Sunday, March 31, 2013

It's Good To Have A Project On The Go...

There are two projects running at the moment among some of the MMO blogs I read. I don't usually follow Scarybooster but his annual "Developer Appreciation Week" has been picked up by, among others, Rowan, J3w3l and Stargrace who I do.

As an only partially-reformed old punk I have problems with the underlying concept of DAW. I reached adolescence at the height of the Prog Rock boom, when being in a band was seen as an almost unimaginable fantasy and rock musicians and lyricists were taken quite seriously as members of some quasi-mystical High Priesthood.  When punk arrived with its radical ethos of "anyone can do it" most of that meretricious nonsense was briefly swept aside and it was wonderful.

A place for everyone and everyone in his place
By and large I still believe in the punk credo "It was easy, it was cheap, go and do it".
Creativity isn't the exclusive province of the magically gifted and creators aren't a class apart. We may choose to adopt roles - customer/supplier, audience/performer, player/developer - but roles are all they are and we can switch those roles at any time. I believe that when it comes to the Arts, the fundamental difference between any category of "Us" and "Them" lies in some combination of opportunity and ambition, not in some mysterious destiny.

Nevertheless, I also place a very high value on politeness and good manners and when someone does something nice for you I believe it's only right to express appropriate appreciation, so to all the many developers who've worked long and hard to bring the many worlds we visit to life..  

Thank You. 

Now get back to work!

The other theme, started by Syp and picked up by Jeromai revolves around playing ten unfamiliar MMOs over ten (non-consecutive) days. Leaving aside the rather obvious problem that playing an MMO for a single session is probably the best way to misunderstand it entirely, this does sound like fun. I'd very much like to join in but it would be ridiculously self-indulgent - I can't do justice to more than a tiny fraction of the MMOs I'm nominally playing already.

If I did, though I'd struggle to come up with ten new MMOs I haven't already tried. The obvious ones would be

Age of Conan
Wizardry Online

(And I would have added Aion but Syp successfully put me off!)

Rusty Hearts is one of the few I've thought about and not tried, so that's a possibility. Beyond that most of what's left are MMOs I've considered and rejected in the past and I don't see revisiting those decisions as a likely path to a good evening's entertainment.

Maybe I'll do it and just call it The 5/5 Project...

I do have a couple of projects of my own in mind, both relating to GW2. The first, which I've already begun, is to level a character to 80 by completing each Map in consecutive order by level range and geographical propinquity. It's going both well and not so well.

My Asuran Ranger is level 18 and he's completed Metrica Province and Rata Sum. With only a few dailies and enough crafting to make his own leathers and bows thrown in, he finished  the supposedly 1-15 map Metrica around level 12. He spent almost the entire time fighting things three or more levels above him, which was almost exactly right in terms of challenge solo. The fact that almost all the Heart vendors he opened this way sold stuff too high for him to use, however, suggested that this isn't how it meant to be done.

Do you have puppies too?
Currently he's done about 20% of Brisban Wildlands and he's already well above the level of the content he's doing there, too. The game downlevels him, of course, but keeping at-level even through a single set of level-appropriate maps looks to be impossible. He'd have to forego any dailies, not gather or craft anything, never go to WvW, skip the whole of the Living Story...even jumping onto random events would be too much. it seems as clear as day to me that linear progression was never intended, indeed is actively engineered out of this game. No wonder some players who insisted on playing it that way from launch burned out so fast.

The gigantic upside to doing it this way is getting to see the incredible detail of this amazing world. There's more going on in just one GW2 Map than in some entire MMOs. I've been taking the time to speak to every NPC and to wait and watch while they speak to each other and it's a mesmerizing experience.

So many delicate, whimsical, subtle interactions, most of which don't appear to go anywhere at all. So many beautifully designed structures and buildings to explore, so many caves and lairs to find. It's a world of vignettes and wonders and only a few are marked on that Achiever-focused map.

Go everywhere. See everything. It's worth all the time you can give it. Whether I can ever give it enough time to see it all in this detail I don't know, but I plan to give it my best shot. Even if it takes a few years.

