I can't really see any substantive difference between the "Saga" format and the previous "Living World" or whatever we were calling it back then, but I can very definitely perceive a difference in quality.

All of the episodes so far have been enjoyable. The story, although it has its peculiarities, has almost made sense and the gameplay has been a major improvement. Whoever is calling the shots seems to have finally worked out who the core audience for the story-driven part of the game is and at least tried to tailor the difficulty accordingly.

If ANet ever decide to add real housing this Drizzlewood lighthouse would make a great Prestige home.
 The last episode added a new map that attempts to merge World vs World gameplay with PvE content and makes a pretty fair job of it. Unlike most of the new maps we saw in the previous season, most of which I never explored fully even once, I've been back to Drizzlewood Coast several times. Mrs Bhagpuss even gave the meta a few runs, which I don't think she's done in any new map for years.

This new episode is also coming to us in very good time. There'll be exactly two months between it and the last one. The upcoming, as yet unnamed episode, like the previous "No Quarter", will be text-only thanks to the continuing impact of the pandemic. I wonder if the absence of voice acting is responsible for the fast turnaround?

Festival of Four Winds.

Since their welcome, if unexpected, return from holiday limbo in 2018, the Zephyrite celebrations seem to be slipping deeper into the summer, year by year. This time around, the festival slides out of July altogether, not turning up until "the first half of August".

I loved this event the first time, back in 2014, when it appeared as a one-off episode of the Living Whatever.  When it encored four years later it came slightly reduced but also melded with another much-missed carnival, Queen Jennah's tournament in the Crown Pavilion. The combination feels like a somewhat random two-for-one offer in which the very different celebrations sit a little uncomfortably beside each other.

There's plenty of entertainment to be had all the same, with the endless fights in the Pavilion offering some good drop-in boss-bashing, provided you can grab onto the tails of a competent tag. After multiple rounds in the Hoelbrak Hologram arena during Dragon Bash these last couple of weeks I can't say the thought of fighting Jennah's champions fills me with excitement but maybe the "new rewards" we're promised will change that when August comes.

GW2's Eighth Anniversary

Has it been that long? Easily. It feels longer. I find it quite hard to remember a time when I didn't play Guild Wars 2. I've logged in just about every day since early access in 2012.

I'm looking forward to getting my present on the 25th. No doubt the contents will go in the bank with the previous seven years of freebies. I have seventeen characters on three accounts and they all have birthdays and they all get exactly the same gifts. There are only so many minis of Queen Jennah you can find a use for (the precise number being zero in my case).

New hat, new coat, new dyes.
Just this month, I started to think about opening some of the dozens, scores, of anniversary and other gift boxes that clog up the bank on my main account. I've bought all the vault expansions ANet are willing to sell me so the only choices left are to buy another character slot to make a bank mule (never works, I always end up playing them) or clearing some of the last eight years' worth to make space for more years to come.

I did open some dye boxes recently. I rarely bother because I change my characters' looks so rarely and anyway I have signature colors for everyone I play regularly. At least dyes are consumables so when you open them they disappear. The reason half the boxes in my banks are there in the first place is that I know if I open them what pops out will take up even more slots because it won't stack. It's Tyrian Catch 22.

New Mount Ability

Although the infographic pulls it out as a separate event, the text of the press release reveals the new mount ability is also one of the birthday treats. "One of your mounts is harboring an undiscovered talent" apparently, which I have to say sounds more like a threat than a promise.

Many open world events are now all but inaccessible to players without mounts. This one's barely manageble with them.

Unless one of the misbegotten beasts has learned to manoeuvre without wallowing like a tramp steamer in a Force Ten gale, I'm really not interested. Mounts are, at best, an annoyingly necessary evil but mostly a bloody nuisance. They frequently ruin what would otherwise be enjoyable aspects of the game, the current Hologram Stampedes being a case in point.

New Fractal

Last on the list, something else that doesn't interest me in the least: a new fractal. Fractals are a part of the game I've successfully managed to avoid so far and long may that continue. It's considerably more likely that I'll engage with new Strike Missions than with fractals, although I don't plan on making a habit of that, either.

