Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Losing Focus

So, I'm back at work, albeit on short hours for a couple of weeks, hence the sudden drop-off in posts here. That said, after several months of continually finding more to write about than I had the time to get to even with all day to myself, things seem to have gone somewhat off the boil.

Something that Wilhelm said in a comment on a recent post about WoW Classic chimed with another something that I noticed, going back to work after four months away: talking about the Blizzard Boycott he observed "I can’t tell what impact the boycott is having, if any ... Of course, there is a very good chance that this is just another thing that the weirdo hardcore players like us have noticed and nobody else cares."

Having worked in the book trade for over twenty years, I have always had a fair idea what's trending in both popular and serious literature, who the hot, new names are and whose star is fading along with their sales. I keep up with what the current "must read" titles are for the dinner party circuit and what's being read on the bus today, only to be found clogging up the second-hand shelves tomorrow.

In that bubble it's easy to believe that all these things are central to the culture; that everyone is talking about the new, break-out young adult title or the debut novel by that woman fresh out of university. They're not.

In a long summer of absence from the trade, I spotted just one newsworthy publication that struck the wider culture with sufficient impact to penetrate the wall of disinterest that holds the written word penned in its largely forgotten corner. When I got back to work and read the lengthy in-house guides to the titles that had done well this year and of which we should be aware for the coming peak sales period, the one and only name I recognized was "The Testaments", Margaret Atwood's belated sequel to The Handmaid's Tale. I very much doubt I'd have heard even of that one title had it not been for the original novel's strong afterlife as a movie and a t.v. series.

That's not to say that people aren't buying and reading books; they are, albeit in smaller numbers than they once did. Nor am I suggesting that those who read don't talk to each other about their experiences with the printed page. Were it not for the visual media's strip-mining of published fiction for source material for movies and television, however, I strongly believe that most of even the best-known stories and characters would have very short and subdued lives indeed.

If you doubt it, take a look at the New York Times' best seller lists going back a few decades and see how many names you recognize. Then subtract all the titles you know mainly from the movies and tv shows they spawned.

The whole Blizzard fiasco has seemed like a big deal because we've all been talking about it or choosing not to talk about it, and it has had some currency outside of the gaming bubble: undeniably the involvement of elected politicans has brought the issue into the wider political arena. That said, I very much doubt that I could walk down the high street of the city where I live and find one in a hundred people who could even tell me the name of the company responsible for World of Warcraft, let alone give me a summary of the trouble that company is in right now.

What's more, based on my long familiarity with the deep lack of interest of most players in the origin of the MMORPGs they are playing, it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest to discover that hardly anyone playing WoW these days even knows there's a problem. I'm so used to people acting  surprised by the content, or even the existence, of regular game updates that the idea the average player pays any attention to anything beyond whether the servers are up or not seems notional to me.

Video games are big business but I wonder how many gamers know or care who makes them? I can say from personal experience that it's a rare book buyer who can name the publisher who puts the work of their favorite author into their hands. What does or doesn't happen at Blizzcon will tell us how upset or otherwise those who've been paying attention are but what would really interest me is finding out how many of WoW's millions and millions of current and former players even know Blizzard runs an annual convention for fans of its games.

Maybe most of them do. It's on the log-in screens, after all. But how many players read that stuff? And of the ones who do, how many pay any attention to what goes on at the convention itself?

It's a big world, after all, and there's a lot going on. All the time. Taking a few months out really brought it home to me how specialized and insulated my own professional sphere of interest is. When I retire in not too many years from now I imagine that will be about the last I ever learn of what people are reading these days. I could make the effort to keep up with those trends but you can bet I won't.

I'll be just like everyone else. If it's not advertised on the side of a bus I won't know it exists.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Saturday Night In The City Of The Eyes: Neo Cab

Around eight-thirty last night I'd about had enough. I'd started maybe twelve hours earlier and I'd been at it ever since, with the usual breaks for food and excercise.

I'd been thinking about blogging but I'd come up empty on ideas again so I decided to give myself a day off. No reason to force it it if the feels aren't there but before I gave up for the night I flipped down the roll to see if anyone else was feeling more inspired than I was.

There was a post by Bhodan at Backlog Crusader that caught my eye: Neo Cab (PC) Review – A Dystopian Uber Simulator. That's a header just packed with hooks. "Neo" and "Cab" are triggers for both cyberpunk and noir and I already consider the real-world Uber to be one of the four motorcycle outriders of the coming Dystopian Apocalypse. This might be something.

I read the review and my intrigue, already piqued, spiked. It would be redundant to repeat Bhodan's detailed take on the game, not least because they've played the damn thing and I've only seen the demo. If it's true that "When you meet a new face, they do feel like a pastiche of a stereotype: a doomsayer, rebellious teenager, chill sage, mysterious lady – you name it. Meet them for more than once, however, and you will begin to see behind their mask", well, I wouldn't know, would I?  In the demo you only get that first face-off.

What I will say is this: it's a hell of a demo. For a start it hangs on and won't let go. I guess you can close the app to get away but if there's any kind of Pause or Save or "Come Back and Finish This Later" button, I couldn't find it.

The demo downloads in a minute or two via Steam and plays perfectly. I say "plays". It does feel more like an interactive graphic novel than a game. Not that there aren't gamelike elements. There aren't many but if I have a criticism it would be that even "not many" is too many.

There's this thing called a FeelGrid that you end up strapping to your wrist. It's like a 1970s Mood Ring only it works. Lina, the protagonist, gets it as a gift from Savy, her quondam and to-be-again BFF and the game presents it in glowing, positive terms. I thought it seemed like something the STASI would have used.

I found it ironic that Lina and Savy would willingly submit themselves to 24/7 unrestricted public exposure of their emotional state at the same time as decrying the intent and will of corporations to subject the population to something not at all disimilar but that may well be wholly intentional. Cognitive dissonance is endemic under neon lighting.

Leaving the ethical and philosophical subtext in the box, the thing is a damn pain when it comes to gameplay. The main effect it has is to block you from taking some of the listed options when you talk to your passengers (aka paxs).

The idea is you can't deviate from Lina's emotional state and the FeelGrid tells you what that is. If she's angry the game won't allow you to back down or make peace or just put on a professional face, keeping all your seething inside so as to protect your rating. Which would all be well and good if it didn't also leave the alternate replies on screen for you to click on in frustration, trying to dial the situation back a notch, before you realize you don't actually have a choice.

That's about the only thing I didn't like. Everything else was spot on.

The tone is perfectly judged. There's a brittle edge to everything from the beginning. Lina doesn't know what she wants, Savy, her friend, is clearly lying out of both sides of her grim little mouth, every pax has an agenda they're not revealing even though you can clearly see it sticking out of their top pocket...

The visuals are muted, spare, typical and effective. There's a deal of less being more going on here. I took over forty screenshots in ninety minutes and honestly I could have taken twice as many. Not because of anything that happens on screen but for the dialog.

The writing is sharp, pulpy, clever. There's nothing original here but someone knows what all the parts are and where they fit. You can see the gears moving. I like that. The story, what you get to learn of it in the demo anyway, is intriguing. Not unexpected but enticing.

The characters are key. Lina is floundering but struggling hard to stay afloat, Savy is... I hated her! Okay, hate may be too strong but I wouldn't trust her to open a jar of pickles, something she spends most of the time looking as though she'd just eaten. The last thing Lina said to Savy when they fell out years before was to call her selfish - on the evidence I've seen that would count as a compliment. I'd say she was self-obsessed, bordering on sociopathic.

Evidence? What would you think if your ex-best friend got in touch out of the blue, after never speaking to you for years, to invite you to move cities to share an appartment with her. Then, when you arrived just before midnight, tired after the long drive, she strung you out with a load of excuses about what a bad day she'd had before leaving you to drive around the city while she went clubbing?

Plus she has a sour face and talks like the worst kind of hypocrite. Compared to Savy, all three of the paxs Lina picks up are joy unconfined. And they really aren't.

What they are is convincing, compelling and in two out of the three cases laugh out loud funny. I found the Neo Cab demo to be one of the best laughs I've had for a while. 

The first pax, a would-be photographer on a year's sabbatical from his "real" job (which he doesn't explain and about which the game doesn't allow you to ask) just seems like a nice guy. When Lina picked him up by the side of the road in the middle of the desert I was getting ax-murderer vibes but he's cool.

The next two pick-ups are your choice. There are several calls but you only need to make a total of three for your quota. I picked Gideon, who turned out to be a teenage girl with a boy's name, locked in a spacesuit called a Kiddiemech (I think it was...). Her mother, Yancy, put her in it when she was four years old after a car hit her and she can't get out of it until she turns eighteen. Not even to sleep.

She is, understandably, pissed. She made me laugh out loud more than once. She reminded me of me when I was about sixteen although I was neither rich nor sealed in a spacesuit. I did want to set the world on fire just to see it burn, though.

When Gideon gets into the car in her suit Lina hopes she's going to turn out to be a robot, which is some gorgeous ironic foreshadowing right there. Her final fare turns out to be two German "tourists" who appear to have stepped straight out of a Blade Runner parody.

They've heard that American taxi companies are starting to use robot drivers and they don't believe Lina can be human. They insist on putting her through a hilarious version of Phil Dick's Voight-Kampff empathy test. Theirs even has a soundalike compound name, the exact detail of which escapes me but the first name was Higgs.

The questions become increasingly surreal and sexual. I was quite surprised that Lina took it all as well as she did. I was expecting her FeelGrid to lurch into the red at any time but it stayed solidly in the green chill out zone. She seemed to find the whole thing as amusing as I did.