Subtlety's beyond some people
My other project hasn't even begun and yet I've already kind of painted myself into a corner with it by rolling that ranger for the Map Completion project. I only have one more character slot available and it's reserved for a Charr Engineer. Unfortunately, Engineer would be about the worst possible class for what I have in mind, which is to level up a character with the UI switched off.

Well, switched off while exploring and fighting. Going to need it on
Of course I'd miss all the jokes...
to buy and sell, allocate traits and skills, bank and all that good stuff. But out there in the big world I think it should be possible to survive and thrive without it. A ranger, with some very simple bow skills and a pet would have been ideal. I didn't think it through...

That project is on the back burner for now. I may need to buy another character slot. And think of another class that would be fun to play blind. I really don't need three rangers. Then again...

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Rox Rocks : GW2

I was going to do an overview of GW2's March content drop Flame and Frost: The Razing but I don't really have enough time to do it justice and anyway Ravious and Jeromai got there before me.

In brief, then:

The Living Story finally came alive, almost literally with that full-motion cut-scene with Rytlock. That was a real surprise and a very welcome one. More of those, please. Also I took to new Charr character Rox right away. Just give me those huge green cat eyes for one of my Charrs now. I'll pay you good money.

The nursery instance was exactly the right degree of hard. I completed it without dying but I was downed a few times and it looked touch and go for a while. I hate having to restart storyline missions after a death because it completely destroys any narrative involvement I may have had with the story. If my character died, the story is over. Getting up and carrying on as if nothing happened just doesn't do it for me. So, win.

The Dead Letter Drop mission was first-rate. Having the locations listed in just the right amount of detail in an in-game mail worked wonderfully, especially since all the locations were actual map POIs. The content of the letters when found was mouth-wateringly mysterious. It seems there is a shadowy hand behind the Molten Alliance and it's not Suspect #1 Primordus. Color me intrigued.

WvW - The removal of culling is game-changing. The combination of that and the (really rather pointless but inevitably addictive) ranking system meant a complete change of behavior in WvW, which last night resembled nothing I have seen before. I loved it. Mrs Bhagpuss was not so keen. It will settle down over time to something more in the middle, I'm sure, but for now I'm going to enjoy it for what it is - chaotic, hysterical mayhem.

My favorite changes so far, though, are the adjustments to some of the Big Ticket Events. I love the new Bonus Chest system, which seems to have the twin virtues of heavily reducing the clustering at certain events, making them far more enjoyable, while actually increasing the amount of Rare loot I'm getting. I may only be able to get the Bonus Chest once per account, but but my characters can now get the normal chest as often as they can do the events and the normal chest has one or even two Rares in nearly every time! I hope this version sticks although I wouldn't be surprised to see it tweaked down again.

An unannounced but very welcome change was the rolling-out of the increased challenge levels tested last month to more big events. Claw of Jormag last night was vastly improved. I particularly admired the way that Ice Elementals had been persuaded to cast continual AEs on the "safe rock". So many downed players! There were a number of clever changes along these lines that I noticed and the whole thing was riotous fun again in the way it used to be back in September. Whether that will last, we will see. Players do have an almost limitless capacity to game themselves out of their own fun so I imagine new strats will soon be discovered to re-trivialize the event.

That's it. Can't stop. Got a Norn to help next.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Now Where Did I Put That Tin Foil Hat? : GW2

So after I killed the Fire Elemental and opened my new-style Bonus Chest I was looking to see if the new WvW thing was in the achievements window and I spotted something odd right down the bottom. Hmm, Super Adventure Box? I'm sure I'd have remembered that...

A quick search finds this forum post from the end of February, which links to this database entry. In the actual Patch Notes? Nothing.

Let the conspiracy theories begin!

[EDIT] And already the mystery is solved and I lose interest.

Hang On...Haven't We Been Here Before?

 Yesterday, Massively reported on conversations with two unnamed designers from ArenaNet and with SOE's Dave "Smokejumper" Georgeson. Each emphasized the importance of giving all kinds of players plenty to do at all times. Smokejumper rather chillingly predicted a future where MMO companies who "push the sociological stuff will make really big things that will last for years and years because no one will want to leave them".

Possibly in response to this growing zeitgeist, today Green Armadillo and Keen both have relevant observations. I don't doubt more commentators will weigh in in due course. To me about the only surprise in the idea that MMOs should offer a smorgasbord in place of a set menu is how long it's taken the developers to come right out and say it. From my perspective it's no more than what they've been doing in practice for years.

Is there a gift shop?

Most MMOs I've played for any length of time have had deep, well-constructed, intricately- detailed worlds. A huge amount of time and trouble has clearly been taken over everything from set design and lighting to incidental NPC dialog response. You can (and I frequently do) spend hour after hour just exploring buildings, villages and towns, learning how these imaginary people live.

Large, well-funded MMOs habitually offer a wide, sometimes overwhelming variety of ways to spend your time. In addition to the main course of fighting (solo, duo, group instance, raid, battleground, arena, you name it...) most MMOs offer a good selection of side-dishes, from gathering, crafting, collecting, stories, pets, wardrobes, building, decorating and designing all the way through to embedded collectible card-games and gambling dens.

Never enough, it's never enough...
I would contend that even back in the 1990s, MMOs like Ultima Online and Everquest offered a considerably wider range of possible activities than just leveling up your character and defeating tougher and tougher monsters. Over the last five or six years many MMOs have expanded their catalog of things to do to such an extent that few if any players would ever attempt to consume everything. You'd explode!

The idea that there is insufficient content is ridiculous but it's certainly the case that despite this cornucopia there are still players who feel hungry for more. For them there's always nothing to do. Whether those players are satisfiable, or rather whether attempting to satisfy them is a sound commercial strategy is another matter entirely.

What must be a problem for developers is that the kind of content that takes the longest and costs the most to produce - all those amazingly detailed zones, all that meticulously-written, painstakingly voice-acted dialog - are the very things players skip over, rush past and generally ignore. I suspect relatively few players go around every zone talking to every NPC or spend whole evenings looking at how the furniture has been arranged.
There's always a better party

The Catch-22, though, is that for an MMO to be accorded true AAA status in the eyes of the very same customers who won't really "use" this kind of content, said content still has to be there and be top quality. An expectation of standards has been built up over many years and must be adhered to lest players deem the game lacking or, worse, cheap. Players come to each game with a shopping list of features from all the MMOs they've played before and they had darned well better find all of them, even the ones they never actually use, or by golly they'll be off to someone that knows how to do it properly.

So yes, the future for MMOs is "be everything to everybody all the time". It's a future that's already here and I suspect it's already working about as well as it's ever likely to work. Well, it's working for me, anyway.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Ever Onward: GW2

I found this report on where GW2 may be headed somewhat disheartening. After a full six months of playing very little other than Guild Wars 2 I find myself in the uncomfortable position of enjoying it immensely in spite of the vision its developers have for it rather than because of it.

While there are elements with which I can sympathize, particularly the emphasis on keeping players out in the open world, much of what's reported there just rubs me up the wrong way. The two things I'd most like to hear that ArenaNet are working on - housing and an expansion - are completely off the table. Worse, the very types of new content that most interest me - new explorable areas, opening up the existing map, new races, new classes - can apparently only be expected in the expansion we aren't going to get.

Instead there's a whole lot of vague guff about how to "tell compelling stories" and teach players how to play. It looks as though the foreseeable future is more of that endless fiddling about with game systems that so obsesses developers of all MMOs, combined with a lot of bits and pieces that are supposed to (but don't) amount to a coherent narrative.

I'm not surprised by any of this. Well, perhaps by the determined insistence that there won't be an expansion in the "foreseeable future". That does seem to go against the commercial model established by Guild Wars, but otherwise it's not far off what I expected.

Compared to almost any other MMO house, ANet seem to think in almost geological time. Everything is for the long-term health of the game. Short or even medium-term pain is preferable to any kind of quick fix and the pig's ear they made of their uncharacteristic attempt at an emergency response with the Ascended Gear fiasco can only have confirmed their belief that slow and steady wins the race.

Tomorrow we get the first of the major changes to the structure of World vs World. From the limited information so far, that would appear to bolt a quasi-PvE model of character progression on top of what was previously a competitive ranking model at server level. It's hard to imagine how that will play out. The two concepts seem almost pathologically incompatible, especially when you consider that the new system is not just going to be per-character rather than per account but that "the team fully expects that players will initially feel that rewards take too long to earn".

In other words, WvW players will be faced with a menu of upgrades which they may or may not find attractive or useful, each of which will have to be ground out separately for each character the player wants to progress, at a speed which the developers have designed to be unacceptable. On the face of it, one might think the developers were telling players to suck it up and get on with it. Whether anyone's having fun no longer seems relevant.

Indeed, with all the talk of educating the players on how to play the game properly one might even begin to wonder whether these particular developers consider themselves to be in the entertainment business at all. Perhaps, like A Tale In The Desert, we should consider GW2 more in the light of a sociological experiment than a game.

It's just as well then that something else in that report turns out to be true, for me at least. "If you like playing only one part of the game, you should be able to enjoy the full game doing just that." It sounds like an oxymoron but I understand what they mean and it does gibe with my own experience. I like leveling up. I've been doing it for six months, I still like it and I am still finding a vast, a truly vast quantity of content to do that's new to me.

My Mesmer made 80 last week, leaving me just a Guardian short of the full set. Rather than hurl myself straight at that particular mountain I decided to give myself a treat and play up another ranger. I also decided to play him in an entirely different way to any character I've played so far - leveling him up by full map completion in consecutive maps starting from his own homelands.

So far this has been a fascinating, almost revelatory experience. It's like playing a different game altogether. No wonder so many people left after a month or two if they thought this was what the whole thing was about, that's all I can say. Well, actually, no, it's not all I can say. I can say plenty more than that and I will, another time, but right now I still have that first map to complete. Ever onward!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Neverwinter, A Nose-Poking.

So inevitably I cracked and grabbed a key for the (final?) Neverwinter beta weekend. I spent three hours with it this morning and these are my very loose, unsorted first impressions:

Character creation seems a bit lacking. I was expecting more from Cryptic. Then again, I made a dwarf and dwarves in every MMO tend to look somewhat undifferentiated. Reserving judgement until I see the sliders in action on someone that doesn't look like Brian Blessed squashed into a dustbin.

I don't like the control system but I knew that would be the case. I find all these forced mouselook, keyboard shortcut, no auto-attack, click-click-clicky UIs clumsy and awkward in the extreme. Just give me a hotbar and full access to my mouse pointer and let me get on with it, can't you? That said, the controls are entirely playable and nothing like annoying enough enough to put me off playing, any more than they were in DCUO.

Ye gods but it's orange! I was hoping it would just be the first area but other than in the city of Neverwinter itself it's a festival of rust and tangerine as far as the eye can see.

The tutorial is excellent. That's something I don't often get to say. Apart from a very, very short "press this key to go forward" part right at the start, the whole thing is seamlessly integrated into the same world where you're going to be playing your character. So much so that it was only when I tried to access a Forge mission in Neverwinter and got the message that I had to finish the tutorial first that I knew I was even still in the tutorial!

The city of Neverwinter is spectacular. It looks, sounds and feels just like a large high-fantasy city should. It's sprawling, detailed and confusing. And gorgeous. It bodes well for the prospect of exploring whatever might lie beyond its gates.

The fighting areas I've seen so far aren't bad. Typical low-level tombs, sewers, taverns and slums but what else would they be? It's D&D after all. Detailing is reasonably varied although you really couldn't say anything rose much above the generic. Still, not bad at all.

Way too much fiddly clicking to get basic things done. Lots of actions seem to have a secondary confirmation after it should already be clear to the system that your choice has been made. I felt the game was constantly asking me "are you sure about this? Are you really sure?". And sometimes even "Are you sure you're sure?"

Too much voice acting and not good voice acting either. The combination of cookie-cutter questing, run-of-the-mill dialog and baseline adequate line readings is quite wearing. I can filter two out of three but all together it's just too much. The voice-over can be set to stop as soon as you close the dialog (if you don't do this a disembodied voice follows you remorselessly, making you feel as though you're having an excruciatingly dull psychotic interlude) but there doesn't seem to be any way to switch it off completely, which is what I wanted to do after about ten minutes.

At ultra-low level combat seems very easy. I had a couple of tight fights on the final quest bosses but I logged out at level six not having died once. Well, not in combat...

You can fall off high places, something the city abounds in. I wondered if you could, so I tried and I did and I died. I liked that.

Campfires are annoying. This MMO fudge for D&D's rest system just does not work. I didn't think it worked in DDO and here it's even sillier. Having fixed points in dungeons at which you can recover to full health in seconds just means that after every fight you trudge back to the last campsite, heal up, turn round and trudge back to where you were. All it does is add a pointless, aggravating delay timer to auto-healing. With this mechanism I don't see what is supposed to be gained in realism, authenticity or immersion over standard MMO out-of-combat health regeneration or old school sit&rest. It certainly adds nothing to the gameplay.

Foundry missions look very intriguing. The one I did had livelier dialog than any of the official quests (although a good editor would have taken out the odd incongruous  "cool" and "man" that gave it an odd Bill&Ted tonal quality). I was surprised and very impressed that the opening part all took place in Neverwinter itself, using NPCs standing there in what seemed to be plain sight. Very convincing. The dungeon part was basic but functional. It certainly encouraged me to think I'd like to have a go at writing some of these when it goes live, which is just as well since that's what interested me about the game in the first place.

Overall I liked it well enough. As others have said, it really is quite reminiscent of DDO although I think I would say even at this early stage that I prefer Neverwinter. It also reminded me of City of Steam, what with the whole sprawling central city with dungeons spinning off the edges thing going on. Not to mention the bulletin boards.

Whether I will get to spend much time in Neverwinter depends more on what I have on my plate elsewhere, I suspect. It certainly didn't strike me as unmissable, as Guild Wars 2 did right from the first beta weekend. Neither is it sufficiently unusual or original to make me feel I ought to make time for it, which is what I thought about The Secret World right from the first time I played it.

Neverwinter looks like the sort of thing I might dip into when I haven't really got much else planned. If a subscription was involved, there'd be no question of paying it and I am not sure I'd even stump up a one-time fee for a box. But since it's free...

Monday, March 18, 2013

And So It Begins: GW2

" In the next release we will adjust the way that world mega bosses award their loot. The current chests will stay lootable once per day per character, but each boss’s guaranteed rare item drop will be moved to a separate chest (visually similar to daily achievement reward chests) that can only be acquired once per day across an account.
Our intention with this change is to keep providing rewarding loot for world mega bosses while avoiding overwhelming participation in boss fights (and overwhelming the economy with rares) from players cycling through each character slot for each boss every day. "

Isaiah Cartwright - GW2 Lead Designer.

"Alright! Own up. WHO did Shadow Behemoth?

"Don't look at me. I was at Tequatl all day"

Going Up Country: The Endless Forest

MMO is a term stretched so loosely these days it barely has any shape left at all. EA are taking flak from all directions already so riling up MMO fans by claiming the tag for Sim City is probably the least of their worries right now.

This isn't going to be a post about Sim City, though. I have no dog in that fight. I tried the original game long, long ago and let's just say for entertainment value I'd rate it right up there with getting an insurance quote. And wasn't there going to be an actual MMO based around city-building anyway, now I come to think of it? Cities XL.That went well.

No, this post is about something else entirely. Something about as far away from building cities as you can imagine and further still from the traditional MMO.

The Endless Forest started as an art project commissioned and funded by the Musee d'Art Moderne in Luxembourg a decade ago. The complex history of its development from then on is covered in a comprehensive Wikipedia entry and on the Tale of Tales website, where you can also download and play it for yourself.

The last couple of times I looked at The Endless Forest I didn't find much to see. I seem to remember having trouble getting it to run at all. That was years ago. This weekend, for no reason other than that I happened to notice it in my Bookmarks, I fired it up again and found something quite different, quite...strange.

The game, for want of a better word, now runs smoothly and looks stunning. Here's some video I took with Fraps and cobbled together with Movie Maker, just to give an impression. Obviously the compressed YouTube version does it no favors but you can see how gorgeous it is from the screenshots.

Everyone's a deer in The Endless Forest. There are full-grown deer and fawns. If you register you start as a fawn and grow into a deer over time. Otherwise you emerge fully-formed, with antlers and a really quite disturbing, humanoid face.

I saw other deer wearing masks, with candles on their antlers, even with exposed bones as though their hides had been torn away. I saw large crows and rabbits which I thought might be players but I wasn't sure. I couldn't ask because you don't speak in The Endless Forest. Not in words. There's no chat function of any kind.

That doesn't mean you can't express yourself, far from it. At the bottom of the screen you have a range of icons representing actions. Emotes, if you like. You can use these to communicate with other deer and if you happen to be in  part of the forest where other possibilities exist, magical possibilities perhaps, you will find the necessary abilities selected for you. What will happen when you use them? That you won't know until you try.

A year ago The Endless Forest lost its arts grant funding but it continues under a system of voluntary subscription. Donation might be a better description. How long it will survive, who knows? There were plenty of deer running, sleeping, drinking, praying, playing and just generally being deer while I was there, so I take that as a good sign.

Is it an MMO? Well, in some ways it's more like what I imagined an MMORPG to be before I ever played one. A place where magic happens while you pretend to be something you could never be, living an illusion shared by all around you. Most MMOs I've played didn't turn out to be much like that.

On the other hand, most of them did turn out to have a lot of hooks to hold my attention for months at a time. Whether running through a forest gathering flowers on my antlers and passing them to strangers could do the same, well I doubt it.

So, no logging in for Dailies in The Eternal Forest. Just waking up there on a whim, once in a while, I hope. And if not for eternity then for many years to come.

Horsing Around: Vanguard

A couple of things of note happened in Vanguard this week: Brad McQuaid left and Lomshir got a revamp

I've not been playing Vanguard regularly (or at all) since Brad came back but if the forums are to be believed Everquest's gain is not Vanguard's loss. Apparently Brad was channeling Bart Simpson during his return. He didn't do anything, no-one saw him do anything and no-one can prove he did anything. I await his impact on Everquest with barely contained excitement.

Who would win in a fight between a lion and a horse?
The Lomshir revamp did happen. It must have. It's in the patch notes. Lomshir is one of my favorite areas of Vanguard, although "Bhagpuss's favorite areas of Vanguard" would be a very long list. Apparently the area (I keep calling it an "area" because one of the things Brad did back in the days when he was doing stuff you noticed was to tell everyone  Vanguard was a seamless, zoneless world. Just ignore the freezing of your screen as you cross that invisible border. That's a chunk, not a zone. It's entirely different. Look, no loading screen!)

I won that bet...
Ahem. As I was saying, apparently the area has been adjusted to suit levels 10-20. It also got its own dedicated station on the Riftway, which takes you to what used to be the Varanthari starter area. I never played a Varanthari, what with them being one of Telon's many human variants and there being so many more interesting options. About all I knew about them was that they were the horse people. 

They still are, but now the entry-level quests at the place you used to wake up as a freshly-created Varanthari (an option that no longer exists) start at level 10. My level 18 raki sorceror one-shotted his way through most of them. It was heaven! 

He shook some trees for shiny red apples to feed to the horses and the trees disappeared. Then grew back! Realism? Don't talk to me about realism!  He killed and skinned some lions (There are a lot of lions. Something in the ecology of Telon is deeply warped. I blame the Kurashasa). The local horse-lords seemed pleased so they sent him to the capital.

City? Are you absolutely sure about that?
Lomshir (City) is a place I did recognize. I couldn't see anything new about the quests there. They did seem a lot easier than last time I did them, but then last time I did them was five years ago and I was level 12. Even in the stasis that is, or rather was, Vanguard five years and six levels makes a difference. 

By this time I'd been there a couple of hours and I'd had a wonderful time. Honestly, if all the other MMOs I play closed down tomorrow I could go back to Vanguard and be happy. It's entirely clear to me why it's survived so long with so little attention. It's a true work of art. The only downside was I hadn't found any of the new quest chains nor any of the new overland bosses. 

I'll take the brown one
It's fantastic to see SOE giving this amount of attention to Vanguard after all these troubled years. Revamping secondary starter areas, no less. As I was scanning the forums (which look so much better - they've also been revamped) looking for clues on exactly where to find the new content, I ran across this poignant comment from one of the devs who'd done the work to make it happen:

"Any feedback on the content itself so far? A lot of work was put into modifying those chunks"

He got one replyI sometimes wonder how Vanguard devs get out of bed in the morning.

If I can find the new content I'll be happy to report what I think of it. In the meantime, please take it as read that it's appreciated. In principle if not in practice. 

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide