Sunday, November 18, 2018

Pictures On My Wall: OWW

Occupy White Walls is open for business at last. It took a while. Demand so outran expectations the servers were "on fire" according to the Steam page. Not literally, I hope, although I did see that happen in an office where I worked, once.

Also open for business is my Gallery. I flung wide the doors (metaphorically - it doesn't actually have any doors yet) despite it currently looking disturbingly like the cloakroom facility in an upmarket hotel circa 1978. It's also hanging in a void but then they all do that.

It's a deeply inappropriate setting for the kind of artworks I seem compelled to purchase. The abstract expressionists don't look too out of place but the bleak scenes of rural ruin, the bright and blurry post-impressionists and the endless winter landscapes really need something warmer behind them than yards of shiny black marble.

It's a moot point at the moment, since I ran out of money after about ten minutes, having only managed to buy four artworks. For the record, they are

Silent Dawn  by Walter Launt Palmer (1919)
January: Cernay near Rambouillet  by Leon-Germain Pelouse (undated, mid-late 19c)
Rushing Brook  by John Singer Sargent (1904-1911)
Ghost Chamber with the Tall Door (New Version) by Paul Klee (1925)

All of those links go to the website of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose archive is one of OWW's many sources. Copyright is always a contentious issue but according to Stanford University's guide on Copyright and Fair Use

"All works published in the United States before 1923 are in the public domain. Works published after 1922, but before 1978 are protected for 95 years from the date of publication. If the work was created, but not published, before 1978, the copyright lasts for the life of the author plus 70 years"
 I guess that means I'm safe to include one of the actual paintings. The Singer Sargent is the cheeriest.

I did once have a small brush with artistic copyright, when I was working in the marketing department of an insurance company back in the mid-80s. There was a period when the company I worked for was so out-of-touch with reality they let me write the copy and choose the artwork for advertisements in national magazines and I was so young and green that I chose to use a glorious Graham Sutherland painting (it might have been this one but he did a lot of vertiginous tunnels through trees) as the butt of some idiotic pun.

I've managed to wipe the details from my mind but I do remember how difficult it was to get the rights to use the image -and how expensive. Just as well the people I had to deal with didn't also want to know what the ad was about. That would have put the tin lid on it!

I noticed during my interactions with DAISY, the A.I. in charge of acquisitions, in OWW's alpha/beta that almost every picture I chose fell into a period bracketing roughly a century and a half, from the mid-19th to the late 20th. The sweet spot seemed to be around 1890 to 1930.

If for nothing else, I would recommend playing around with OWW to let DAISY illuminate your own latent aesthetic taste. You might not think you have strong preferences but she will show you that you do. And that they may not be what you expect.

On the basis of my short visit today, the current Free to Play version of Occupy White Walls has a lot more going for it than its indisputable educational value. The building aspect, as I've mentioned every time I've written about it, is every bit as compulsive as you could expect.

My main point of comparison is Landmark, compared with which OWW is very much easy mode. It's snap-together parts rather than making your bricks out of mud but that suits me very well. My issues with Landmark were never with knowing what to build; they were always with how to get the tools to behave. OWW's toolset has its eccentricities but it's orders of magnitude simpler than even the final, "simplified" version of the astonishingly abstruse controls the SOE team deemed appropriate for popular use.

In a n notable change fom alpha, the Early Release version of OWW makes a concerted effort to give the whole thing some credence as a "game". To that end there are now levels, which you get by adding to your stock of artworks. At Level 2 my character (or "Avatar" as the jargon of the game has it) needs to buy six more paintings to level up. Is that P2W? Who cares?

Gaining levels gives you access to different collections. Judging by what seems to be a reduced choice of building materials on offer I am guessing that applies to utilities as well as art. Either that or the design and construction aspect of the game has been neutered since alpha. That seems unlikely.

As well as leveling up you also now need to pay serious attention to earning money. In alpha I never came close to running out of cash but today I was down to my last $500 in minutes. You start with $10,000, which goes nowhere.

Fortunately there's an income stream you can access almost immediately. The tutorial explains that you need to open your Gallery to the public so they can come in and leave you tips. I would add "if they like what they see" but I'm not sure it matters. They were piling money on my desk before I even had the walls in, let alone any art for them to look at.

