Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Goodbye, Path of Fire. Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out.

I spent most of today playing Guild Wars 2, which isn't all that unusual. What was different from a run of the mill day off work was that I spent pretty much the whole time in the new content that came with yesterday's Living World update.

I think the last time that happened was probably Season Three, Episode Five, Flashpoint, the one that introduced us to Draconis Mons. I liked that map. I spent a good while completing it and generally goofing around there.

That was all the way back in May 2017 but most significantly it was before the release of the last expansion. The long and the short of it is that I don't much like anything about Path of Fire, and that very much includes the entirety of the Living World/Story Season associated with it. I don't like the look and feel, the mechanics, the plot, the characters and I very especially don't like the mounts.

Perhaps the best thing about LS4.4, A Star To Guide Us, is that it feels, if not like the end of an era, then at least like the beginning of the end. I'm more than ready.

I guess the real beginning of the end actually came in the last episode, when Palawa Joko, one of the most tedious, cliched, derivative villains I've ever had the misfortune to have to sit and listen to, died. Really died, as in gone for good, never coming back. In case anyone's in doubt or denial (and many seem to be) the permanence of his departure gets some heavy emphasis in the narrative this time around. 

Of course, as anyone who has ever read a comic or played a video game knows, no-one ever really dies. It's kind of a feature. What's more, in this very episode, the one in which several people, my own character among them, state with absolute certainty that Joko won't be coming back... well, I'd better not say any more.

Even so, I think we're free of the pest for a while. There's a distinct feeling of decks being cleared and pages being turned. The new map feels quite significantly different to all the others that came with the PoF expansion or the previous chapters of this Sesson. It may be connected geographically but it seems existentially separate.

As I was playing today, at one point I caught myself wondering whether this was the last episode in the Season. It can't be, of course. There would have been an announcement if it was.

Still, it's mid-September. They're going to have to go some to fit another one in between Halloween and Wintersday, although last year, if I remember correctly they did allow a Living World release to overlap the midwinter festival.

Whether we get Episode Five at the end of this year or the start of the next, either way I would bet on the next one being the climax of Season Four. I think it will set up the announcement for the third expansion, which will arrive sometime in Summer 2019. There will be no Living Story Season Five until after that beds in, so probably around October/November next year.

Or I guess they could wait another year. I don't think the finances will stand that, though. You can see from the financials each quarter how heavily they rely on the uptick from expansions.

I know there was a lot of brave talk in the first couple of years about never having any expansions ever but we saw how well that worked out for them. The game is on the expansion treadmill now and it won't be getting off until it follows the original Guild Wars into maintenance mode.

ArenaNet also once claimed they weren't going to make any more MMOs after GW2, the game they planned to operate and update indefinitely. It's been running for six years now and it probably has at least as long again to go, but some players are starting to get itchy feet. I've noticed an increasing number of in-game comments lately speculating on "Guild Wars 3".

There's even a thread about it on the forum - it was on the first page for a while but the flurry of posts following the update have pushed it on to page two. I wonder if the OP there is on to something when they say "...if ArenaNet does reach the point it can develop and maintain another MMO without having to send GW2 to the curb, I believe they should start up a new story entirely. Guild Wars was great, Guild Wars 2 is great...Guild Wars 3 would be too much."

Anyway, for now and the foreseeable, GW2 is what we have and as of this update it feels surprisingly fresh again. I am even more frustrated now than I was yesterday about not being able to discuss the story here. There's a lot to discuss. Maybe I'll get back to it when a few weeks have passed. Problem is, by then we'll all be on to something new and it won't seem as urgent.

One thing I will say is that the final instance is brutal, but in an entirely different way to usual. There's no awful, dragged-out boss fight. Instead there's a timed jump puzzle that has to be done on a mount. It's also currently very badly bugged, to the point of unplayability, which is traditional.

Nevertheless, I did manage to complete it, by means of a combination of workarounds, multiple deaths and brute force. Even though it was unfair and infuriating, I enjoyed it. I don't think I could honestly say that about any Episode finale since the Living Story moved to instanced content.

What's more, the penultimate instance is also brutal and unfair and I enjoyed that one too. For the first time in a very long time I am seriously considering taking a second character through the story for my own amusement and to see how it plays with a different class.

A Star To Guide Us isn't perfect, not by a wide margin, but it's a major improvement on what we've been used to over the past year and for that we can be thankful. If it's also laying down a marker for the future tenor and direction of the game, well, no-one will be happier about that than me.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Ice Cream For Crow : First Impressions of GW2's "A Star to Guide Us"

When I posted a sour, pessimistic reaction to the recent trailer for Guild Wars 2's next Living Story episode, I confess I was hoping to be proved wrong. Despite my supposed ennui, when patch day came I found myself anticipating the drop with something not dissimilar to excitement.

ArenaNet always update on Tuesdays, almost always at either 3pm, 5pm or 8pm U.K. time. Three o'clock passed without incident but at ten to five, just as Mrs Bhagpuss and I were on the jumping puzzle stage of the Legend Builder torch collection, the ten minute warning sounded.

By five past five I was patching and by a quarter past I was playing. I didn't stop until just now, around nine. I haven't been playing solidly all that time. There were various bag-clearings and natural breaks. I guess, though, that I've put in a solid three hours on the new chapter, working solely through the main narrative.

This minute, as I type, my druid, who always does the Living Story stuff, is tapping his foot impatiently in the new, upgradeable instance, Sun's Refuge. I took possession of it at the end of part three and that's the only spoiler I'm going to let slip.

I have a theory about spoilers: even saying you aren't going to give spoilers is a spoiler. If someone tells you there's a twist at the end (or in the middle) of a movie, that's a spoiler, even though they don't give you a single clue what the twist might be.

When it comes to the story in A Star to Guide Us there is literally nothing I can say that wouldn't be a spoiler. The meta-spoiler is that if I were to tell you the spoilers, boy! would they be spoilers! I exclaimed out loud once and sat back and goggled several times. There is a lot in this episode that I did not expect.

Probably most people who've been paying attention to the MMO news this year will remember that there was a sudden change of personnel in the GW2 story department back in July. Whether that had a material effect on this episode I have no way of knowing.

Certainly I imagine there won't have been any time to change the plot, which means this very welcome return to what I consider to be the real main storyline has probably been in the works for a good while. There may, however, have been an impact on the scripting. It feels that way.

In recent episodes I've gotten used to groaning or shaking my head at some of the sloppy dialog, in-jokes and all-round loose writing. This time, so far, there's been none of that. Everyone sounds like they're taking it seriously for once, which doesn't mean there's no humor and no jokes but that those there are seem to derive - fairly convincingly - from the characters and the situation. It's a relief.

As well as benefitting from significantly above par plot and dialog, gameplay is similarly improved. The first three chapters of this episode are blissfully free of either over-repetitive set pieces or inordinately long and/or complicated boss fights.

There's a modicum of repetition in Part One, A Shattered Nation, and moderately lengthy fights in both Part Two, Chaos Theory and Part Three, Legacy but none of it annoyed me. Most of it I enjoyed. It seemed to me that someone had actually listened to the complaints that fill the forums after every Living Story - the same complaints - and instead of dismissing them as usual, for once decided to do something about them.

There is still the final battle to come, of course. I have no idea what that will entail but there will inevitably be a Big Boss. I just hope the lessons continue to have been learned there, but even if they don't, the earlier stages represent an improvement and a hopeful sign for the future.

The new map, about which I was very sniffy before I'd seen it, is possibly the best new map since the last expansion (although I did quite like that one with the lost Charr tribe). Any fears about the innate ugliness of a Branded map turned out to be entirely misplaced.

Branding, for those who don't play GW2, is something the Elder Dragon Kralkatorrik does to landscapes and people that turns them purple. It's not pretty, or at least it hasn't been in the past. Only somehow, now it is.

Visually the new map, Jahai Bluffs, is spectacular. Unfortunately for ANet, that on its own isn't enough any more. Their art department is a victim of its own success. Work that would draw huge praise in other MMOs is both expected and taken for granted here, not least by me.

Also, because they tend to be rigorously authentic within their own design specifications, it's becoming increasingly difficult to raise any enthusiasm as we arrive on what must be the tenth or eleventh desert map in succession. Well, they found a way to change that up. Not saying any more. Spoilers.

So far so good, then. Indeed, so far so much better than expected. I have a free day tomorrow so I hope to finish the story, even if there is the expected attritional boss fight as a capper.And then I still won't be able to say anything about it for a while, which, based on what's happened so far, is going to be the most annoying part of the whole shebang.

Nice to be able to say that, for once.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

In My Element : EQ2

I count myself lucky, growing up in a culture that worships irony as a god. I've have never had much difficulty holding two contradictory ideas in my head at the same time.

It seems quite normal to me and it's a skill that comes in very handy at times. With the ink scarcely dry on my last post, the one with all the entitled whining about the formulaic nature of current-day GW2, here I am again, posting in praise of something equally predictable, happening in another MMO.

The way that I found out about the upcoming EQ2 expansion and the associated event came with ironic overtones of its own. Massively OP reported it ( not once but twice), both times off the back of tips from Wilhelm at TAGN. That made me wonder about a couple of things.

How come a website like MassivelyOP, which exists primarily to recycle puff pieces from MMORPG comany PR departments, needs to be informed by a reader about the official announcement of a new expansion for a well-known game that they cover regularly? Do DBG not send out press releases any more? Or is MassivelyOP no longer on their mailing list?

Maybe it's just that no-one at M:OP has time to read them. We're all busy these days and I imagine Massively gets a lot of mail. Perhaps that's all it is; a simple oversight.

Or maybe they're having trouble with their feeds, like I seem to be. After all, how come Wilhelm, who rarely plays EQ2 these days, knows about these things before I do? Particularly since I have both EQ2Traders and the main EQ2 News from the official website in my Feedly?

You're a big man but you're out of shape.
I can at least answer that one. I just checked the RSS feeds and the EQ2 News one was dead. I fixed it and now it's fine so I should be as up to date on all things EQ2 as anyone from now on. Feedly claims there's nothing wrong with the EQ2Traders link so I guess I'll just have to keep a closer eye on it. Maybe I should add it to my Blog Roll. I use it far more than Feedly these days, anyway.

Sources nothwistanding, I do now know that there will be an expansion for EQ2 this November. Then again, contrary to Massively's suspicions, we did already know that. It was in a Producer's Letter sometime back in February. The thing we didn't know is that it will be called Chaos Descending. Odd name. Then again, we had Kunark Ascending a couple of years back and I guess what goes up must come down.

Other than the name, all we know so far is that we're staying in the Planes. In the last expansion, Planes of Prophecy, we visited the Planes of Magic, Disease and Innovation as well as dropping in on the gods Karana and Solusek Ro in their respective fortresses (Bastion of Thunder and Sol Ro's Tower).  We also got to spend time in what appeared to be the lobby to the Plane of Valor without ever setting foot in the plane itself.

Oh, and after we put Innoruuk back together we got to visit the Plane of Hate, too. Which was nice. Or rather it wasn't.

Can't say I didn't warn him.
None of those are actual elements, though. This time round we get to go to the proper Elemental Planes: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Or as we call them in Norrath, the Earthen Badlands, the Kingdom of Wind, the Burning Lands and the Unresting Waters.

And then there's the Great Library. Is that a Plane? Oh, wait, you don't think it might be... the Plane of Knowledge? Now that really would be some nostalgia, right there. I hope that's what it is.

At this point I was going to speculate on what the expansion might contain. There's an established pattern that goes back the best part of a decade to The Shadow Odyssey in 2008: one or two overland zones, a bunch of instanced dungeons, a couple of raids and a Signature Quest to take us through all of them. Then there are a few mechanical innovations (aka gimmicks) and a new gear tier.

Every two or three expansions brings a level cap increase. We had one last time so we won't be getting another. Indeed if, as is rumored, this is the final expansion for EQ2, we'll be staying at Level 110 for ever.

For the past few years we've also had a pre-expansion event and it's always been roughly the same. Something Strange starts to happen all over Norrath. A team of investigators, representing one of the many academies, colleges, churches or governments, sets out to get to the bottom of whatever's going on.

Hit things 'til they break? I can do that.
No matter which institution is in charge they always follow the same methodolgy:  bribe a bunch of adventurers with trinkets to go and kill anything that looks weird and bring it back in bits to be experimented on. This time the Strange Thing is raging elementals and the investigating authorities are the Mage Schools of Freeport and Qeynos.

I spent more than two hours helping Freeport’s Academy of Arcane Science this morning. The introduction to the event was even more perfunctory than usual and the quest itself took less than ten minutes, half of which was finding the main questgiver, who was hidden away in the sub-basement of the Academy in a room whose intentionally obscure access protocols reminded me what very different games MMOs were back when EQ2 was young.

This looks like a good spot, Hattie.
None of that mattered a jot when I got stuck into the gameplay. It's exactly what I want from an MMO. There are Elemental Tempests in over thirty of EQ2's open world zones, allowing characters of any level to join in. Each spawns a series of raging elementals, which you get to kill for pleasure and profit, before you deal with the Tempest itself.

The Elementals need to con at least green to your character so I went to the highest-level zone, Plane of Magic with my max-level Berserker. Even though most of the mobs are two-ups and flagged "Heroic", they turned out to be so weak I had trouble targeting them before my Mercenary finished them for me.
Got. Got. Got. Want!

I found a lovely spot on the East zone rim where there are four spawns in a row. The Tempests have a five minute respawn timer which was just about right for doing them continuously. All the elementals drop whatever any elemental might and the Tempest always drops one Elemental Storm Shred, the event currency.

There's also a collection which requires twelve body drops from the elementals. That was how I came to spend two hours there. Collections have that annoying diminsihing returns thing going on, where the more items you have, the harder it seems to be to get the ones you still need.

And of course it often is harder, because developers set the drop rates and they like to make some rarer than others. I set myself a limit of one hundred Shreds and when I hit that buffer I still had one spot in my collection unfilled.

I am very glad I stayed as long as I did because although I didn't know it at the time the rewards are fantastic. Not in the way the Days of Summer rewards are (those are very significant combat and progression upgrades for any casual or semi-casual player) but in the exact way GW2 rewards almost never manage to be.

Cool and refreshing!

EQ2Traders has a great gallery of the full list of things you can buy but even there the pictures don't do them justice. Lots of the house items have particle effects or moving parts and many of them just look beautiful.

The two outfits are truly splendid, with glorious elemental effects. I am going to get them for a few of my magical types - they do look very wizardly. And it goes without saying I have to have the kitten. Prices are extremely reasonable and at the rate I was getting the Shreds I foresee no problems in farming as many as I need. And enjoying it, too.

As the lead-up to the expansion continues we can look forward to the now-traditional Gear Up, Level Up event, intended "to help you get your characters ready" for the expansion. What with that and Yun Zi's help it does make me wonder just how tough the new zones and instances are going to be if we need all this gearing up before we even get there.

Whther my characters are ready or not, I definitely am. The simple fact is, I'm more energized and excited by this underwritten, under-resourced content,  predictable and formulaic as it undoubtedly is, than anything I know of coming down the pipe in GW2. It's not that content needs to be original or fresh or inspired - it just has to be what I want. And this is exactly what I want.

It's going to be very sad if this time next year I can't sit down and bash out a post about how much I'm looking forward to the next EQ2 expansion. That's very much been a theme of this blog almost since the beginning. Fingers crossed those rumors are wrong. Maintenance mode would be fine for GW2 but EQ2 can do so much better - and deserves to.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Faults In Our Stars : GW2

Guild Wars 2 has the honor of being the first MMORPG I have played where I actually groan when I hear there's going to be new content. Specifically, new Living World content.

There was a time when I looked forward to the story moving forward. As I've said all too often, we never knew how well off we were when we had Scarlet to entertain and infuriate us. Even in recent times there have been some moments. That trailer...

Mostly, though, things have become teeth-grindingly formulaic. It's been getting harder and harder to summon up any enthusiasm let alone excitement. Today I hit an all-time low. Flatlined.

There's a new trailer for Season 4 Episode 4, which goes by the name "A Star to Guide Us". It appears to have been designed to send us to sleep. I don't believe I have ever seen a promotional puff with less, um... puff.

Composed almost entirely of flashbacks, with one of those voice-over narrations directors like to use when they aren't confident anyone will know what's going on otherwise, the compilation of clips centers on the young dragon, Aurene.

Aurene is a cipher at the best of times and her character model gives her the unfortunate appearance of a badly-maintained carnival float. I have always struggled to take her seriously, although she did a pretty good job of changing that at the end of the last episode when she... but, no. Spoilers!

Yes, some people still haven't played through Episode 3. I know this to be a fact because one of them is Mrs Bhagpuss. She lost interest in the plot years ago and since she also detests the boss fights she tends to put off doing the instances until the last minute. In the case of Episode 3 the last minute has yet to arrive.

I did finish it. It wasn't as bad as some. I thought at the time, though, that I'd had about enough of riding on this roundabout. I no longer have much interest in even exploring the new maps, far less farming them. I think the last one I spent any significant time in was... no, it's gone.

Looking on the bright side, there seems to be remarkably little combat in the new trailer. Actually, none at all. I suppose it would be too much to hope for an entire non-combat Episode? That certainly would break the mould.

As for the rest of the update, it looks staggeringly uninteresting. There's aforementioned story and map, as per usual. Minus points for making the map Branded - the ugliest visual theme in the game. Then there's a raid. Never going to see that. Don't care. And a new Legendary weapon. Ditto. Oh, and let's not forget a Mastery for Mounts. Or rather, let's. I hate mounts.

So far so meh. There are two properly new things but I don't like the look of either of them. What's more, I don't trust them, either.

One is an "Upgradable Armor Set". As someone asks at the start of the forum thread on it, "What does this even mean?" I don't know but I'm guessing it's a) grinding and farming and b) wriggle room for ANet over the "no more gear tiers - ever!" promise. If you can't go high, go wide.

The other innovation also threatens to scratch an itch, which sounds fine until you remember that scratching just makes you sore and irritated. Sun's Refuge is an "upgradeable instance" modelled on the one in the Nightfall expansion for the original Guild Wars. I didn't like the concept then and I doubt I'm going to like it any better now. It's an annoying, cheap and deeply unsatisfying way to imply the game has housing without actually putting any housing in the game. Much like the existing "personal Instance". Only worse.

What with all this "upgrading", the recent revamp of the ArenaNet website and even the World Boss widget in the Gem Shop, I strongly suspect we are being softened up for something. Possibly an expansion announcement, possibly a new game in the franchise (a mobile game, undoubtedly), possibly some kind of app.

I could do without all of it. I'm reaching the stage with GW2 where I'm beginning to wonder if I wouldn't actively prefer "maintenance mode". After all, WvW has been in effective stasis for years now and I still play it pretty much every day. If anything, it's most likely going to be the major revamp that finally gets me to stop.

And I do my dailies every. single. day. without fail, even though they're the always the same and have been for years. Not just on one account but three! And I do World Bosses regularly even though most of them haven't varied in style or substance for longer than Scarlet's been dead.

GW2 has an infinitude of repeatable content already. Some of it competitive, some of it co-operative, some of it solo. Sometimes you have to  wonder if we really need any more. The same could be said of many MMORPGs.

In the end it's the illusion of change that we chase, anyway. About the only MMO that genuinely rips up the playbook every couple of years is World of Warcraft and the rumbles of discontent over that are growing ever louder. And someone may be listening, because isn't Battle for Azeroth the most "more of the same" expansion yet?

Of course, all ANet have to do is release a blisteringly good episode with a fantastically satisfying implementation of all those new ideas, a thrilling narrative, a stunning new map and some amazing gameplay and I'll have to come back next week and eat crow. (Not that I'd ever eat a crow. I love crows).

Here's hoping.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Easy Pieces

On Sunday I researched and wrote a massive post on Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong and his recent investment in Daybreak Games. It took me several hours and naturally only one person commented (thanks, Mailvaltar!).

I knew that would happen. It's one of the unwritten rules of blogging: the more time and effort you put into a post, the less attention it will receive. If you want feedback, post a single paragraph, preferably one that makes some kind of off-the-cuff, smart alec point that popped into your head thirty seconds before you sat down at the keyboard. Even better if it doesn't take much longer than that to type it up.

Lenny Bruce had a routine based on the Lone Ranger. For anyone not old enough to remember either of them (actually, I don't, since they both reached the peak of their fame in the 1950s), Lenny Bruce was a vitriolic and highly controversial stand-up comedian. The Lone Ranger was a television series about a masked cowboy, famous for righting wrongs then riding into the sunset before anyone had time to thank him.

I first heard the routine on a vinyl double-album I had when I was a teenager. Those of us growing up in what Lana del Rey perceptively and evocatively called "the freedom land of the 70s" often felt surprisingly less free than we imagined teenagers of the 1960s or even the fifties must have been.

We also felt we'd been short-changed by the culture. The 1950s had the beat poets, Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs. The sixties had... well, the 60s had everything. We had Marc Bolan and The Bay City Rollers. It didn't seem quite fair.

So, I spent a good deal of time burrowing about in what then seemed to me like the deep past - ten or even twenty years before. Much the way adolescents right now are mining the nineties and beyond for what seem to them to be lost, forgotten gems.

The near past was an inexhaustible treasure-house and in those days it had the added frisson of being barely accessible, too. With no worldwide web and everything analogue you took what you could find in the bargain bins and junk stores and counted yourself lucky if you found anything at all.

I have Woolworth's tenpenny bins to thank for my cut-out copy of William Burroughs Jr's "Speed", probably the title I'd quote if asked for a book that changed my life, although it did nothing of the kind. No book ever has. It did set me up for a lifetime of vicarious self-indulgence, though, for which I'm grateful.

As the sixties' dream died, a few astute businessmen must have noticed the interest youth was showing in age. There were some re-issues. Lenny Bruce's notorious autobiography, "How to talk Dirty and Influence People" was one. The first two Velvet Underground albums were another. I bought those.

There seemed to be a trend towards repackaging once-dangerous material to make it look and feel as innocuous as possible. The VU double retrospective (known as the Coke Bottle album) collected the songs from the first two albums and replayed them in a different order, diluting some of the impact.

Still, that was almost archival reverence compared to what was done to Lenny on the heavily bowdlerized collection of some of his most famous routines, ironically titled "The Real Lenny Bruce", which came out on vinyl in 1975. To my memory there's not a single swear-word on it, which is a bit like producing postcards of the Mona Lisa with the smile tippexed out. I bought it anyway.

Getting back to the point, assuming I ever had one, the message the adolescent me took from Bruce's Lone Ranger bit was that there's no point doing anything in the hope you'll get thanked for doing it. Or appreciated. Or even noticed. You should do it for your own satisfaction or not at all.

It's an understanding that's served me very well for almost half a century, which makes it deliciously ironic to find out, as I just did when I listened to the unexpurgated routine for the first time (not having heard any version in over thirty years), that I may have misunderstood the entire thing. Hearing it now I'm not entirely sure I know what Lenny thought he was going on about. Maybe he wasn't, either.

Nevertheless, the life lesson he taught me, intentionally or otherwise, stands. It really is a very bad idea to do something in the anticipation of getting a particular and specific reaction. People are people and people aren't you. They'll take from what you say just exactly what they want to, which most likely will be nothing at all.

Blaugust is long over so I don't know why I'm here giving blogging tips, if that's even what I'm doing. I meant to post a short response to Syp's post on Feature Bloat. That didn't happen, obviously...

I particularly didn't want to write another long post that required research because not only did I do that on Sunday but this morning I spent three hours writing two thousand words and recording myself talking about one of my old characters for an academic project. That will make a post in itself one day, when the project completes, or I hope it will.

No, I just wanted to sit down and bash something out, but this is what happens when I freestyle. The result is a little like what I imagine noodling must feel like, if you can actually play a musical instrument.

If anyone thought this was going anywhere, it's not. It came, it was here and now it's gone. And so am I. Toodle-pip!

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Doctor Will See You Now : Daybreak Games

The final piece of this week's news jigsaw fell too late for me to fit it into Thursday's portmanteau post. This is the first chance I've had to write about it.

The upside of the delay is that at least I've had time to mull it over. Otherwise I'd have been reduced to posting a giant 🤔

Wilhelm wrote at some length about the possible reasons for Pearl Abyss's acquisition of CCP  (which I only learned this week is an acronym for Crowd Control Productions). So did Nosey, who posited my favorite explanation for the unexpected move so far - improved access to the vast  Chinese gaming market.

I have no dog in that fight although I'm very happy to watch. I do, however, have a major interest, both emotional and practical, in the current and future stability of Daybreak Games, publisher of two of my favorite MMORPGs, EverQuest and EQ2.

Unlike Nosey and Wilhelm, I have neither the academic background nor the personal experience to parse these kinds of financial transactions. I have worked for a couple of businesses that were acquired, bought or taken over and I've seen how that changed both internal practice and external presentation, but I don't think any of that is particularly relevant.

Anyone can google, though, and anyone can read Wikipedia. The entry on Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire behind the "strategic investment" leading to the "joint venture" between NantWorks and DBG, is intriguing to say the least.

Dr. Soon-Shiong has a background worthy of one of the current flurry of highly-popular novels examining the Asian-American experience. He was born in South Africa to Chinese parents who had fled the Japanese occupation in WWII. He grew up in South Africa and got his first degree there before moving to Canada for his Master's. From there he moved to the U.S., where he went on to found the bio-tech firm that eventually made him America's 47th richest person, with a current estimated worth of $9b.

None of which appears to explain why he would want to buy in to a relatively obscure company running a series of somewhat elderly and largely over-the-hill gaming franchises. Dig a little deeper into his extensive biography, though, and you find a considerable interest in both media and technology.

Earlier this year he bought both the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune for something over $500m. One might consider that buying newspapers in the current digital climate is not that far away from taking a financial interest in a gaming company whose products come from a bygone age.  Perhaps it indicates nothing more than an interest in our recent cultural history and a desire to preserve it.

The Doctor isn't just a nostalgist, though. Nor is he "just" a bio-tech entrepreneur. For the last decade much of his drive seems to have been directed towards the new digital world, particularly the infrastructure that supports it. His NantHealth company focuses on "fiber-optic, cloud-based data infrastructure to share healthcare information".

NantWorks, which seems to be the catch-all holding company for all the Nant projects, is also the company that has now taken an interest in Daybreak Games. It has a stated mission to "converge ultra-low power semiconductor technology, supercomputing, high performance, secure advanced networks and augmented intelligence to transform how we work, play, and live." Now we're getting somewhere!

NantWorks, curiously, is also the only one of the many Nant-prefixed operations listed in the wikipedia article not to have a hyper-link to a Wikipedia entry of its own. It does have a website.

There are nine Nant variants listed there (so far), handily laid out on the main page, each with a brief mission statement. The ones on the right are all directly concerned with healthcare. The ones on the left seek to cast their nets far wider.

NantStudio ("Sharing knowledge through education and storytelling") owns and operates "The only next generation soundstage easily configurable to both traditional and virtual production with a pre-lit 360° green screen and compatible with real-time compositing". It's "Conveniently located in Culver City" which is near L.A.

The other relevant Nant would seem to be NantMobile, which "provides technology solutions that harness powerful image recognition technology with artificial intelligence to create immersive augmented reality experiences". At this point I think it's becoming clear that Dr Soong-Shiong does indeed have interests that overlap with those of gamers in general and Daybreak Gamers in particular.

According to the DBG Press Release, the intent is to co-develop a "Next Generation Game Publishing Platform" which will "Establish E-Sports Leagues Across Multiple Games". All that unecessary capitalization is because I ripped the quotes from headlines, by the way.

It also involves the creation of yet another Nant, "NantG Mobile, LLC, which has been formed to develop and publish mobile versions of Daybreak’s current games – H1Z1 and EverQuest – and to build and publish video games across all platforms". Presumably the "G" stands for Gaming. Let's hope so, anyway.

NantG, naturally, has some mission statements of its own, the most intriguing of which promises "creative problem solving to create fresh possibilities for new gameplay, improved quality of games, and increased fair play." Fair play? Hmm, now there's an idea...

There's more that I could excerpt and comment on but I think that's enough to give the general idea. This does not appear to be either a cold financial purchase for arcane accounting reasons we'll never know nor a Curt Schillingesque rich man's whim.

On the contrary, it appears to be a move that involves #2 on Wilhelm's list : "Entering a Market". Possibly with a smidge of #3: Tech of Expertise.

What I definitely don't think has much to do with anything is #4 : Brand. Yes, H1Z1 may be the "first-ever standalone battle royale game" but being first isn't what counts. PUBG and Fortnite ate H1Z1's lunch long ago and even PUBG doesn't have the kind of brand recognition that gets your name banded about by politicians and used in banner headlines aimed at terrifying middle-class parents. Only Fortnite has that.

As for EverQuest, much though I love Norrath I'd dispute whether the EQ name even has brand recognition among MMO gamers any more. Try starting a discussion about EverQuest in General chat in your MMORPG of choice and see who bites. Most players haven't even heard of it, unless they have some vague recollection of the EQNext debacle. You might as well try talking to Drake fans about The Last Poets.

If you step outside the MMORPG niche, EQ's brand recognition hasn't just faded, it never existed in the first place. Even gamers didn't know what EQ was until WoW gave them a hint and anything they once knew they've long forgotten. As for the non-gaming public...

All of which puts me in an odd position. I can see why this latest injection of capital is potentially far more beneficial to Daybreak than the purchase of SOE was to Columbus Nova (who, as we now know, never bought anything, ever, wasn't us guv, honest!). Dr Soong-Shiong or his people evidently have an actual, material interest in what DBG does, namely develop and run multiplayer games.

That's certainly not something that could be said of Columbus Nova. We all struggled back then to understand why whoever it was who'd bought SOE had done so, or what they thought they might get out of it.

It seemed that about the only explanation was that someone thought the EverQuest and H1Z1 brands were going to appreciate in value. H1Z1 was a hit and EQNext was still in development. When EQNext got canned for being the pipe-dream it always was and PUBG executed a headshot on H1Z1 it did look like the jig might finally be up.

It wasn't. Instead, the games all trundled on. H1Z1, like a true zombie, staggered back to its feet and lurched towards a minor comeback courtesy of the PS4. The EQ duo acted like nothing had happened, which, from the perspective of the astonishingly insular and blinkered playerbase for both games, it pretty much hadn't. Their reduced teams just kept pumping out content and everyone carried on being as grumpy about it as they had been for decades, while still paying their subs.

As for DCUO, well, for all intents and purposes it might as well be owned by a different company altogether. And then there's Planetside2, which just got a new map and, rumor has it, may spawn Planetside3 some day.

Meanwhile we supposedly have mobile versions of H1Z1 and EverQuest to look forward to. Possibly with ARG and VR versions now NantStudio is in the mix. Not to mention that promised development  "in video games across all platforms". We can't rule out a PC EQ3.

All of which makes me even more inclined to believe the rumors from earlier in the year had substance. I now expect to hear confirmation that this year will see the final expansions for both EQ2 and EverQuest.

I would expect the EQ games to continue in something more than maintenance mode but less than full development, adding small content drops in updates or at holidays and anniversaries, as they have been doing for the past few years between expansions. That's the sort of thing that can be handled by a very few developers or designers, allowing the rest to be moved to new projects.

I'm confident we will see an EQ-branded Mobile game of some description. Given the lack of brand recognition in any other field, it seems pointless for any such game to be anything other than some kind of MMO or RPG. Whether it will be any good or not is another matter, but Villagers and Heroes amply demonstrates that a full-feature MMORPG can work on mobile devices.

A new EverQuest game - an EQ3 - on PC seems a lot less probable. Also, oddly, less attractive. If one does come, it will undoubtedly use action gaming controls, which means almost no existing or former EQ or EQ2 players will go within spitting distance - other than actually to spit at it. It will be something I'll dabble in at most, I imagine.

As usual, for the time being it's all about waiting. Wait to see what happens to the existing games. Wait to see how that works out for the players. Wait to see what new projects are announced. Wait to see if they ever happen. Wait to see if they're any good.

As is my wont, I am cautiously optimistic. At the very least this seems to augur better times for the games and the franchises than either fin-de-siecle SOE or the immediate aftermath of the sale. DBG have managed the games well, particularly in the last couple of years, and this would seem to remove the immediate risk of either a fire-sale or financial difficulties.

Watch this space for further developments and in the meantime, keep on keeping on.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Days Like This

It's been one of those days, hasn't it?

I came home from work this evening, chatted with Mrs Bhagpuss, had my tea, then down at the PC to see what Feedly had for me. The first thing I saw was this:

"EVE Online developer CCP Games bought by Black Desert Online studio Pearl Abyss"

As MassivelyOP so astutely put it "I bet that’s not a headline you expected to wake up to!" No, nor come home to, either.

I have never played EVE but I've read a lot about it, mostly at The Ancient Gaming Noob. Wilhelm has the full details and links to the many people talking about this surprising turn of fortune.

As I said in the comments there, it could be worse. Pearl Abyss don't have a particularly bad reputation, despite the accusations that they favor Pay to Win mechanics, and Black Desert Online has been one of the more popular, successful and accepted transitions from East to West of recent years.

Al the same, I would bet most EVE players would rather CCP had remained independent and I would be surprised if there's much of a shift in that feeling over the next year or two. MMO players don't like change, even when it's objectively in their own best interests.

The EVE buyout was such a huge story it eclipsed another piece of news that would have been a main headline on another day:

"THQ Nordic has bought up the rights to 38 Studios’ Project Copernicus and Kingdoms of Amalur"

I'd all but forgotten Curt Schilling's ill-fated attempt to re-create his EverQuest raiding days by funding his own MMORPG. If you build it they will come, perhaps. Only he never did build it.

Instead the whole thing turned into what MassivelyOP describes as "one of the biggest messes the MMORPG genre – and gaming itself – has ever seen". I don't imagine anyone ever expected to see Project Copernicus return in a playable form after that and maybe we still never will, but THQ Nordic (no, me neither) must have bought the assets for something so who knows?

After all that I needed a bit of a change of pace so I went and watched Eggheads for half an hour. I am old. Don't mock me.

I came back, glanced at Feedly before logging in to EQ2 and stap me if I didn't see this:

"WildStar and Carbine are shutting down"

What are we doing? Playing MMO Industry Bingo? One buyout, one acquisition, one closedown - HOUSE!

WildStar, of course, has been living on borrowed time while drinking at the last chance saloon for years now. Many pundits have pondered over NCSoft's apparent unwillingness to pull the switch on this failed experiment in hardcore gaming.

Was it fear of a backlash after the desperately badly-received decision to close the then-profitable City of Heroes just because it wasn't profitable enough? Or had they simply forgotten WildStar even existed? God knows that would have been easy enough to do - most of us managed it years ago.

I never entirely got on with WildStar. It was too brash and too jarring to be relaxing, something its cuddly anhropomorphic characters seemed to suggest it should be. Still, I had some good times there, on and off. I don't suppose I would ever have played it again but I'm sorry to see it go.

I hope WildStar gets another chance in that grey zone where emulators operate. If Earth Eternal can do it, anyone can. Although I imagine EE's code is a lot less complex than WildStar's.

However you want to paint it, that's a lot of news for one day. I scarcely dare check Feedly again. I've been typing this for half an hour - who knows what MMO might have closed down or changed hands since I last looked?

Wilhelm and I have been corresponding recently on those rumors about Daybreak Games' future plans. As he pointed out, some of them have already happened. Come to think of it, there was some talk once about Daybreak or SOE acquiring CCP, wan't there? I did say it could have been worse!

We're still waiting on any news about this Autumn's EverQuest and EQ2 expansions, beyond the bald assertion that they will happen. I am now braced to hear that they will also be the last.

Whether that means the end of a chapter or the closing of the book remains to be seen. After a day like today I'm not going to make any predictions about anything.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide