Wednesday, April 17, 2019

To The Barricades!

Mailvatar put up a thought-provoking post that covered a range of related issues about how video games are marketed and sold nowadays. I read it while I was in hospital and would have loved to reply to it at the time.

The post touched on any number of topics, most of which have been in regular discussion for years, from microtransactions and payment models to celebrity developers and the current buzz phrase, "Games as a Service". I found it instructive to see all these themes drawn together in a single rant.

I've just finished reading Hadley Freeman's excellent book on 80s movies, Life Moves Pretty Fast, in which Hadley makes a convincing case for things not having improved quite as much (or at all) as you might have imagined. What struck me most, though, was less how little some things have changed than how much others have.

I sometimes dither over whether or not I identify as a gamer but a simple look at the facts suggest I may be in denial. At 60 I am too old to have played video games as a child but I was playing them in late adolescence and I've rarely stopped. What that means has changed so much.

In the 1980s every game was a discrete, complete package. A product. The format varied - cartridge, cassette, disk - but the games themselves were always the same: a single, standalone chunk of entertainment that you played until you finished.

Of course, you could replay your game, as many times as you liked, and some games might even have difficulty modes or alternate paths or endings that allowed some variation, but what you bought was, in essence, no different from a video cassette or a book. You could even line them up on shelves and alphebetize them if you wanted.

This wasn't some antedeluvian paradise. Lots of the games were terrible. A significant proportion of them didn't work properly (or at all). If the game you bought was buggy it was going to stay buggy. There weren't any patches or fixes coming down the pipe. There was no pipe.

Because I am hard-triggered by the word "review" and can't help myself, I slapped a wholly irrelevant comment on yesterday's post on Review Bombing at Time to Loot, in which I may have implied that I am above using reviews to guide my purchasing choices. While it's true that I do revere reviewing as one of the finest of fine arts, I am not about to pretend it doesn't also have a practical function.



I remember spending hours reading reviews and promos for new games for the ZX Spectrum and the Amiga, trying to decide which were worth risking money on. Even with all that research the outcome was often underwhelming at best.

As we passed through the 90s things began to change but slowly. In my own case it was the eve of the milennium before I finally embraced the future. EverQuest was the first video game I ever bought that didn't stay the same.

People talk a lot about how the early MMORPGs were prototypes for social media, how they made talking to strangers on the far side of the world an everday experience, and that's a huge part of why those of who were there, then, hark back to those days with such longing. What's mentioned far less often is the way the games themselves changed, constantly, inexorably, unfathomably.

I could lose hours browsing the EQ Patch Archive on Allakhazam. It's astonishing, not only how much content was added as the game became more successful but how radically the structures and processes of the game were revised, revamped and replaced.

As we've seen with the developer notes on WoW Classic, short of literally starting over with the launch-day code, there's no "Classic" version of any MMORPG. All of them, always, are in a constant state of flux. On any day a single change can radically re-interpret part or all of the game.

We've become all-too familiar with game-breaking patches. They seem to come along once or twice a year for most MMORPGs. Usually it turns out the game doesn't break after all because all games are now self-healing. Or, rather, a bunch of over-stretched developers in some office somewhere get to cancel their dinner dates and text hasty apologies to their families so they can stay late at the office and fix what they broke.

We expect this now. And not just in MMOs. It's partly implied in the FOTM marketing term "Games as a Service". It also means companies large and small can get away with releasing games that don't work.


The thing is, they always could. Back in the 1980s, as I suggested, companies released games that didn't work all the time. It was much the same as studios releasing movies that bombed. Keep doing it and eventually you'd go out of business but everyone could get away with a few stinkers.

Are we better or worse off now? In the old days we'd just write off a crappy game as a bad purchasing decision and move on, out of pocket but mostly unconcerned. Nowadays delivering a video game that disappoints brings death threats, even though there's every likelihood the game will eventually work as advertised.

It's unclear and it gets much less clear when you factor in microtransactions. If we're paying a penalty in upfront useability by buying into the "Games as a Service" model, shouldn't we at least expect the corrections, when they come, to be free? It's one thing to have advertised parts of your game missing at launch; entirely another to include them in paid DLC later.

Then, as Mailvatar asks, there's the question of the damage the whole concept of microtransactions makes to immersion, satisfaction and potential. Even if the pricing is reasonable, is it really still

"actively working against any potential a game has to be great. How are we supposed to be immersed, to feel like we’re having an adventure, when big red price tags are slapped right in our faces every five seconds? When we can’t look cool unless we swipe our credit cards some more? When we can’t pick up stuff because we haven’t bought enough inventory space?"
Once again, to no-one's surprise, I'm ambivalent. You see, I already had this issue long before any of us had ever heard or used the term "microtransaction".

In my first two or three years of MMORPG gaming I was one of the most militant of hardliners concerning "immersion". I strongly believed that all loot should only drop from monsters, be crafted by the person who was going to use it, or, in limited circumstances, come from an NPC.

To my way of thinking, trading between players was tantamount to cheating. Even trading between your own characters (twinking) was cheating. I did it, of course. Everyone did. But I kept very quiet about it. It was shameful.

Over time all those militant tendencies buckled under the assault of actually enjoying myself. Turns out getting stuff you want is fun, however you get it. Who knew?


Consequently, by the time we got to cash shops and microtransactions, I didn't much care any more. I still have issues over fair and reasonable pricing but only the same ones I have over any product or service. If they made every single item and ability in the game available via the Cash Shop in most MMORPGs I play I wouldn't object. My days of caring deeply about either immersion or exclusivity are far behind me.

What concerns Mailvatar about all of this is the damage it does, not to the games as they are, but the games as they could be: their potential. I think this is a good point.

It's becoming very plain that games that launch at or close to the best they could be (Apex Legends probably being the standout recent example) are the exception. Most developers seem content to get something out the door as soon as possible, pick up some valuable income on the back of it and worry about the future when it gets here.

Is that sustainable? Probably. Seems to be. Yes, there are backlashes and review bombings and campaigns but worldwide revenues from gaming continue to rise and rise. Individual studios and companies may go under but the industry itself continues to trend upwards.

Naithin, commenting on Mailvatar's post, concludes "I also think it important that we speak up when things tip too far in favour of the commercial" to which Mailvatar replies "basically the one and only ‘message’, if you will, that I tried to get across". I agree.


As Ferris Bueller told us back in the 80s, life does indeed move pretty fast. There's often not too much we can do to stop it, either. Wishing away changes like microtransactions or Free to Play or Games as a Service is going to be about as effective as wishing ever is. The universe does not have our backs on this one.

Doesn't mean we have to like it, though. Or pretend we do. All the changes that have happened over the last few decades incorporate course corrections caused by outrage, protest and complaint. You might think things are bad now; imagine how much worse they could be if everyone had just kept their heads down.

Protest goes in and out fashion. Right now it seems to be on an uptick. Video games aren't global warming or the alt-right (although...) but they're not nothing either. Business practices affect much more than the products themselves; they touch the culture.

Over time, choices matter. Boycotts rarely work but social trends do. If certain ways of doing things acquire negative associations that negativity transfers to sales and profits and that's when change happens.

I'm definitely not suggesting I'd avoid playing a new MMORPG that looked really good just because it came with dodgy business practices but I am saying that, if offered the choice, I'd plump instead for one produced by a developer who appeared to have higher standards. Even if the game itself wasn't quite as sparkly.

Put that on a banner!

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

When You Get Out Of The Hospital

It's been a bit quiet around here for the last week or so, which usually means I've been away on holiday. I was indeed lounging around, doing not very much, but I was doing it in a large hospital, not some pensión in the back of beyond.

As I briefly mentioned earlier in the year I had an investigative procedure that turned out to be positive and last week I went into hospital to have 30cm of my upper bowel removed. Everything went well - the surgeon's report described the operation as "uneventful", which is, I guess, exactly what you'd want your surgeon to say.

There was an interesting moment a couple of days into recovery, when they thought I might have had a heart attack. I was surprised to discover you can have one without noticing. It was a false alarm, fortunately, and I was judged well enough yesterday to come home.

If my ongoing recovery goes to plan, I probably have a month, maybe a month and a half,  before I go back to work. Then, all being well, I really will be on holiday for two weeks in June!

When I go on holiday I usually take a complete break and avoid looking at any blogs or gaming news but in hospital I was often looking for something to keep me amused and entertained so last week I read everything as normal. The hospital wifi, which I was piggybacking (they hadn't bothered to password it) didn't permit any kind of uploading or downloading so I wasn't able to reply to any of the interesting posts.

It's probably a bit late to start now. If you posted something in the last week, just imagine my reply. I would almost certainly have said exactly what you think I would. I usually do.

Since I'm supposed to be taking it easy and not overdoing things I should have plenty of time for blogging and also for trying some new MMORPGs. If I can find any.

That's about all I have to say on the matter except to do the thing everyone always does after they've had some potentially life-threatening condition diagnosed and (hopefully!) averted.


I really had no inkling I was seriously ill. I felt fine. I had some minor pains but they were occasional and familiar. There's no way I'd have gone to a doctor about them. It was just good luck that I dinged 60 in real life last November and because I'm fortunate enough to live in a country with a National Health Service one of my rewards for leveling up was a free test kit for bowel cancer.

Even then, I might easily have ignored it but because I tend towards Lawful Neutral I went along with what I was being asked to do, even though it ended up taking three goes and six weeks to get a definitive result. As a result, the operation I ended up needing has been smaller and less impactful than it would have been had I waited until symptoms appeared, always assuming that by that stage it would have been operable at all.

In countries with socialized health care there are generally a lot of free checks you can get. Medicine is all about proactivity these days. I don't really know how it works it countries that base healthcare on insurance but I imagine insurers would generally prefer to pay less earlier than more later so there are presumably options there, too.

Without getting all political about it, I'd just say that whatever checks you can have, you should have. If they offer them, take them. If you have to ask, then ask. Yes, it's annoying. We all have better things to do with our time than take an afternoon out to go to some clinic and have holes poked in us. Until we don't.

When I'm fit again I need to take my own advice and follow up a couple of other, less urgent, flags that popped up in some other precautionary testing I got free with my 60th birthday. For now, though, I'm going to sit back, drink tea and play games.

Normal service will be resumed shortly.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

Seven Years In Advertising: GW2

Above is a still from a new promotional video for Guild Wars 2. Here's the whole thing:


Here's another one:


Those are from the "Summoned" series. There's another set:"GW2 Tourism". Here's one of those:


That was Divinity's Reach. This is Rata Sum:


And Hoelbrak:

The Grove:


And Black Citadel:




 Finally, there's this rousing call to arms, going out under the noble banner "Play for Free":




I took all of those from this forum thread. It was started by a player but Mike Silbowitz, ArenaNet's Head of Global Marketing, jumped in fast to quell the inevitable suspicions over authenticity and steer the discussion in a positive direction.

Conversation moved along predictable fault lines:

Who is this aimed at? 
"People who are not currently familiar with GW2"

 Why don't you just show gameplay footage?
"CG grabs the eye of that "outside" audience more effectively"

Are these leftovers from the cancelled mobile project?
"All these videos were made specifically for GW2 with the specific intention of bringing new players into our vibrant community".

All of which is perfectly fine, as far as it goes. And it's certainly nice to see some money being spent on advertising the game. It also makes for an intriguing contrast with Holly Longdale's recently-stated position that EverQuest and EverQuest II can get by very nicely with the audiences they already have, thank you very much.

Not that ANet is ignoring the legacy market. After all, as the F2P video boasts, there are eleven million current and former GW2 players out there, somewhere. And there's already a campaign under way to bring them back into the fold.

Without doubt, this new lust for fresh or former blood for GW2 comes off the back of the recent retrenchment, a development that must have placed ArenaNet in a precarious position. All the proposed projects they spent the last five years working on have been summarily cancelled. They appear to have no prospects of expanding, either via new platforms (Console or Mobile) or new products. Their fortunes now rest on a single property, the Guild Wars franchise, currently represented by one very old game and an aging sequel.



What's more, they have precious little to sell off the back of either of them. Guild Wars is officially in maintenance mode, while GW2 hasn't had an expansion since 2016, won't get a new one this year and may never get one. Plus, they already played the F2P Conversion card several years back. It's the very definition of putting all your eggs in the one basket.

Still, you work with what you have. In two decades of MMO gaming I don't think I can recall a single instance of a developer launching a major promotional campaign for an MMO that had nothing new to sell and no new payment model to promote but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.

There are, after all, orders of magnitude more potential customers out there who haven't tried the game yet than those that have. It's just a question of getting them to take notice.

And as I said about Rift, if Trion had been able to launch that game "as is" in 2019 it might well have been quite a success. It doesn't feel "old" and neither does GW2. For most MMOs made in the last decade, aging technology, mechanics or graphics aren't really what's holding them back. Getting anyone to look at them in the first place: that's the problem.

It's going to be very interesting to see how this all plays out, although how we'll be able to assess the success, if any, of these campaigns is hard to see. I very much doubt we'll get any announcements boasting how many digital boxes were sold as a result, let alone any hard numbers on how many people are actually playing.

As the old saw goes, though, all publicity is good publicity. For the health of the hobby, let's hope it works.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Video Games

Tobold posted something interesting today. He was musing on the "core shell model", which he defined as:

"... some core activity of gameplay (which, given how prominent violence is in games, is often a battle), and then a shell around it, which has everything else."

He went on to clarify:

"The shell often has progression elements, like management of experience points and levels, talent or tech trees, and sometimes non-progressions elements like the story." 

Then he explained how it worked in practice:

"A typical player in a typical game of this sort constantly jumps between the core and the shell: Does a battle in the core game, then levels up his character in the shell game, to go back to the core battle with a stronger character."

I'm not sure why Tobold thought the concept required a new name. It seems to me he's describing the phenomenon that was all over the mainstream media a few years back: Gamification.

Gamification is the application of gamelike processes to activities other than games. In Tobold's "core shell model", the whole thing becomes self-reflexive, not to say incestuous, with games themselves being gamified, the "gamelike processes" in question, being drawn primarlily from a specific genre of gaming: the RPG.

Gamification, fittingly, began in games long before breaking out into the wider world. The concept had increasingly been applied within gaming to genres that previously hadn't appeared either to want or need them. Indeed, the supposed manner in which all games were becoming RPGs was quite the controversial topic in gaming circles for a while.

As Tobold rightly implies, it's a battle that's largely been won. Or lost, depending on your point of view. Many, perhaps most, video games being brought to market over the last few years utilize mechanics and structures that would once have been alien to their form: levels, badges, achievements, rewards.


The BBC article linked above takes great pains to trace such devices back to the experiments of BF Skinner, creator of the infamous "Skinner Box" and the system he called "operant conditioning". There was a time when no discussion of MMORPGs was complete without a discourse on Skinner and his eponymous box. It was as common a trope as Pavlov's Dog or  Schroedinger's Cat, and often as badly misunderstood as either of those overused and misapplied metaphors.

These days you barely ever hear it mentioned. The underlying methodology is now so established it's taken for granted. Like every other battleground in the history of video gaming - free to play, pay to win, microtransactions, randomization, games as a service - all territory once defended has eventually been ceded.

Gamification also seems to be a peculiar property of digitalization, another threat mainstream media once reviled  but now appear to have forgotten completely. Going back to Tobold's concept of cores and shells, physical games frequently, indeed usually, have only a core. They tend not to be amenable to Skinner's conditioning except inasmuch as you can structure competitions around winning.

You can, of course, have ranks and levels in a game like Chess. What you can't do, however, is dole those out automatically to anyone who presses the right button. To rank up in chess you have to get better at the core activity, something that's an anathaema to the shell. As for Pay to Win, you can buy all the solid gold, jewel studded, Collectors' Edition chess sets you want but no amount of money spent on pieces or boards will help you win more matches. Unlike Tobold's beloved World of Tanks.

Video games were once far more like their analog counterparts than anything we see today. Pong, Space Invaders, Tetris - all pure core, no shell. I imagine even now there must still be a few new games like that, although I can't bring any to mind. Even the simplest Match 3 comes with titles, levels, badges... who'd play one that didn't?


Is any of this a bad thing? As a lifelong moral relativist I'd have to say it depends.

My natural inclination is to be suspicious of extrinsic reward modifiers to activities that have intrinsic rewards of their own. I often used to suggest, when writing about MMORPGs, that the ideal MMO would have gameplay so compelling, so entertaining, that, were all the leveling and questing and character progression to be stripped away, players would go on playing indefinitely for the sheer pleasure of the mechanics involved.

That has, to a significant extent, been the case for me in some games. There have been numerous times when I stopped progressing my characters or improving their gear, ceased to follow the storyline, eventually abandoned all those "shell" activities, yet still continued to log in and play.

I used to do it in Rift, with the Stillmoor invasions or in Battlegrounds in World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online, all of which I played to excess for the thrills and excitement alone. I was doing it as recently as last night in Guild Wars 2's World v World, where I spent nearly three hours following a Commander for no better reason than that he happened to invite me to his squad while I was doing my dailies and it turned out to be fast, furious fun.

To be worth doing for the sake of doing it, content in an MMORPG doesn't have to be PvP, much though many PvP advocates would like to convince us otherwise. Stillmoor wasn't and neither is GW2's ninety minute meta-event, Dragon's Stand, which I used to do on many a Sunday evening for the sheer hell of it.  Tobold is correct, though, to point out that, generally, this kind of "core" activity does involve combat.

There are plenty of other things you can spend countless hours doing in MMORPGs which don't, of course. The thing about most of those is, they don't really have much to do with "games" in the first place. Whether uncomfortably bolted on or lovingly integrated, building and decorating activities function primarily as kind of crafting hobby within the gamespace, the digital equivalent of knitting or model-making, while collecting is... well, it's collecting, isn't it?


The more I think on it, though, the more essential, the more core, at least some of those "shell" activities seem to be. For an MMORPG, anyway. I'm no longer at all convinced that the goal of great MMORPG design should be a gameplay loop that's so ineffably pure it both encourages and sustains endless, purposeless play. Even were it to be achievable, it sounds disturbingly like wireheading without the wires.

On the other hand, do we really need all our simple pleasures shored up by rewards, scaffolded by achievements, celebrated by badges? Isn't it enough to have fun for fun's sake?

Perhaps that does seem rather a hypocritical question for me to pose right after I've just been praising Rift's reward system for its success in pinging my dopamine receptors. The fact is, though, I played Rift for ninety minutes before starting this post because I enjoyed the questing yesterday and wanted more of it. The rewards are all in the bank, where they'll probably remain.

In the end there's no clear path to perfection or purity and we all know most of these systems exist to separate us from our money. Many have no other function, particularly in the increasingly inapporopriate settings we now find them.

In games that lie solidly within the RPG genre, a hinterland that would include all true MMORPGs, the line between core and shell is much more blurred. As Tobold says, you can have satisfying tank battles without any of the rpg elements. It's hard to imagine how you could take the progression out of a genre predicated upon it being there, although I'm sure someone's trying to come up with a way to do just that even as I type.

Looking back at those apocalyptic predictions from a decade ago, the world doesn't seem to have given in to gamification in quite the way the doom-mongers suggested. I'm not going to earn a citizenship badge for voting in next month's council elections and the new toothbrush I bought this morning is still just a determinedly analog piece of plastic with bristles.

The games themselves, though? Well, maybe that's a different story...

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Moving On...



I waited until today to see if my Rift: Prime character would show up. It was supposed to be the last date for transfers to be completed. Nothing.

I can't even see the Trial server, the aptly-named Reclaimer, on the shard list. That's because you can only see it if you have a character there. Clearly, I don't.

Why not? I'd like to know that, too. I read the full text of the official announcement as well as the forum post and FAQ. Nowhere does it say that characters need to have reached a specific level to be eligible for transfer but I got a hint that that might be the issue when I tried to post a query on the official forum thread.

Since I can post perfectly happily on other parts of the forum I'm guessing that Level 10 is some kind of baseline reality check for Prime. I was under the impression I'd passed that bar because, as I mentioned in the previous post, I thought I'd gotten into the high teens when Prime started.

One of the best things about having a blog is that, at least when it comes to gaming, I don't have to rely on my memory. I looked at the post I wrote when Prime launched. It told me two things: I didn't get anywhere near as far as I imagined (it seems I logged out the moment I dinged eight and never logged in again) and I had far less fun than I thought I did.

My review was scathing all round but I reserved particular contempt for the questing:

"The game dumps you at the wrong end of the starter zone and throws a whole lot more lore nonsense at you before offering you the first of what will be a seemingly endless series of the most mundane, trivial quests ever seen in a major MMO... I honestly think I have never seen so many lacklustre quests in one game. Even the dullest of imported F2Ps has more to offer in terms of wit or imagination than this."
All of which makes it quite ironic that I'm writing this up after spending nearly two hours on a random quest I picked up in Meridian, the Defiant capital. A quest I got so wrapped up in that I almost missed my lunch.

It wasn't my plan to start playing Rift again at all, far less start doing extended quest chains on my highest level character. I kind of fell into it. Or was lured.


As I mentioned last time, Rift can be extremely "rewarding". I've played some Rift most days this week but today was the first time I did any actual adventuring. It was the first day I'd had time. Mostly I've been too busy claiming rewards, sorting inventory and setting up hot bars.

On seven characters it takes a while, especially when every single character has twenty-eight "Rewards" waiting to be claimed in the cash shop and half of those rewards open to spill out more rewards that open to spill out more...

I mean, I like free stuff as much as anyone but this is ridiculous.

It would be one thing if it was just a bunch of old tat, like it is in most games, but there's good stuff in here! The highlights were serious upgrades to the main weapons of several characters and the fastest mounts I've ever owned in Rift for all of them.

The massive increase in generosity is just one of the ways Rift isn't quite how I remember it. The game has changed a lot since I last played it properly but all of those changes were completely invalidated by the Prime experiment. I had no chance to evaluate them there. Pete from Dragonchasers has a post up about why retro or progression servers don't work for him and I share a lot of his feelings on the subject.


Classic or re-start servers have a huge appeal, not only because of the crowds and the buzz and the everyone in it together thing but also because the gameplay is so much simpler. It's all kill mob, do quest, gear up, train skill and after twenty years no-one really needs any of that explaining.

Current "Live" servers sag under the accumulated weight of years, even decades of accrued complexity. Nothing is obvious, self-evident or intuitive. It can be daunting, but....

Mature MMORPGs have a plethora of labor-saving devices, everything from fast travel to auto-populating skills. If you're used to those you're going to miss them and even if you're not you're soon going to run up against the reasons they were added to the game in the first place.

I was unaware just how many such short-cuts Rift had taken since I last played on Live until a conversation sparked off in Level 51-59 chat this morning. Someone piped up to say they hadn't played for many years and the hints and tips began to rain down.

Most of the quality of life improvements mentioned were entirely new to me. I had, for example, no idea the game would now call on items in your main bank to complete quests, for example. With inventory space ever at a premium in Rift that's a potential gamechanger, not least because, at some point since I last played, basic vault storage appears to have been doubled, leaving all my characters with a wealth of free bank slots.


Another change is that falling damage has been completely removed. That seems odd, although very welcome. I also happened upon a quest that downlevelled me from 51 to 15 but continued giving me the same amount of xp I would have got at the higher level. That never used to happen. Telara is still as level-gated as always but who knows how many side doors there might be by now?

Sadly, there don't seem to be any very helpful "What's changed since you last played" guides for returning players. Well, there are quite a few but they're all either out of date or relate entirely to end-game, which, reading up on it, would appear to be so different from the Rift I know that they might as well have given it a new name and put it on a separate server.

I admit to being a little impressed by the amount of work Trion must have put in during the last few years. The whole operation seems a lot slicker and more streamlined than the genial shambles I remember from my earlier visits. Pity they went bust doing it.

It's also a shame virtually none of that good work was evident in the rushed and ill-timed Prime experiment. I can't help feeling that, were Rift able to launch as a brand-new MMORPG right now, with all its improvements and polish, it would be hailed as a breath of fresh air in a stale market.


No chance of that. It seems the only way an old MMORPG can get any attention these days is to  dress up in its oldest, drabbest clothes and offer people a bad time. Misery sells, it seems.

And on that theme, I rather think my run on EverQuest II's retro-fitted Kaladim server might be coming to an end, at least for now. At Level 21 the game is managing to put on a surprisingly convincing impression of what I remember things to have been like not so long after launch. There's really not a lot you can do without a group and what you can do solo is excruciatingly dull. Authentic, maybe. Fun? Not so I'm noticing.

Last time I went around this track I got off at around the same junction (Nektulos Forest and Thundering Steppes). I bailed until the Echoes of Faydwer expansion brought Butcherblock into the game, whereupon I managed another dozen levels before the server shut down and my Shadowknight got forcibly transferred to Antonia Bayle.


I foresee the same thing happening again. Neither am I very tempted by the announcement that EverQuest's fastest-ever Progression Server, Selo, will now feature a permanent 50% xp boost. So far I've managed to drag myself to Level Four on both my Bard and on the Druid I made because leveling the Bard was too slow. That was with the previous 50% xp boost...

It's been an interesting few weeks, all the same. I am, at least, beginning to get some glimmerings of what it is I might want, which is more than I had at the start of the year. And I can't help but feel there has to be a better option than anything currently on offer. A combination of the convenience and comfort we've come to expect along with the simplicity and straightforwardness we once had, perhaps. That would be nice.

If anyone finds something like that, don't keep it to yourself, will you?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Right Now And Not Later: Rift

Yesterday I played four MMORPGs: EverQuest, EverQuest II, Guild Wars 2 and... Rift.

It was like this. I wanted something I hadn't played in a while and Rift... well, Rift was just...there.

It wasn't my first choice. I began with the not-so-mysterious alpha I'm under NDA for and can't talk about. It's been a while. They haven't been in touch. I was getting curious to see if anything had changed.

Something must have because when I went to log in there was a forty-five minute update. I let that run while I looked around for something to do in the meantime.

I thought about Lord of the Rings Online but the inevitable inventory hassle put me off. I considered Dragon Nest  but it's closing down in May and anyway I've already downloaded the mobile version, Dragon Nest M, which appears to be pretty much the same game. Might just as well stick with that.

I looked at Villagers and Heroes, which I've also installed on my new Kindle Fire (my phablet died last month. I am so done with of moble devices either breaking down or me breaking them...). I haven't set up an account yet, though and it was getting late. Really, who can be bothered with the admin?


Gazing blankly at the dozens of possibilities on my desktop, I just happened to notice Rift's distinctive pink blush. That reminded me of Wilhelm's recent post on the closure of Rift Prime and I thought "Hey, didn't I have a character there?" Still half an hour before the alpha patched. Why not?

According to Wilhelm, Prime characters all went to the U.S. Trial Server, Reclaimer. Never heard of it and I'd already forgotten the name when I patched up and logged in. I Only know the name now because I just went to TAGN and the official forum post to check.

At character select I saw my regular seven characters on Faeblight. It took me a moment to remember that in Rift you can move your characters from server to server at will, and another moment to remember how. Once I'd figured it out I saw I had two more characters on two other servers so I figured one of them must be my ex-Prime guy.

The first I looked at was a Level Eight Bhami I dimly remember making for some reason. I'm sure I had a reason...  The other was a Level Nineteen Dwarven Cleric. That sounded about right. I very vaguely seemed to recall getting as far as Gloamwood on Prime before I gave up. That would have put me somewhere in the high teens.

I logged the Dwarf in. He was in Sanctum, the Ascended's Capital-in-Exile. There was a festival going on. There were balloons and bunting everywhere. And people. Lots of people. Rift is one of those games that fills every available space with NPCs so it always looks busy but there were plenty of actual players, most of them on bizarre mounts, skittling about in all directions.


I wandered around the festival grounds for a while. Another thing about Rift: it looks much better in game than it does in screenshots. The pictures in the post don't do it anything like justice. Every time I log in I end up gawking. All the colors pop. There's incredible detail. The set design is first-rate. It's a gorgeous world.

There was an NPC ready to send me to a couple of other festival locations way above my level. I took him up on his offer and spent a while wandering around those, gawking some more. I picked up a weekly quest to do fifty festival games. I thought I might do that but then I couldn't find any so fifty seemed like a big ask

After about half an hour I ported back to Sanctum. I noticed I had mail so found a mailbox (old school!) and checked my post. A ton of freebies. Rift is the most ridiculously generous game with handouts. Always has been.

I took most of the stuff which, of course, filled all my available bag space. Should have seen that coming. I found the bank and stuck some of the excess in there. Then, with a whole bag and a half free for loot, I thought I might do some adventuring.

I was going to go to to Gloamwood but it's a long ride on a slow pony. I could have ported but I couldn't remember where the portal was. I'd already looked where I thought it should have been and it wasn't there.

I was checking something else in Options or Systems, one of those, when I happened to notice the button for Instant Adventures. I'd forgotten all about those. We didn't have them on Prime, of course, and it's probably a year or more since I was on a regular server.


The recommended activity was some kind of event related to the current holiday so I took that. I thought it would be the busiest and therefore the fastest to pop. It was fast, alright. Less than ten seconds later I was in a Raid, running around some huge city I didn't recognize, listening to some bombastic, moderately amusing announcer, who reminded me a lot of that annoying jerk in WildStar, only not actually as annoying, while I tried to keep up with a bunch of strangers, most of whom seemed to have no more idea where to go or what to do than I did.

The quests kept popping, the announcer kept yelling, mobs kept dying and the loot kept flowing. So did the XP. It was chaotic, meaningless and disturbingly enjoyable. As gameplay goes it felt like some kind of parody. The Benny Hill theme music might as well have been playing in the background.

I was getting xp and loot before I even found my fellow raiders. When I did I realised I only had two skills on my hotbars, one attack and one heal. Didn't seem to matter. I just spammed those. No-one said anything. No-one cared.

I did a full level in less than half an hour. I was there just long enough to hear the announcer begin to repeat himself as the "Raid" cycled back through the point where I'd come in. It seemed to be on a continual loop. Groundhog Day gaming.

The loot was piling up, mostly in sealed bags, and I wanted to see what I'd got so I bailed. Back in Sanctum I sterted to unbox and soon my inventory was full, again. In thirty minutes the "Raid" had trebled the money I must have made in the previous nineteen levels so I bought another bag slot for my vault, then I did a circuit of Sanctum looking for the auctioneers, found them, bought a bag, went back to the bank and sorted myself out.


Once again, Rift proved to be the most generous of all MMORPGs. Half an hour in that "Raid" netted me not only a full level and a big chunk of cash but also several pets, three or four pieces of cosmetic gear and a load of useful consumables. I could play GW2 for a month and not get a haul like that. Possibly a year.

It was motivating. It shouldn't have been but it was. It made me feel I'd not wasted my time. Odd, because really I had. The event was purposeless. The gameplay required literally no skill at all. It hadn't mattered a jot that I didn't know what any of my abilities did; it made no difference whether I used them or not.

Getting a bunch of stuff you aren't going to use, on a character you don't care about, in a game you don't intend to go on playing, by doing things that take no skill or understanding, should not be satisfying. But it was. And fun. Let's not forget fun. What's more, it made me want to play again. And sort out my characters. Get some of those pets and cosmetics moved to different people, who'd appreciate them.

If I'm not careful I could end up playing Rift again. Probably won't. I might, though...

And I still don't know what happened to my Prime character. That Dwarf can't be him. He was wearing a few things made by one of my other characters (Rift puts the maker's name on crafted gear) and I don't think that would have been allowed on Prime. Which, in turn, begs the question "Who was that Dwarf?"

I think I'll just go log in again. There's a mystery and I ought to get to the bottom of it or they'll revoke my Scooby card.

I never did get around to that alpha, either...

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

There Is No Mystery Left: EverQuest

Pete from Dragonchasers posted yesterday about his preferences when playing various kinds of video games on console or PCs. Among the differences he mentioned that shiboleth of gaming, immersion:

"I find that playing on console ... There are fewer distractions and I tend to play for longer sessions which also helps with immersion...

On the PC I’m constantly distracting myself with FOMO around Twitter or Discord. I run with 2 monitors and always have social media up on monitor two and constantly scan it. Because of this I just don’t “sink in” to a game quite as much; my attention is always divided."

This triggered me. I got a flash memory of playing EverQuest in the distant past. Shivers.

For many, EQ was the very definition of "immersion", a true virtual world, where people set up home, lived their lives. That scared people.

These days we hear very little about the supposed addictive nature of the hobby but back then MMORPGs were frequently cited as potential mental health nightmares. In the early 2000s, one of EverQuest's most widely-used nicknames was EverCrack, a reference to the infamously addictive and soul-destroying cocaine variant that was by far the most demonized drug of its day.

I have no extant screenshots of EQ before about 2004. This looks likes a very early version of the moveable, windowed UI.
The mere fact that I felt I might need to gloss "crack" when mentioning it 2019 is an indication how quickly these things change. I listened to a very interesting item on BBC Radio Four last week that asked the question "why is crack cocaine rarely mentioned in the news these days?" to which the answer appeared to be "because the crack epidemic went away".

And why did the drug that the media spent so much time and energy warning us about not turn out to be the apocalyptic scourge they predicted? Luckily the program had an answer: apparently all that endless, hyperbolic publicity gave the drug such a bad name it actually did terrify people to the point that the curious wouldn't touch it, demand dropped, tastes moved on (or back, in many cases, to regular cocaine). The juicy crack stories dried up and, by and large, everyone forgot about it.

For a while. As anyone who's been around for longer than a couple of decades soon begins to realize, these things are cyclical. If you google "trends in crack cocaine news stories" you'll find that, as reported, ironically by the BBC, crack is back.

As in drugs, so in music, movies and gaming. What was old is new again. What goes around comes around and like that.

Fortnite, of course, is the new EverCrack. Or it was last year. Are people still worried about Fortnite or are we on to some new demon already? The roundabout keeps spinning faster and faster. It's hard to keep up.

And this appears to be a slightly later, cleaner version. Actually, this is better than the UI I use now...

Getting back to EverQuest, what Pete's comments made me think of wasn't so much the addictive rush of early EQ as its sheer purity. He's absolutely right about the modern approach to MMORPG gaming on PC. Compared to the original experience, what we enjoy today is adulterated, fractured, incomplete.

One of the reasons frequently cited for the decline of the genre is the contemperaneous rise of social media. It's become a truism to assert that turn-of-the-century MMORPGs were the social media of their day. For many hundreds of thousands - millions - of people, playing an online game provided their first and for a while their only experience of talking in real time to friends and strangers around the world.

This is entirely true. What's less well-reported, I think, is the focus the primitive technology of the late 20th and very early 21st centuries brought to the mix. In those increasingly difficult to remember days we tended to do one thing at a time. Well, perhaps not one. Fewer, though. Certainly fewer.

If you played EverQuest you had to concentrate on that. There were consequences if you let your attention slide. Corpse runs. Experience loss. Misery and despair.

More than that, the game itself resisted distraction. You could not tab out to look something up on Allakhazam let alone check your email. EverQuest could not be windowed. It used all your screen space and all your processing power. You played it until you'd had enough then you closed the program and did something else.

There are surprisingly few images of the original UI online and I strongly suspect that those there are come from P1999.

Unless you were bad. If you were, you might download a piece of third party software called Win-EQ which, among other things, allowed you to play EverQuest in a window. Illegally. Against the terms of the EULA. Risking a ban should you be caught.

I'd been playing EQ for several years before I even heard of Win-EQ. When I found out what it was I wanted nothing to do with it. It was cheating. No-one I knew (and at that time I knew scores of people in game) admitted to using it. It was for bad people.

We goodies sat and medded with our spellbooks open, filling the entire screen. I played for years with no distractions or media other than the official EverQuest display, a nine-inch square inside a UI that filled the rest of my 14" CRT monitor, my only contact with the outside world the chat box at the bottom center of the screen. That was immersion for you.

I did sometimes hear of people who had two PCs running at once. I occasionally grouped with someone who had Netscape upon on a second monitor so they could check things on Caster's Realm or EQ Atlas. We did in fact have two PCs in our house from early 2000, with Mrs Bhagpuss playing EverQuest in one room and me playing EverQuest in another. I don't think it ever occured to either of us that you could have two in the same place...

As for internet access via a handheld device, well that was the stuff of science fiction. Imagine it - something the size of a paperbook book or even a pack of cigarettes that you could tap with your fingertips to look up what spells a Level 27 Druid got or where to go for the Level 24 Mage pet. Fantasy!
I envy even this level of simplicity. Although why I have Group and Target on the right I cannot imagine...

What I had, in point of fact, were three ring-binders with sheafs of paper printed out from the various essential online resources. And a book to read during long med breaks. After a couple of years I also started to listen to the radio while I played, if I was soloing. An actual radio, in the room with me, not some online app.

Perhaps, looking back, the experience wasn't entirely pristine but it was undeniably less diluted by distractions and diversions than it has been these last dozen years. I never tabbed out at a loading screen and found myself twenty minutes later, watching Rilo Kiley on YouTube with no memory of how I got there.

As Pete says, consoles don't generally dicker with such dilletantism but they can't stop you from having your laptop open beside you on the couch, your phone on the armrest, your tablet on the side-table. Nothing any games designer can do can prevent you from spoiling every surprise or taking a wrecking ball to your sense of immersion if that's what you want, or if that's what you can't help yourself from doing.

Genies can't be put back in bottles even though that's a quest we've most likely all done, successfully, many times. The wave of faux-retro MMORPGs still in development hell - Pantheon, Lucimia, Camelot Unchained et al - all rely to some extent on reviving and recreating that sense of immersion and community. Holly Longdale, in the numerous interviews she's given for EQ's 20th, has been hammering home the rediscovered belief at Daybreak Games that "social dependency is who we are".

It may be who they are. But is it who we are, any more?
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