Players visiting other players' galleries, another thing the tutorial has you doing, is intended to be a big part of the game but to make money it's NPC visitors you need. They wander around, occasionally nodding sagely or clapping their hands, then they drop a few blue blocks on your desk and leave.

The blue blocks represent their donations. You pick them up, whereupon they turn into dollars in the bank. Your Gallery stays open for half an hour, after which you have to manually re-open it, so you can't just leave it open while you go to real-life work or sleep. Other players, however, can open it for you when they visit, which allows both for social networking and random acts of altruism.

As I said, so far I can't tell whether the amount of money donated relates to what you have on display but there's clearly room for some granularity there. I can imagine some involving gameplay relating to maximizing your income as well as some interesting moral conundrums over how far to compromise your artistic principles in favor of commercial success.

Most of OWW seems very well thought out and consistent but there's one design decision I can't fathom. When the imaginary visitors arrive and leave they fling paint all over your pristine walls.

It's part of a mechanic whereby each visitor teleports in, appearing as a multicolred globule, which then explodes. They do the same when they leave. It's dramatic, for sure, and visually arresting, but the connotations of visitors effectively vandalizing the installations make it seem ill-judged, to say the least.

That's just one minor flaw in a very promising project. For a free to play MMO in early access OWW has an enormous amount to offer. Looking forward I'd hope to see a great deal more customization for your avatar - clothes would be a start - as well the introduction of some of the plastic arts to the collections and more terrain options in the building files. It would be fantastic to have outdoor areas to landscape for a sculpture park, for example, or to be able to lay art trails through a forest.

And in the time it's taken me to write this post, my finances have recovered to the point where I have over $6,000 in the bank. Time to go spend my way to the next level.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Some Things Never Change: EQ2

Chaos Descending, the new EverQuest 2 expansion, is turning out familiar yet different. An odd feeling; new and old at the same time.

For several years, all EQ2 expansions have followed the same pattern. A hub zone with services, an open zone, occasionally two. The main storyline progresses through solo quests and exploration.

At nodal points in the narrative there's access to instanced zones. They come in solo and group versions. You complete either to forward the story, then you farm whichever you prefer for gear upgrades, collections and similar forms of character progression.

On top come Raid instances, Duos and several other flavors of difficulty and reward, plus Public Quests, a separate and detailed Crafting questline and a new feature or two. This time it's gear for your mount.

My practice, going back to when I returned after a longish break to play catch-up through several expansions I'd missed, has been to open the Wiki from the start and follow the Signature Timeline to the end. EQ2 has a very well-maintained, authoritative and accurate wiki so playing with it open leads to a thoroughly smooth and streamlined journey through what feels like heavily curated content.

That has suited me very well. For the last few expansions I've been playing EQ2 mostly at the end of the evening, dropping in for an hour or two after I've finished in Guild Wars 2. I've been very happy to follow the guides, see the content, enjoy the story, gear up as I go.

This year, just by chance, EQ2 happened to drop its expansion in a week when I was at home with more time to play than usual. I also just happen to be on maintenance mode with GW2, popping in to do my dailies and then mostly popping out again. At the same time the EQ2 team also decided, for reasons unexplained, to give us the most open zones we've had since 2007's Rise of Kunark.

With plenty of time on my hands and sucked in as I was by the best introduction to an expansion in many years, somehow I found myself playing in the way I used to play a decade ago. After putting in something like ten hours I have yet to consult the Wiki on anything at all, let alone to follow the intended storyline in logical order.

Instead I've taken whatever quests I've happened across, which includes a significant number that open up from items dropped by mobs. Many - perhaps most - of those would seem to be side-quests or one-offs that have little or nothing to do with the main narrative.

For example, I spent nearly three hours ingratiating myself with an Iksar in the Great Library. His questline, which appears to have little to do with anything else, sent me to Detroxxulous, The Plaguelands. It counts as one of the four "new" zones athough it's actually a re-skinned version of a  zone from the last expansion. It's entirely new in content and feels very different, so I'm happy to give Daybreak a pass on including it in the count.

The Planes of Earth, Air and Fire are properly new. I've partially explored all of them after quests suggested I should. In each case I've rapidly wandered off-piste, sidelining my supposed purpose in favor of completing missions for the ubiquitous Dr. Arcana or just flying around, taking screenshots and battling Named monsters.

I haven't really played brand-new content in EQ2 this way since 2011's Destiny of Velious. I'm not sure there's any reason I couldn't have approached subsequent expansions in such a cavalier fashion. I just haven't, until now.

I'm not yet sure whether Chaos Descending is objectively larger in scope than recent expansion or whether it feels that way because of how I'm playing. Whichever it is, I like it. After several lengthy sessions I have yet to reach the point where the narrative moves into instanced, solo dungeons and I'm quite happy to leave that point some way off in the future.

EQ2's solo dungeons are very good, on the whole. They tend to be graphically gorgeous, thematically intriguing and mechanically sound. I usually find the difficulty level just on the right side of challenging; I can't always complete them first time through and I sometimes have to adjust tactics or gear to succeed. In the end, though, I have never run into one I couldn't finish.

That said, I prefer open zone play. For the bosses and sub-bosses, the solo dungeons incorporate variants of the kind of scripted behavior that has dominated group and raid play for a decade and more. It tends to involve a lot of gimmicks and/or dance moves and I can live without that quite happily.

I'm a tank&spank player at heart, or a kiter. I'll root-rot or nuke and run. If you can sum it up in a phrase, I'll do it. Just don't make me learn dance moves or break codes. It makes me glad I've not rushed down the storyline when I see Kaozz saying:

"The bosses take forever to kill on solo mode and there are mechanics you have to pay attention to or you'll end up dead, swarmed or out of mana, not terrible but the slow pace of killing a boss is really excruciating"
The solo Fabled dungeons are like that. I haven'tf inished some of those, although mostly because I couldn't be bothered, not because I found them unmanageable.

Storyline is a greater incentive than loot so I'm confident I'll be able to step up when I need to but I'll get there soon enough, no need to hurry. For now I'm enjoying the much looser, slower pace, exploring the beautiful new zones (well, Eryslai, the Kingdom of Wind is beautiful - the others are more like imposing or terrifying...), picking up bits and pieces of the story as I go.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Clothes, Friends, Photos: OWW, OLN

You know how it is. One day you're bemoaning the lack of non-combat MMOs then next thing two come along at once.

It would have been easy to miss them both. There's a lot going on this week. I'm struggling to stay on top of it all, EverQuest 2's Chaos Descending expansion and the big Rune and Sigil revamp in Guild Wars 2, which I still haven't had time to explore in any depth. I've already had to pass on Lord of the Rings Online's Legendary server. At least I don't have to worry about Fallout 76...

I'm even keeping a watchful eye on EverQuest for the pre-expansion "Fall Fun Bonuses". The first couple of weeks was double rare spawns and double faction bonuses. Pass. That round ended yesterday, though. As I write the next set hasn't been announced. If it's double xp then I'll have to make time somehow. Magician needs new shoes. Spells. Levels. All of that.

And then StikiPixels had to choose yesterday to commit. Art curation MMO Occupy White Walls has been hanging around outside Steam Early Access for weeks and now it's going in. I was more than willing to make time but as the screenshhot up top suggests, so was everyone else. So far I haven't managed to log in.

I only have myself to blame for getting caught in the stampede when the doors opened. I had a Steam Beta key for this one a weeks ago (alpha tester's privelige) but I couldn't work out how to redeem it.

Not that I tried all that hard. I already had my hands full of testing with the Unnamed Alpha. If that one was Live and had true persistence I'd be playing the skin off it right now. Anyway, I figured the open release for OWW would be just around the corner so I stood down from Early Acess to Early Access and here we are.

OWW is a very interesting MMO. I'm not sure whether it's an MMORPG. You certainly could use it as a venue or a vehicle for roleplaying. I'm sure many will. RP is entirely optional, though.

I'm not even sure it's a game. It didn't have many gamelike elements in alpha, not that I noticed. More a kind of mash-up of Landmark, Second Life and that one time my Director of Studies took us all round the Fitzwilliam Museum to explain how paintings work.

I think it has huge potential. As I said, only yesterday I was moaning about the lack of non-combat MMOs that don't revolve around farming and/or survival. Well, here's one. It has the look of something that could break out of its niche to find a larger audience, too. An audience composed at least in part of people who wouldn't self-identify as "gamers".

