Saturday, December 8, 2018

Atlas Obscura

A couple of unrelated news items caught my attention at MassivelyOP yesterday. One was a report that Daybreak had laid off another sixty or seventy people. The other was the announcement of a major new MMO, launching before Christmas.

News of layoffs at any MMO studio isn't generally much of a surprise - worrying, maybe, but hardly unusual. I'm tempted to say the most surprising thing about this one was finding out Daybreak still had seventy people left to let go.

John Smedley flared up on Twitter with some choice quotes that look likely to come back to haunt him one day. I imagine he thought so too when he'd calmed down because they've both disappeared from his timeline, although you can read them in the linked M:OP post.

It's one thing to criticize the running of a studio and the care it takes of its employees but that criticism takes on an entirely different tone when it comes from the person directly responsible for arranging the transfer of said studio to its current owners in the first place.

The background to the story seems murky, as is usually the case in affairs of this kind. My dog in the fight is really the health and future fortunes of the current stable of games but as a longtime fan of SOE/DBG's style of MMORPG I'm also interested in what Daybreak might do next.

The good news, in so far as we know anything, is that the existing games seem to be unaffected by the latest round of redundancies. M:OP clarified the original report with some qualified reassurance: "It sounds as if the core MMORPGs are safe".

This opinion appears to have been derived by MassivelyOP directly from sources among the DBG staffers actually laid off, although the linked article from Variety does include a boilerplate quote from a DBG spokesperson: "we remain focused on supporting our existing games and development of our future titles.”.

Conversely, one of the most striking elements in the M:OP edit, the reference to "a secret game with a top IP", doesn't appear at all in the Variety story.  Indeed, on a first reading, the Variety piece appears to contradict M:OP's precis, with Variety reporting the DBG spokesperson as confirming

"“Our Austin office is not closing.""
while Massively:OP reframes that as:
"those laid off may have been working on a secret game with a top IP (at the Austin studio – now confirmed publicly by Variety)."

I guess both could be correct, if the layoffs are at Austin but Austin stays open with whoever's left still working on...whatever it is they do there... but it's a confusing picture to say the least.

What really struck me - other than the fact that Variety even knows DBG exists - is how little we know about anything major studios are up to behind the scenes. Given that MMOs take years to produce, and especially given the recent trends towards turning their development into some kind of reality show, I find it genuinely surprising to learn that there are still so many secret projects out there.

The other news story I mentioned is a case in point. ARK developers Wildcard are launching a brand-new MMO next week. Yes, next week!

If you get your MMO news from Massively:OP, as I do, you'd be forgiven for thinking the first anyone knew about this was when the trailer was shown at the Twitch Game Awards a couple of days ago. (I didn't even hear about the Twitch Game Awards until they were over, despite having a Twitch account, but leaving that aside...)

Checking YouTube, however, I see that there are several videos up for Atlas, which is what the pirate-themed survival MMO is called, going back at least four months. As my own channel has often demonstrated, if you want to hide something from the general public, you can't do better than post it on YouTube.

The Steam page for Atlas also contradicts the M:OP piece, which describes the game as "first person MMO", while the actual description on the page linked by M:OP clearly states that Atlas is

 "a massively multiplayer first-and-third-person fantasy pirate adventure" (my emphasis).

All sources agree that the game will offer a vast open world capable of holding up to forty thousand players at once, which is Massively Multiple by anyone's criteria, I'd say. Wildcard describe it as an MMO "on the grandest scale" and with claims like this, who can argue?

"Physically sail in real-time across the vast oceans with the proprietary server network technology. Explorers will voyage to over 700 unique landmasses across 45,000 square kilometers, with thousands of Discovery Zones, and ten distinct world regions..."

I'm not sure whether the part about sailing in real-time is a threat or a promise. I don't see much future in a game that requires two weeks of your life just to get from one landmass to another. I'm guessing they just mean no instant travel.

Although the game is described as a "a survival MMO", as you might expect from the makers of ARK, the Steam page makes it sound far more like a full-on sandbox. It will even have some theme-park content featuring "challenging main questlines".

If it all sounds too good to be true - and it does - then temper your excitement in the knowledge that next week's "launch" is in fact the start of a proposed two year period of Early Access. How much of the mind-boggling feature set will be in place by Christmas 2020 I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Wildcard does have an impressive record with ARK, though. I've never played it but I've read a ton about it and for all the teething troubles and complaints, most of what I read was people enjoying themselves. ARK's overall rating on Steam is "mixed" but its recent rating, from almost seven thousand votes, is "very positive", which to me suggests an Early Access project that produced a solid, successful game.

The official early-access release trailer is impressive even though you can see it's very much a work in progress. This article at PCGamer fleshes out a lot of detail about how the game might play. I'm not particularly a fan of pirate settings and I positively dislike ship-to-ship combat, but even so I'm very tempted. 

The 100GB download and the fact that my GPU might not quite meet the minimum spec is about all that's putting me off. Certainly the $30 price tag sounds reasonable and the option of playing on either PvE or PvP servers is perfect.

What I'm really left wondering, though, is what else might be out there? Who knows which studio is working on what project? We base our expectations for the genre on what we can see but so much is hidden.

We don't even know what that "top IP" Daybreak were working on was, let alone whether the layoffs mean it's been cancelled or just changed development phase. Was it an internal or an external IP? Did the last hope for EQ3 just die, or was that the rumored Planetside 3 that crashed and burned? Or was it an IP on license that we'd never even imagined DBG might be working on and so will never miss?

All we can say for sure is is there's a lot more going on than we ever know about. Until we do. And I like it that way. Long may it continue!

Monday, December 3, 2018

A Six-Footed Friend : GW2

This afternoon I completed the meta-achievement for the new Roller Beetle races in Guild Wars 2. It's not particularly difficult. You have to tick off ten achievements from a list  of seventeen. That would appear to give a wide margin for error, but not all of them count.

The ones that matter are getting either Silver or Gold in a time trial on each of the five tracks and completing fifteen laps of all five as well. Dulfy has a guide but you really don't need one. I didn't look at it until after I'd finished.

The reward is a nifty scarf that blows out behind you in true WW1 fighter pilot style. It's a shoulder-slot item with three dye channels. Although you have to choose just an armor weight - Light, Medium or Heavy - when you get it, whichever one you choose unlocks all three skins.

There is an upmarket "gold" version you can get if you can manage all five tracks in the very tight "gold" time limit. If they nerf a couple of them I might give it a try but as it stands there's no possible chance I'll be able to do Brisban Wildlands and I doubt I'd get Snowden Drifts or Mount Maelstrom either.

In any case, looking at the pictures of the two scarves on Dulfy, I can't see the difference. Well, I can: one is yellow and the other is blue. The caption, however, says the blue one is the Golden version so either Dulfy is colorblind, the artists at ANet are having a little joke or someone dyed the thing before they took the screenshot.

I think that, for an event of this kind, it's remarkably well done. The meta only requiring Silver puts it within the reach of most players while the ability to rent a beetle for just one silver per hour opens the races up to everyone, regardless of whether they have the Path of Fire expansion or not.

The tokens - Racing Medallions, to give them their proper name - the vendor takes come fairly quickly. Completing the meta and doing a few extra races along the way has netted me 289 so far and I haven't been doing the dailies, which would add quite a few more. 

The dailies are only around for the duration of the Sweepstake, which means they're with us for a month. Given that you get medallions for normal racing and that the Bronze, Silver and Gold time trial rewards refresh every day at reset, anyone who really cares should be able to buy anything they fancy on the vendor so long as they're patient.

The event has had one interesting and unexpected side-effect for me. As I say all too often, I don't much like GW2's mounts and although I enjoyed getting the Roller Beetle I had written it off completely as means of transport. It seemed both ridiculous and impractical.

Having spent a lot of time with mine, I do now feel somewhat differently about it. Once you get to grips with the controls it is, counter-intuitively, one of the steadier rides. It's also highly useful for crossing flat areas fast and there are quite a lot of flat areas in Tyria.

The beetle itself is also oddly appealing when you take time to study it closely. It looks rather like a little old man carrying a heavy load. It does have six legs but it stands upright on two of them, waves two about like arms and the other two form some kind of art deco portico out front.

The saddle your character sits on looks like a cross between a carnival ride and one of WildStar's hoverboards. It's entirely unconnected to the mount itself. You hang there in space at the back, looking pretty darned cool.

There are also resting animations that add a sense of ownership and indeed affection to the relationship between rider and mount. The beetle often does an endearing little shuffle from side to side, stamping its feet and "singing". Less frequently, your character reaches forward to pat the beetle firmly on the shell.

All in all this has been rather an impressive addition to the game. I'd take it over just about any episode of the Living Story, post Season One. I'm not at all surprised to see that the achievements for it appear in the Side Stories category. Yet again the supposed back-up team proves to have a much better idea of what constitutes genuine entertainment than the leads.

From here it's all downhill to Wintersday, I guess. As far as I can tell the dates haven't been anounced yet but I'm expecting it to start next Tuesday and run into the New Year. I wonder if we'll get a new race for that as well?

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Anyone Seen My Tortoise?

Although I opted out of playing on Lord of the Rings Online's Legendary servers I've been reading a fair bit about them. One of the issues that keeps coming up is the speed of leveling, when compared to the Live game.

The generally accepted view of leveling in LotRO these days seems to be that it zips past in a bit of a blur. I can't say that's been my experience and UltrViolet concurs, but concerns were expressed that, with just fifty levels to do and four whole months to do them in, much of the content would go untouched. Players would rocket to the cap then find themselves with nothing to do but stand around, playing their lutes and smoking pipeweed, trying to think of other games they might be playing instead.

Naturally concerned for such an outcome, and despite having made it clear this was not to be any kind of "Classic" reconstruction in the Blizzard or even the SOE or Jagex mode, Standing Stone opted to apply the brakes. As you can see from the linked thread, that was a decision greeted with less than universal approval.

No surprise there. The introduction of special ruleset servers to an existing MMORPGs is often a cause of worry for regular players. People who are passably satisfied with the status quo tend to interpret any attempt to cater for those who aren't as a direct threat. 

There are two commonly expressed fears. Firstly, the population will split, thereby weakening the existing game; secondly, changes to rules and systems devised for the new servers will bleed across. One of the main reasons PvE players often give for not having PvP in their game, even when it's siloed off onto separate servers, is that developers will inevitably end up altering skills and mechanics for everyone because it's just too awkward to maintain separate systems indefinitely.

On my way from the Lone Lands to Bree to get a ride to the Shire for the Fall Festival.
I remember seeing that argument on the EverQuest forums, all the way back in the very early 2000s, when EQ not only had multiple PvP servers but each of them had a different ruleset. As PvP slipped out of fashion in Norrath and the seemingly endless series of Progression Servers began to trundle off the assembly line, the same concerns passed to them and when Smed had the temerity to suggest the future for EQ lay in F2P, the roof just about came off (although, as time went on to prove, the wheels stayed firmly on).

There's a whole, long discussion to be had about the benefits, impacts and dangers of adding variant server rulesets. I might get to that another day. For now, let's stick to the topic at hand: leveling speed.

It's a truism of the genre that over time leveling gets faster. Is there any moderately successful MMORPG of a number of years' standing that retains the same pace of leveling it had at launch? Sometimes the acceleration is a direct response to a disgruntled playerbase but mostly it's just a natural, almost an organic, process.

Players like their characters to become more powerful. They also like convenience. They react well to things that support those preferences and badly to things that don't. They also acquire both knowledge and resources over time that mean their alts are more efficient at leveling than their mains used to be.

Fireworks! This must be the place. I hear it's great for fast leveling.
The further the end game recedes, the harder players work to come up with shortcuts to get there. Twinking, power-leveling, buying high-level characters, you name it, players will do it. All of this tends to cause a lot of bad feeling and places considerable demands on Customer Service. Rather than deal with that, developers tend to respond by trying to magic the problem away, making leveling smoother, faster, easier and ultimately irrelevant.

The problem then becomes what to do with all that extra content. For many its a non-issue. They skip to cap and stay there, as uninterested in what lies below them as the average householder is about the mineral rights beneath their home.

Some people do care, though. There's a not-insignificant demographic that plays MMORPGs specifically for the quests and another (probably much larger) that just doesn't feel right if they haven't completed everything in a zone before they move on.

These are the people who complain when leveling speeds up so much that quests start to grey out before they finish them. I have never understood this. 

It has always seemed to me that if what you're interested in is completing the quests then the easier the quests are to complete the more fun you're going to have. Yes, the rewards are going to be useless and you won't get much - or any - xp, but if all you're after is the stories and a sense of completion, so what?

Okay, now to grab a quest and watch that XP fly!
Still, it clearly bothers enough customers that developers find it worth taking the time and trouble to implement options to avoid it. That's not always just to please quest-hounds, either. There can be more pragmatic, less romantic reasons.

EverQuest2, for example, has sliders that allow you to choose what percentage of your xp goes to leveling or to alternate advancement. This used to be very important, because AA abilities are very powerful and AAXP becomes a lot harder to acquire at higher levels. It was, at one time, very much in a player's interest to put a character's leveling on hold while working on acquiring a hundred or so AA levels instead.

Options built into the UI are practical if prosaic but some games take their RPG heritage more seriously. LotRO has an item known as The Stone of the Tortoise, which switches xp gain off completely. It's mentioned in the linked thread above and when Wilhelm observed that he was having to avoid certain activities for fear of outleveling his chosen zones, Lathe popped up in the comments to suggest he might want to use it.

This seems like a sensible recourse. The weight of evidence suggests that most players either don't relish leveling at all or would prefer to scamper through at a brisk trot, if not a full gallop. It seems churlish for developers to insist everyone slows down and smells the slaughtered corpses when the role of Fotherington-Tomas-gone-psycho can be applied at will on a one-to-one basis. 

Despite this apparently benign solution, an obverse trend seems to be gaining traction. Flat or horizontal, the idea that all zones can be created equal has been in vogue for some time. I'm not sure I approve but at least  it's better than another card in the developer's pack, the scorched earth option.

Nearly an hour on a horse, two dozen beers, failed the quest, no xp at all. Stone of the Tortoise? Where's my sodding Stone of the Hare?
World of Warcraft's Cataclysm expansion is probably the most (in)famous example. Aion is the latest.  Instead of allowing players free choice on how and how fast to level, the developers simply carve out great chunks of content and throw them away. They then add a multiplier to xp gain on the existing content and call it job done.

I was playing Aion a while back. It made such a deep impression on me I can remember literally nothing about it. I'm not about to work myself up into a surrogate frenzy about the disappearance of content I never cared about in the first place.

If I was playing LotRO regularly, though, I might worry. A little. Players on special ruleset servers are often the strongest enthusiasts for the game and the most vocal advocates for it. Developers also tend to spend more time working on those servers and have more direct interactions with the players there than is usual on a regular ruleset server.

It would be no surprise to see a patch note sometime that mentions a change to Live server XP in some fashion or other. These things happen. If it does, you can bet the Legendary server will get the credit or the blame.

Really, though, these tweaks and changes seem inevitable. I was pondering whether MMORPGs really need to keep adding content but you might just as well ask if they can afford to keep hanging on indefinitely to the content they already have.

Don't ask me. I just play the things.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Go-Go-Go-Go, Go Rocket Roll-Roll-Roll-Roll: GW2

When ArenaNet added the sixth mount, the Roller Beetle, to Guild Wars 2's increasingly bizarre stable, I described it as like riding "a souped-up, ride-on mower". I also praised the collection required to add it to your account as "enjoyable, well-paced and satisfying".

I imagined the reason the thing was in the game at all was mostly to add some short-term bridging content between major releases. I thought it would hang around with the rest of  the Side Story stuff, providing background content for newer players, when they trickle in. It also had the benefits of being both a nostalgic nod to the original Guild Wars and handy peg on which to hang yet more Gem Store skin sales.

What I didn't imagine, even in my most feverish dreams, was that the ridiculous creature would come to be the centerpiece of one of the game's bigest marketing pushes in a long while. Today's patch added Roller Beetle Race Courses to six maps, together with a slew of Achievements and in-game rewards, supported by a month-long sweepstake featuring prizes worth thousands of dollars.

As I've mentioned before, I love races. As I've also mentioned, I hate GW2's mounts. Paradox! Conundrum! Impasse!

Well, not really. My major objection to mounts is the damper they put on Mrs Bhagpuss's gameplay. She can't use them at all. I don't like them but I can deal with them when I have to. If it's a choice between mounting up and racing or standing glumly on the sidelines watching, I'll get my saddle.

In the course of a couple of hours I've tried the races in Diessa Plateau, Snowden Drifts, Gendarran Fields and Mount Maelstrom, as well as the training run in Kessex Hills. Just Brisban Wildlands to go. They vary enormously in length and difficulty, the two factors not necessarily being connected.

The main feature is competitive racing, on a schedule I have yet to work out. I've done three of those. The first timed out before I finished because I started late. I still got a reward, which was unexpected. I managed to finish the other two within the time allowed but about fifty people got there ahead of me.

I suspect it's going to have to be a slow day, say midweek, around 3am Pacific, with a major event going on somewhere in the game, before I place for points. First day of Wintersday or a Living Story episode might be a plan.

As well as actual races, every course has a time trial you can start at will and repeat as often as you like, although you only get rewarded for the first time you hit the benchmark times. They use the familiar Race/Adventure UI and offer Bronze, Silver and Gold rewards. As yet, the six time trials are not even close in terms of challenge. Whether the easy ones will be toughened up or, more likely, the harder ones toned down we'll find out soon enough but so far I've racked up two Silvers and two Golds.

The Golds came in the training run, which is as simple as you'd expect, and in Gendarran Fields, a long course that I found very straightforward. I got Gold on my second try.

The first Silver came from Diessa, which was also the first time trial I tried. It's another longish course; a little harder.  I got Bronze on my second run out but it took three or four more goes to get Silver. I didn't attempt Gold but it looked possible.

The second was in Snowden, which is vicious. It took me more than a dozen attempts just to get Bronze and I almost left it at that. It's a very short course but the hairpin turns are ferociously hard to handle on the inertia-driven beetle. I found myself missing gates on every run, sometimes launching myself into space and landing so far away I couldn't even find the track.

Because it's so short, there's no time to correct mistakes and you can't afford to take it slowly. It was the busiest track by far and map chat was filled with cursing and complaints the whole time I was there. I did eventually manage to scrape a Silver but I wouldn't even contemplate going for Gold. I would bet that the Gold target time, currently 32 seconds, gets pushed back to 35 seconds in a hot-fix soon. I'll wait for that and even then I'm not sure I'll do it.

Mount Maelstrom is both very long and very tough. I have yet to get Bronze on a time trial although I have successfully completed the three lap race within the time limit. I've heard that Brisban is harder still. I can't say I'm looking forward to finding out.

Given that this is optional content - it's included under Side Stories, after all - you might imagine people who don't enjoy it would just skip it. Most won't. They'll do it and hate it because it has Achievements attached and a significant number of Achievement Points to go with them. Also titles and a Racing Scarf. This sort of thing matters.

Even for those who aren't AP junkies, there's a vendor selling Endless Tonics including Fancy Cats and Dogs as well as other desirable bits and pieces. GW2 players live for this kind of thing. The prices are on the steep side - 350 Racing Medallions each for the tonics, for example. I have 89 medallions for my efforts so far, the bulk of which came from completing Achievements. Once those are all done it's down to the repeatables and the competitive racing.

At the risk of repeating myself, I like racing. I can imagine running enough races to get 350 tokens - once. I may well need to do it again for Mrs Bhagpuss, if there's something she wants. The races are permanent content, so there's no rush and if they were foot races, like Sanctum Sprint, I could easily see myself whiling away many hours on a weekend, doing laps and racking up the rewards.

The Roller Beetle isn't helping, though. It's annoying enough to make more than a few runs feel like hard work. I wonder if it checks what mount you're using? If you just want to finish, the Griffin or the Raptor would be a lot easier on those tight turns.

I suspect this is going to be one of the very many additions to GW2 that I quickly forget exists at all. There's a long list of those and it includes plenty of things I really liked when they were introduced, like the Cadalbolg Collections, for example.

I'll try to keep at it at least for the next month. I'll have a go at doing a race or two on every account. I could do with a new car. Or a new PC. Or $8000.

Let's be honest: I'd be happy enough if I won a new mousepad.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Brand New Bag : EQ2

Yesterday's post kind of got away from me. It's amazing just how often that happens. I sat down to write about how much I was enjoying EverQuest 2's new Chaos Descending expansion. Instead I ended up rehashing the whole "wither DBG?" debate from months back.

I was meaning to talk about the way the new progression mechanics actively encourage the kind of louche, relaxed gameplay I relish as an explorer archetype, while still retaining sufficient structure to keep me from wandering off and getting lost altogether. I was planning on pointing up how having four open world zones instead of the usual one or two has allowed the Mission system to expand into something more organic and natural than we're used to seeing.

I also had praise in mind for the astonishingly vibrant visuals, particularly the spectacular spell effects, which these days not only rival but often outdo Guild Wars 2's infamous fireworks, even when the only player-character on the screen is my own. I had things to say about the stunning landscapes, from the densely populated wasp hives of Doomfire to the ziggurat in Vegarison, possibly the largest single structure I've ever seen in an MMORPG.

I love the way you can pick out my Familiar's Santa hat and my inquisitor Merc's Gavel as it delivers her Verdict, but of my actual character or whatever he's fighting there's nothing to be seen.

To that end I'd already taken, prepared, cropped, named and saved a selection of screenshots, some of which I did end up using even though they weren't entirely appropriate. Yeah...nope. Knowing exactly what I want to write and doing all the prep for it is still apparently not enough to stop me freestyling on a Sunday morning.

At the risk of repeating myself (hard to avoid if you're trying to be emphatic) I'm loving this expansion. After I finished blogging yesterday I ripped quickly through my GW2 dailies, spent an hour or so on the frontlines defending the increasingly irrelevant Honor of the Yak in World vs World and then spent the rest of the day - some six or seven hours - playing EQ2.

For the first time since chaos descended a couple of weeks back, I decided to follow a detailed walkthrough on the wiki. Up until now I have been winging it, taking whatever quests appear, doing missions and generally concentrating on exploring the new zones and gearing up my Berserker to meet whatever challenges lie ahead of him.

As far as the main Signature questline goes, I'm guessing I'm maybe halfway. I still haven't checked that timeline. I've opened all four of the overland zones and completed an instanced version of each of them. Next up is the Plane of Water, Awuidor, which doesn't have an open world version.

Boss fights in instances are generally too intense for snapshots. I think this might be one but then again it might be an overland boss. Hard to tell with nothing but honey for a backdrop.

I might take that on today. All the instanced solo dungeons required for the main storyline in EQ2 use the same template: there's something you want and either the last Named (aka Boss) in the dungeon has it or he's standing between you and where you can find it.

You can't just skip straight to him. Every dungeon has a specific set of steps to complete to open successive areas and no matter what other variations are in play it always involves killing every Named in the instance.

Instances are persistent for up to three days. Mobs don't respawn and your progress is saved. You don't have to do it al in one session but I find I always want to finish what I've started so I try not to open a storyline instance unless I have about two hours for uninterrupted play. On average it takes me about ninety minutes to clear one using a wiki; longer if I have to figure out mechanics for myself.

So far I haven't had to follow a walkthrough for any of the dungeons. They've been relatively straightforward. I did look up the mechanics on a boss or two as I got to them, mainly because I wanted to avoid that annoying situation where the mob has a massive power drain and I end up flat out of mana and taking half an hour to kill him using auto-attack.

A nervous moment...

The wiki entry I consulted yesterday was something entirely diferent. Somehow, I found myself doing the Signature tradeskill timeline, which as you'd expect involves a huge amount of crafting. Crafting takes some preparation. You can't just wade in there and set off all your AEs at once, my Berserker's go-to tactic. There's nothing more annoying than making your way to some far-flung outpost with your bags full of mats, only to find you can't do the combine because it needs candles or incense not coal and the nearest fuel vendor is several loading screens away.

If you've ever wondered why people sell fuel on the Broker for ten times what it costs to buy it from an NPC - that's the reason. One of the benefits of Membership in EQ2 is being able to use the Broker anywhere in the game by way of a drop-down menu. Your purchases are magically delivered straight into your bags. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet and pay the inflated mark-up rather than trudge all the way back to town.

Well, I wanted to avoid doing that. Okay, I wanted to avoid doing it again...hence the wiki. The walkthrough  tells you exactly what mats you need for each step and more importantly what fuel and how much. And it's not like there's that really a plot to spoil. This year's crafting timeline is solid, entertaining and very rewarding but you can tell Domino's not writing the scenarios any more.

The reason I started doing the tradeskill line yesterday was because I'd picked it up a few days ago and still had one of the steps in my quest tracker. I thought I'd just get that out of the way before I went adventuring. Well, one thing led to another, the way they do, and five hours later...

Crafting Crew. Same as Adventuring Crew, except for the pony.

Crafting is very relaxing so it was a good fit for a lazy Sunday. Still, I might not have done it had it not been for the rewards. One step, early in the chain, gets you an 88-slot bag. Eighty-eight slots! That's literally twice the size of most of my bags. It's bigger than the 66-slot Naylie's Nebulous Newsbag that has players dropping everything to grab the quest whenever a Guide broadcasts.

152 slices of heaven!
In a serendipitous co-incidence, an earlier step in the sequence had me making boots for a snail (don't ask...) which required me to use a tailoring station. My berserker isn't a tailor but, just as these days all adventurers are Wizards, so all high-end crafting revolves around everyone being an Artisan.

He was in his Mara Prestige home, which is where I keep all the Personal Storage bins for the account, and although I only have a Forge and an Engraved Desk installed to service my max level Scholar and Weaponsmith, the berserker can summon temporary versions of any crafting station.

They last ten-minutes but it only took thirty seconds to make the snail shoes. I hate to waste a good summoning so I had him thumbing through the recipes to see if there was anything else he could stitch together, when I spotted the recipe for the 64-slot Rallic Pack.

It turned out the Berserker had all the mats on him except for a strand of Crystalline Spider Silk, which he grabbed from the broker for a couple of hundred plat. A few moments later, voila! Rallic Pack!

All of which meant that in half an hour I added more than sixty slots to my inventory and found myself all fired up to see what else the crafters had to offer. One thing leads to another and that's how I spent my day - gathering mats, handing out cheese sandwiches, polishing statues and eventually re-organizing my banks all over again, because if you gain storage space you have to fill it. You just have to.

Among the many rewards from the crafting line so far were a couple of pieces of Horse Armor. Armor for mounts is a feature of this expansion that, until I did the crafting timeline, I'd all but forgotten about. I spent a while pondering the options available from the Archivist's Tradeskill Tack but even after googling for help I didn't feel I had enough information to make an intelligent choice so I left it in my bag, unopened. And the next one, too.

I have no idea...
As a result of fiddling about with that, I did at least discover that you can now train your mounts in exactly the same way you train your Mercenaries. I set mine going, a couple of weeks late but at least it's started. Now I need to go through everyone on the account and set the timer running on whatever beast they ride.

I also took my Inquisitor to Myrist to check the free gear in the box by the Registration Desk, which led to a trip to Qeynos to see her class trainer, who sells (for one copper piece) the absolutely essential unlimited use Adornment Remover that was once a major reward for finsihing the Signature timeline in another expansion.

Swapping adornments and changing out gear for the Inquisitor took the best part of an hour but the end rseult was another max level character with nearly 40m hit points and 37k potency. Next comes the Necromancer and after her I need to decide who gets to use the Level 110 boost that came with the expansion.

Maybe my Warlock, who's a max-level crafter but only a level 100 adventurer. Or I might spend some of my DBG Cash on another character slot and give myself a max-level Shadowknight. SK's are a lot of fun.

From which descent into me chuntering on to myself, making plans and cackling, you can surmise that so is Chaos Descending. Fun, I mean. And so is EQ2. At the moment, every time I sit down at the desk it's the game I want to play. It feels like there's a huge amount to do and very little in the way of my doing it.

Can't ask for more than that.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Maybe Someday : Daybreak Games, EQ2, EverQuest

Earlier this year, Wilhelm at The Ancient Gaming Noob, following on from a report on MassivelyOP, examined a Reddit post by someone who claimed to be an employee of Daybreak Games. The supposed ex-DBGer laid out a series of fairly specific predictions for several Daybreak titles, including both EverQuests. 

The provenance of the leaked information was heavily disputed at the time. The substance of the original post was quickly deleted, although it can still be read in full in a comment further down the thread, which itself is now archived and unavailable for further discussion.

Since the post went up some of the events predicted have come to pass. Both H1Z1 and Planetside2 received new maps. Just Survive closed down. While that's quite a convincing tally, the two new maps were both announced fairly soon after the leak and the death of Just Survive was widely seen as inevitable.

Still, it gives pause for thought. The predictions for EverQuest and EverQuest2 were something of a mixed blessing. The suggestion that 2018 would see the final expansions for both is particularly depressing in the light of the very high quality of Chaos Descending, which I have been playing the heck out of since it launched earlier this month and thoroughly enjoying.

On the other hand, the imagined plans for next year, EQ's 20th Anniversary, which include "a series of nostalgic raids that tie into complex quests [that] grant alternate characters powerful scaling weapons" for both games suggests not only an intent to continue supporting and servicing the two existing EverQuest titles but also a framework by which to do so.

Add to that the prospect of "Everquest 3... back in development... rebuilt from the ground up" and aiming "to compete with Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen" and the future for the franchise looks fairly rosy. Or at least a lot rosier than it could have been, given the roller-coaster ride of the last few years.

If Chaos Descending does turn out to be the last expansion EQ2 gets, at least it will be going out on a high. Well, I think it will... I'm loving it, anyway.

As a regular but somewhat casual player, I find it surprisingly hard to judge where the game is at most the of the time because much of the activity at end game is hidden in instances. Even the Public Quests, which used to bring hordes of players together in lower-level open zones, have of late been siphoned off to specific areas accessed from endgame hubs.

It's not much easier to tell how busy the game is by looking at those hubs themselves. People pass through but they tend not to hang around. Neither is there much to indicate activity at the traditional gathering places in cities; the banks, brokers and crafting stations. Those stopped mattering to most players long ago.

For most of its fourteen years, EQ2 has had a guild culture centered on extremely well-appointed Guild Halls, offering every imaginable convenience and acting as the meeting place and social center of the game for many players. Over time the options available to individuals have grown to rival those of guilds, so even players in smaller guilds or those too independent of spirit to join a guild at all can easily furnish their own instanced housing with every facility required.

Consequently there are no obvious gathering places in EQ2 where a curious observer can take a rough census of the population. EQ has Guild Halls and instanced housing but it also has the Plane of Knowledge, the Guild Lobby and The Bazaar, three non-combat zones which offer essential facilities available nowhere else in the game. You can do a headcount in those three and get a rough sense of the health of the server you're on and of the game in general.

Chaos Descending brings a small part of the Plane of Knowledge to EQ2 for the first time. Myrist, The Great Library is all that's left of PoK. It's a beautiful place and a great nostalgia trip but it makes no attempt to replicate the original's essential importance as the beating heart of the game. These last two weeks I've seen many players flitting about the halls and stacks but no-one stops to hang out and just be there the way we did al those years ago.

No, these days about the only way to judge the health of the game is by the number of iterations each new zone spins up to deal with demand and by the ratings on the Daybreak Server Status page. I'm somewhat handicapped by being fast asleep all through U.S. Primetime, so I never see the figures at their peak, but late on Saturday night on a holiday weekend yesterday there were multiple instances of every zone I ran and all the regular Live servers were at Medium or High.

These days, many MMORPG players seem almost obsessed with population figures and what they say about the supposed health of the games they play. With the genre no longer of great interest to the wider gaming public and sunsets seeming more common than launches, it's not surprising people are wary of any sign their particular favorites might be struggling.

I wonder, though, whether, we're looking at all this in quite the right light. As committed devotees of the MMORPG format, is continual growth really what we seek? And are MMORPGs really the sharks of gaming? Do they have to keep moving or die?

Take expansions. I love expansions. I love huge content drops that fundamentally alter the boundaries and baselines of the game. I'm more than happy to take a reset once a year. Heck, I cut my teeth on SOE's cycle of a genuine full expansion every six months - twelve months often seems like a long time to wait.

But is it really the best thing for the long-term health of the game itself? Expansion do have the huge benefit of attracting coverage in the gaming press for games that go ignored the rest of the time and they do create marketing opportunities to bring back ex-players. They also allow for the milking of the wallets of the people already in and playing.

Commercially, expansions make a lot of sense but to put out the puff pieces and bring in the pre-orders they have to include significant upgrades either to power or convenience: more levels, better gear, bigger numbers, faster access. Expansion that just offer "more of the same" don't get headlines and they give current players an easy out to skip a year until something more substantial comes along.

The result is creep; two flavors of it: feature and power. The former is what leads to players no longer needing to interact with each other in public spaces, as facilities that were once held in common are parcelled up and handed out as perks to individuals or guilds. The latter is why huge tracts of the world become player wastelands as the entire population crams itself into the handful of newest zones.

Over time, this in turn leads to all the increasingly half-baked solutions we've seen introduced to aging games: mentoring, mercenaries, stat-crunches, catch-up gear, welfare epics, instant Max-Level boosts and all the rest. In order to convince new players that other people really do play this game and to get returning ex-veterans into the real action with their erstwhile friends before they give up in disgust and unsubscribe, means have to be created to allow latecomers to join the critical mass of regulars at the top as fast as humanly possible.

None of which was the original vision for EverQuest or, probably, EverQuest 2. The first was certainly intended to be some kind of Virtual World, where players could live out a vicarious fantasy life in a realm of magic and mayhem. The younger game built on those foundations, offering not just an exterior landscape to explore but interior life of substance: an actual home for your surrogate to call their own, free to expand and decorate and enjoy in peace and tranquility, alone or with friends. Both of those are visions of sustainability as much as of growth.

Were Chaos Descending to prove, as predicted, to be EQ2's final expansion I'd be disappointed. I'd miss next year's. A lot. Moreover, it would be very hard, if not impossible, to see the end of expansions as anything other than the beginning of the end for the game as a commercially viable product. At some point, surely, attrition caused by lack of new content would lead to a drift down to population numbers that would no longer generate an income stream adequate to justify the maintenance costs.

But that point could be a long way off, even then. With a thoughtful approach and a well-implemented plan, the older EverQuest titles could transition gracefully into a lengthy, secure and settled retirement. If the Reddit leaks turn out to be accurate then it does seem that Daybreak at least have preparations for such an outcome well in hand.

We'll find out soon enough. The EverQuest 20th Anniversary is in March 2019. If there are announcements in the New Year telling us about nostalgic raids, complex quests and scaling weapons then we can call it a done deal. If that does happen - roll on EQ3!

Otherwise I guess it will be business as usual for another year. Everyone meet back here next  November for another ten levels.

Either way, on we go.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

In My Experience... : EQ2

I was happily sorting my bags in EverQuest 2 yesterday (three hours and the job barely started) when I happened to spot someone in chat talking about double XP. I hadn't heard anything about it but I moused over my xp bar and sure enough, there it was: Server Bonus 100%.

Well, I say moused over but it wasn't quite that simple. These days, EQ2 XP comes in (at least) five flavors: Adventure, Tradeskill, Alternative Advancement, Tithe and Ascension. When you're leveling up, the default is Adventure but at max level that swaps to Ascension, since the entire endgame is now balanced around those four classes. What happens when you max that out I don't know - and I'm a long way from finding out.

When I heard about the possible bonus XP, I was playing my max-level Berserker, so the bar in front of me showed Ascension, which is unaffected by bonuses. It didn't used to be, at least I don't think it did, but one of the unheralded changes that came in with the Chaos Descending expansion was a complete revamp of the way Ascension works.
Someone doesn't get out much.

All four Ascension classes received five more levels; that was advertised. The old "Ascension Vitality" mechanic, which limited the amount you could earn per day and involved a complicated and annoying process of visiting NPCs to top it up, was removed; that wasn't mentioned anywhere I saw. Also, all Ascension XP earned by killing mobs vanished, too.

The only way to level Ascension classes now is by completing quests or using specific items, mostly those granted by quests. Quest XP goes directly to Ascension. Sometimes you might get an item that gives a whole Ascension Level or even several. I haven't had one in the new expansion zones yet but as far as I know, they're still attached to the quests that used to give them in Planes of Prophecy and in panda Yun Zi's catch-up questline.

That reminded me of something Wilhelm said about Lord of the Rings Online:

"I remember back when LOTRO was working up towards launch that the idea of quest experience being so heavily weighted on your progression path as somewhat controversial. Of course, any minor change of formula can be said to have been controversial to some degree. Still, we went from EverQuest, which was “Quest experience? You have to have quests for that!” to WoW, where killing the mobs tended to be, on balance, worth as much as the quests themselves, to LOTRO, which pretty much required that you do the quests to level up."

For a long time after that EQ2 offered a meaningful choice between grinding mobs and questing but the current orthodoxy is squarely in favor of quests. In fact, in a year when the expansion cycle doesn't include a level cap increase, XP, however acquired, can begin to seem a tad irrelevant to most of the installed customer base, which does make you wonder just who Bonus XP events could be aimed at. Perhaps that's why no-one bothered to tell us about this one. 

It did get me thinking, though. The change in the way XP gets handed out at higher levels is a reflection of the degree to which the last ten levels, including the solo "casual" version, are now both separate and different from how everything works for the first hundred. It's much more than just the XP, too; from 100 onwards you might as well be playing a different game entirely.

For a hundred levels you really can just wander around, wearing whatever gear you happen to find, killing whichever mobs you chance to run into, doing quests for anyone with a feather over their head. Yes, there are optimum paths and yes, if you stick with the game long-term, you'll have to backtrack to fill out the significant parts you ignored, but if your goal is simply to entertain yourself and get to three figures then you don't need much of a plan - or a clue.

Kill named mobs for fun and profit and, if you have the Weekly, XP.

From 100 onwards, though, you need to pay increasingly close attention to any number of abstruse and often unfamiliar systems. Even that most basic of constants, Adventure XP, changes radically, and not just as outlined above.

In order to make sure players spent time on the newest content, thereby concentrating populations in a small number of zones, the amount of XP required for each level was increased by orders of magnitude. You can still do older content if you insist but it won't do you any good at all, even if you mentor down for it. You will still get XP but it will be infinitesimal compared to what you need.

Going from Level 99 to Level 100 takes 1.66m xp, up from 1.5m the level before. Getting from 100 to 101 requires 140m. You can see that grinding in Sebilis isn't going to make much of a dent in that.

Killing mobs in current content gives more XP than killing mobs in older contet but not by all that much. It won't begin to make a dent in what you're being asked to earn. If you want to level from 100 to 110 you have to do quests in the latest level-appropriate zones, which means no later than last year's expansion. A single quest there will give you a decent chunk of the level: with full vitality and a server bonus you might get half-way from one level to the next on a single hand-in.

The alternative to grinding levels used to be grinding AAs. It's not called Alternative Advancement for nothing. AAs, aren't what they were. They stop at 350 and by the time most people hit max level they'll already have capped out. AAs are still essential, especially if you spend them correctly, but once you've got them and set them you can forget them.

Gratuitous picture of a snail. In no way intended to symbolize leveling speed.

The attention that used to go to AAs has, for a couple of years now, been replaced by the focus on Ascension. Ascended skills are extremely powerful. Among other things, they deliver nukes and dots that visibly impact the health of Level 118 named mobs, which your class skills definitely won't.

I am only just beginning to get a clear idea of how important Ascension is. I can see now why committed veterans have been grumbling about everyone turnng into Wizards. On the plus side, it certainly must make the small EQ2 dev team's job a lot easier; balancing four Ascension classes has to be a lot more manageable than balancing the full twenty-six.

Once you have your levels and your AAs you have to think -among other things - about your spells and/or combat arts. I'm still trying to figure that out. My Berserker is mostly using the highest-but-one level versions he has access to because he's upgraded them all to Master quality via the time-gated system.

Vet bonus 60%? Hmm, I guess 110 crafter must count now.
As you level to 110 you still get the lowest level Apprentice version of each new spell or CA gifted to you automatically, but to upgrade a Master of the previous version you need to reach Expert in the next. At lower levels you'd just have bought the Adepts off the broker or crafted the Experts yourself. That's still possible from 101st onwards but it becomes ferociously expensive. The drop rate on Adept spells is many orders of magnitude lower than you've been trained to expect. If I see one Adept drop in a session I'm amazed. The chances of getting one you need is too small to contemplate.

As for crafting Experts, I have a max-level sage who can do it for my casters but the number of rares required per spell and the cost of buying those rares makes it so off putting I haven't yet started. I'm also short a max-level Alchemist to make CAs for my Berserker. I used to rely on Mrs Bhagpuss for that.

All of which just gets you to Expert, at which point you can begin using the time-gated process to upgrade to Master, something that takes about six weeks. Per spell. Which itself is just the beginning. Next comes Grandmaster, Ancient and - I think but I'm not sure - Mythical. 

Even basic information on how all this works can be hard to find. Daybreak themselves recognized the potential for confusion a while back, when they added this very helpful guide to changes for returning players. I would absolutely advise anyone coming back to EQ2 after a lay-off to read through it carefully. It was written in May 2018 and it seems reasonably current but I fear some of the detail on Ascension may already be outdated.

Some of us love double XP!
Once you've gotten your head around the fact that your Adventuring class is no longer your prime concern and that your means of acquiring both XP and spell/CA upgrades have changed almost out of recognition , you can start looking at your gear. Unless you were a frenzied min-maxer you probably never bothered to pay attention to Infusing, let alone Reforging as you were leveling up. Well, you're going to have to start.

I still don't understand Reforging and I'm not sure how important it is in the scheme of things but I have come to terms with - and very much learned to value - Infusing. Infusing means boosting the stats on individual pieces of gear. It uses the Deity system (itself radically revamped recently and another entire system you need to learn) and runs either on Infusers you get as boss drops and quest rewards or on Platinum.

Pumping money into this slot machine is essential if you want to boost your character's effectiveness. I banged several thousand plat through it yesterday to add more than a million hit points to my Berserker's health pool, as well as pushing his Potency over 40k. You must repeat this process every time you change a piece of armor, too, because, unlike Augments, you can't take the upgrades out and re-use them.

Augmenting - that's another vital mechanic that just can't be ignored any more when you hit 100 although at least the way they work doesn't change - much. Keeping your gear as close to fully augmented as possible is another essential aspect of being max level. So is leveling up and gearing your Mercenary. So is keeping your Familiar maxed. And as of Chaos Descending we have levels and gear for our mounts, too. And I haven't even mentioned Fervor and Resolve...

On it goes. And on and on. If you play solo it's maybe not utterly impossible to ignore most of this and bumble along as if the old ways still applied but whether you can do that and still have fun, I'm not so sure. If you adapt and change then the newer content becomes as easy and genuinely "casual" as the lower but if you don't then it can feel like running face-first into a brick wall.

Don't worry about me. I'll just sit this one out.

As I said, if you want, you could familiarize yourself  with many of these processes and mechanisms as you level up. You probably should, since there's one hell of a lot to take in all at once if you leave it until you have no choice. Given that every expansion now comes with a Level Boost token, however, plenty of people are going to find themselves starting cold on a new character, even assuming they're current players who know the ropes.

How appealing a prospect this is will depend. It must be very tough on genuine new players and returning prodigals alike, but some people are going to love the complexity. There's a demographic that plays games mainly to learn the systems. They should be in clover.

For people who just want to log in and kill stuff, though, I'm not sure I could recommend starting at the top by buying the expansion and triggering the boost. It's attractive to be where the crowd is and you might well feel you're missing out down in the lonely lower levels, but if its the traditional MMORPG experience you're looking for, that's where you'll find it. EQ2's endgame, even the solo, supposedly casual endgame, is something else entirely.

All of which brings me back to the question: just who is a Double XP event that only applies to leveling modes really aimed at? And, perhaps even more puzzlingly, if you're going to have a Double XP event, why not tell people about it? I can't see any sign of an announcement either on the EQ2 Community News page or on the Launcher. Even google can't find a single mention. If that one person hadn't spoken up in chat I'd never have known.

It does potentially change my plans. I might concentrate on leveling a couple of my 100s to 110. Or I might wake up some lower levels, just to watch them knock off a dozen levels in a session. That's always fun.

How long this mysterious event is going to last I have no idea. I don't even know when it started. There's a patch today - there's a patch every Tuesday - so it might be gone when the servers come up. Or it might be with us through the coming holiday weekend. I suppose it might even be permanent...

Get it while it lasts, that's my advice. Unless your on your Level 110, in which case don't bother!

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