Friday, January 24, 2020

New World Coming

Earlier this week, Amazon announced that their upcoming MMO, New World, will no longer feature free for all player versus player combat. FFA PvP for short.

Stripped of the unmelodious jargon of the genre, this means players who don't choose to fight other players don't have to. It also means players who do want to fight other players will have to wait until they meet someone of like mind before getting down to it.

Self-evidently, this is a decision with winners and losers. Pacifists win. Aggressors lose. The reverse of the most probable outcome, should an actual fight ensue.

Hey! Say! JUMP Brand New World (Karaoke version)

It's also a radical re-envisioning of the game, from one where "You'll probably be murdered in New World... players will be able to freely kill other players" (ex-Studio Director Patrick Gilmore) to one where you'll "experience PvP by opting into Faction conflicts and Wars for territory ownership", as the latest dev blog puts it

It's not the only fundamental re-positioning for the game. All of the original promotional material focused on a setting relatively new to the online space the game hoped to occupy: the colonial era of the seventeenth century, albeit with added supernatural elements. The very name of the game reflects that choice.

But colonial adventurism no longer enjoys the swashbuckling image that once made it the staple of Boys' Own adventure stories. Invasion, exploitation and slavery make a poor backdrop for fun and games. Particularly so if we, the players, find ourselves cast as the invaders, exploiters and slavers rather than the invaded, exploited and enslaved or their defenders.

Nina Simone New World Coming

Beyond the look of the armor we'll be wearing and the sailing ships that take us there, the New World we'll all be able to explore when the game launches in May 2020 won't bear much resemblance to South America in the 1600s. It's now set to be something much closer to the generic fantasy we've become so familiar with, we no longer even notice its more unsavory implications. We'll be fighting undead and monsters as usual. The "New World" even has a fantasy name: Aeternum.

Predictably, these changes arrived to a mixed response. News of the revamped setting was met mostly with a shrug. There were some grumbles at the loss of a potentially original-for-genre option, a few catcalls from the usual suspects over the supposed caving to political correctness, but for most the change probably represented the most trivial of course corrections. After all, the gameworld, even in closed alpha, was already awash with restless dead and supernatural artifacts. It didn't seem much like our world to begin with.

The complete and unapologetic removal of what was for many the whole point of the game, though? That has not passed unnoticed. The news was met with the expected howl of anguish from that section of the potential audience which considered itself, not unreasonably, to be the intended core demographic.

Nas New World

And why not? For them it must feel as though teacher has taken the toy out of their hands, passing it to Timmy, saying "If you can't play nicely then you don't get to play at all". And Timmy, picking himself up from the floor, clutches teacher's skirts and grins. Smugly.

It's a truism that the only people who like ganking are the ones doing it and yet it's a truth that every developer seems determined to prove for themselves. Never take anyone's word for it. Never trust the evidence without testing it. To destruction. As the astonished tone of the recent Amazon dev blog has it:
"One of the problems we observed with this system was that some high level players were killing low level players, A LOT. Sometimes exclusively. This often led to solo or group griefing scenarios that created a toxic environment for many players."
 Gosh! Really? Who'd have thought? 

"We set out to build a compelling world full of danger and opportunity that begs to be explored. The intended design was never to allow a small group of players to bully other players."

It's so plaintive it's heartbreaking. But the good news, the really very good news, the news that reinforces my belief that Amazon come to this process like the grown-ups in the room, is that New World didn't have to launch and fail in flames like so many other "the players will police themselves" pipe dreams for the lesson to be learned. 

Sophie Whole New World

The closed alpha was one of the most professionally run and certainly one of the most purposeful and focused I have ever been a part of. It always felt as though information was not only being gathered but account was being taken. It never felt, as many alphas do, that the tracks had already been laid, the train was running and the only change likely to be made was to the livery on the carriages. 

Speculation now moves to whether Amazon can add sufficient PvE content and tune the new, more formalized territorial PvP in the scant few months before the late-Spring launch. It does look tight. Then again, Amazon have considerably more resources at their disposal than the average MMO developer.

The closed alpha took place under a rigorous NDA, which has been breached considerably less than is usual with these things, but as we move into the next phase, lips are loosening. It's been interesting to read the experiences of those who participated, not least because some of them seem to differ so significantly from my own.

Curtis Mayfield New World Order

I wasn't repeatedly ganked. The opposite, really. I can only remember getting into one fight, somewhere out in the wilds, which started with some wary circling before the stranger decided to rush me. I just stood there and let him get on with it. Then I respawned and carried on with my business.

Other than that, every encounter with another player outside the safe zones ended either with the two of us waving as we passed or simply ignoring each other altogether. Some fool did once attack me in a safe camp. I just carried on sorting my storage and since he'd flagged himself by attacking me, someone else standing nearby killed him. 

None of that particularly added anything to my enjoyment. I'm very happy to see it gone. I imagine almost everyone else will be, too. If people want to fight, they can fight. If they don't, they can get on with whatever it is they do want to do, unmolested. Seems like a sound commercial decision to me.

Anna Tsuchiya Step Into The New World

I'm less convinced by the proposed "50 versus 50 PvP battles by appointment". This sound a little over-optimistic to me and also somewhat arid. "Companies will declare War on territories they wish to take over, draft a roster of 50 combatants, and agree on timing for the battle"sounds like quite a big commitment in organization. It's like PvP Raiding, isn't it? 

The format of the engagement itself, which is basically "Protect the Flag" in an instanced setting, seems a long way from the immersive ownership of land in the world, something which proved highly popular in alpha. It's an attempt to provide riskless territorially-based PvP, I think. It could be interesting. Might need some iteration in beta, I suspect.

As for the enhanced and expanded PvE offer, scheduled to include "new enemy types" and "world events where the ground opens up and erupts with corrupted energy and enemies", that sounds like some welcome fleshing out of what was already a very intriguing gameworld. I've read a few testers complaining that PvE in alpha was lackluster but I think they mean the kind of PvE you find in a theme park MMO. 

Motörhead Brave New World

That gameplay was all but absent, it's true, but there was a wealth of exploration to be enjoyed. I spent hours just wandering through the woods, taking screenshots. When it comes to PvE I guess it depends what you mean by "environment" and what you mean by "versus".

I am curious to see the proposed home invasion mechanic: "Territory owners will need to protect their Forts and withstand an onslaught as waves of enemies attempt to bash theirs gates down and wipe out their Company". I wonder if monsters are required to make a formal application and receive acceptance before setting a time and date for the battle, as PvP invaders do? I somehow doubt it.

Nothing in the latest announcements from the dev team has affected my decision on whether or not to buy the game. I pre-ordered at the first opportunity. That said, I don't expect it to be something I play a lot, let alone for it to become my new forever game. I see it as a dip in, dip out amusement.

80 PAN! Carry A New World

The main reason for that is the skill floor. New World is intended to be a game that rewards player skill, by which they really mean reaction time and manual dexterity. I'm sixty-one years old. I'm not the player that sort of combat is designed to attract. Let's be honest, I wasn't that player when I was twenty-five.

So long as I can wander and explore with reasonable facility, gather resources, craft and maybe build a home (if that's an option outside of a Company) I'm certain I'll get my money's worth. The removal of FFA PvP makes that a certainty, I think. And it will be good to be able to talk about the game in detail, with pictures, at last. It's been very frustrating, having to talk around the edges all the time.

Closed beta comes as a perk of pre-ordering. Looking forward to it. It can't be too far away.
Maybe the NDA won't be quite as ferocious. Let's hope so.

If not, at least there's no shortage of songs with "New World" in the title.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


Just going to put this up to mark the day everything changed and everything stayed the same. 
I'm sure everyone's already seen the announcement via whichever hyperactive MMO news site they use. Here's the straight, professional reportage minus the tedious snark. Oh, wait a moment... that was snark right there, wasn't it?

The gist is this: Daybreak Games is splitting into three new, quasi-independent Studios: Dimensional Ink Games, Darkpaw Games, and Rogue Planet Games. DCUO, which seems to have drawn the short straw where naming is concerned, goes to DIG; the fortuitously yet somehow wholly inappropriately acronymed RPG gets Planetside, while the innocuous DG becomes the new home for the EverQuest franchise.

Planetside is more than welcome to wander off and do its own thing as far as I'm concerned. I did try playing it once but I never really got on with it. I wish them well and wave them goodbye.

Jack Emmert, the erstwhile head of Daybreak (I think - it's so hard to keep track), takes control of the superhero success story. His team are also already working on a new "action MMO", title and subject unknown. I still play DCUO occasionally and would like to retain the option so I have a small dog in that fight.

My main interest lies inevitably with Darkpaw Games, headed up by the estimable Holly Longdale. Having lived through twenty years of highly variable management under numerous versions of Verant, Sony Online Entertainment and Daybreak, I can safely say the last few seasons under her stewardship have been some of the most stable and satisfying I've enjoyed to date. I'm very happy to see her and her team given autonomy to carry the existing games and the franchise forward.

There's a Darkpaw Producer's Letter up already. It doesn't give an awful lot away, unless you're gagging for an EQ T-shirt.  It does, however, say very much what I'd want to hear, as this paragraph suggests:
"Immediately, and in practical terms, our focus is on the fans and investing in our current games and the business of starting new ones. We’re already executing on the plans we had for 2020, like expansions and events for EQ and EQ2."
I read that both as a promise of Business as Usual and confirmation that we will get the usual annual expansions at the end of the year and maybe even a new EQ title someday. That's as much as I'd hope for and more than I would have expected a couple of years ago.

The letter also assures us that
"Currently, nothing will change for your accounts and membership."
Note the leading adverb. Given the supposed independent nature of the three new studios I wouldn't give too much for the continued existence of the All Access Membership. Time will tell.

Anyway, I have Overseer Missions to organize so I'm going to leave it at that for now. I think this looks a positive move, especially for the EverQuest games. Only time will tell if my optimism is well-founded, but things certainly look more promising than they did a while ago.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Different Angles: In Which I Talk To Myself About EQII For No Particular Reason.

As threatened, yesterday I made a new character in EverQuest II. That makes thirteen on my All Access account. I have quite a few more on what used to be my regular account, a couple of whom I still play.

My ratonga Necromancer over there was on for a while yesterday. I logged her in to invite the newbie into my one-player guild. (Technically, there are well over a dozen people in the guild but the last time anyone who wasn't me logged on was over five years ago). Once she was on, naturally she had to go and do a little bit around the house.

It's slightly annoying that some of the Prestige houses I bought a few years back belong to characters on the account I don't play much any more. In a way, though, that's only a nominal problem. EQII housing is incredibly flexible. If I could be bothered to set up the permissions, any and all of my characters on any account I play could use any of the houses on any other account with almost exactly the same freedom as their owners.

That's what I did with my Berserker's Mara Estate a while ago. It's become the central meeting point and crafting area for anyone I play. I already had a forge and a sage's scribing desk there, along with a full set of storage bins (one of the best purchases I ever made in the game) but now I also have a maxed-out Alchemist and a Carpenter closing in on cap I thought I ought to complete the set.

I remember when the cost of crafting tables capable making of what were then called "Pristine" quality goods seemed outrageously expensive. Not in money but in Status, the real currency of EQII. Looking at them now, they seem like absolute bargains. Time changes scale.

The Mara Estate functions as a de facto Guild Hall. I have an actual Guild Hall but it's been mothballed. It costs 69,000 Status per week to maintain, which isn't much between twelve or fifteen people but a lot for me on my own. That said, if I moved some of my furniture out of my overstuffed Maj'Dul mansion, where I currently enjoy a rent-free existence (in fact, my rent is reduced by 200%, although I don't believe I get a rebate) and put it in the Guild Hall, I could probably reduce that Status to next to nothing.

There would be a couple of advantages to doing that. It would make travelling a lot easier, for a start. At the moment everyone has to go to their own house first to use the portal to the Mara Estate. Not everyone has a portal yet, either. The house owner, in this case my Berserker, has to visit the house and install it himself, which also means that house's owner has to set permissions to allow him access.

It's an extremely flexible system but it does require some effort and understanding to get the most out of it. Not to mention time. A Guild Hall simplifies things a lot. All you have to be is a member and you can just go there directly from the Housing screen. That would save quite a bit of time.

The other big advantage would be access to crafting writs. At the Mara Estate I have everything necessary to craft anything at all. My storage bins are stuffed with every kind of material and I have a fuel bin too. I have all the workstations in place, including the Frostfell ones, should I feel the urgent need to make winter clothes in August.

What I can't do there is level up by doing writs. As Wilhelm found, that's not necessarily the way you'd want to go these days, but at certain levels it can be very convenient, grinding out xp in one spot rather than running all over the world doing crafting questlines.

Only, writs can be quite annoying. They require specific materials relevant to the particular level range and if you're trying to steam through twenty or thirty levels with xp potions running you're going to need a whole lot of different mats. I always find I'm missing some stupid bit of wood or some fish or other and since the best xp comes from doing Rush Writs, which are timed, running to the bank to resupply is hardly optimal.

If you have a Guild Hall you can hire an NPC to stand around all day offering you writs. NPCs, as is well known, don't have lives or families, unless they're required for questing purposes. If I had all my bins and workstations in my Guild Hall along with an NPC to feed me writs I could blitz through a few dozen crafting levels in no time. Well, in an afternoon.

It's something to think about. It would be a lot of work, though, and my Mara Estate is a gorgeous, open, outdoor landscape with trees and rivers and a wide, blue sky. Not to mention all the trees I've planted. Whereas the Guild Hall is a bit boxy and cramped. We couldn't afford a big one back when we got it and I certainly can't now I'm on my own.

Something to think about, anyway. The more consistently and committedly I find myself playing EQII, the more I realize just how vast and deep the waters beneath me are. And everything ends up taking so long, even when it looks so simple.

I started clearing out some old Legend and Lore quests on the Berserker a couple of weeks ago, thinking it would take me an hour at most. It took a couple of sessions and even then I ended up buying the last few items on the Broker. I found out pretty quickly why I'd never finished them in the first place - they were all flying creatures in the underground caverns of Thalumbra.

There was a huge amount of swooping through tunnels and trying to land on pinnacles of rock and each creature seemed to have at least one body part that refused to drop. It was hard going at times but it worked out nicely in the end. I cracked and bought the last couple of parts for several thousand plat but then I put all the extras in my packs up for sale and they've been making me a steady income ever since. Evidently I'm not the only one to lose patience trying to find that last, elusive Fathomlurker Spine.

Burke and Hare's Body Chop Shop
Getting back to the new character I made, I followed Mailvatar's advice and went for a Fury. I dithered over the race for a while. I'd quite like to try the premium Freeblood but the price is prohibitive. In the end I went for an Arasai, which is basically an evil butterfly. Supposed to be a fairy or a pixie but look at those wings.

I have one on another server and they're great. You can make them very, very small with the help of the Mystic Moppet you get from one of the Veteran Rewards and they get the Glide skill, which means no falling damage and semi-flying from level one without a mount.

So far it's been a lot of fun. I can't really tell much about the way the class plays because I claimed the Monk Mercenary that came with one of the expansions and mostly I just follow him around as though I was paying him to powerlevel me. Which I literally am, except I only pay him a few silver, not the soul of my first-born, like a player powerleveller would demand.

I had to buy a character slot to make the Fury. It cost 1000 DBC, which seems very reasonable, especially when you're sitting on 18k of the stuff. I could have deleted one of the three characters I have no intention of playing seriously - the Channeler and the Beastlord, two classes whose mechanics I don't much enjoy or my Level 3 Wizard.

That robe has to go. And the hoodie.
The thing is, I've spent a fair amount of time with the Channeler and the Beastlord. I'm not going to claim deleting them would be committing murder but I worry the guilt would approximate to having a healthy pet put down. Or it might. Don't feel like risking it. As for the Wizard, she was the very first character I made on the account on the day the Freeport server launched. She was a founder member of the Guild. She has seniority. She's not going anywhere.

Having bought one character slot I was idly wondering whether to buy another so I could make a character on either Kaladim, the Time Limited Expansion server, currently running at High population and a great success, or the recent Rivervale Heroic Server, running at Low and not being very successful at all.

It turns out I already have a character on Kaladim. A level 21 ratonga Dirge who's also a level 20 Jeweller. I logged in this morning and couldn't see a character I wanted to play, which was when I realised I have so many I have to scroll down to see them all. So I scrolled down and two characters I'd forgotten blinked at the light. As usual, I remember them well enough now I've been prompted but without a nudge I'd have had no memory of creating or playing them at all.

I'll log the Dirge in today and see how things are over there. I might still buy that extra slot and make someone on Rivervale, too, but mostly I think I'm going to play my Fury. She did twenty-six levels in a couple of hours last night just to prove that, fast or slow, levelling is always fun.

I'm going to level her the old-fashioned way (well, the new old-fashioned way, with a Merc, 120% Vet bonus and xp potions) until it's not fun any more, if that ever happens. Then I might bump her to 110 with one of my boosts. Or I might save those for someone else. Someone new.

So many possibilities. It feels weirdly as though I just started a brand new MMORPG. I wonder how long it will last.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Familiarity Breeds Confusion : EQII

You know how you can look at something every day and not really see it? Happens to me a lot. I like to think of myself as an observant sort of person but really, like most of us, I only see what I expect to see. I know we'd all like to believe we're the one who'd spot the gorilla but the whole point is that almost no-one does.

I like almost everything about EverQuest II's latest expansion, Blood of Luclin, but the thing that's really grabbed my attention is the new Overseer system. It's all the better because I never expected I'd be giving it any attention at all.

It's a fairly abstruse addition to a game that already feels gnomic. It's taken me a while to get to grips with it. I'm sure there's more to learn. I know there is.

Since I wrote about it I've been sending my Agents out on Missions every day, so I do have some practical experience. There's also a detailed entry on the wiki, which I've studied at some length.

Even so, it was only today that I got around to playing with the fine controls, the two Plus signs at the bottom of the window. One affects  Bonus, the other Mishap. You can use them to increase your chance of the former and reduce the risk of the latter, both things you'd very much like to do.

Unlike the system itself, there's a veneer of internal logic to this. To increase the chance of acquiring a bonus chest you can send one of your Mercenaries to accompany your agent. To help them avoid being captured you can lend them one of your familiars.

Okay, it's a very slim thread to hang a sense of reality on but it's something. You could imagine the Merc and the Familiar giving the Agent some kind of edge. I wouldn't say I'm feeling any immersion here but it at least has internal logic and a certain storybook charm. More pointedly, it's a mechanic with repercussions in the game proper.

To send a Mercenary to assist your Agent you must first have unlocked the "Hire Anywhere" option for that specific Merc. Some, the ones that come with expansions for example, are unlocked when you first hire them but you can unlock any by paying a small fee (currently 149 DBC which is about a dollar-fifty at the basic exchange rate).

That's a possible revenue stream for Daybreak, although I'd imagine it's more of a trickle. Most people who care probably have plenty of Mercs unlocked already. My Berserker has half a dozen on staff. Still, I'll probably spend a smidgeon of my triple-SC-sales savings on mercenary contract extensions for some other most-played characters.

Also, why are all my Mercs working pro bono now?
Although EQII may well have turned into a whaling operation at the difficulty levels above my ceiling, for me it's still nickel and dime stuff, if even that. At my level of involvement it's more a game of time-management than a wallet thrasher. As I've mentioned before, modern EQII comes with several offline training systems: mercenaries, mounts, abilities and familiars. There may well be others I've missed. I've been reasonably diligent in keeping up with the first three but I never really got going with Familiars.

That's because the only way I know to do upgrade them for free is to complete the daily Familiars Wild quest, the purpose of which is to catch a familiar to feed to one of your existing stable, thereby making that one stronger. Brutal.

I did the quest when it was introduced almost two years ago. I wrote about it at the time, praising it to the skies and saying I found it "very moreish indeed". Then I promptly forgot about it and never did it again.

Actually, that's not entirely true. I didn't blank the quest from my mind. It occured to me now and again that I should be doing it but I was well aware that if I did I'd just add every new familar to my stable rather than feeding any of them to the others. Not that I have a problem with that. It just never seemed to be the best use of my time.

Well, now things have changed. I could use a few more familiars to send out on missions. And the better quality the familiar - Legendary, Fabled, Mythical - the more it reduces the risk of the agent it accompanies getting captured.

With all that in mind, this morning I went to get the quest. I had a vague idea the NPCs were in Freeport and Qeynos but I couldn't remember where, so I went to the wiki, found the loc, cut and pasted it into my EQII Maps window in game and followed the glowing trail to... the exact spot I've passed by almost every day since the quest was added.

2019 was a good year for free familiars.
The three Conservators stand around under the gables on the street side of the East Freeport bank. That's the local branch most of my characters use. I'm in and out of there several times a day. Did I ever notice them? What do you think?

I was a bit confused as to why no-one was flying the feather to show they were open for business but my Berserker spoke to Steward Kres anyway. His reply? "I'll have more tasks for you tomorrow".

What? Why? I haven't seen you for two years! How can I still have a timer?

It occured to me that perhaps I still had the quest in my book. I have some stuff in there that goes back a lot longer than a couple of years. I opened my Journal to look but I couldn't find "Familiars Wild" anywhere. Off to the wiki to check what Category of quest it was.

"Mission", apparently, which I didn't know even was a category. But then, I could write a book on the things I don't know about EQII. If only I knew what they were...

Something else I didn't know until today is that the Quest Journal now has five tabs. If you'd asked me yesterday I'd have said there were three: Quests, Collections and Achievements. If I'm honest, I might have said two, because although Achievements have been in the game and the Journal for many years, I always forget about them.

As the most observant among you will already have noticed, this screenshot was taken nearly forty minutes after I finished writing the post. Blogging takes up a not inconsiderable portion of the day.

I had no idea there were tabs for Daily Objectives and Missions as well. When did they appear? I open that book almost every day and I swear I never saw them before. But then, I wasn't looking for them. Remember that gorilla?

It didn't help much. I found a "Familiar Daily Mission" on the astoundingly lengthy list. Seriously, there are pages and pages of Missions, almost none of which I ever do - or indeed ever have done. Every one said "No" under Completed but they still all had Reset Timers, including the Familiar. What that means I'm not entirely sure. At all sure. I don't have a clue.

To be on the safe side I logged into every character on the account and checked they didn't have the quest. No-one did. Then, because I'm nothing if not bloody-minded, I logged in the account formerly known as my main account (and even more formerly as Mrs Bhagpuss's account. Don't get me started...). My Necromancer there was also told to come back tomorrow.

I refer the author of the flavor text to Dorothy Parker's review of The House At Pooh Corner.
Also, could you please add a Merc or Familiar called Katy so I can use my "Katy On A Mission" gag? Oh, wait, I just did.

And that's where I'm at right now. Reset is in exactly five hours as I write this. That's seven in the evening where I am, midday in San Diego. I guess I'll have to wait and see what changes then, although since I haven't done the quest for two years I'm at a loss as to how the daily reset could affect things.

Always something new to learn. Always another puzzle to solve. I'm just hoping it's not some kind of bug. I could do without exploring the intricacies of Daybreak's Customer Service system. I'm all for exploration, discovery and lifelong learning but there are limits.

I'll come back and update this post when and if there's something to say. With luck, I'll have a picture of my new familiar to show off. Either that or a screenshot of my ticket number.