As a particularly brilliant comment on Steam put it, "If all those Lo-Fi Hip-Hop 24/7 Radios would be a game, this would be it". Yeah... no. Really.

If anyone's jonesing for Landmark I'd definitely recommend OWW as more than a palliative. I'd also draw the game to the attention of anyone who used to enjoy decorating in Rift or WildStar and is now, understandably or unavoidably, casting around for somewhere more stable.

Even if you don't feel you have the decorating chops, I'd still say give OWW a look. All you need is a passing interest in art and especially art history. It's accessible, involving, educational and slightly crazed.

I'd give it a few days, though. According to the forums "We're currently testing out a new patch to see if our fix works. But we are working hard on fixing it!" I've been trying to log in the whole time I've been writing this post and so far the only picture I've seen is the one on the loading screen. Which could be better, given it's an art game and all. That is theshop window, kinda. Or the lobby, at least. Just sayin'...

With some free time on my hands - time I would have spent on OWW - and with Steam already running, I thought I might as well take a quick glance at Otherland Next. That's how we're meant to call it now, the Tad Williams-inspired MMO that's spent much of its time on life support. Try to keep a straight face.

OLN, as I'm sure no-one is calling it, got a major patch - they're labelling it an expansion - this week and along with the new name comes a new game mode. It's described, enticingly, on the character creation screen as something suitable for people who like the social aspect of MMOs but who don't like the gameplay.

And on the face of it, that's not a bad idea. There's a sizeable demographic out there, people who use popular MMOs as a kind of glorified chatroom and if ever an I.P. was made for doing just that it has to be Otherland. That's literally why the characters in the original novel were online before things went horribly wrong and they found themselves "adventuring".

The problem Otherland has is this: if you want to socialize you need people to socialize with. Good luck finding them in OLN. I made a new character, took the Social option, spawned into Lambda Mall and spent fifteen minutes running around without seeing another player.

Which was probably just as well. The new mode skips the tutorial, and the tutorial is where you get your gear. I made a female character and when I logged her in she appeared in the middle of a shopping mall in her underwear. We've all had that dream, right?

I did check her inventory to see if she'd stashed a vest in there for emergencies. No luck. I decided I'd roleplay the whole thing as a tendency towarss exhuberant exhibitionism so she ran around taking selfies in front of suggestive signage for a while. You have to make your own entertainment when you're barred from questing and adventuring, especially when you're running around in your skimpies and there's not even anyone watching.

I may take my adventuring character (male, clothed) to look at the new content. We'll see. For now, though, I think it's back to the Elemental Planes.

Non-combat content's all very well but after a while you really feel like pulling the wings off a few mephins.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Best-Laid Schemes Of Rats And Gods: EQ2

I'm pleased to report that, from everything I've seen so far, Chaos Descending continues to meet the high standards it set in its opening stages. That may, of course, be because the opening stages are still all I have seen.

My plan was to spend much of today playing Everquest 2's new expansion. I thought I'd make sufficient progress on the Signature questline and see enough of the new zones and instances that I'd be able to post something approximating an authoritative "First Impressions" piece. This did not happen.

It's four in the afternoon and so far I've managed just over a couple of hours, almost all of which I spent running around Myrist, The Great Library. I sat down to play right after breakfast but at around eleven I made the cardinal error of logging out to do a couple of chores.

I won't rehash the tedious details of what happened next. Let's just say that what I expected to take me thirty minutes took more like three hours and leave it at that. On the plus side, at least we have a working kitchen sink again.

By then, I really needed my lunch. Then Mrs Bhagpuss got home and we went for a walk in the glorious late-Autumn sunshine. That took me to four o'clock, where we came in. I should be logging in right now, but it's the day after launch, so wouldn't you know it, there's an emergency patch. The servers are due up in an hour or so, which is why I'm here blogging about EQ2 instead of playing it.

A rat can look at a God, as they say.

The two hours I did manage this morning firmly consolidated the positive impression the expansion made on me last night. Myrist isn't just a great library, it's a big one, with a lot going on. And so far very little of it has involved killing anything.

In what must be more than three hours of questing so far I've killed half a dozen mobs in total. I can even remember what they all were - a gardening book, a couple of bookworms and three guards in the jails of the Plane of Justice.

Most of the quests have asked me to find things, fix things, meditate or chat. It's been extraordinarily civilized. I love it. It's so EQ2.