I'll take a Strike Mission over a Fractal.

Still, it's a big game with lots of variety and fractals have their constituency. I'm sure there are plenty of people who'll be happy to have somewhere new to do whatever it is they do in there.

All in all it looks like a reasonable timetable for the summer months. I've had GW2 firmly on the back burner for quite a while now. I can't imagine a real flare-up of interest this side of the proposed third expansion and that won't be with us until after next summer, I'm sure, but for now this should keep things simmering away quite nicely.

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Defiant Pose : TSW

I kind of tired myself out, writing the last two lengthy EverQuest posts, which is why I skipped a day yesterday. I have several ideas for posts in mind but they all involve a lot of writing, possibly some research. Not sure I have the energy for that right now.

God put the sun there just for me.
Still, I don't want to get in the habit of skipping days. I was casting about for something short and succinct, when I thought of a post Mailvaltar put up about clothes and stats in The Secret World. By co-incidence, I recently swapped my desktop background to pull images from my folder of Secret World Legends screenshots, which reminded me just how great that game looks and how much I love my character there, as well as her fore-runner in its still-extant but almost forgotten predecessor.

Ripped jeans and mirror shades. My Sunday-go-to-church look.
Unusually, I really I only have the one character in each version of the game. I have tried to make others, not least so I could experience the world from the viewpoint of al three factions but it just didn't work. When SWL replaced TSW I remade my character as closely as the new options allowed.

What have I got in my hand? You'll never know.
As I've mentioned many times, I'm not in the habit of making characters in games that represent my self-image, at least not physically. Not in the way that, for example, Belghast would. I do create characters to stand in for certain personality traits I perceive myself as having or which I would like to believe I have, but I no more look like one of my Asuras or Ratongas than I ressemble a random toy plucked from the playbox.

Although playing TSW was Mrs. Bhagpus's idea in the first place, she never took to either the mechanics or the setting. I felt her character always looked a little uncomfortable.
The Secret World is very different. It's one of the very few MMORPGs I've played where I found a character that looked like me staring out of the screen at creation. If I was a few decades younger and female, that is.

I've got an itch.
We all probably carry some core identity inside us that remains broadly unchanged as we age. It would be precocious, precious even, to claim this was mine, what with me being a cisgender male, but where some of my other characters feel like me, my Secret World character looks like me, too. The me I might have been, anyway.

This is exactly how I would sit in real life. Cross-legged and on a roof.

It's not something that would have found expression in the kinds of video games I normally play. The heroic archetypes of traditional fantasy settings don't really lend themselves to any look I'd choose. Even futuristic worlds don't seem to provide the right templates. It requires something more contemporary. If I wasn't concerned about showing my age I'd say something more rock'n'roll.

"Inappropriate footwear"? Come here and say that!

As I said in a comment to Mailvaltar, "Clothing in TSW is just better-looking than any other game I’ve played and, extremely importantly and unusually, individual pieces fit better with other individual pieces than pretty much any other game." This is really significant. In most games I've played, if you want to put a look together that works you need to source most of the pieces from some kind of pre-designed set. It's restrictive and formulaic. (Ironically, TSW has those, too, and they're almost universally bad).

What did you say? Sorry, I had a crick in my neck.
Very skilled players can always circumvent those restrictions, go around them to find combinations that work. Mrs. Bhagpuss is brilliant at it. I'm not.

Are you following me, cat?
In The Secret World and its successor, the designers have done the prep for you. Very little you can wear clips or clashes or conflicts. Not everything you throw on is going to look good with everything else you're wearing but it will almost always look like that's because you don't know how to dress yourself, not because the clothes you've chosen conform to the physics of some alien dimension.

Excuse me, have any of you Jawas seen my droid?

The choice is amazing, too. As far as it goes. As Mailvaltar says, it's a great shame Funcom didn't choose to double down on what has to be one of the great strengths of their game and fill the cash shop with a torrent of new season designs every couple of months. Guild Wars 2, whose clothing options aren't even a pale shadow of TSW's, has been making bank on that for close to a decade now.

Well, if he didn't want to be stared at...

The clothes aren't the only reason I find my character so personally connectable and convincing in The Secret World. There's something about the way the characters inhabit their environment. It's naturalistic in a way that's subtle and unforced. They have body language that connects to some level of my understanding in a more nuanced manner than most games.

Yes, officer. I can walk in a straight line. I'll prove it to you now.

When I look at my character and at those of the players around me, it's not that they look normal or familiar or weird and outré. It's rather that they exude a heightened sense of reality. Everyone seems to be cooly conscious both of how they look and of how others see them. Every character seems to be the star of their own, private show.

It was this big. And it had wings...
 The game's camera colludes with the characters' self-awareness. I'm not sure I can think of another game where posing for screenshots seems so effortless, so inevitable. I have hundreds of shots with my character stage center, perfectly poised, holding the eye. These are the kind of poses I strive and struggle to strike in every game, often with sparse success, but in TSW everything seems to fall instantly into place.

The character animations, particularly the idling gestures and movements, are exceptionally rewarding in still photographs. Many of the shots look as though I'd triggered a specific emote to get the mood just right but no, it's not that. My character just knows the right moves. Also, I swear the at rest action stance is modelled on that iconic photograph of Patty Hearst.

One of the first songs I ever wrote was about Patty Hearst.
Anyway, I said I wanted to keep this short and I've already run on longer than I intended. The pictures tell the story.

I really ought to revisit The Secret World, too. The real one. I miss my true self.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

Tested By Research: EverQuest

Storage space. It's always been an issue in EverQuest, hasn't it? Not so much in your bank. These days vault space is positively generous. On your character. That's where it's a problem.

Remember all those stories from the early days? Enterprising low-levels hanging around the entrances to dungeons, offering to carry your loot back to town and sell it, for a fee? That really happened. Small bags filled up fast with stuff that didn't stack. Going to a vendor took too big a chunk out of the time you had to hunt. Worse, if you were the healer or the tank, everyone else had to stop until you got back.

Over the years things haven't got much better. Oh, there's more loot that stacks now, for sure, but plenty still that doesn't. And quest items and crafting mats, they must have grown by orders of magnitude. EQ's industry-standard loot window makes deciding what to pick up and what to leave so much easier but the old problem still remains. Those bags just fill so fast.

It's why one of the key features of every Collector's Edition these days is a capacious 100% weight reduction bag. Forty slots seems to be the current gold standard. You can buy them in the cash shop, too., although they're not cheap and there are restrictions on how many you can have.

I've never really made much of an effort to upgrade my inventory in EverQuest. Mostly I just buy the cheap ten-slot tinker's toolkits, the so-called Deluxe Toolbox, but last time I took a serious run at leveling my Magician I did try to do something to avoid that endless series of Sophie's choices between making xp or making money.

The mage was already off to a flying start with the two twenty-four slot Heroic Satchels of the Adventurer that came with the free boost to 85 she got when Heroic Characters were added to the game. I'd also invested in a couple of gigantic, player-made thirty-two slot Extraplanar Trade Satchels for her. There's always someone selling those in the Bazaar for a very reasonable price. Even though they only hold items flagged "tradeskill", there are a lot of those and some of them sell for plenty, so I like to scoop them all up as I go.

There's more in there than just the bags but face it, that's what you're paying for.

The rest of her bag slots were filled with a variety of ten-slot containers and one twelve-slotter. In total she had one hundred and seventy-four inventory slots - and they were all full. Time to do something about it.

Except, of course, in EverQuest you can't just do something as simple as buy bigger bags.

Well, okay, fine. That's exactly what you can do, if you have the money. But bags, as I've already suggested, don't come cheap, either in or out of game. And even if you have the money and are willing to spend it, it's still not that simple. Really. Nothing in Norrath ever is.

I looked at the Bazaar to see what was on offer. Various crafters can make bags of diferent sizes and there were plenty up for sale. Bottom of the line, a few 12-slots at around 4k plat. My price range but a couple of extra slots here and there weren't going to make much difference.

Then there were the tailormade expandable bags. Those were all twelve slots too but you could make them biger, somehow. I vaguely remembered it from the last time, when I decided it was all too complicated to be bothering with.

How it works is this: a tailor with very high skill makes a bag that has twelve slots. There are a whole bunch of them with fancy names - Legendary, Supreme, Flawless, Transcendent - but they all have just the twelve slots. These bags are both tradeable and expandable. Anyone, regardless of crafting skill, can buy one and combine it with a vendor-sold reagent to create a No Trade 14, 16, 18 or 20 slot bag.

This will make sense later. Maybe.
Yes, it's already sounding complicated but there's more. When I said anyone could do the combine I should have said "anyone who's bought and read the correct book on how to do it". Or scribed the necessary recipe, if you prefer to be less lore about it.

I must have spent at least an hour researching how to do it. Not nearly long enough, as it turned out. First I read a couple of guides on the general principles, Fanra's being the clearest of them. Then I had to investigate the source of all the necessary books and reagents, most of which seemed to have been introduced at different times and in different expansions.

There didn't seem to be much point buying the smaller bags. The reagent seemed to be the same for all of them. Someone was selling the Transcendent, which expands to twenty slots, for 10,500 plat each, while the rest were between six and eight thousand. Anything but the biggest seemed like a false economy.

Naturally, by the time I'd decided on the biggest bag, the person selling it for ten and a half grand had logged off, so I ended up paying twelve thousand instead. By this time I'd also realized I had an unexpanded Supreme bag in my inventory already. That goes to sixteen slots. The reagents cost more than two thousand five hundred platinum each so I was already getting close to twenty grand for two bags. I only had around 90k in total, earned over several years, and I had spells to buy, too. Two bags it was, at least for now.

Buying the reagent was easy. A vendor in Plane of Knowledge sold that one. One of the recipe books was on another vendor nearby but according to a couple of guides I'd read, for the other I'd need to go to somewhere called Shards Landing. I'd never even heard of it but some further research sugested I could get there by way of the Befallen dungeon in the Commonlands. At least I knew where that was.

Looking back, I think I was lulled into a false sense of security by the familiar names, the very low-level entry point and the knowledge that the vendor I was looking for was in the service hub of some expansion or other. The due diligence I failed to apply was which expansion, what level cap and whether the overland/underground route I was proposing to take had been the normal entry point at the time.

Had I taken the trouble to read it up, I would have discovered that Shard's Landing was introduced as part of the Rain of Fear expansion in 2012, when the level cap was raised to one hundred. It's a zone intended for levels 95 to 97. More significantly, the zone through which I meant to travel to get there, the Chapterhouse of the Fallen, was a dungeon, recommended for characters at level 100. By which, of course, they meant groups.

That looks new. Let's poke it and see what happens.
I got to Befallen and saw a great, blue stone outside the entrance. You could hardly miss it but I'd never seen it before, which strongly suggests it's been more than eight years since I last visited Befallen on a Live server. I've been there plenty of times on various Progression and TLE servers, as well as Tipa's recreation of the dungeon in Neverwinter, but evidently it's been nearly a decade since I last visited the original.

I clicked on the crystal because who wouldn't? In I zoned. It was dark. Very dark. I was so taken with just how dark it was, I stopped to take a selfie, because I have a post brewing about how infuriating dark zones are and how developers seem to be in love with them in a way I'm convinced players are not.

I took a few steps down the first corridor and spotted a couple of undead mobs of some description barrelling towards me. I just had time to con them and see they were dark blue (dark blue for danger is the motto these days) before I found myself flat on my back, dead.

It was at this point I remembered I'd suspended my cleric mercenary a couple of hours back so she wouldn't keep charging me money just for standing around. Not that I think she could have done much to keep me up but at least I might have got a rez , assuming they didn't kill her, too.

All my lovely raid buffs, gone, along with my pet and his buffs, his weapons and his armor. Once, that would have been a blow but these days it's just a matter of letting the game idle in the background while I play something else until the sleet of MGBs fills it all back up again. As for the lost xp, its just a case of paying an NPC in the Guild Lobby to summon my corpse and wait for my Merc to give me a 90% rez. One Overseer quest is going to replace that tenfold.

The lost time, though, that you never get back. Also, at 101 a summoning stone now costs over a thousand plat. Dying may not be the shock of ice water it once was but it's still something you very much want to avoid if at all possible. And that was an extremely avoidable death.

Seriously, does anyone enjoy playing in the dark?
Chastened, needing to wait to let my buffs build back up, I turned to more research. And guess what? It turns out that if I'd been paying attention I'd not only have realized the route I was planning was a suicide run but I'd have found out I didn't need to go to Shard's Landing at all!

The bloody vendor who sold me the first recipe book also sells the other one! It was there in front of me if I'd only scrolled down. And I only found that out after another unecessary, if unfatal, side-trip to the housing district, Sunset Hills, where I mistakenly thought yet another vendor might be able to hook me up. He did have a bag-expanding recipe book, just not the one I wanted. I bought it anyway. Might as well cover all the options.

Eventually I had everything I needed: the unexpanded bags, the reagents and the scribed recipes. I turned to the loom, standing handily beside the vendor, and made the first combo. It worked! Twenty slot bag!

I swapped some stuff around to empty the other unexpanded bag. I searched for the recipe, hit "Combine" and... it didn't work! No sixteen slot bag! Why? No idea. I checked everything, all the names. Just as it should be. The reagent was outlined in green, showing it was right, but the bag itself was rimmed in red, meaning it wasn't. Why? I don't frickin' know!

At this point I could have done some more research. Or I could have asked in game. People love to show how clever they are. If I'd made and obvious error someone would have been delighted to point it out to me. Instead, I noticed the loom has an "Experiment" option. It lets you put any combination of items inside and see if they make something. In the old days, if they didn't, everything you had in there would be destroyed but they'd changed that long ago. Or I hoped they had.

Clearly having learned nothing from my trip to the Chapterhouse, I manually moved the reagent and the bag into the loom and pressed Combine again, because why prep? And this time it worked. Why? No more idea than before. Don't know and, quite frankly, don't care. Sixteen slot bag, baby!

They look so lovely, empty.
So now I had eighteen more slots than I started with but I knew I could do better. In the course of my research I'd spotted that one of the options available on the loyalty vendor is a sixteen slot box.

The loyalty system is yet another thing I've never really paid much attention to in EQ. Like everything else in the game it's unfeasibly complex and confusing and I could probably fill a whole post trying to explain how it works it but for the time being let's just say I've accrued a lot of tokens and never spent any of them.

The box is about the most expensive thing on the vendor and normally I'd balk at blowing such a big chunk of my resources on something as basic as a bag that only gives me an extra four slots above what I already have, but...

The thing I never knew about the Loyalty system is, you keep getting get tokens even when you're free to play.And you get more tokens than F2P players if you're account is flagged "Silver", meaning you paid your five dollars for the upgrade, back when that was an option, which I did. So I've been building up my tokens all this time even though I didn't know it.

Except, I haven't, because the other thing I never knew about the loyalty system is that there's a cap! You can't have more than 5760 tokens no matter what your account status might be. And guess how many I had? Well, actually I had 5772. I don't know how that happened.

Never mind how! Now I have a new sixteen slot box and 4044 loyalty tokens. That'll teach me not to pay attention to the small print. I probably ought to log in all the other accounts and check those, now I come to think of it. It's like a license to spend money!

In game, they expand perfectly. On the blog, not so much.
Last of all, I went out to finish up a very long quest I had in my journal. I must have started it five years ago, when it was level-appropriate solo content and hard work but after the magician's recent growth spurt it looked like a nice, relaxing toddle to the end of the session. The final reward was a twelve-slot bag. Not much of an upgrade but twelve has always been bigger then ten.

Another half-hour and there I was, two dozen inventory slots better off than when I began. It had only taken me most of the day and cost me about twenty thousand plat.

I was in the groove, though, so I figured I might as well carry on and get the new level 101 Air pet spell, seeing as how my old one had snuffed it, along with all the buffs I'd gotten him.

I'll spare us all the painful details of how I paid for a teleport stone to the wrong Katta Castellum and spent twenty minutes running around the zone, looking for a spell vendor who wasn't there. Or the time I wasted sailing the wrong way on the wrong boat through Buried Sea, trying to find the Tempest Temple, and how eventually I had to swim there. No one died and its all a bit embarassing and we've all done it, haven't we? Let's move on...

It was around eight in the evening when I swapped over to Guild Wars 2 to do my dailies, leaving magician, new pet and merc to soak up buffage in the background. EQ plays very nicely in a closed window. You can leave it up all day and scarcely know it was there.

I'd been playing for about eight hours, on and off, all day really, mostly reading stuff and running about, the longest EQ session I can remember. It was great! I had a fantastic time. Can't wait to do it again, only this time I'm going to go somewhere very easy and make some fast money. I know some spots where the mobs carry high-value gems and my new pet will all but one-shot them.

I'll have that 30k I spent back in no time if everything goes to plan. And if there's one thing I know about EverQuest, it's that everything always goes exactly to plan...

Saturday, July 4, 2020

Nothing To Fear: EverQuest

Today I played EverQuest almost the whole day. I logged in around ten in the morning to collect and set my Overseer quests as usual and then I thought about the bonus xp and how it's only going to be around for a little while and how if I went somewhere easy, somewhere I knew, a Hot Zone ten levels below me, say, and I popped my Lesson, I could just do half an hour and maybe make another five per cent. What could go wrong?

Eight hours later I'd been to half a dozen zones I'd never seen before, died once, spent about a quarter of my money and made less than two per cent of level 101. I'd been on an adventure. God knows it's about time.

After a false start, about which the less said the better, I took the level 90 daily task from Franklin Teek. I already had the 80 and the 85 but they're all but worthless to me now.

Teek wanted me to kill five Samhains in Fear Itself. I had no idea what they were or where that was. I had a vague feeling it must be somewhere in the House of Thule expansion but that was about it. EQ's in-game map has a pathfinding function that will set a route between any two zones but what it comes up with isn't always the most sensible, let alone the safest, so off to Google DuckDuckGo I went to look it up.

As I suspected , Fear Itself is some way on from the only zone I really know in that expansion, Feerrott: The Dream. You can use the Oggok stone in Plane of Knowledge to get to The Dream, then you cross that zone to the gates of the House of Thule itself. Once inside, you head for the Upper Floors and, finally, into to Fear Itself.

By EQ standards it's straightforward. A simple, four-zone trip. Also bloody terrifying, especially the bit where you have to go down a series of long, dark corridors filled with scores of writhing snakes and spiders, not to mention demons from hell. I'd love to show you my screenshots of that part but I was too petrified to take any.

The journey took me an hour or so. I haven't played my Magician for months, not in any meaningful sense, so I thought I ought to warm up on some easy stuff along the way. Most of the mobs in The Dream conned green, which seemed perfect for getting back into the swing of things.

Just as well I didn't go for anything more ambitious. My pulling and positioning skills were horrifically rusty. The little snakes were simple enough but it wasn't long before I had more lizardmen than I know what to do with. Literally.

As I dithered and tried to remember which spell icon was which, my uber-buffed air elemental and healer mercenary handled everything beautifully. A couple more very bad pulls and I had myself sorted out enough to give them the dps support they didn't exactly seem to need.

Near the zone line into the House I happened on Patches, a named that might have been a dog, once. He conned light blue, which is supposed to be standard fodder for soloists these days. I thought he'd make a good test so I pulled him and down he went, along with an add or two because I still hadn't remembered you're supposed to pull mobs to a safe spot.

Emboldened by that I found the entry point and zoned into House of Thule, Lower Floors. And to my surprise I recognized it. My magician hadn't been there before but I had. I took my necromancer there on the Test server last year for some reason I can't recall. I think I was trying out the entry area, known, I believe, as "The Garden", to see if it would be a good hunting ground for the Mage, on the assumption that if it wasn't it wouldn't much matter if a character I never play any more got herself killed.

Five levels ago it would have been ideal. Then, everything would have been light blue and the xp would have been worth having. At 101, though, most of the snakes and dogs were green and even the repeatable quest experience for culling them didn't add up to much.

They were more good practice, though, and even better were the light blue named mobs I kept finding. I can't remember bumping into so many nameds in such short order and close proximity. I killed a named spider, then a snake, then a dog, all outside in the garden. After that I felt properly warmed up, so I pushed on into the house itself, where I killed a named suit of armor called Old Rusty. You and me both, pal.

I'd read up the next bit, which was just as well, because that's where it started to get scary. I had permanent invisibility on and the mobs were still conning green but once I climbed the stairs and zoned into the Upper Floors things became extremely claustrophobic.

I conned everything as it loomed out of the darkness in case it could see me. Nothing did. I ran through the snake pit and down the spider tunnel feeling grateful not to be overly phobic about such things. The room filled with flaming demons almost came as a relief. At least with all that fire I could see where I was going, for once.

The end of the corridor brought me into a room in the center of which was a statue of the god of fear, Cazic Thule, lying dead on a slab. At least I hope it was a statue. Once again I was forewarned by my research, which advised against clicking on him. I don't know what happens if you do and I'd like to keep it that way.

I stepped over him, wondering where the zone line might be and discovered I was standing on it. In a moment I found myself in Fear Itself. Which turned out to be perfect!

The mobs I could see were all light blue. I was at the edge of the zone with a great pull spot next to me, through which nothing seemed to path. As is common with newer expansions (by which I mean ones from the last decade or so) there was someone right at the entrance waiting to give me quests. I took those and set up to kill.

Being a Hot Zone and the mobs being light blue, the xp was much better, even though the fights were still easy enough. I got adds and handled them safely. I saw a named, pulled it and killed it without much risk. Another named wandered up in the middle of the next fight and we killed that one, too.

I'd have settled in for a session only, of course, my bags were full. Aren't they always? I spent a few minutes going through them, trying to make space, but there was nowhere to sell or bank and I didn't even know what most of the stuff I was carrying was for, so I couldn't just throw it away.

It was frustrating, having taken all that effort to get there and then having to leave when I'd just got started. In the old days, being a caster, I'd just have bound myself there, so I could skip the journey back, but it's been years since I've been able to bind anywhere remotely as useful as next to a hunting spot.

Still, I thought I'd give it a try. You never know. It's only mana, after all. I cast Bind Affinity on myself.

I didn't get the usual "You can't bind here, find a city" error message. Had it worked? I wasn't sure. It's been so long I couldn't remember how it was supposed to go. Simple enough to test. I ran a hundred yards or so along the ridge, cast Gate and instantly reappeared back where I'd started. It had worked!

I was exultant. These days there are multiple ways to get home, which makes it all the more galling when you can't bind where you'd like, out in the field. I cast the AA Throne of Heroes and I was back in the Guild Lobby.

Now I had an invisible elastic band stretched between my hunting spot and my resting place, somewhere buffs don't fade and kind players constantly refresh them and there's a bank and a vendor to clear your bags. Things couldn't be better!

So, did I spend the rest of the day flicking back and forth between the two, racking up the xp and the loot? Well... not exactly. It occured to me life would be even sweeter if only I had some bigger bags. All I needed to do was buy some before I gated back.

I mean, how hard could that be?

Friday, July 3, 2020

So Stick Around : Neverwinter

Time was when games didn't care whether you came or went. If you were foolish enough to let your subscription lapse they'd make you jump through a few hoops before letting you back in and you'd feel lucky your characters were still there. If they were.

Not any more. Not for a long time. There's a farmer somewhere making a killing on fatted calves.

Even by modern standards, Cryptic's welcome mat is primped. Log in after a layoff, there's your name in lights. And "Neverwinter rejoices at your return!"

Yeah, right. Sure it does. Just give me the stuff. You know that's why I came.

It's not even been that long since I last played. The logon screen handily displays the last played date for every character. My last visit was back in March. It may have only been three months or so but I've already forgotten just about everything about the game. These things don't stick.

Doesn't matter. I didn't come to play. I came to claim those valuables. Didn't I just say so? Cryptic's twentieth is the celebration, apparently. I would have missed it only I saw Shintar flag up the freebies a few days back. I didn't want to miss out.

This is what you get:

There are similar offers in Star Trek Online and Champions Online. I could grab those too but even I balk at reinstalling a game just to get free stuff. Although I may still have STO, somewhere, even if it has to be more than five years since I last logged in. As for Champions, I did play once, very briefly, a long time ago, but it's never going to happen again.

It wasn't any of the listed goodies that got me logging in to Neverwinter again, anyway. It was something Shintar mentioned about bag space. She wrote "I was pleased to find... that my character's default bag had been increased by 12 slots". I'm all about the bag space, as is well known.

Only I couldn't find any bigger bags or bag expanders waiting for me. There's nothing listed on the claim screen and reading Shintar's comments carefully I realize she never said there would be. Looking at the wiki, it says the default bag, the Adventurer's Satchel, has 30 slots. My Warlock's has 42 and more than thirty of them already had stuff in when I looked. I guess she already got the upgrade.

I claimed the beholder pet and popped him out. He looked pretty good. I pawed through the various goodie bags. The free outfit looked spiffy so I thought I'd put it on.

The gear came in a Platinum Adornments Fashion Box. For some reason I had two of them. I opened one and looked for my new dress, hat and pants. Nothing. I checked everything in case they were in yet another box. Nope.

I checked all the tabs. Nada.

There's some sort of appearance system in Neverwinter. I vaguely remember it. I found the tab for that and clicked everything in there. No luck.

Well, I had another Fashion Box. I checked what was in it to be sure it was the same. It was. I double-clicked it, this time with my bags open so I could see where anything went. Nothing went anywhere except the Fashion Box, which vanished. Nothing took its place.

The gear's gone somewhere, I bet. I just don't happen to know where it is. Oh well, never mind. Easy come...

At this point I could have logged out. I'd achieved or failed to achieve everything I came for, after all. Only I didn't. I started fiddling about in my bags, opening this and that to see what was in it. For once I had plenty of bag space so it seemed like a good time to try. Although where I got that Greater Bag of Holding from I have no idea...

I spent a good while comparing insignia then working out how to apply them. I found a couple of upgrades sitting in my bags and put them on. After that it felt churlish not to go try them out.

I ended up doing two levels. XP seems to come fast in Neverwinter, not least because one of the insignia I slotted is a 62% xp buff. Also, because Neverwinter is fun. It really is.

Comparing Neverwinter to Elder Scrolls Online, from my perspective gameplay feels really similar. Upgrading is arcane but questing and combat are simplicity itself. All I do in both is click on an NPC and read some dialog while an actor reads it out loud. Then I follow a directional prompt across the map to an objective.

When I get there I hold down LMB until enough mobs die and/or I've picked up enough quest items. Occasionally RMB. If things look rough I hammer some number keys or Q, R or Tab, depending on game, all pretty much at random. That always does the trick.

Then I follow another prompt back, read and listen some more, get the goodies. Rinse and as they say repeat, ad infinitum.

The difference is in the entertainment value. ESO's quests, the ones I've seen, are dour, dull and tedious. Neverwinter's are sparky, sharp and frequently funny. The dialog is better-written, more naturalistic, with a lighter, defter touch and a more immediately engaging prose style. The voicework is livelier and lighter, more enthusiastic, more playful.

The atmosphere rings with adventure, excitement and intrigue. The action, the plots, they're much the same - evil cults, wicked necromancers, imminent threats -  but everything feels more Indiana Jones, less Apocalypse Now.

Every time I play Neverwinter I have fun. I don't know why I keep forgetting to log in. I expect I'll get a few more levels, miss a day or two, drift away once more. But I'll drift back.

And I'll always be sure of a warm welcome when I do.
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