EDIT: Hmm. Reset made no difference at all. Steward Kres still says "Come back tomorrow". But... I made a new character and she was able to get the quest and complete it. Now Kres tells her to come back tomorrow as well. We'll see what happens then.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Throw Me In The Deep End, Watch Me Drown

Returning to MMORPGs you haven't played for a while is hard. It's become something of a truism to say that. Harder yet, verging on impossible, to begin from scratch in a game that's been around for a decade or more. Only this week, UltrViolet of Endgame Viable, talking first about the EverQuest titles then expanding to include the genre as a whole, said
"You simply can’t join in today unless you have the 20 years of institutional knowledge that comes from starting at the beginning. Actually that’s true of almost every MMORPG except World of Warcraft and Guild Wars 2: If you take a year or two off of any MMORPG, you might as well plan on never coming back, because you can’t."
And it can be true, especially if you take the increasingly common boost options that jump your character somewhere close to the current cap. Indeed, in a reply to comments on his thread by myself and Wilhelm, UltrViolet clarifies his position, specifically on EverQuest II:
"I’ve always struggled with EverQuest II. I do okay with the lower levels, but there’s such an exponential increase in complexity as you gain levels that whenever I try to skip ahead with one of my free level boosted characters I just can’t make heads or tails out of it."
This is the crux of it, I think. Few, if any, MMORPGs become any less accessible than they ever were through the simple passing of the years, provided you approach them as though they had launched last week. Granted, changing aesthetic and gameplay standards may have rendered some games unattractive to the point of repulsion for many but that just makes them games you wouldn't want to play, not games whose complexities are beyond reach.

I was thinking about this today because I spent the morning playing DCUO. I had no plans to go back to Metropolis but a couple of news items popped about the game's ninth anniversary and I heard there were free gifts to be had.

This happened at the same time last year (Go figure! Anniversaries, eh?) when I logged in to buy myself a dog. On a sidenote, this is why I love blogging. Had I not written about it in two posts last January I'd have had no recollection of how I came to own Krypto or even that I did, although I'd have pretty soon worked it out the moment I logged in and saw him romping exuberantly around my Base. He's not exactly easy to miss.

What's more, the fact I was once in an all-female League called DC Bombshells would have completely slipped my mind. Female characters, that is. I probably didn't need to clarify that part. Given how unusual, even radical, a move that must have been for me, you might think I'd remember it. And I do - now I've read my blog.

Getting back to the point, one of the reasons I was keen to update (a 6GB patch) and log in was the lure of yet another max-level boost. I already have one boosted character in DCUO - possibly two - but you can never have too many. Also, I'd read that you don't have to use the boost right away; just logging in before the end of the month clips it to your account to be used whenever you feel the need.

DCUO's patcher is smooth and fast but six gigs still takes a little while. I passed the time by clicking through the link about the anniversary, which took me to the forums. There I found this thread which, I think, exemplifies the reasons it can be so difficult to restart an MMORPG by jumping in at the highest levels.

Captain1 Dynamo, the thread's author, takes several thousand words to explain, in mindnumbing detail, exactly why clicking on a boost that changes the number next to your character's name does nothing to prepare you for playing at that exalted level. He's absolutely right and not just about DCUO. It applies to most MMORPGs and for the same reason: endgame play is rarely intuitive.

Everwake was ranting about levels earlier in the week, complaining that they don't mean much any more. And he's right, too. Partly. As I said in a comment there, levels do still matter - just try going up against endgame content without them, if the game even allows you to try - but other things now matter as much or even more.

MMORPGs seem to have become games about understanding sytems and mechanics. The genre long ago abandoned "easy to learn, hard to master" if indeed it ever embraced it. It's true that newer entrants to the field have streamlined gameplay to a degree, particularly some of the F2P imports that few in this part of the blogosphere seem to play or write about, but not by all that much.

Looking at the newer MMORPGs I've played in recent years I certainly wouldn't describe ArcheAge, Black Desert, Blade and Soul or even Revelation Online as any easier to pick up and play than World of Warcraft Classic. If they seem easier it's  only because we, as veterans of the genre, have done a lot of the learning already.

As for the mid and endgames, every MMORPG, from the most hands-off, plays-itself mobile game to the extremely hands-on Star Citizen, comes drenched in convoluted progression mechanics that require considerable time and effort to unravel. Warframe, cited by many as an exemplar of accessibilty, confused me to the point where I gave up trying - and I was barely out of the tutorial.

DCUO is no exception. Even though I've been playing the thing on and off since launch - actually beta, I think - I've still never really understood many of even the more basic gameplay elements. There's a reason my bags are always full of exobits and Nth Metal - I've never had any idea what to do with them!

Until today. This morning I logged in to be greeted by a brace of overwhelming welcomes - firstly from Krypto, comically pleased to see me, and then the game itself, lobbing windows at me right and left. Being bounced at by a super-dog was new but the windows were very familiar. DCUO has always liked to start a session with a lot of "you should be doing this" advice, both in the form of pop-ups and voiced harangues from Oracle and the other super-nannies.

The suggestions on what's happening and where the action is are always welcome and it's nice to be pointed towards any free gifts that might be coming my way but for the first time I can remember, today I got some sound, simple, straightforward help with upgrading my gear. The reason it worked so well was that rather than explaining what I needed to do the UI did it for me.

I did still have to click things but arrows and visual prompts showed me what to click. For the first time I found myself using the heaps of stuff moldering at the bottom of my backpack to make my character more powerful. A paper-doll I don't recall ever seeing before appeared with my available Augments laid out clearly and the game led me through the process of choosing and improving them.

I wouldn't go so far as to say it was idiot-proof. On first try I wasted a bunch of exobites upgrading the wrong sort of Augment for my power set but really, if a player doesn't know whether the character they made relies more on powers or weapons then they have no-one to blame but themselves.

I got that sorted before I wasted too many resources. Then I got rid of all the detritus clogging up my bags. It was glorious - for a moment or two. Then I went on a claiming spree to grab all the freebies going and that filled up all the space I'd just emptied.

Luckily most of it was Chroma options, some kind of new color range for armor, which vanished into my Style tab on a right-click. There were a couple of Base items including a Daily Planet Vending Machine. I got those placed right quick. That left a few things I didn't know what to do with so I auto-sorted my bags and pretended they weren't there.

With that done, I thought about following up some of the prompts I'd been getting. Hawkgirl wanted to see me on Thanagar. I've never been there. Didn't know we could, even. It sounded like a plan.

The usual problem I have at this stage is finding the portal. It often tells me to go to The Watchtower but when I get there it's half an hour of searching, every time. The place is the most confusing hub zone I've ever seen.

But wait! Once again, someone's been tinkering. I opened my map and clicked on the Warp option, which allows you to instatravel to certain places. I don't recall it ever let me go anywhere much other than The Wachtower and my Base. Now it has a list of choices including the open area for the current episode, in this case Thanagar.

I was there in seconds. Instead of spending half a session flying down endless metal corridors looking for a mission terminal and a teleport pad I took a quick briefing with Hawkgirl, spoke to some Green Lantern or other and a couple of Thanagarian officers to load up my mission journal. Then off I went to kill stuff.

Looping back at last to the opening theme, this is where I suggest that coming back to an MMORPG isn't as hard as all that. So long as you stay safely within the parameters the game sets, that is. In the end, it's all about the killing, isn't it? How hard is it to run around, find the baddies and shoot them in the head? Or in my character's case, kick them in the head, then beat them to death with a stick.

I've never been any good at combat in DCUO but I like it well enough in short bursts. I'm very well aware that the game becomes extremely demanding quite fast above a certain level but so long as I take care to stay within the limits of solo and open-world group play I can manage well enough.

It may even be that not being very good at a particular MMORPG makes returning easier. If all you really want to do is splash about in the shallow end then it really doesn't need to be any more difficult ten years in than it was at launch. Especially if someone takes the trouble to put out some flotation aids.

If you want to go down the deep end with the big boys and girls, though, well you're just going to have to learn to swim, aren't you?

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Please Be Seated: EQII

Yesterday evening, after I'd finished running a Blood of Luclin solo instance on my Necromancer for the sheer fun of it (something I find it hard to imagine saying about many previous expansions just a month after release) I was sorting my bags, when I noticed there seemed to be an unprecedented amount of sitting and reading going on all around.

I was in Sanctus Seru, a decent-sized city set on two levels, replete with most facilities including banking, brokerage, crafting and entry points to cap-level instances. Despite all of that there rarely seem to be many players there, probably because, unlike most expansions in recent years, Luclin has quite a few potential gathering and service points, not just Sanctus Seru but Grieg's Landing and Recuso Tor in The Blinding and a couple more in Aurelian Coast.

Even without players, Sanctus Seru feels very lived-in. Someone has gone to a significant amount of trouble to make it that way. The EverQuest II art and design team have always been strong on atmospheric detail but they seem to have come up with a few new ideas this time around.

One thing they seem very pleased with is the ability of NPCs to sit on seats. I'm not sure whether this has always been a thing. I really should know after fifteen years but I don't, not without logging in to wander around some older zones and check.

I don't remember noticing it before, but in Sanctus Seru it's very hard to miss. There are citizens sitting on every available flat surface, although that pretty much comes down to benches and walls. There are also two points during the crafting questline when the player character has to sit down, which strongly suggests to me that someone has a new dev tool to show off.

The humans sit very convincingly but the dwarves have an unfortunate tendency to let their feet clip. I'd be very interested to see how some of the other races look, sitting down. I wonder what happens to the tail on an Iksar?

As well as enjoying a good sit down, the Seruvians do like to get stuck into a book. Once again, I'm not sure I can remember seeing anyone in Norrath actually holding a book before, although whether it's the kind of thing you'd notice is another matter. But then, I'm noticing it now, which suggests it's unusual.

Sitting on chairs is a thing in lots of MMORPGs. Some, like World of Warcraft, just have it and don't make a fuss about it. Other developers go into a big song and dance when they add it to the game and, in the case of Guild Wars 2, turn it into yet another revenue stream. I haven't felt the need to buy a chair in Tyria but I'd pay a decent sum in Daybreak Cash for my characters to learn how to sit properly. Even more if they could hold objects in their hands. imagine the tea parties!

Performing musicians have been around EQII for a good while, to my certain knowledge. I wrote about the band in Maldura, hub city of the Terrors of Thalumbra expansion back in 2015. There are some very similar musicians dotted around Sanctus Seru, playing the same highly distinctive, minor-key, hauntingly off-kilter jazz-folk.

How this particular musical style has taken off so successfully in two entirely separate communities, isolated as they have been for half a millennium, both from each other and from the central culture, is likely to remain one of the eternal mysteries of Norrath.

One thing we've seen often is NPCs practicing archery. I believe there was someone doing it in Qeynos back at launch. I can't remember seeing anyone having arrows stuck in the ground around their feet and pulling them out to shoot before, though.

Sanctus Seru is a heavily martial culture and also very religious. There are altars in the street in a couple of places, which is a lot more blatant than I'm used to seeing. EQII has had craftable altars for every major god in the pantheon for a very long time, going back to the days when choosing a god and sacrificing to him, her or it was a meaningful part of gameplay. Actually, I think it still is, only you don't need an altar to do it any more.

Once again, I really ought to be able to name the god by looking at the altar but I'm not sure I can. It looks like the Rallos Zek one to me but I definitely wouldn't put any money on it. Maybe it's Mithaniel Marr. He gets a mention in one of the quests but it slips my mind which. Might have been that one with the ghost who likes fruit in Recuso Tor. It's not that I don't pay attention - more that nothing much sticks. I'd blame it on my age but I've always been this way.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of Sanctus Seru's streetlife are the Affirmations. I have no idea what these are and I wouldn't even know what they were called if it wasn't for one particular Boss in the first instance. He's a musician and to make him attackable you first have to hail, then kill, the half-dozen people in his audience.

All of them berate you for interrupting their Affirmation. In the peaceful city itself, the musicians don't seem to be Affirming anyone but there are a scattering of orators who look to be very much in the Affirmation business.

They stand there, waving their arms and glowing, with a blue ball of light hovering nearby. Passing citizens stop and listen and once in a while the blue ball will swoop down on the watcher and light them up. The satisfied customer then leaves.

I believe this to be Affirmation in action. I think I heard someone mention it. Maybe. What it means, I have no idea but I know this much: wondering about it is a big part of why I play these games in the first place.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Go Play Your Video Game

When I hit Feedly this morning the very first thing I saw was this:

What a great way to start the day. I do love me some Charli XCX and her boisterous bounce suits Nintendo perfectly. Well, my idea of the company, at least. Although what I know about Nintendo could be written on a mushroom with a marker pen. We did have a Nintendo system of some kind back when the children were children and I have vague memories of playing some Mario game a few times back then but that's about as far as it goes.

Anyway, Charli gave me the astonishingly original idea of posting some videos of songs about video games on this blog that's about video games and sometimes features songs. I know, right? How did I ever think of it? Sometimes I just amaze myself.

It would be pretty nuts to do a post like that and not begin with Lana's Video Games. The original is in the dictionary under "perfect" but that never stops people thinking they can do better. Boy George, with Mike Nicholls behind the camera, very nearly pulls off the impossible. I can't quite work out whether Nicholls misunderstands the lyrics completely or nails them to absolute perfection. It's genius, either way.

Most of the covers I've seen are either faithful retreads or lostgirl lonely wannabes but this, by the evocatively named The Young Professionals, goes heavy on the gaming, light on the trauma. Way to go to miss the point, guys! And yet they manage do something a lot more interesting than most of the people who "get" it. Comes with a really good example of the kind of fanmade video Lana's songs often inspired back at the start of the last decade. Bonus!

If "video games" isn't catch-all enough, how about "computer games"? We used to call them that back in the '80s. Do we still? George Clinton, Funkadelic/Parliament legend, released an entire album called Computer Games but I'm going for Mi-Sex.

I'm pretty sure they named themselves after the Ultravox song. I always thought they'd sound like a knock-off Japan but they're from New Zealand so I should have known better. This reminds me so strongly of someone but I can't quite place who. Devo, maybe? Goes on too long, which is appropriate. Most computer games do.

Let's just cool it down, as a snatch of a lyric I can't quite grasp has it. Geez, where's that from? Sun 60? Something from the '90s... Oh, for a decent memory...

The past is factual, the future is fictional but the present is fundamental. It's where you find all the best things. If you want proof, here's Billie. Ilomilo was a puzzle game released in 2010 for the Windows Phone 7, apparently. Beautiful flowers grow from the strangest seeds.

Billie tunes into the deeper meaning but Del Tha Funkee Homosapien just loves his games. Proto Culture is a love letter to actually playing the damn things. Check the reportage:

"I remember my homie Ed Coats had the most
A Colecovision-every week I'd visit
Playing Donkey Kong Jr., Venture, Roc'n Rope
Games I thought was dope
While my moms was watching soaps

None of the videos for this are up to much and the one live performance on YouTube is too badly recorded to be enjoyable. This slideshow is the best I could find.

Del's Gorillaz bandmate Damon likes games too. But he's... well, he's Damon Albarn, isn't he? So it comes out differently. The "hostiles" he's singing about are what we'd call "mobs". I have to admit "hostiles" is more evocative.

Del drags up every game he's ever played while Damon asset-strips a concept for metaphor but Publicly Anonymous get so specific this next one comes with a spoiler warning. I've never played Bioshock but I've read so many people going on about how great it is I sometimes feel I must have. According to The Houston Press, Bioshock inspired "a fair amount of songs", which is hardly a ringing endorsement. I like this one, although I'd take some convincing the rap section was a good idea.

And finally, something I'm ashamed to say I didn't know until today; Lou Reed was a gamer.

I know. It makes no sense. How is it even possible? And how did I not know? I was something of a Lou obsessive once. Before he turned into rock aristocracy. And it's not like he made a secret of it. He's holding a joystick on the cover of New Sensations. It has a song on it called "My Red Joystick" for heaven's sake!

There's another track on that album called "Down At The Arcade" but it's about playing pinball, as Lou explains in the introduction to this live version. Somehow pinball seems a lot more New York underbelly than Space Invaders and Pac Man.

I bought New Sensations it when it came out in 1984. At that point I'd bought everything he'd done, on release, since "Berlin", ten years earlier. But by New Sensations my love affair with Lou was starting to fade. I got that one and 1986's "Mistrial", but I barely listened to either. 1989's "New York", his most successful release since "Transformer", I didn't like it at all. Still don't. The only Lou I bought after that was "Songs For Drella" and I only got that because of John Cale.

New Sensations, of course, was the happy Lou. Yes, there was one. He'd just got married for the second time and he was making a bid for chart success. Things didn't go so well, neither the marriage, which ended in divorce or the chart run. The only single from the album, the catchy "I Love You, Suzanne", was a radio hit but it peaked at 78 on the Billboard chart.

At the time I didn't object to his new direction but I didn't jump all over it, either. I have to say it sounds a lot better now. Aged well, I think. Which is more than anyone could say for the extremely eighties video for My Red Joystick. Also, what's with both videos opening on a ringing telephone?

And... we're done. There are hundreds more songs that relate in some ways to video games but most of them seem to be... quite old and not very good. I guess gaming is so mainstream now there's no cachet in call back. These days even very well-known bands are more likely to be writing songs to feature in the games themselves - or even doing live shows inside them.

Let's end with something along those lines. Something extremely au courant . This is Cvrches contribution to current critical darling and favorite of Endgame Viable, Death Stranding. It's... very video-gamey. Ironic, that, considering the supposedly mold-breaking nature of the source material. Also, it's stadium rock. Get your phones out, people!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Speeding Away: EQII

It's just shy of of a month since Blood of Luclin released. I think I've seen enough now to confirm my initial impressions. For me, as a regular, committed-but-casual solo player, this is the best expansion for five years, since 2014's Altar of Malice.

There are several reasons behind my positive take, not least among them the strong nostalgic feelings the setting evokes for me, but perhaps the key factor is the surprise design decision taken by Daybreak to completely upend the normal levelling process.

In retrospect, you could say we've been working towards this for several years. The Days of Summer questlines, first introduced in 2017, the annual "Gear Up, Level Up" events, the introduction (with 2017's Planes of Magic) of the Tishan's Box of gear at the start of an expansion, the inclusion of a Level Boost item with even the basic expansion package; all point towards a desire to get everyone on the same page for the start of each new era.

All of that has worked well, putting most players on a reasonably equal footing on Day One, even if the usual tribal lines re-establish themselves only hours later. Even so, for all the work being done on facilitating easy entry into each new expansion, one important aspect of the game seemed to have been forgotten.

With two dozen classes and nearly as many races, EverQuest II, perhaps more than any MMORPG I've played, encourages the creation of a stable of characters. Playing "alts" may even be the norm rather than the exception. When DBG made the decision to eliminate the longstanding practice of levelling up to the new cap in old content whenever the maximum level changed, they also closed the door even for more casual, solo players to get a bunch of characters end game ready in timely fashion.

It's not that getting to the cap became unreasonably difficult. Just time consuming and repetitive, a problem which, ironically, the change to xp in older zones was supposed to address. Instead of running laps round Chelsith or Sebilis, for the last few years, about the only way for solo players to hit cap has been to take every character, Adventurer or Crafter, through the Signature questlines of the latest expansion.

I have a very soft spot for the storylines in EQII. They're nonsense but they're my kind of nonsense. Even so, once is generally enough. Twice, with a long gap, maybe. If, like me, you have ten characters, at least half a dozen of which you would quite like to keep up to date, the prospect of hearing the same dialog and seeing the same cut scenes over and over again is less than motivating.

The last two expansions really doubled down on the difficulty of alting. Planes of Prophecy had huge faction requirements while Chaos Descending, although nominally taking place in outdoor zones, managed to feel much more like repeating a series of instances.

Blood of Luclin stands all of that on its head. Other than Star Wars: the Old Republic's sixfold storyline xp phase, I can't think of another MMORPG that's put the hammer down on levelling the way BoL does.

It's not just that xp comes breathtakingly fast. It's also that you don't even have to follow the Signature line to get it. At least, not if you're levelling an Adventure class. Crafters, for now, do still have to follow the narrative, although they don't have to follow it even halfway before they'll hit 120, and it only takesa few hours to get there.

For adventurers there are plenty of side quests to be picked up around the new zones. There are NPCs scattered across the moonscape just waiting for a handy adventure to pass by and help them out. There are also lots of quests that begin from dropped items. You can't level by grinding mobs but you probably could level by grinding mobs then doing the quests that spawn from bits that fall off.

If that seems like too much trouble, there's even a short sequence of quest, starting on the platform where you arrive in the opening zone, which concludes in a repeatable quest to kill mobs about fifty feet away. And the mobs aren't even aggressive. How much easier could it get?

So far, I've levelled my Berserker, Inquisitor, Necromancer and Bruiser to the cap. I also have a max level Weaponsmith, Alchemist and Sage. That's in less than four weeks, during much of which I didn't have a lot of time to play.

I have never had that many characters at cap that quickly after an expansion. Even in the days when I played EQII every day all year round. It's weird but it's good weird.

When I saw the astonishing rate of gain as my Berserker dinged two levels on zoning into Luclin for the first time, my immediate concern was that if levelling to cap was going to take hours rather than days (or weeks) there'd soon be nothing for me to do. That concern has turned out to be completely unfounded.

Even as someone who relishes the levelling game, I love this change. It's amazingly liberating. The biggest benefit, by far, is that I'm now playing all my characters. Levelling them is fun. It doesn't just make me want to level all the ones I have, it makes me want to create more so I can keep on doing it. And since I have several leftover level boosters allowing me to start at 100 or 110 I definitely will.

Better than that, I've been discovering something I'd forgotten: in EQII different classes play very differently. I've been thinking of my Berserker as my "Main" for so long now, I'd been treating his abilities as a gold standard for solo play. When something seemed slow or difficult I'd work out how to improve his abilities to get over that hump.

Playing my Inquisitor and Necromancer through the same content has been a revelation. I'd expected the Inquisitor, as a healing class, to be a slog. It turned out to be faster than the Berserker. As for the Necromancer...

Combat on my Necro is like putting the game on fast-forward. Or setting the difficulty to "Easy". With the highest level tank pet, an upgraded Cleric mercenary in support and the Necro tooled up to the eyeballs with AEs, single target dots and ferocious "limited pets", large groups of mobs die two or three times faster than the Berserker can dervish them down.

When it comes to bosses, things get even better. No more ten or even fifteen minute fights. No running out of power and taking twenty minutes to auto-attack my way to "victory". Time-to-kill on the bosses my Necro's met so far is around two or three minutes.

There is some risk. Putting out that much damage does draw aggro and she's not wearing plate armor. Even so, the days of cloth casters not being able to take a hit are long past, in solo content at least, and if things really go south there's always her 100% guaranteed Feign Death to fall over on.

Far from closing down my options by making the additional ten levels the work of a single session, this radical change to xp gain has raised my eyes to the horizon. So much so, in fact, that it's made me re-assess my assumptions about levelling altogether.

No longer do I see it as an unalloyed good. Circumstances evidently alter cases. I have two months of posts from last autumn confirming old-school levelling still works its wonders. WoW Classic proved that. But Blood of Luclin proves that other approaches can work equally well, can be equally satisfying, equally compelling.

After years of attempts to reconcile access to current and end game content with a long tail of legacy gameplay centered on levelling, it looks as though developers are finally begining to find a format that works. If you relish the old ways, WoW's Classic and EQ/EQII's Progression servers have you covered. If you just want to get to the new stuff, EQII's level boosts and supercharged xp and WoW's upcoming Level Squish gets you where you need to be, fast.

I'm sure we'll see more iteration on these systems but at last we seem to be getting somewhere: player choice. I'd love to see EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online and Final Fantasy XIV, among many others, develop and expand on these ideas.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a Wizard and a Warlock to level. I'm off work until Wednesday. That'll should give me plenty of time.
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