Honestly, I would love to see some imaginative developers make a full-on MMORPG with this sort of core gameplay. I'm positive it would be both possible and, if done well, sustainable. There must be plenty of people out there, looking for a solid, entertaining, largely non-combat MMO with a lot more story and structure than"grow your own cotton, craft your own socks, chat up the miller's daughter".

Oh, no! Not you again!
Speaking of story, so far the narrative throughline in this expansion is rather compelling. For once it manages to be both immediate and understandable. It's true that, yet again, it's all about the affairs of Gods, Demigods and Mortals but the writer has done a great job of working the player-character convincingly into the weave. 

And I can't deny it: my Berserker has been instrumental in changing the path of destiny. He does know gods personally and they do remember who he is - and should. I used to sniff at this sort of thing but the surprising truth is that I don't, not any more.

I've been playing EverQuest and EQ2 for so long now that I'm marinated in the lore like a pickled walnut. I take it seriously, for a given value of seriousness. I feel my characters have paid their dues. They deserve to have the gods take them seriously, too.

I think this must be how those Guild Wars vets feel when ANet drops anchor in the deep oceans of nostalgia as they so frequently do these days. When I find myself talking to Maelin Starpyre the name does more than ring a bell and when conversation turns to Zebuxoruk and his troubles in The Plane of Time I have a fair-to-middling idea of how that turned out. As for that Dark Elf in the cell I still can't unlock, oh yes, I know her alright...

The Scrivener. Someone missed a trick by not calling him Bartleby.
It makes a difference. It makes a big difference, frankly. It's not so much immersion as investment. I've put in so many hours over so many years that this history is my history. And in Chaos Descending it's history curated by custodians who care.

I suspect that most EQ2 vets these days care more about the numbers on thier character sheets than the characters in the story but the same certainly can't be said for the developers, at least not from what I've seen so far, this time around. There's been some sloppy writing in a few of of the more recent holiday and pre-event questlines but standards appear to have been fully raised for the expansion.

I've seen very few solecisms so far and no jarring contemporary slang. Even the usual inappropriate attempts at humor have, thankfully, failed to make their traditional, leaden appearance. If the prose is a tad on the starchy side, well I'll take that and gratefully, too.

Don't you hate people who turn straight to the end to see how it turns out?

Given that the action, such as it is, happens entirely in a library, I'm also happy to confirm the presence of some lengthy and fascinating in-game books. For many years, long before Player Studio and with a lot less administrative fuss, players have been able not only to craft books but to trade them and place them in houses. Much better than that, we've been able to write in them as well.

Someone at DBG has used that facility to author a number of works for the Great Library that are longer than we usually get. I spent a fair while this morning, reading several volumes that ran to more than twenty pages of closely typed text. They were good reads. I hope to find many more.

On the subject of crafting, it looks as though the Signature Tradeskill questline made it in for launch this time. Last year, when the crafters; Sig had to be delayed until a few months after launch, it seemd like a sign that the wheels, if they weren't yet coming off, might at least have a few loose nuts. This time I hadn't heard anything about it but I ran into it for myself while exploring the various Galleries and Wings.

Another feather in Chaos Descending's cap is my complete lack, so far, of any need to look things up. I haven't had even a momentary, fleeting thought to open the Wiki or google anything whatsoever. I haven't even updated EQ2Maps to open up Points of Interest because, for the first time in fourteen years, I'm adding my own POIs to my own map!

Working on my Junior Cartographer badge.
How I've never thought to do this in almost decade and a half is beyond me. Okay, we didn't have EQ2Maps right at the start but I must have been using the add-on for a decade at least and yet it has literally never occured to me to annotate it for myself. When I think of how much time that could have saved me I feel faint. Plus it's fun!

The whole thing is fun. That's my takeaway so far. I get the strong impression that each of the last four expansions has moved significantly further in the direction of "fun" than it's predecessor and we may just be about to reach the sweet spot.

Certainly I have yet to feel roadblocked or even speed-controlled by anything in Chaos Descending. I already have the account keys and quest unlocks for several of the instances and open zones, all of which have popped up merrily as I pottered through the bread and butter quests in Myrist. Maybe that will change when I get to the Elemental Planes proper. I hope not.

I think I'll just go see if the servers are back up. Pardon me if I don't come back right away...

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Chaos Descends, Expectations Rise : EQ2

EQ2's fourteenth expansion, Chaos Descending, went Live not much more than a couple of hours ago. Wilhelm, of course, has a post commemorating the event but I had no intention of posting about it tonight...not until I logged in.

After I'd been playing for an hour or so I felt I couldn't wait until tomorrow to express my very positive first impressions on everything from the thrilling opening sequence and the stunning visuals to the general high standard of the writing.

EQ2's graphics - and particularly its graphic design - have been verging on the spectacular for years now. The older zones, all the way up to Velious, which is sadly all that most new players and particularly most new Free to Play players see, might as well belong to a different game entirely.

Even by those standards Myrist, The Great Library is stunning. It's hard to convey its grandeur in screenshots, especially ones with a piratical rat in the foreground, but everything about it is magnificent. The placement of the desks, the chairs and the stacks of books is just about perfect. I've been in plenty of libraries. This is a library.

The expansion itself begins in the smoothest and most intuitive fashion I've seen in an EQ2 update for many years. There's no running around doing pre-quests or going to odd locations. You get two letters by in-game mail. Both begin quests that take you where you need to go.

One explains that you can reach Myrist by means of the Wizard Spires. I chose to follow the instructions in the other first and found myself ported to an instance whose location and ensuing events I won't spoil for anyone who might be about to see it for themselves. I'll just say I found it immersive and emotionally engaging.

From there it's straight to Myrist, where I immediately found myself swept up in a series of naturalistic, well-written quests, few of which involved any kind of combat. Some will see this as drudge-work they have to get out of the way before the real content appears but for me it was as refreshing and welcome as cold springwater on a summer's day.

I can honestly say I've enjoyed every EQ2 expansion for many years now but none of them ever started as convincingly and satisfyingly as this one has. Here's hoping the high standards set at the beginning continue all the way to the end.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Pick It Up, Buttercup!

How many ways are there are to stuff body parts into a sack, anyway? People have been talking,
Azuriel among them:

 "GW2 showers you in random bags of useless loot at every stage of any activity. We’re talking Diablo-levels volume of drops, every one of which is utterly useless to anyone anywhere.

I think all GW2 players have felt like that on occasion - some of them feel like it all the time - even though it's not entirely, or even mostly, true.

Wilhelm, meanwhile, reacquainted himself with Lord of the Rings Online's solution to the perennial problem of prodding a dead bear so the best bits pop out:

 "I cannot recall when the current looting method went into the game.  After slaying a mob loot just goes into a pending state that you can collect from a window at your leisure. It is handy, never having to click on a mob again, so I am not complaining about it."

Shintar observed in the comments that this time-saving system had its drawbacks:

 "I do remember finding the loot system particularly weird, and kind of missing the joy of actively taking stuff from my fallen enemies."

She went on to expound on the theme with a post on Neverwinter Online's recent move to full autoloot:

 "A part of me is actually kind of disappointed by this. I remember when trying LOTRO, I was quite weirded out by how loot just appeared in my bags automatically. I enjoy the act of looking at and sorting out what rewards I just earned from defeating an opponent - if they just go into my bags without me doing anything, that makes for a very disconnected experience."

Belghast, who appears not to have noticed the changes in Neverwinter that so unsettled Shintar, chipped in with a very different take:

"This game has a lot of positive things going on, but it is an inventory management nightmare…  which ultimately prompted my little burst of posts on twitter.  Inventory Management is just not something that is fun… and out of the tons of favorites I only got one person who chimed in stating that they actually like cleaning their inventory."

Yes, well, if I was on Twitter you'd have gotten two. As Wilhelm often says, there's no MMO system or mechanic so universally reviled that, on its removal, someone won't pop up to complain that it was their favorite part of the game. Bloodymindedness notwithstanding, I would contend that quite a few people do actually enjoy managing their inventory, provided always that the games provide adequate tools and resources for them to sort in a relaxed and stress-free manner.

And there's the rub. So many MMORPGs fail that test. Yes, I do see inventory management as a core pillar of gameplay, but that doesn't mean it's always fun in every game. Sadly, it's never one hundred per cent fun in any game. All systems I've seen have flaws, drawbacks and shortcomings. What's handled well in one game is awful in another and vice versa.

Sticking for the purposes of this post to the pure process of picking the stuff up in the first place, rather than the even more fraught practices of sorting, storing, salvaging and selling, I find myself, like Shintar in two minds about autoloot. A few years back that would very much not have been the case. I used to be a strong and vocal advocate of opening the bear where it lay.

I, too, felt there was a need to keep the processes connected. Shoot the bear, loot the bear. Indeed, going back further, to my time in the EQ2 beta back in September or October 2004, I vividly recall sending some blisteringly negative feedback the first time a massive wooden loot chest thumped to the ground out of thin air when I killed a mob.

My feeling back then was that if clicking on corpses had been good enough for my characters in EverQuest then it ought to be good enough for their descendants. The passing of five hundred years and the cataclysmic destruction of half the planet was hardly reason to go against tradition. I've mellowed some since then.

GW2 holds a strange position for me when it comes to looting kills. I have three accounts, all of which I play every day, but only one has full autoloot. In PvE it's a Mastery that you have to earn, which takes some time to do. In World vs World it's an ability associated with rank. In either case you have to own the Heart of Thorns expansion.

I find that, while I very much appreciate autoloot on the account that has it, especially in fast-moving zergs and big events, I also don't much miss it (or notice its absence) when playing the two that don't. Because GW2 uses a bag-on-the-floor mechanic for loot rather than click-on-the-corpse I don't feel autoloot detracts much from an already disconnected experience but it does somewhat irritate me that, with autoloot, I can't run up to the huge chest that appears after a World Boss goes down and frenziedly click on it along with everyone else. Sometimes I do that anyway and pretend.

LotRO's version is better. All the loot goes into a pending pot, represented by a bag icon at the lower right of the screen. You can open that and peruse the contents as often as you like, pick things you want and leave the rest for later. Given LotRO's severe issues with inventory space this is exceptionally useful.

There are some filters you can set to affect what gets kept and left and quest items automatically update. For F2P players like myself, who may be concentrating on Tasks in the absence of Quests, there's a small problem with task items not updating the count until they're removed from the pending bag and placed in inventory but I've found that enhances my awareness of the Task at hand and to some extent re-establishes the broken connection Shintar mentioned.

The best autoloot system I have seen, by some margin, belongs, surprisngly, to EverQuest. Anyone who played EQ back in the day and never again will be shaking their head in disbelief at this point but that's because they don't know about the Advanced Loot System that was added to the aging game in 2015.

I'm not going into detail about how it works. The above link does that admirably. If that's not enough information, Keen posted a short video walkthrough on YouTube outlining how the ALS works in groups and if that's still not enough, PathToEternity has an exhaustive eighteen-minute explanation that covers pretty much everything you could possibly want to know.

I love the Advanced Loot System. As PTE says, once you're comfortable with it you'll never want to go back to the old version. What's more, every time I play EQ I come away wishing I could bring the ALS with me to every other MMO I play.

In the end, when it comes to looting, what I most value in MMORPGs is flexibility. When I'm starting out, either in a brand-new game, on a new character in an old one or even just when I'm exploring a zone or region I've never seen before, I prefer to click my corpses so I can learn what drops what. Similarly, when I'm soloing and immersed in the world, I enjoy taking my time picking  over the spoils.

Conversely, in a game I've been playing for years, where I might be running dailies I've done dozens of times, killing mobs that hold no surprises and hoping to get it done as quickly and painlessly as possible, I want the game systems to pick up the slack. Not to mention that, when it comes to something like GW2's frenzied, chaotic all-pile-ons, not having autoloot often means not getting any loot at all.

As the MMORPG genre approaches the quarter-century mark, you might think this most basic of activities would have been buffed to a sheen but there's clearly still work to be done. Someone should get on that. These bear parts won't pick themselves up, you know. Oh, wait...

Sunday, November 11, 2018

There's A Party In My Mind...

I've been taking pictures of the games I play since I first discovered the screenshot function in EverQuest back in 1999. Where most of those shots are now, I have no idea. I document what I see almost obsessively but, perhaps unusually for someone who takes so many photos both in and out of game, I feel no compulsion to organize the results.

I'm not entirely blasé about the possibility of loss. I make sporadic attempts to back things up. I have multiple copies of various folders scattered across everything from SD Cards to thumb drives to old hard drives pulled from long-gone PCs.

It doesn't help much. I have no cataloguing system of any kind, not even a paper label stuck to the drive case. If I need screens to illustrate a post about a particular game I haven't played for a while, I generally find it quicker and easier to patch up, log in and take new ones.

It was largely because the LotRO patcher is so infernally slow that I ended up digging around in my so-called archives yesterday. Ten-year old screenshots of Lord of the Rings Online were far from the only thing I found.

It seems that at some point, a year or two back, I made a half-hearted effort to back up screenshot folders from all over the place and stash them on a particular hard drive, where I immediately forgot about them. More than ten thousand screens from Guild Wars 2 (yes, literally that many) I knew about but old shots from my original runs through WildStar, Allods, World of Warcraft, Rift and even Free Realms came as something of a surprise.

Looking through them I found some old favorites and many I'd completely forgotten. The oldest were from EverQuest circa March 2004. That leaves five years unaccounted for, including all the shots I must have taken in Dark Age of Camelot, Anarchy Online, Horizons, Endless Ages and more I can't recall.

In the wake of my recent brush with acedemia I'm minded to make a concerted effort to gather all my screenshots together, put them into some kind of coherent order and back them up properly. I might also have to go through some cupboards and see if there any ancient hard drives lurking there - although I have a feeling I already did that about five years back...

One of the more interesting things yesterday's rooting turned up was the shots illustrating this post. According to the datestamp on the file, they were all taken in February 2006, apparently at a test of the event that restored and reopened the Ulteran Spires in Antonica and The Commonlands.  It was, presumably, part of the run-up to the release of the Echoes of Faydwer expansion, although the timing seems off, since that didn't go live until November of the same year.

I remember the event well but, as is often the case, documentary evidence recorded at the time conflicts with my memories. I was playing on the Test Server at the time, before Mrs Bhagpuss left Oasis (the server not the band, although I guess I didn't really need to clarify that...) to join me. 

What I remember, something which the visual evidence confirms, is that the PC I had then struggled to run EQ2 and that there wasn't a great deal I could do in big events beyond stand and watch a slideshow. The graphics look terrible, which was exactly how the game looked for me for several years. Most of the shots show me standing back while things happen at a distance, which is probably about the only way I could participate at all.

Even so, in the screenshot I've included that retains the UI, you can see I'm in a raid group. I've left the names visible, something I don't usually do, because it all happened in another country and besides which the wench is dead. Or at least missing in action.

That particular shot is both surprising and problematic, not because of the visuals but for what's happening in chat. I have believed for as long as I can remember, and I've stated many times in posts here and conversations elsewhere, that everyone I knew, who came from EverQuest to EQ2, had left within six months of the game's launch in late 2004.

Based on this screenshot, that's not true. In the chat box to the lower right you can see a cross-server conversation going on in a private channel. I'm talking to people on the Oasis server, where the original server we all played on, Steamfont, had only recently merged a month or so earlier. I'm telling them about the event that hasn't yet reached them on Live, while trying not to spoil the news that it ends with the appearance of a bloody great dragon.

One of the people I'm talking to is Mrs Bhagpuss but the other is a friend of ours from EverQuest. This makes me realize two things: firstly that I'd forgotten he'd moved to EQ2 with us at all and secondly that I've been overestimating the speed at which both he and the other people who transferred games gave up on EQ2.

Reconstructing the whole thing in the light of the new evidence, it seems that, rather than everyone having left EQ2 by the summer of 2005, six months after launch, it was actually more like a year later, spring or summer 2006, before the last person we knew finally quit.

One day, as well as cataloguing all my screenshots, I really should sit down and try to draft a timeline of my MMORPG history. When I try to put it in order there are so many contradictions and paradoxes.

I'm put in mind of an evening I spent at the end of my first year in college, when four of us who'd spent almost the whole time hanging out together tried to make sense of it all. We couldn't even agree on when we'd met, let alone who had been where doing what, when or with whom.

Of course, being students as the 1970s turned into the 1980s, we could blame our poor memories on drink and drugs. I've generally been (mostly) sober and always straight when I've played MMOs but memory is slippery.

I've always wished I kept a diary. Above everything, that's why I'm glad I have a blog and why I plan to keep on blogging as long as I play. I should probably archive those screenshots, though...

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide