Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Furglebin's Journal 4: EQ2

So here I am talking to gnomes. Only the first thing I notice is they do not sound like gnomes. They look like gnomes. They are shorter than mes. They are both wearing eyeglasses like gnomes always wears but when they speak there is no mentioning cognoggins or foozlewickets like you usually get with a gnome. Generally you get more of that sort of thing than you know what to do with with a gnome but not from these ones. No, they sound like Erudites or maybe even Dark Elfs with a lot of spouting on about battle and victory and suchlike.

Or No Gnome?
Well, I have my suspicions because I have seen a lot in this city by now and I know that everyone is not always what they wants you to think they are but all the same my whiskers are twitching and that means adventures. So I do what the "gnomes" tell me and go through their magic gateway. Which is another thing that is not right if you thinks about it because if they were really gnomes it would be some clockwork contraption with a lot of whirring and clicking and bits falling off and some other gnome would be cursing and hitting it with a spanner. It would not be a glowy magic thing what looks like a sea-shell that works perfectly every time.

Everyone mill about so it looks like there's more of us
Champions Respite is the place I end up. It is sort of a shopping mall and waiting room for people that want to murder each other. All sorts of people come in, Iksars and Trolls and Dwarves and just about anyone really. There is a Priest of Discord what sorts us all out into teams and asks us where we want to go. He gives four choices, called Smuggler's Den, Frozen Tundra, Battlefield of Ganak and Gears of Klak'Anon. I do not know anything about any of them but when I see that the teams for different places are different sizes I think I better go in the biggest team. Then I can just get into the middle of a crowd and figure it out as I go along.

Are you sure you're a priest?
Smugglers Den is the one where it is two dozen on each side and it is an amazing place, all towers and islands up in the air. I do not have a clue what I am doing so I just chase around with everyone else. Some Barbarian shouts out orders and mostly we do what he tells us. Tiger is being an armadillo, which is great for the killing other people part but does not work so well for keeping me alive so I die quite a lot. 'Course no-one stays dead. I pop back up in a few seconds every time but it is hard to get back to where everyone is so I try not to die if I cans help it.

Just when I am beginning to wonder how long all this is going to go on for it stops. Back in Champions Respite we all get our marks on how well we did and we won and I did alright I think, specially for a first time. I even get some Tokens to spend in the shops on stuff to help with fighting other adventurers 'cos it is different to fighting monsters, or so they say. Seems pretty much the same to me except adventurers don't keep still for you to kill them like an orc does and they swear more.

You take it! I took it last time.
Anyway I get the taste for it so I try again, only with Tiger being a bear which means at least I get healed a bit when the stupid healers on my team keep healing the fat tanks and not important DPS rats like mes. Funny how that keeps happening. The Priest of Discord likes to shuffle all the teams up so now and agains I end up killing someone what I was saving from being killed the time before. Makes it hard to remember who is on what side sometimes but I think it is a good plan cos it keeps things fairer so the same team does not win every match.

I hear there's a cafe at the top
Cutting a long tale short, over the next few weeks I try all the Battlegrounds and they are all good except Frozen Tundra which is rotten. In that one it is all fighting monsters and I can do that anywhere. Gears of Klak'Anon is just this tiny room where everyone piles into the middle and someone grabs a little stone and tries to hang on to it while everyone else fights over who gets to hold it next. Battlefield of Ganak is a lot of running up and down a field grabbing the other team's flag and bringing it back and of course you got to stop them grabbing yours at the same time.

It is all good fun and very exciting but the thing is that everyone in the Battlegrounds is either exactly as far along in learning as I am or they have learned pretty much all there is to learn. It is one thing or the other and nothings inbetween. Which means that if I want to go fightings other adventurers for tokens I cannot learn anything new and that is not right. And that is why in the end I decide I have had enough running around grabbing flags and stones and towers and playing tag with adventurers.

It is about time I got on with learning how to be a Beastlord so that is what I am doing. When I have learned all there is to learn about that, then I will come back and try again.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Taking The Loong View

What a lot of MMOs there are. I downloaded yet another one yesterday. Kaozz's fault. She mentioned that she was playing something called Loong Online. "Smooth as butter and polished", she said. I'd never heard of it, which was provocation enough without the praise on top.

I googled and found it on the Gamigo portal where I had a choice: sign up for Loong alone or make a Gamigo account to play any of their games. They host a lot of MMOs including a few I'd heard of. Fiesta, which certainly gets a lot of advertising, none of which has ever made me consider trying it, King of Kings, which I did once play for about half an hour and Black Prophecy, which crops up on Massively now and again largely to my complete lack of interest. They have several more and others in development. They even have a Golf MMO, and they're welcome to it. Obviously no real point starting a Gamigo account, then.

Quit hogging the camera, cat!
Having made my Gamigo account, when I came to add Loong to my list of games I planned to play on it I noticed a familiar name: Otherland. Otherland is the MMO based on Tad Williams' sprawling, disturbing cyberpunk/fantasy noir. It's an MMO I've had in the back of my mind for a long time, looking forward to giving it a run whenever it appears. Haven't heard much about it for a while, although there was a video recently. I had no idea Gamigo were involved but now I'm signed up. Pre-ordered, I suppose you could say, if you can pre-order a game you don't have to order in the first place. Ah, sweet serendipity.

Gamigo is a German F2P gaming network.  Seems to be the week for those, what with the PSS1 thing and all. There's an awful lot of MMO activity in Germany, now I come to think of it. Bigpoint are another. They host Drakensang and Nadirim, both of which I've tried, and Battlestar Galactica, which I haven't, it being a shooter. Germany is a big, rich country and one where MMOs seem to be very firmly established. Once you factor out the "sold like chattels" part of the PSS1/Sony deal the whole thing begins to look a little less disturbing. If they can get the IP block sorted out and restore freedom of choice, who knows? Maybe something good could come out of the wreckage.

Slot in top of head is not for litter
Leaving that aside for now, pending the supposed SoE/Allaplaya statements due later today, what is Loong like? Well, I only played for an hour or so but it was a good hour. It certainly looks fine. The world is lush and detailed, the views are stunning, the creatures are quirky and that's just in the starting areas.The interface is a bit too gritty for my taste and I can't say I'm keen on the fonts but the functionality is all there. Compared to, say, Eden Eternal, a game I like a lot, Loong appears to be several notches higher in quality. Gameplay, at the starter level, is identical.

Will I play it much? Ah, that's the question, isn't it? There are just so many MMOs. It's all very well downloading them and trying them out, but how often do I get much further than the starting area? Is looking great and playing smoothly enough? Well, no it's not. Even really top-notch gameplay doesn't set the hook deep enough. Zentia, for example, is a first-class game in just about every respect. Gameplay there is as good as any MMO I've played. Mrs Bhagpuss and I were on it all weekend when we first found it and we played sporadically for a fair while after that, but in the end we drifted away.

I told you once. Shoo!.
I think, for me at least, it comes down mostly to character. In Loong I can be a good-looking young man or a good-looking young woman and that seems to be about it. It's not like being a giant tiger in NeoSteam, is it? Or even a mouse in Eden Eternal. I just don't find playing good-looking young people very involving. If I can't be an animal, at least let me be a dwarf or a gnome, something with a big, bushy beard. Zentia let me play a fat old man, which may be why I lasted a few weeks there rather than a few hours.

Do my feet even touch the ground?
It's not just how the characters look, either. It's also how they move. My Loong character travels in sudden, fluid leaps and bounds, so slick and fast that he's sometimes on the far side of where I want him to be before I can make him stop. Rift has a very dull selection of races but movement there is stolid, steady, firm. I can feel every footfall and that really does matter. The more solid the character feels, the better I am able to associate.

I'll plug on with Loong for a bit. On and off. Here and there. Now and again. The world very much looks worth exploring. I'll be surprised if I become more than an occasional visitor, but that's fine. There are so many MMOs after all.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Getting Steamed Up

Oh look, here I am writing a blog post at ten past ten on a Saturday night. How did that happen?

Mrs Bhagpuss is away at the moment and I did sort of have a plan to play something other than EQ2 for a while. Then the whole PSS1 thing blew up and I found myself spending more time on EQ2Wire and the SoE forums than I spent playing. Even when I was logged in I was chatting about the situation while sorting my bank vault, which scarcely counts as high adventure.

Three points. Read 'em and weep
So this morning I was keen to throw myself into something. Something exciting. The GW2 beta application put Guild Wars at the front of my mind so I thought I'd go over there and look into this Hall of Monuments thing. Yes, I know I said I wasn't going to bother with it. Yes, I know I said I probably wouldn't even use the same account to play GW2. But I found that nifty HoM points calculator thingy and I had three points (and yes for the last time I know everyone has three points) so I thought, well I bet I could get a couple more and then I'd have a tapestry.

Do I want a tapestry? I don't know! I have no idea what it does. But I could get one, maybe. That would be good because then I'd have a thing that I don't have and that's always good. Isn't it? Don't confuse me!

Anyhooo... I did a little reading on the GW2 site and then I clicked the icon for Guild Wars on my desktop and what happened? Nothing. More than nothing, in fact. It seems my portable drive died in the night. I blame Eligium.

Kinda buff for a panda....
What's Eligium? You didn't follow the link, did you? Good move. You have more sense than I do, that's obvious. I probably shouldn't even have linked it. Eligium is a F2P MMO from Frogster that has pandas. They sent me an email saying they were in open beta so I downloaded it. I can't tell you what it's like because I haven't even gotten as far as character creation. Every time I try to run it it craps out on me. Late last night I tried to get it to run about half a dozen times and it kept crashing. Its on my portable drive and now my portable drive doesn't work.

Ok, circumstantial evidence. Whatever, my drive is fried. I spent a long time trying to get a response out of it with no success. Currently it is sitting on its eighth hour and counting of SeaTools recovery with over 2500 errors recovered. No Guild Wars for me. Also no STO, Allods, Ryzom or half a dozen other MMOs. Fingers crossed, maybe tomorrow.

Wurm then. I really wanted to play Wurm anyway. It's browser based so no problem there. Except it seems there's a client I downloaded and forgot all about that underwrites the browser. I put it on the portable drive, naturally. 

From our live feed
So I played EQ2. My conjuror dinged 89. But I didn't want to play EQ2 so I patched Rift and hit Play. The client hangs. Can't get in. I could work out how to fix that perhaps but it's getting late. So here I am writing this while LotRO patches. Actually it's done now, but it took twenty minutes.

What have I learned?

1. I need a back-up drive with all my MMOs on, fully patched. Like that's going to happen.

2. Maybe I ought to get Skyrim or Kingdoms of Amalur.  Just in case. Like we have candles and matches in case of a power cut.

3. Maybe Steam is not such a terrible idea.

I have been against the concept of Steam from the start. My games but not on my machine? Pshaw! Doesn't seem such a bad idea now, does it?. Tomorrow I'll look into it.

Meantime, LotRO's patched. Time to go hobbitting.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

No Pictures. Because We Can't Have Nice Things

I generally keep my cool when SOE does something stupid. I've been playing their MMOs for over a decade after all. I've had plenty of practice.

I didn't freak out when they dipped their toes in the microtransaction water with Legends of Norrath. I remained sanguine when they jumped into RMT with the LiveGamer deal. I was solidly behind the push towards F2P. Even during the hacks last year I crossed my fingers and carried on playing.

This is a bridge too far.

I knew about the ProSiebenSat.1 deal. It was signed in January, I believe, but it's taken until now for the details to emerge. I naively believed that a deal with a German television company would have little relevance to me, playing on American servers from the United Kingdom. After all, SoE have always been consistently and solidly pro-global and firmly against regional I.P. blocking, and anyway I'd been through this before.

In 2003 they did a deal with UbiSoft to run Everquest for them in Europe on a server called Venril Sathir. It was a pain. We had to be very careful when installing expansions for a while in case we accidentally ended up with UbiSoft accounts instead of adding them to our existing SOE accounts, but there was never any suggestion that we had to move to UbiSoft. It was a choice.

A bad choice, of course. We thought about it for all of a millisecond and then said "Nah!" UbiSoft ran a loose ship. Much complaining ensued. Eventually the deal expired and SOE took Venril Sathir back into the fold, where it eventually merged with some other server. I imagine. That's what usually happens. Don't ask me, I wasn't playing on it.

What with that and the NGE you might think SOE would have learned a lesson. Oh, and let's not forget LiveGamer and their Bazaar servers. That went well, didn't it? Where's The Bazaar now? Oh yes, that's right. Merged with Freeport. And where are LiveGamer? You may well ask.

Freeport. Hmm. Wasn't that the only F2P server for a year or so? Making it the de facto global EQ2 F2P server? Why, yes it was. And is. And as it happens every single person in our Freeport guild turns out to be European despite the server being based in the U.S. Not because we don't like Americans or Australians or [insert your nationality here] but because that's just who we happened to meet.

That's the sodding POINT of MMOs. You run around bumping into lovely or horrible people from all over the world and the lovely ones become your imaginary friends. Virtual friends. Friends for pete's sake. You do stuff with them and build relationships and compile virtual collective assets like guild halls and memories and you do not expect the people you are paying to provide the communications service for all this to come along out of the blue and announce that they have sold you to someone else!

I am fuming about this. So are the people who have been fueling the inevitable thread on the SOE forums, currently at 58 pages and being Mod-Locked like there's no tomorrow. Mrs Bhagpuss and I and the European players in our guild aren't the worst affected by this by any means, though. Yes, it looks as though our personal and possibly even our payment details may be transferred without our consent to a company we would never otherwise have heard of. Yes, the deal omits Vanguard and EQ1 so our Station Access accounts will be rendered effectively null and void (FAQ on this from SOE pending, presumably while someone goes "D'Oh!!!" repeatedly, since apparently that was one of the things no-one thought of. Feldon has a list of those). Yes, we will need to purchase two forms of fairy gold because PSS1 have their own make-believe money instead of Station Cash...

But at least our right to go on playing EQ2 on US servers  is grandfathered in. For now. With no details on if that includes any new characters we might want to make. And no promises on how long before that right might be revoked. At least when the dread date comes we will still be able to log in. If we still want to. Which is in doubt.

Players outside PSS1's remit, which is basically all of Europe plus unnamed countries to be added at an unspecified time, who happen to have characters on Splitpaw or Storms or any of the other European servers will be IP locked out. End of. No matter if you happen to live in Texas but have been playing on Splitpaw for years because you work the nightshift. Nor if you were in the US Military stationed in Germany when you started playing EQ2 so you joined a server with a good ping where they raided at hours that suited you. Bad luck on you when you get back to the States because your characters are staying in Germany and you just lost all visiting rights.

Enough of that. I just filled out my GW2 beta application and I'm off to fill one in for Mrs Bhagpuss. When it comes round to the EQNext beta, if my only choice is PSS1 who knows if I'll even bother?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Blanket of Sky: Wurm Online

Sandbox. Theme Park. Discuss.

I'd never even heard of a "sandbox" until a few years back. Sounds a bit like "litter box". Can't be that, can it? Nope. Turns out it's what we'd call a "sand pit" where I come from. Which doesn't really help much. Even a "sand pit" to me is where you land after a  long jump. I don't believe I've ever seen a pit or a box of sand put down for very small children to play in. We generally go to the seaside for that.

Then there's "theme park". We don't really have those either, although we do know what they are. I'm pretty sure I've never been to one. I've been to amusement parks and fairgrounds, we had those when I was tiny and we still have some left, but if they had a theme other than "spin round in circles, scream then throw up" I must have missed it.

So we're having this discussion based on two analogies that have no emotional resonance for me. The fine distinctions people draw just blur when I try to focus down. And anyway, when I read about  games like EVE or pre-NGE SWG the word that comes to mind isn't "sandbox". It's "simulation". Back in the 80s and 90s there was a whole genre of "sim" games, where you managed some enterprise like a city, a zoo or a football team. When I read stories about being a member of a Corp in EVE or being an Entertainer in SWG it often sounds more like being inside a simulation than playing in a sandbox. As an employee, not the owner.

What's all this leading up to? Well, I've been playing Wurm. Not much, but I have been playing. I thank Stargrace for that. She keeps writing about it and posting such pretty pictures. I tried Wurm before once, many years ago. All I can remember is wandering around in near total darkness for about an hour, occasionally bumping into a wall. The new player experience has improved a lot since then. They even have a tutorial, although for me that could be counted a mixed blessing.

I made that!
This time I've lasted a lot longer than an hour. I haven't built anything but I've traveled along the river valleys gawping at the work of others. Whole villages, even towns built from scratch. I've run away from crocodiles and lived. I made a tiny island just big enough to stand on and dug a small hole. I've built several fires, made and fired some pots from clay I dug myself and cooked some meals in those pots on that fire using herbs and vegetables I foraged. I pretty much have the hobo lifestyle down.

Wurm is very enjoyable. It's relaxing, except when a crocodile chases you or a lion roars very near in the dark. (It still gets dark but nowhere near as dark as I remember).  It's also quite compulsive in that drip drip drip of incremental rewards kind of way. I was getting drawn in enough to start reading Wikis and forums and planning ahead. Then I thought "do I really want to do this?"

To get anything done in Wurm takes ages. You have to construct everything from first principles and each act of construction pops up a timer. It's an on-use skill-based system, so the more you do something the better at it you get and the more efficiently (faster, less chance of failure) you do it. It's also a social environment reliant on trade and co-operation. In order to make progress you have to perform many repeated actions over extended periods of time while establishing social networks.

Erm, but not this...

It's like moving to a town where you know no-one, taking on a job about which you know nothing and sleeping in the park while you build your own house. Only with crocodiles.What's more, once you've put in the hours, weeks, months of real time and have your homestead all fixed up, you have to maintain it or it falls down. If you leave it too long, when you come back it will have reverted to wilderness and your neighbors and passing hobos will have taken all your stuff. Massively's Shawn Schuster wrote a piece that sums this up brilliantly, except he managed to be a lot more positive about it than I would have been in his shoes.

It was his article, in fact, that convinced me to stop reading Wurm Wikis and making grandiose plans and to settle for the hobo lifestyle instead. It also got me to wondering just why sandbox gameplay has to be soooo slooow. It's not like the simulation happens in real-time. I've lived near two people who built their own houses on an empty plot of land. One took over two years and the other about nine months. I've never seen anyone build an entire town but I'm pretty confident it would need more than three dozen people and take longer than a few weeks. Especially if they also dug a mine under a mountain while they were at it.

Hobo TV
Someone decides all this stuff. It's not handed down by the universe or Stephen Hawking. In an indie game like Wurm the pace is presumably set to the taste of the developer and it seems to be the kind of pace that would appeal to the same people who build model railway layouts or make models of the Taj Mahal out of used matchsticks.

Theme Park gameplay used to be like this too, relatively speaking. Travel took hours, fights took minutes, raids lasted all night. Then came WoW and everything sped up. Say what you like about WoW, it at least opened up the market to people who like to get something done in less than forever. And there are still slow theme parks. They survive. As I was commenting not long ago,it still takes a while to get something done in Everquest and you just try rushing through Ryzom and see how far that gets you. We themeparkers have a choice of pace now.

So where's my fast sandbox?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Wagons Roll! : Rift

I stepped back into Rift last week. I'm subscribed right up to April but I've hardly logged in since late last year. When I read that Rift's first twenty levels were going to be freely playable (Not F2P. Oh dear me, no!. We can't be having any of that kind of talk) my first thought was "Great! Now I can cancel my account and just drop in and play low-level whenever I need a Rift fix".

The thought of seeing the first twenty levels hopping with new players like they were just after launch is a very pleasing prospect. The busier the zone, the more rifts pop, the more invasions fire. Things could be just like the good old days, back in the mists of yesteryear, lo! those long ten months ago.

Then I read about the changes to the Soul Tree system (as discussed here and here among other places) and thought that if I was going to pontificate about them I probably ought at least to try them out. Not that lack of personal experience usually stops me climbing on a soapbox. Nor lack of a soapbox, for that matter.

Before I could do anything I had to move all my characters off Shadefallen. And move the guild. (Didn't need to call a Guild Meeting on that one. The entire guild membership is me and Mrs Bhagpuss and she's not playing Rift even more than I'm not playing Rift so I just took an executive decision. That's what Guild Leaders do).

Look and wonder!
As promised, moving the guild was very straightforward, as was moving each of the characters. Well, it would have been if not for two things: the guild bank and my mail. Storage has always been at a premium in Telara and I've been in the habit of using the mailbox as a kind of poor man's bank vault. The Guild Bank was completely full of crafting materials and various consumables. Since you have to have an empty mailbox and nothing in the Guild Bank before your application to move can be approved I had a happy couple of hours shifting stuff about and buying larger bags and new bank vault slots before we finally got our passports stamped for Faeblight.

Which is where the next complication arose. Faeblight was the "reserved" destination server for Shadefallen characters because it's the only remaining RP-PVE server. That reservation had expired, but I still wanted to go there because of the RP part and because we have our Guardian characters there and, hey, it's easier to remember where they are if they're all in the same place, right? Only I'd forgotten that Rift only lets you have six characters per server and I had a total of seven and Mrs Bhagpuss had eight or nine.

To cut a long story short, I ended up moving all the Guardians to Millrush, which meant another round of mailbox-emptying, although at least we'd never gotten around to making a Guardian guild so there was no guild bank to deal with. Finally, about four hours after I'd had the passing notion to try out a preset Soul build, I logged in my Rogue and hit "N".

Oh that's where they go!
First off I compared the Presets on offer for each Calling with what I was using. Apparently I'm a bit of a maverick. Or an idiot. Let's go with "maverick". Whatever, my choices look quite odd compared to the presets, which make a good deal more sense. I chose the "Huntsman" model and, after paying a large chunk of money to my trainer for nine tiers of upgrades to abilities I'd never even considered taking in all the time I've played that character, I went Warfronting.

Guess what? Trion have a better idea how a ranged DPS class should spec than I do. Who'd have thought it? I imagine having designed the game gives them some kind of an edge. That and the fact that I detest allocating points and just try to get it over with as fast as possible. Either way, the "Huntsman" build plays a lot better in Warfronts than my Ranger/Bard hybrid ever did.

I did a few Warfronts and remembered how much I like Codex. Probably my favorite instanced PvP zone out of all the ones I can remember from DAOC onwards. Even more fun now that I'm significantly more effective so thumbs up for the Preset Soul. Pretty much kicking into an open goal as far as I'm concerned since I never wanted the responsibility of creating a build in the first place.

I'm in two minds now about cancelling my subscription. Chances are I won't want to play much Rift after April. Guild Wars 2 looms. And there's the free twenty levels sitting there if I do. But I did really enjoy being back. I'll wait and see how much I play over the next six weeks and then decide, I guess. Which is in itself a win for Trion. Apparently they do know what they are doing after all. Maybe.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Are You Looking At My Bra? : EQ2

The EQ2Players website hasn't really worked properly for years, which didn't affect me directly since I played most of my time either on Test or EQ2X, neither of which were allowed to use EQ2Players anyway. It affected a lot of other people though and it's been a bit of a long-term embarrassment for SOE. Apparently there was a third-party provider involved and some contractual issues that meant it was harder to get it fixed than you'd imagine but in the run-up to Age of Discovery last year Smokejumper made a rash promise that a revamped EQ2Players would debut alongside the expansion.

It didn't, but this weekend we finally got to see the corner of the curtain lift when the invaluable EQ2Wire team unveiled their sister site EQ2U. It's beautifully designed and  extremely easy-to-use. I particularly like the slightly oversized look, which makes reading character information a more pleasant and less eye-straining experience than I'm used to in-game. EQ2U gets its information directly from something called an EQ2 Data Feeds API. That sounds like something a long way above my paygrade but as far as I can tell it's an always-on database provided by SOE that holds a copy of pretty much all the data about your character that you would be able to see in-game and updates it every time you zone or camp.

This obviously raises some potential privacy issues and I got embroiled in a fairly purposeless spat about that in the comment thread over there. After sleeping on it I've decided that I tend to disagree with myself (not an unusual occurrence by any means). If I still have any issue with it, its probably that SOE chose to make the service Opt-Out rather than Opt-In, but now that I've had time to think about it, I can't honestly say I care that much either way. Linking your characters together so that they show as "Alts" will be Opt-In when it comes, which is probably just as well.

Really, though, the roots of this debate go back as long as I've been playing MMOs. The old Everquest boards, the ones that SOE eventually had to take down because they were so toxic, where the "Gameplay" forum was widely known as "Flameplay", often held overheated debates about the legitimacy of the "Inspect" command and the correct etiquette involved in using it. People have always wanted to see their characters out of game, too. For a while it was de rigueuer to have a Magelo account. Even I had one for a while, although I never really knew what to do with it.

My look. You all want it. Don't kid yourselves!
When it comes to privacy, a lot more than a dozen years seem to have passed since the millennium. The entire concept has undergone a radical revision. There already were huge cultural differences. English, American and French players would always tend to struggle to understand each others' concepts of what constitutes an appropriate level of privacy and those are three cultures with a very entwined social history. How a consensus could be reached when you throw in players from all around the world is beyond me and now there's also a very significant age factor to add into that mix. Young adults are growing up in a world where availability has much more pull than privacy.

Which is all very well. These are heavyweight cultural and political issues that will occupy a lot of serious-minded people for many years to come. Whether or not people can look at your computer-game character might be on the spectrum but at most it's emblematic of a problem, not a problem in and of itself. And anyway, as the guitarist in a band I was once in told me when we went for a drink after rehearsal one night in a club that seemed a tad too hip "No-one's looking at you. They're too busy looking at themselves".

I had him dyed to match my ensemble
That's what it comes down to in the end. No-one cares about your characters in a computer game except inasmuch as those characters affect them. If they're inspecting you it's because they see you wearing something they want to wear or they want to know if you'll slow them down or get them killed in whatever dungeon they might want you to help them clear. No-one's going to go randomly through several million characters for unspecified nefarious purposes. Probably. We hope. Anyway, there are approximately a gazillion more important things to be worrying about.

I'm going to leave my characters opted out for now. But I might change my mind. If it ever so happens that I need to look at them on a website rather than in-game then EQ2U will do nicely. EQ2Players is going to have some work to do to catch up, if it ever does.

Oh, and the title? How soon they forget...

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Getting On At The Ground Floor: Rift

TAGN has a post up about Rift's recent decision to add preset builds. I'm not really playing Rift at the moment. I haven't even moved from Shadefallen yet so my characters are still under house arrest in Meridian. I keep up with the news, though, so I knew about these changes. They didn't really come as much of a surprise.

It's been very interesting to watch Rift change since launch, like watching an MMO on fast-forward. I understand why Trion decided to add the preset option but like most of the changes they've made it takes the game further than ever away from what made it so exciting and intriguing in beta. More than that, it chips away at one of Rift's USPs (if you can have more than one unique selling point).

Nice to have the place to myself for once

Rift's Soul Tree system has often been praised for its flexibility and originality even by commentators who otherwise didn't find much to like about the game. Similarly well-received was the frenzied pace of zone invasions and rifts during beta and around launch, when quest hubs were often overrun and had to be reclaimed by bands of players and system messages to "Find somewhere safe to camp" when the server was about to come down drew catcalls of derision as everyone yelled back that nowhere was safe.

An apocalypse is no reason to ignore personal hygiene
The fangs and claws were drawn from zone invasions early on and throughout the year incremental changes conspired to make Rift a lot more like other, familiar MMOs than had ever seemed likely in those heady beta days. It's hardly surprising, then, that Trion have finally gotten around to making the Soul Tree more plug and play than sit and ponder.

Most MMOs follow this path, from complexity to simplicity but I'm used to it taking five years not ten months and it makes me very glad I was there for the beta and jumped in with both feet at launch. I'm sure that if I came fresh to Rift now, never having played the game before, I'd have a great time for two or three months, just like I did in WoW when I joined it after it'd already been running for more than five years but I'm also pretty sure that, just like back then in WoW, I'd find myself reading about how things used to be and thinking "y'know, that really sounds like it would have been more fun than how it is now..."

Which isn't to say that MMOs shouldn't adapt to make it easier for latecomers to join in. I think they should. MMOs can bloat and become unmanageable for newcomers after a time and things that are fun when you're all in it together can seem frustrating when there's only you doing them. In the good old days that took years. Now it seems it just takes a few months.

One scoop or two?

What it It emphasizes for me is how worthwhile it is to jump on MMOs at the earliest opportunity. Get into the beta if you can, even if you plan on playing when the game goes Live. Maybe especially then. I've heard many people say that the most fun they ever had in certain MMOs was in beta and it's been my experience too, at least on occasion. Often that's just the excitement and the camaraderie but not infrequently it's because whatever was fresh and new about the game just doesn't survive the commercial realities post-launch.

Beta aside, If you know you're going to play at some point then play at launch. If it's not polished enough for your taste you can come back later and maybe it'll be better for you then with the corners smoothed off, but if you do like it you'll be getting a shot at something that will only be available for a limited period. And if Trion's example is anything to go by, that period could be lot more limited than it used to be.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Rat's A Rat For All That

Rats. What is it about rats and MMORPGs? I can't say that I thought about rats one day in a hundred before I took up this hobby and now a day never passes. A dozen years ago, when I stepped out into Norrath, what's the first thing I remember? Well, alright, falling off Kelethin, losing my corpse and logging out in a strop but let's forget that, my own fault for making an elf. Cut me some slack, I was new and I knew nothing. We've all been there.

So then, forgetting that that the way I conveniently forget the first record I bought with my own money was a Gerry Anderson E.P. not, as I choose to tell people who ask (and it's surprising how often the subject comes up) "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" by Joan Baez, my first MMO memory is... well it's chasing bats outside North Freeport. But the second! The second is rats. Big rats.

Roekillik au naturel
Rats get not one but two entries on GiantBomb. Kill Ten Rats is an MMO trope (and an excellent blog). At least one MMO has tried to define itself with a bold claim that it didn't have any rats at all. (It was Horizons and it had maggots instead, which really wasn't an improvement). Boars may get the "everywhere" hate but it's rats who have ubiquity down.

It's not just plain vanilla rats, either (and there's an ice-cream flavor to ponder. Or not). Giant rats and plague rats are all very well but as Orwell said, four legs good, two legs better and what's better than a very large, infectious rodent? An even bigger one walking upright wearing pants of course!

I believe I first encountered ratmen when I bought the Warhammer RPG. What a great book that was and what an excellent campaign. I must dig it out. Pen and paper gaming is the new black around here apparently, what with Tobold, Ardwulf and Tipa all getting their D20 on all over again. I can't recall exactly what part the Skaven had in the plot but I'm pretty sure they were in it up to their elbows. Assuming rats have elbows. Plotting is what ratmen do best.

Smoking jackets are in this season
Mythic inexplicably decided to leave the Skaven out of Warhammer Online. Hamlet without the prince. Everquest had ratmen, though. Had them from way back in Velious. Safely tucked away in Dragon Necropolis, where there was little chance of me tripping over them back at the turn of the millennium. It's hard enough to get there even now, as I may have mentioned.

What's that rumbling sound ?
It must have been somewhere in around 2003 that I finally encountered the Chetari. Ultra-aggressive, tall enough to look a dwarf in the eye, a race of white lab rats gone feral. They favor Donald rather than Mickey, dressing only from the waist up, but short of that idiosyncrasy they're all rat. There was much complaint, when EQ2 announced the ratonga, that Norrath already had ratpeople. I just hope when Dragon Necropolis comes to EQ2 as surely it must, we get a showdown. Forget the Roekillik and their incomprehensible plans for world domination, the Chetari are the real bad rats here.

Norrath may have the most upright rat races and Warhammer the archetype but love the Ratonga and Skaven as I do I'd still have to hand the crown to the Ksaravi. Are they the most fully-realized of all the ratfolk in MMOs? Not really. Sure, the Skaven have them beat paws down, offline. Sure, you can actually play a Ratonga. But did any of those rats build Ksaravi Gulch? No they did not!

Ksaravi Gulch is a work of art. Actually the whole of Telon is a work of art and should be preserved in some kind of online Gallery if and when the sad day comes but I digress. Even by the exceptionally high standards of Telon, Ksaravi Gulch is astonishing. Rats built it and it shows. From the scavenged materials to the treadmill wheels to the cages on stalks it's the rodent Fallingwater. I can't begin to do it justice with words and screenshots. It's worth downloading Vanguard just to see it.

I'm a cat person, really I am. But there's something about a rat in an MMO.

Does Guild Wars 2 have rats?

Monday, February 6, 2012

Are We Nearly There Yet? : Everquest

I had a mind to photograph some rats. I say photograph. As far as I know, the gnomes of Norrath have yet to invent the camera. Insufficient inherent explosive potential, I imagine. Gnomish technology notwithstanding however, I set out to take some screenshots.

The rats in question live in Dragon Necropolis. Dragon Necropolis is in Western Wastes, a part of Velious as yet unrediscovered in EQ2 and probably undiscovered by many current players of the elder game because Western Wastes is a long way from anywhere. No wizard or druid can open a portal there, the Plane of Knowledge has no Book for it and the Guild Hall vendor has no Western Wastes Focus Stone in stock.

If you want to go to Western Wastes, the nearest you can get in one move is Cobalt Scar. A druid or a wizard can port there, but my highest level of either is a level 60 druid and while she has hunted in Western Wastes I deemed her a tad fragile for photographic journalism in underground tunnels infested by rats that stab first and ask questions never, so I logged in my level 84 Beastlord. Who turned out to be in Dragonscale Hills.

Wait here Wizard, this won't take long...
An hour and a half later I hit the hot-key for Throne of Heroes, the veteran reward that allows non-gating classes to click their heels like Dorothy as casters have been doing since 1999. Had I photographed any rats? I had not. I didn't have my stop-watch out but in rough numbers it had taken me about forty-five minutes to run all the way from Dragonscale Hills to Siren's Grotto and about as long again trying to get from one side of the Grotto to the other. Unsuccessfully.

All of which entertainment got me to thinking about Everquest going Free To Play. I'm very happy about that even though I have Station Access and can already play Everquest whenever the mood takes me. I love the idea of new people flooding (alright, trickling) back into the lower-level zones and bringing them to life. I particularly relish the thought of Plane of Knowledge filling up with chattering, bustling hordes of players and pets, flapping and clumping and blocking the bank doorway so I can't get in, just like the good old days.

Negotiations with the Chetari run into difficulties
But you forget just how big Everquest is. According to Wikipedia Everquest currently has 375 zones,a suspiciously round and unbelievably huge number. Three hundred and seventy five zones, of which Western Wastes is by no means the furthest-flung or hardest to reach. It may not be like the old days, when a cross-country trip from Qeynos to Freeport demanded research, preparation and a full play session (two if you died halfway and couldn't get a rez). Still, simply getting from one place to another in Everquest is going to require a great deal more time, attention and knowledge than the modern MMO player is accustomed to bring.

I knew exactly how to get to Western Wastes. I've been there many times. I have maps. To refresh my memory I even had the Zam page up. I was going there with a character to whom nothing posed a threat. And I still gave up in frustration after the umpteenth failure to find the top of the waterfall in Siren's Grotto. It was late and I knew I could log in Mrs Bhagpuss's wizard in the morning, port my Beastlord to Cobalt Scar and then Evac across Siren's Grotto as I should have done in the first place. As indeed I did do and have the photographs of rats to prove.

There's a Plane of Pork? Who knew?
It's going to be very interesting indeed to see how Everquest fares as a Free To Play title. The sheer volume of content is far beyond overwhelming. The systems to be learned are so convoluted and arcane after thirteen years of accretive expansion that even the developers barely understand some of them. Just getting from one place to another still offers more adventure than most MMOs offer in a full dungeon-run. Yet the game was always very easy to get into at the low levels and famously addictive. An awful lot of incomers are going to bounce right off the dark star density but some will inevitably stick, caught in Norrath's inexorable gravity well.

And welcome as the new blood will be, Everquest is hardly languishing. After thirteen years the game still has sixteen servers up and running. As I write this, deep in the night on the U.S. server where my Beastlord lives, there are too many players to count in the Guild Lobby and in the Bazaar, where more than 180 traders stand idling. Not everyone's hanging around afk in the Lobby and Bazaar either. Many more can be seen out in hunting zones, especially at the highest levels. I'd bet that a lot of much younger MMOs would be delighted to have a population like that during off-off-peak hours after a year or two, let alone a decade and a half.

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