I guess after the pax that she had before, the one that just jumped into the backseat without going to the bother of using the Neo Cab app, then started ordering her about, a couple of nerdy Germans with an AI fetish must have come as light relief.

The demo wraps on something of a cliffhanger. It also leaves Lina alone in Los Ojos with nowhere to sleep and no news of Savy's current state of existence beyond her smashed phone, found in an alley.

I am in two minds whether to buy the game. It's very well done and I enjoyed the demo a lot. But boy, was it intense. After an hour and a half I felt drained. There's a lot of moral decision making and I don't find that much fun. I like everything to be nice and I place a huge value on politeness. I find games that only give me dialog options that I consider aggressive or rude to be trying and Lina's FeelGrid sometimes pushed me down that road further than I felt comfortable with travelling.

Still and all, I managed to score a maximum five-star service rating from all three paying customers and the freebie liked me even though I yelled at him a lot. That did feel satisfying.

Chances are I'll buy Neo Cab eventually. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes this kind of "moral decision" gameplay although I do get the feeling that no matter what choices you make the whole thing is going to play out like an animated movie anyway. I think I'd prefer it was a movie. I'd definitely watch it.

The demo is worth an hour and a half of anyone's time, though. I might play it again, if that's allowed, just to see what the paxs I didn't pick have to say for themselves.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Blood Moon Rising: EverQuest, EverQuest II

Following on from yesterday's interview with Holly Longdale, today we have two Producer's Letters from her, one for each of the EverQuest titles. Both reveal the name of their resepective upcoming expansions, details of the various packages on offer and a few (a very few) details on what to expect.

There's also a tentative beta date for testing the new content. Pre-orders for the EQ expansion open next week on Wednesday 23. There doesn't appear to be a date yet for ordering the EverQuest II version.

As soon as there's an order button to press, I will be buying the basic pre-order package for the EverQuest II expansion, even though I have absolutely no intention of entering the beta to which pre-ordering provides access. My days of testing content I'll be playing live only weeks later lie deep in the past.

This year, in addition to the usual three grades of opt-in - Standard, Collector's and Premium - there's a fourth, "Family and Friends". Both games are getting the new offer, described as "...an experiment based on years of requests from players who like to share their generosity, families, guildmates and others" and about which we are warned "The bundle is set at a high price point".

The main feature of the new deal, which also includes all of the contents of the lesser packs, is a range of tradeable items and services, including mounts, character boosts, character slots and even another copy of the expansion itself.

I get the impression the team are nervous of being called on this one over what will almost certainly be an eye-watering price tag but it's quite true that people are always asking for the option to buy services and items for other players in the EQ games. The claim that this is "by popular demand" is almost certainly based, at least in part, in reality.

Won't stop the very same people who asked for it from complaining bitterly about being gouged and scammed but that's the community in a nutshell. And I would be ecstatic to find myself proved wrong on that...

Norrath has (at least) three moons: Luclin, Drinal and Morrel. There also three other known planets in the Ro system, Anbeal, Cordan and Trorsmang, none of which I had ever heard of until this morning.

The EverQuest expansion, the twenty-fifth, is called "Torment of Velious" so we know where that's going. The contents are as you'd expect:
Torment of Velious brings you a level increase from 110 to 115 with new spells and AAs, gear, and content with 6 new zones, and quests, raids and more.
My days of trying for cap in EverQuest are over, I believe. Expansions play to the established base that lives at end game and I haven't been domiciled there since 2005's Depths of Darkhollow.

My highest EQ character is a Level 93 Magician, who I boosted to 85 with the original Heroic Character freebie and soloed the rest of the way in the following five years. I could carry on doing that and maybe reach the current cap by the time I'm seventy. I think I'll pass.

There is an alternative:
On November 5, in support of EverQuest II’s 15th anniversary, we are going to be launching a new type of progression server, named Miragul, that will start at the House of Thule expansion that launched in 2010. You start as a Level 85 Heroic Character with live server experience rates, and all the trappings of a server that starts with a level cap of 90 with in-game housing, loads of raids, over 800 AAs, and more.
That is quite tempting. I could start at 85 on a brand new server and level up in the many PUGs that will surely be clogging /lfg for weeks. I'd have the same starting gear as everyone else and House of Thule is about the last expansion of which I have personal experience and a little knowledge.

The thing is, Miragul opens on the same day EQII launches its own new server, Rivervale. This is a regular server with no funny ruleset, Just a straight new start because, as Holly says, "It’s been a LONG time since we’ve added a new one". It's "Membership Required", which I find both interesting and revealing. I think F2P for the EverQuest franchise is all but dead and buried now.

The new server experience is more than enough on its own to draw me in. I will definitely be making some characters there. How long I'll play them for is anyone's guess.I wouldn't expect it to be more than a week or two, but I thought that when the Freeport server started and I ended up playing there almost exclusively for five years.

I think this is Drinal but don't hold me to it.

The forthcoming EQII expansion, due some time in December, will probably put a stop to any futzing about on new servers. Titled "Blood of Luclin" it kicks off the long-awaited return to Norrath's once-shattered, now restored moon. I have always been a big Luclin fan so I'm not about to miss that.

As with the EverQuest expansion, detail is limited so far but it appears to be exactly the "more of the same" most core players want and expect:
This expansion will bring you a level increase from 110 to 120 for adventurers and tradeskillers with new quests for both, signature lines, and more as you explore Luclin.
We’ve got all new solo, heroic, and raid content, including new challenge modes and contested raid fights.
There is one new feature, about which I am less than enthusiastic. Called "Overseer", it's one of those agent mission deals about which I have read plenty and thought the worst. I forget which games have similar systems except that I know World of Warcraft used it in whichever expansion added Garrisons and I think I've seen it but never used it in some F2P titles.

I made a decision when I was about twenty-five years old that one thing I never wanted to do in my work life was manage or supervise other people. I've never regretted that decision. The idea of becoming a virtual supervisor or, in this case, Overseer is about as unattractive a concept as I can imagine.

That said, the EQII team is good at this sort of thing. I really enjoyed the Tradeskill Apprentice system that came with earlier expansions. Maybe it'll be more fun than it sounds.

It's a particularly busy Autumn for EverQuest II because not only do we have the expansion on the way but it's also the fifteenth anniversary. Fifteen isn't the most significant of birthdays but it does end in a five so it deserves some recognition.

This too, probably.

We're getting an event about which we so far know nothing other than its name - Dragons Attack - and the date it begins, November 7. From the little that has been revealed so far ("Join with all Norrathians for Dragons Attack, because you’ll need them to conquer the challenges!") I would guess either a Public Quest (maybe several), a community collect-and-build project, a series of open-world attacks similar to WoW's lead-up to the Legion expansion or all of the above at once.

Whatever, it all sounds like fun. The end of the year looks like Back-To-Norrath-time for me.

Last and very definitely not least, as hinted in Holly's interview it seems we'll be learning some hard facts about the future of both Daybreak Games and the EverQuest Franchise in just a few weeks time:

Keep your ears perked in November for even more news about our teams and our commitment to the franchise.

I'd take that to mean we're going to find out what all those new trademarks are for and maybe even get some indication of whatever new EverQuest game is in development. We may finally have something to bite down on when we chew over the fat.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Don't Start Me Talking... : EverQuest, EverQuest II

Yesterday, as Wilhelm pointed out in the comments, I magnificently managed to miss the post-hook I'd been waiting on for weeks. Instead I chose to witter on about how I had nothing to write about. Comedy gold.

The news I'd missed was that The EverQuest Show had put up their interview with Holly "Windstalker" Longdale, Executive Producer of the EverQuest franchise. They were also good enough to provide a full transcript, which I've read. I haven't watched the video so anything that's given away by facial expression or body language is going to have to wait until I do.

As Wilhelm says, there aren't any major revelations but there are several tasty morsels of detail and a whacking great hint of something big to come. The whole thing doesn't take long to read but I'll pull out a few of the more interesting quotes anyway:

EQ Show :
How are the games doing?

Holly :     
...since 2015 , since I came on board, breaking all the rules both games have grown. So where we had a trend of the audience trickling off, we’ve now grown and we’ve grown revenue at the same time, so we’ve actually hired some people to fill out the teams...
Well, that's reassuring. And surprising.

It's been my consistent impression as a player and customer that, despite the surrounding intrigue, chaos and conspiracy theories, and notwithstanding the sequential layoffs and downsizings, my playable experience has undergone continual improvement throughout Daybreak Games' curation of the franchise. Even so, I would have guessed that both the audience and revenue for EverQuest II in particular would have decreased over that period. EverQuest, I would have imagined, would have done well to hold steady.

That both games have grown both numbers playing and money taken is fantastic news for those of us who want to see Norrath prosper. As Holly says, after fifteen and twenty years,

"It is staggering that both these games are still profitable ventures..."

Part of the reason for this turnaround is, as we more than suspected, some smart and effective managing of players' nostalgic affection for the franchise and the life experiences it has given them over two decades:


...obviously nostalgia is really important to our players. Being able to revisit places we visited 15 years ago. 16, 20 years ago. 

That accounts for the popularity of the Progression servers but there's more to it than that:
...we’re trying to be smart about the content we do do... We don’t want to go too far out... I know we’ve been to the moon and back but you know, we don’t want to go too much farther and too much crazier than that. So we want to go back to those themes and develop those stories.
That's why almost every expansion is some kind of return to versions of the past:  areas, regions, continents or (coming up, we all believe) moons that players know and remember from the core game and from earlier expansions. It's not just a clever re-use of assets, although I believe there's some of that too; it's a key turned in the lock that opens the heart.

It's a policy that means Live players are as entangled in past glories as are those engaged in Progression. They are different audiences and the same all at once:

EQ Show:
How do you balance the TLP players, with the LIVE players, because they seem to be two vastly different groups playing the same game.

They are. But they’re also almost equal to each other now, in numbers.
That's another surprise. Although we all knew the Progression servers were doing well it's only natural to assume the bulk of the game is on the Live side. I imagine an expansion year with level cap increases for both games will unbalance (or balance, if you prefer) the ship a little but clearly the future of the franchise lies in the past.

Or does it?

EQ Show:
...a lot of people have asked, what are you guys going to do with the intellectual property... is there another game in development? 
I can’t talk about what’s in development. But I promise you there is a future for EverQuest. I promise you. There’s a lot of work has gone into evaluating our past. We’re in a really unique position where we have more than 20 years worth of data on players and what they like in MMOs and MMOs we’ve made. Why wouldn’t we take advantage of that when we craft something new for EverQuest?
Which is about as broad a hint as the PR person, who was confirmed to be in the room making sure nothing got said that shouldn't get said, would allow. I read that as confirmation that DBG are working on another title in the franchise and that, unlike the ill-fated and ill-advised EQNext, it will be squarely aimed at the faithful.

As one of them I can't but be happy to hear it.

There's a lot more in the interview that's worth reading or watching or listening to for any dyed-in-the-wool EverQuest Franchise fan. There's stuff about the dedication of the team and their insistence on doing work on the EverQuest games in their own time; there's confirmation that they've had to learn how to do more with less, something I personally feel has contributed to the improvement in the games that I mentioned at the top; there's aknowledgment of the lag and database issues currently dogging the games and there's even a little squib about the upcoming re-organization of the whole Daybreak portfolio.

I'll leave you with Holly's reply to Fading from the EQ Show's "final" question:

EQ Show:

Final question I’ll ask you. How long is this game going to be around?


At least another 10 years.

EQ Show: 

You think so?



Works for me!

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

I Got Nothing

For the first day in about as long as I can remember I don't have anything I want to write about! There's nothing in the gaming news that strikes me as worth commenting on, I haven't read any posts I care to bounce off and I'm not doing anything much of interest even to myself.

I imagine some will be intrigued by Riot's slate of new titles but never having played League of Legends the news isn't really pushing any of my buttons. If they were planning on an MMORPG set in LoLworld I'd be a lot more interested but that's supposedly right off the table.

Anyway, I find it increasingly hard to work up any kind of real excitement about games that won't be available to play for several years. These days I wonder if I'll even be around when it happens. And if I am, will I still care?

Something that is happening right now is the launch of ArcheAge Unchained. I did play and enjoy ArcheAge back when it was new but the degree of enthusiasm for the Buy to Play relaunch strikes me as a little odd. I always thought it seemed like a fairly middle-of-the-road, ordinary kind of MMORPG, although I appreciate it has some potentially interesting PvP systems.

Were I in the market for a new MMORPG I would probably avoid AAU and go for Astellia, although most of the commentary so far has been the very definition of lukewarm and I notice the trickle of posts on the game has already dried up. As it goes, however, I am very much not in that particular market. I have literally more than enough games to play already.

Mostly I'm backing the old favorites. I'm doing my dailies in Guild Wars 2, often staying to spend an hour or two in World vs World. When I logged in this morning I saw the annual spookfest, rebranded for 2019 as "Shadows of the Mad King" had returned.

Please form an orderly queue. ArcheAge Unlimited is currently over-subscribed but we are expecting a new server any time now...

I read the extensive patch notes before logging in but even though it looks as though there's plenty of new stuff, when I examined the detail in game I found very little of any interest. There are two new collections but they give rewards I don't want. The coffin shield is nice but I have no-one who uses a shield and the sword is just awful.

The so-called "collections" are, of course, nothing of the kind. ArenaNet use the term "collections" as a euphemism for what every other MMORPG would call "quests" and these are particularly irritating quests at that. They require completion of content in two game modes I don't play - Dungeons (which I thought ANet themselves had abandoned) and Fractals. Even if the rewards were worth having I'd balk at those.

The event drags on for weeks so I'll probably end up doing a few bits and pieces but it feels very stale. EverQuest II, meanwhile, has its own, far superior, Halloween celebrations going on and layered on top we also have the latest iteration of Gear Up, Level Up!, a sequence of pre-expansion preparation boosts that now happen every year.

This event runs in phases. There may well be a time when I feel I need to jump in but this isn't it. The rewards are triple Ethereal Coins with additional Double Currency for Members (I thought we always got that but I may be confused). The rewards stack, so Members will get six times the regular drops of Ethereal Coins.

That's a major incentive for people who get the coins in normal gameplay, namely most people for whom EQII is the primary MMORPG. I am not one of those people so it's all a bit notional for me.

There is also another strong incentive in Phase One: "Limited Time item drops can be obtained from Chaos Descending missions crates and will grant you a bonus based off of their type, such as Research Reduction".

Don't push, please. It's strictly first come, first served.

Research reduction is also a big deal in EQII and the supposed need to buy potions from the cash shop to accelerate the speed of research is often quoted as proof the game has become "Pay to Win". If I was one of the people who believed that I might be logging in to take advantage but I'm not so I'll pass.

Other than GW2 and EQII, I'm mostly still playing World of Warcraft Classic. I haven't disinvested and my sub still has a few days to run. Whether I'll pay for another month after I go back to work next week remains to be seen. I'm still enjoying myself but it is incredibly time-consuming. I suspect it could move from being a pleasure to an obligation as available time grows short.

As for posting about Classic, even though I don't have the kind of strong feelings about it that many others do, it does feel as though there's a general agreement not to mention the game at all for the time being.

I kind of wish I'd never commented on the whole sorry farrago in the first place, although to have avoided doing so entirely would have been a statement in itself, I guess. I have other political concerns that task me far more strongly at the moment so it seems a bit strange to be discussing Blizzard's faux pas in the Far East rather than addressing what I see as far more immediate and worrying issues much closer to home.

For what it's worth, I do feel that, if we continue along this road of ceasing to engage with companies that do things of which we disapprove, it won't be too long before our entertainment options consist of
pickling, whittling and staring into space.

Maybe that would be a good thing. I already enjoy two of the three and I'm sure pickling has its moments.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Fifteen Minutes

It's Tuesday so let's have some tunes. I said that once before. God forbid this gets to be a regular thing. Although there's not much chance of that - it's back to work for me next week so there won't be many posts on Tuesdays from now on. Probably.

I'm almost to the bottom of the bucket of ideas for musical topics I filled up back at the start of Blaugust. About last on the list was songs about real-life people. Or real-life fictional people. Real is as real does.

I kinda went there a couple of times already with the posts about David Bowie and Superheroes but it's a deep mine to dig. I particularly like the more out-there celebrations of celebrity (or, occasionally, non-entity). There's no shortage of them.

Take Ladilla Rusa. They're a pair of Catalan journalists from Barcelona with a breakout hit (still their signature number) called Macauley Culkin. The band's name means "Russian Brick". It probably has some significance that's going right over my head, which, I guess, is pretty much what you'd want a brick to do.

The lyrics, not all of which consist of relentless repeats of the gurning childstar's name, appear to be a re-telling of the plot of "Home Alone", one of John Hughes' non-teen comedies that I've never seen. It's been quite hard work avoiding it but I've managed so far.

According to Google Translate one line reads "they gave me a pout tupper". No, me neither.

There's a connection between that choice and what's coming up next: don't try to guess it. You won't. It's Barcelona.

I was on holiday, alone, sometime in the early '90s when I conceived a desperate need to buy a CD. I had no means of playing such a thing and I'd never, before or since, felt any such desire in similar cirumstances, so the reason remains a mystery. Regardless, I went into one of the Catalan capital's largest record stores, FNAC, ("a large French retail chain selling cultural and electronic products" according to Wikipedia), where I purchased an album by a band I'd never heard of, something I am wont to do. 

I probably just liked the name, Pizzicato 5. They went on to become my favorite Japanese band, an admittedly restricted field, and this paen to sixties' icon Lesley Hornsby is one of their best. 

The video is also a cracker, or would be if you could actually see it through the VHS blur. It's "live" on The Word, an anarchic after-closing-time show equally loved and hated for its combination of lowbrow crowd-pleasing and scathing nihilsm. Bands always seemed to go particularly hard on its floor-level non-stage and Pizzicato 5 look about as animated here as I've ever seen them.

Since I appear to be on some kind of Barcelona tip, let's really go for it with an eleven-minute epic filmed at the city's Primavera Sound Festival last year. 

Let's Eat Grandma are one of my absolute favorite discoveries of the last handful of years. I came to them in a peculiar fashion via an interview with Boy George and I fell in love with their layered, hypnotic, histrionic, playful sound. They were famously young when they released their first, stunning, album and they're maturing incredibly quickly into one of the richest, strangest gifts modern music has to offer.

Donnie Darko is one of several coruscating jewels on the duo's second album, "I'm All Ears" and this live version really doesn't give it the full treatment, although it more than makes up for what's lost in emotional depth by what's gained in sheer performance power. 

Oh, what the hell... let's have it again. This is a much stronger version, performed live on JBTV, whatever or wherever that is. This one has a taste of the heartbreaking clarity of the recorded version in the coda, something that made me tear up the first time I heard it, as well as the bouncing exhuberance of the first nine minutes.

From the utterly sublime to... Transvison Vamp. Wendy James' glam-punk stylings were treated - at best - as something of a novelty act back in the late 80s and early 90s. I confess to not paying much attention at the time although I always thought they gave good value on Top of the Pops.

Rediscovering them on YouTube a quarter of a century later I find they've aged astonishingly well. Like Shampoo and Patsy Kensit's Eighth Wonder, there's a corrupted naivete to them that never really goes out of style. Also, I can forgive Wendy pretty much anything for "Hanging Out With Halo Jones".

Andy Warhol is one of those people about whom everyone has an opinion and his star just keeps on ascending, so I guess it's not surprising there are so many songs about him. David Bowie must surely have been the first with the eponymous "Andy Warhol" from 1971's "Hunky Dory"while Lou Reed and John Cale came up with an entire song suite with 1990s eulogy "Songs for Drella", Drella being Warhol's portmanteau nickname, derived from a cut and shut of Dracula and Cinderella.

There are two songs called "Andy Warhol Is Dead". Well, at least two, that I know of. Transvision Vamp's is positively cheery (and weirdly familiar...) compared to Sharon Needles' techno-goth impaling. Let's have 'em both!

As Andy aptly demonstrates, there's nothing like a celebrated death to see your name commemorated in song. Natalie Wood outlived Rebel Without A Cause co-star James Dean by a couple of decades but she was only in her early forties when she drowned in not-entirely clear circumstances off Catalina in 1981.

She was always something of an icon in France - what American movie star of her generation wasn't? - so it's no surprise to find this tribute to her by French Chanteuse Jil Caplan, who was an impressionable sixteen years old when the actress died. Very catchy chorus...

You don't have to be famous to find yourself passed down into history by means of song. You just have to know someone who owns an acoustic guitar. The folk tradition sometimes seems to consist of barely anything but tales of the everyday exploits of ordinary people, an extraordinary number of whom seem to have been away with the fairies, quite literally.

The brief and elusive Psych Folk movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s had rather more ethereal matters to contend with as it took to the astral plane (don't worry, it's not more Donovan...) but Bonnie Koloc found time to record this haunting tribute to her aunt in "My Aunt Edna".

Okay, it's not a title to rival "Jumping Jack Flash" or "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" but it's a good tune all the same. Sadly no video although there is one for the bizarre 2012 dance remix.

Finally, let's end with the ultimate in songs about people who may or may not be "real" - Poppy singing about herself. 

I've been following Poppy (literally - hers is one of only half a dozen YouTube channels I follow) since she was "That Poppy", which isn't actually as long ago as I thought, now I look it up. I did seriously consider joining The Church of Poppy but her merch is a bit on the expensive side. I'd still like one of those pins, though.

Nothing unusual in that. After all, everybody wants to be Poppy. Don't they?

These days, post all the Mars Argo trauma, Poppy and Titanic have gone a bit psycho-metal for my tastes. I preferred Poppy when she was, well, poppy.

That's probably enough name-dropping for one day. Don't worry, though, I have plenty more where those came from...

Monday, October 14, 2019

Backwards Into The Future!

When I posted on Saturday about revisiting the Vanguard Emulator project I didn't menton that it wasn't what I'd planned to do with my time that morning. Vanguard was, in fact, the fourth MMORPG I tried to play that day. The first three wouldn't let me log in at all.

I started with Riders of Icarus. It's now been about three months since all my account details were copied to the new owners, Valofe or VFun, whatever they're calling themselves these days. It's also been six weeks since they began Live operations for the game and six weeks since I was last able to play.

None of the suggested fixes or workarounds have made any difference. I still get Error 602 (or occasionally Error 612) when I try to log in. The game remains unpatchable and therefore unplayable. I hadn't tried for several weeks and I imagined that, in the way of these things, the issue would have been resolved by update, but it hasn't.

Although, as my post history attests, I like Riders of Icarus a lot, it was also always a very disposable pleasure. Maybe I'll play again one day, maybe not. It doesn't really bother me either way.

I really liked this auto-generated name and I would have used it but of course it was taken. Kind of defeats the object of having a name generator in the first place, really.

An MMORPG I've played, on and off, for a lot longer than RoI, and enjoyed more, is Dragon Nest. It's another game that's changed ownership several times and it may be the MMORPG I've replayed from scratch the most of all. I think I've made new accounts and started over four times now - it might be five.

A year or so ago the publisher of the EU version of Dragon Nest gave up on it and since then there's been no official way for EU/UK players to access the game. There are still NA and  SEA versions up and running. I have the NA version installed and on Saturday I clicked the icon on my desktop to see how far I could get.

The game patched and presented me with the login screen. I had my correct details to hand. I input them and they were accepted. Then the game informed me my IP was out of bounds and that was that.

I could, of couse, use a VPN to get around the lock but I'm not that desperate to play. Particularly not when there's yet another version available to everyone  - Dragon Nest M.

The latest incarnation of the eternal Dorah.

DNM is the mobile version and I've had it installed on my Kindle Fire for a few months now. I've tried it and it plays very smoothly. It's not identical to the original but it's very similar. Visually it's a fairly faithful translation. The storyline seems to be identical (and still insane) and the gameplay is familiar, although a lot of typical mobile progression sysyems have been bolted on.

The thing is, I don't really like playing games on a hand-held device. Somehow it just doesn't feel... satisfying. Which is how I came to have my Big Idea on Saturday.

Why not play the mobile games I like on my PC? How hard could that be? Not hard at all as it turns out.

I googled for "Android Emulators" and got a selection of lists and recommendations. I read through those for a few minutes then picked one to try. I went for NOX, supposedly one of the easiest to set up and use. 

Their strapline is "The Simpler The Better" and they're really not kidding. I can't remember the last app or program I tried to install that worked so fast and was so immediately intuitive. It took less than five minutes and I didn't have to read a word of instruction. Everything was entirely obvious and it all just worked.

The original Dorah from the PC version. Actually, I think this is the remade Dorah from the EU game, which I believe was an update from the original.

Except for one thing: the search function returned "No Results" for Dragon Nest. That seemed odd, given that I can log into Google Play and see Dragon Nest M right there. After a bit of fiddling I somehow managed to get a few results from the NOX version of Google Play but when I clicked on them they just took me to YouTube trailers for the game.

It was at this point, with emulators on my mnd, that I logged out of NOX and fired up VGEMU instead. After lunch, though, having played and posted about Vanguard, I returned to NOX to fiddle about with it some more.

This time I decided to try anoother mobile MMORPG I used to play and enjoy, the weirdly-ignored Celtic Heroes. I first played Celtic Heroes on my iPod Touch. Yes, on that tiny screen, over a decade ago.

I first mentioned Celtic Heroes on this blog in 2012, when I said "...time to sit in the garden and play Celtic Heroes on my iPod, perhaps. Been meaning to write something about that one for a while..." I did go on to write about it in some detail four years later, at which point I mentioned the game was already five years old.

From the intro. Everything looks better from above.

And it's still going. I downloaded it via NOX and took a moment to set up keyboard and mouse  to override the expected touch-screen controls. That, again, was ridiculously simple and straightforward. Within a couple of minutes I was playing, using WASD and the mouse exactly as though it was a regular PC game.

I ran through the Tutorial as an unregistered Guest. That took about fifteen or twenty minutes. I remembered most of it very clearly, hardly surprising since this is another game I've restarted several times.

When I got to the end of the tutorial I decided I wanted to keep my progress so I registered a new account. I thought it would carry my guest credit over but it didn't so I'll have to do the Tutorial over again. Or I might make the effort to find my old account details and see if they still work. I think I had a character in the twenties. The level cap, last time I checked, was over 200!

With that all having gone so well, yesterday afternoon I decided to try and find Dragon Nest again. I was still getting "No Result" (couldn't even find the YouTube video...) when I had another bright idea. Since I could find the game on Google Play I just went there via Firefox, copied the URL and pasted it into the search field on NOX and voila! There it was.

I think my mage has attention defecit disorder. Leave her alone for five seconds and she starts playing with her wand.
I installed DN through NOX, made a new account and logged in. A bit if fiddling with the controls and once again I had a fully playable WASD/Mouse MMORPG. I played through the first few instances and cascaded to Level 15.

Compared to the original PC version, Dragon Nest M is visually cluttered and very busy. In typical mobile fashion there is something happening every moment. There are many upgradeable systems, all with Star ratings and ranks.

The basic game underneath all the clutter seems relatively unchanged. They seem to have re-voiced some of the dialog. Dragon Nest was always loosely translated, shall we say, in that oddly endearing fashion that so appeals to me in imported games but it differed from most by having voiceovers that vary wildly from the written text. 

DNM seems to have doubled down on that by having different voice actors doing the dialog for the same character. I'm guessing they may have carried some of it over from the original and then added some new lines on top. I particularly enjoyed the way Timothy changed from a deep-voiced English actor to what sounded like a Korean exchange student doing an improv workshop.

"I really wasn't in that mood". Thanks a bunch, Tim! You just stand back and let me save your girlfriend without even a word of thanks. It's fine. Why else did I come all the way back here from the future?
After about three-quarters of an hour I had to stop to go for a walk because the sun had finally come out for the first time in about three days. I will be playing more Dragon Nest, though, and more Celtic Heroes. Also other Mobile MMORPGs if I can find some.

MMORPGs on Mobile seem to get either bad press or no press at all in this part of the blogosphere. I can't help thinking that has as much do with the nature of the devices themselves rather than the quality of the games. Celtic Heroes, I am certain, would have been well-received had it launched in 2011 as a PC MMORPG. It looks quite old-fashioned now but back then it would have been fine.

Both games were busy. I saw lots of players in the Tutorial and starter zones. Having found a way to enjoy these titles on the big screen and with controls that feel familiar I look forward to exploring more. Recommendations for fully-fledged Android MMORPGs welcome.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide