Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Fat Tuesday : Neverwinter, EQ2, GW2

Sitting here drinking a coffee waiting for the Neverwinter gates to open in just over an hour's time, wondering why everything always has to start on a Tuesday.

For as long as I can remember Tuesday has been the weekly server-reset day for SoE but they're going one better than a mere reset today, landing GU66 aka Scars of the Awakened, which if I remember rightly is the third installment of EQ2's Velious saga. Somewhat to my surprise and much to my great pleasure this includes substantial new overland content accessible from Level 90.

I'd been assuming it would be aimed at the folks who bought the Chains of Eternity expansion, which I didn't. Haven't. Yet. But no, apparently that was just a little holiday from the seemingly endless revision of Velious and now we pick up where we left off a year or so ago. I foresee a return to Norrath in the near future.

ArenaNet doesn't take servers down the way SoE and most other MMO companies do. They have some clever way of patching on the fly. Even so the servers start to creak a little after a week and Tuesday's the day they get reset. Things tend to get glitchy after a while, events bug, rewards don't always register. Today there's yet another major issue with the Guild window. It definitely feels like the batteries need changing. Add to that it's the end of the month so there's the third and final part of Flame and Frost on the way too .

As I was finishing dailies on my second account a few minutes ago the big yellow "new build" notice was flashing on the screen. Normally I'd be raring to get started, especially since the new dungeon is supposedly only with us until the 12th of May, which should create some frenzied pugging. If only Cryptic/PWE weren't Tuesday's Children too.

In a three-way death-match between a major update, a minor update and a new game the winner is so obvious no bookie would take the bet. Of course it isn't a death-match. More like a running order. I'll get to all of them eventually. It would have been a lot better if they hadn't all arrived at once, and especially if they hadn't all arrived on Tuesday. Tuesday's a work day, y'know. Okay, I'm not at work but that's hardly the point.

Presumably the reason these things happen on Tuesdays is precisely that, though. The Devs are at work and so, largely, are the players. That way the log in servers don't catch fire and when the inevitable emergency patches follow there's the rest of the day, and the week, to write and apply them. And by the weekend everything's running smoothly, the players can play and the devs can play golf and go to the opera. I assume that's what they do in their spare time...

Okay, that killed an hour. Time to log in!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Smelling The Flowers: GW2

I'm still playing Guild Wars 2. What's more, I'm still playing pretty much only Guild Wars 2. Oh, I log into other MMOs occasionally. A holiday event in EQ2 here, a trip to The Vault in DCUO there. Nothing that takes more than an hour or so.

Then there are the Betas, some of which I have spent quite a lot of time playing testing and some which I... haven't. Tomorrow Neverwinter opens its doors to the non-paying public and a week or so after that so does City of Steam. Maybe one of those will prise me loose from Tyria but I rather doubt it.

Ursan mentioned in a comment recently that GW2 was winding down. I take that to mean his interest and involvement in it, rather than its development, which continues apace. I certainly expected to be feeling much the same after eight months, but I can't really say that I am. So what is it that makes GW2 so sticky?

It's not World vs World, that's for sure. Before launch there was a strong body of opinion that held WvW up as the sword by which GW2 would live or die. It was an opinion I never shared and while hard evidence on numbers is always difficult to gather in MMOs I think it's widely accepted now that WvW is a niche within the game, not its motive force.

It could be so much more than it is and maybe eventually it will be, but currently WvW isn't much more than a very large, instanced Battleground. The Tier structure is badly thought out and far too inflexible. Individual matches last too long or become stale and predictable far too often. There is no real point to winning. Nothing that anyone could care about ever changes. And to cap all that, the new World XP system is laughably useless.

Nevertheless, I enjoy WvW a lot when I'm in the mood. Taken on its own level it can be enormous fun. We had a magnificent three-way battle for Stonemist Castle last night that Yak's Bend eventually won, for example, and I had a great time. Something like that happens most days. It's meaningless, empty fun, though. When we lost the castle less than an hour later, I wasn't there, I didn't care and I certainly didn't feel guilty I'd not stayed to defend.

You'll believe a Golem can fly!
So server pride isn't what's keeping me logging in. Could it be character progression? Much of yesterday passed in a fervored but fruitless search for suitable Exotic gear for a level 80 Elementalist. Much reading of guides and forums, perusing of crafting recipes and scouring of the Trading Post later I came to the conclusion that it really doesn't matter what she wears.

The same applies to all seven 80s. (Try and keep up, Guardian! You're letting the side down.) Having the right gear may be crucial if you do certain things in GW2, although I struggle to imagine what those things might be, but for what I ask of my characters it doesn't seem to matter all that much.

That's not to say it makes no difference; it does. After a significant upgrade I can clearly see improvements in key areas, Time To Kill and Survivability particularly, that make things easier and more fun all round. What it doesn't do, which it has done in other MMOs, is take a character across the barrier from Can't to Can. I'm not gear-gated from doing anything I want to do so character progression becomes optional content I can pick up and put down according to mood.

What's left? The storyline that's the same for everyone from about level 40 onwards? Worth playing through eight times? It's barely worth playing through once. Not that, then.

Living Story or Personal Story? Some choice.
Social ties? Other than Mrs Bhagpuss I only know one other person who plays on Yaks Bend and he only dabbles with GW2. I "know" more people playing GW2 through blogging than from the game itself (what's happened to The Egg Baron, anyway?). All the same I don't discount the social factor. I do know my server and that hasn't happened for a good few MMOs. I know many, many players by their character names or their distinctive appearances. I have as clear an idea of who they are from the things we do alongside each  other every day, WvW, Dynamic Events, Living Story or just bantering in Lion's Arch, as I have of people I see around my real-life neighborhood. I do feel part of the Yak's Bend culture, which I feel is quite distinct.

Now we're getting somewhere. That's certainly part of what keeps me logging in every day and makes me happy to be doing it. Wouldn't be enough on it's own, though. What's left? Dungeons and the gear grind they bring? Cue sound of hollow laughter. SPvP? Never even tried it. Tyria itself?

Yes, that. That's a big factor. It's a huge world and I haven't seen anything close to all of it yet. Not only that but it's a fascinating, intricate world and one that's astonishingly pleasant to spend time in, perhaps surprising given the level of extreme violence the inhabitants seem to take for granted. I simply like being there in the same way I like being in Norrath and Telon. This despite the all-pervading sense of neglect that's beginning to permeate the game. As J3w3l said recently "Tyria is an amazing place to explore, truly beautiful and yet this key asset towards the game is mostly being forgotten."

So, a community and an environment that feel familiar and comfortable. Is that enough to explain 1800 hours logged in over the last eight months? That statistic is somewhat misleading, of course. I've been logged in the whole time I've been writing this, waypointing from meta-event to meta-event, grabbing the chest then tabbing out to type. I really was playing for the forty minutes it took to smash the crystals and tear the wings off The Claw of Jormag, but then I clocked up another half an hour while I was downstairs making lunch.

GW2 plays very nicely with my PC so I leave it logged in most of the time when I'm doing other things, even playing other MMOs. Still, I must have put in well over a thousand hours hands-on doing stuff in game since launch. That'll be the gameplay. All of it. Exploring, leveling up, fighting monsters and players, sorting bags and bank vaults, jumping up stuff, ticking boxes and filling out dance cards.

Just stand further away from him!
There's a lot of it, GW2 gameplay. Plenty of it is repetitive in that good way we dig. The parts that I wouldn't want to do twice I don't have to do twice. Or once. Pick and mix gaming that wraps perfectly around whatever time I have whether that's half an hour before work or a long weekend. I genuinely look forward to doing my Dailies in GW2 and at the same time it doesn't matter in the slightest if I miss them. No pressure, no compulsion, free choice.

After weeks and weeks of doing the meta-event round I still relish my several trips a day to The Frozen Maw to teach the Shaman that the grawl may be a pain but they're our pain or to assist Rooba with her Pyrrhic victory over the Fire Elemental. Even good old Claw of Jormag, who never comes in under 20 minutes and often takes twice that, and whom I've been pushing off the glacier since September still hasn't gotten old.

The events, small and large and meta, all cycle, most of them too often, yet I greet them each time with cheerful familiarity not weary contempt. In certain places where I often idle I've heard the witty repartee of NPCs scores, hundreds of times and yet I'm somehow always pleased to hear it one more time. It reminds me of growing up listening all day to Radio 1. The same songs come round again and again. I liked it then and I like it now.

And that, I guess, is why I'm still plugging away at GW2. I'm not trying to get anything much done. I don't have any particular plan. It's familiar and comfortable, full of people I'm used to and there's lots to do but little that has to be done. I guess it feels like home.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Full Steam Ahead: City of Steam

No doubt everyone already picked up on this from Massively but I thought I'd mention it here anyway. I was hoping the City of Steam Open Beta would kick off before I go on holiday in June. Well, it's going to. Kinda.

If that sounds vague it's because Mechanist Games never like to do anything the easy way. All their betas so far have been complicated affairs and this is no exception. The full details are on the website but here's the gist.

On the the tenth of May something called a "prelude" to Open Beta begins.On the face of it, this would seem to be another round of Closed Beta since a key is required but on reading into it further it doesn't seem to be closed all that firmly, if at all.

Anyone who has subbed to the Newsletter or who does so between now and (presumably) May 10th, who bought a Collaborator Pack or who had a key for any previous stage, be that Beta, Alpha or Sneak Peak, will automatically get an Early Access invite. The phrasing is slightly ambiguous but I take that to mean May 10th.

The beta runs 24/7 from the start and they don't plan on wiping any characters if they can possibly avoid it. The "Prelude" should morph seamlessly into official Open Beta which (also presumably) will eventually slip seamlessly into Live.

That's close enough to a soft launch for me. I'll be starting what I consider to be my first permanent character on May 10th, assuming I've read the Mechanist runes aright. I'll take my chances on a wipe.

Even so I still won't really be able to get stuck in to what will most likely become my focus character until some time after that because they are staggering the introduction of both classes and races. The first tranche is all Human races but I want to play a Goblin. Or a Hobbe. Or an Orc. Oh alright, any greenskin.

City of Steam has probably the best set of races I've seen in an MMO for years, though. I'm more than happy to play one, if not all of the Human variants, something I certainly wouldn't be able to say in most games. I'd even play, almost certainly will play, both races of elves and that's positively unheard of.

Classes I'm not so bothered about. I have yet to develop a preference. I just want to get in, get a character made that will stick around and get on with it, and in three weeks' time that's just what I plan on doing. Let's get this train rolling!

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Gotta Keep 'Em All: GW2, EQ2, WoW

Y'know one thing that always annoyed me when I was playing WoW?  The Stable. That place you stash your spare pets. It just never seemed right.

Pet taming was the class-defining feature for Hunters, the class I spent most time with during my three-month visit to Azeroth. Also my favorite. Blizzard had clearly looked at everything that was wrong with the Everquest Ranger and thought "Surely we can do a bit better than that". So they did.
Then after a while they decided, what with Hunters famously being adventurers of very little brain and even less patience, they might have gone a tad too far with the whole full-feature pet-taming mini-game, so that had to go. By the time I arrived, fashionably late by about five years, Pet Taming was down to the bare bones but those bones still looked tasty to me. I set out to make the most of what was left, only to run slap-bang into the Stable door.

You want me to swap you for the Jungle Cat? He's not scared of heights.

I'm loyal to my pets in MMOs. I like to give them a name, watch them develop a personality and then create a shared history of adventure with them. On the other hand, I want to collect as many as I can because collecting is fun and pets are fun so collecting pets is funfun.

At first the Stable didn't sound so bad. Tame a pet, train him up then park him in a nice, safe Stable where I can convince myself he'll be well looked-after while I swan around having adventures with my New Best Friend? Sounds just dandy. Until I found out the size of the Stable, that was.

Twenty pets? Plus, if I work up the Call Pets skill, another five? So, twenty-five? When there are in excess of 300 possible pets? (I'm getting all this information from Petopia, by the way, which was my go-to for Pet info back when I was playing. I haven't played WoW in three years so about all I can remember is Not Enough Pets!!!).

Like I'm taking advice from a Necromancer on responsible pet ownership

Twenty-five wasn't just not enough pets. It was insultingly, tauntingly, derisorily not enough pets. It took all the fun out of pet collecting. Well, some of the fun. Not possible to take ALL the fun, there's just too much fun there. But still...

I read recently at That Was An Accident, one of my very favorite blogs and one I rarely get a chance to link to because it's the only WoW blog I read and, well, I don't play WoW (I think I mentioned that earlier...) that the Stable is going to double in size. Confirmed here. So, fifty pets.

Still not enough. Tempting though. I have been getting a weird, almost subliminal urge, not strong enough to call a desire or even a whim, more a background hum, to take another look at WoW. Purely as a tourist. Just for an evening. People keep going on about it and three years may be just long enough to ripen nostalgia even in someone who didn't think they'd had that much of an emotional engagement with the damn game in the first place. (Me, in other words.)

A Reindeer is for life, not just for Frostfell

Anyway, annoying though the Stable is, it's one hell of a lot better than EQ2's infuriating Beastlord bait&switch. In EQ2 you can have all kinds of pets, just so long as you stick to one of each kind at a time. For example, my Beastlord picked up the red-nosed Reindeer at Frostfell. Deer are members of the Bovine Family in Norrath's anarchic biosystem along with cows, sheep and camels. If I ever tame a sheep, bang goes Rudolph. Not that I call him Rudolph. That would be a daft name for a deer. And not that I want to tame a sheep...

EQ2's strict one in, one out policy on Pet Families pretty much put paid to any interest I had in collecting pets there at all. I just got one decent exemplar of each kind and that was that. What a waste.

They understand every word you say, you know

And what a joy, what a relief then to come at last to Tyria. In Guild Wars 2 you really can collect them all. There just aren't as many. Where WoW has 300 and EQ2 170, GW2 can muster only around 50 pets so far, but once you get those 50 they are yours to keep. They're not on loan. When you get a new cat you don't have to give the old one back. You don't have to park your polar bear in a Stable, worry whether she's getting enough seal-meat, if she's missing you, pawing at the straw and whimpering herself to sleep...


So, pets. Yes, I want to collect them. Lots of them. And once I've got them I want to keep them. I will feed them and walk them and take care of them. All of them. I promise. Trust me. Now, please let me keep them.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Now Where? : GW2

One of my projects, leveling up a character all the way to 80 in GW2 "by completing each Map in consecutive order by level range and geographical propinquity" as I pedantically and pretentiously described it last month, ran into an unexpected problem. Maps in Tyria aren't laid out like that.

You might think I'd have noticed after playing the game for the best part of a year and having spent thousands of hours there but no. Instead here's another very instructive lesson in how memory works. Or rather doesn't.

As I remembered it, Charr, Norns and Humans all have a clear, linear path of progression right to 80, should they be dull and unimaginative enough to take it. Charr level up in Ascalon, Norns in the Shiverpeaks and Humans in Kryta.

No they don't. There is a linear progression of sorts for both Norns and Humans but it's somewhat convoluted to say the least, and also involves a great deal of overlap. For Humans it would go

Queensdale 1-17
Kessex Hills 15-25
Gendarran Fields 25-35
Lornar's Pass 25-40
Dredgehaunt Cliffs 40-50
Timberline Falls 50-60
Mount Maelstrom 60-70
Straits of Devestation 70-75
Malchor's Leap 75-80

The linear path for Norns is exactly the same from Gendarran Fields onwards, simply replacing the first two maps with

Wayfarer Foothills 1 - 15
Snowden Drifts 15 - 25

Charr have no linear path at all. I should have remembered that, what with the Big Ebonhawke Adventure and all, but I didn't. Ascalon has maps that go all the way from 1 to 70 but they aren't contiguous. There's that gaping hole from 30 to 40 for which you either leave the Charr lands for the Shiverpeaks or Kryta or do the suicide run through Blazeridge Steppes to get to the Charr's 30-40 Map, Fields of Ruin.

It's almost certainly no co-incidence that to get to Fields of Ruin safely, a twentysomething Charr needs to travel to Divinity's Reach and use the Asura Gate to Ebonhawke. After all, the Charr's entire recent political and military history is dominated by the truce brokered by Queen Jennah and the delicate, ongoing negotiations for a lasting peace. Nudging a young Charr out of his Ascalonian comfort zone and into the Capital of his erstwhile enemy is the kind of invisible storytelling MMOs really should be all about.

When it comes to Asura and Sylvari, there's really no pretense at all at any kind of cultural progression. The Sylvari haven't even been around for a quarter of a century and the Asura are effectively refugees so neither  has much of an established homeland available to explore, although the Asura are working on it. Once my Asura Ranger finished up Metrica Province and Brisban Wildlands that was about it.

My wont in any MMO is to run about like a kitten in a snow flurry, tearing off in one direction after anything that catches my eye, then spinning round and haring off in another because the wind caught my fur funny. It's an approach that tends to lead to knowing a lot of locations very well indeed and others not at all. Forcing myself to hit every point of interest marked on the map and complete every heart was a very different experience.

The level of detail is just astounding. I didn't just do the stuff I was told to, I spoke to every NPC that would talk to me. I followed golems and Asura around and watched what they got up to in their own time. I joined in every event, climbed anything I could climb, dived down anywhere I could swim. You could spend weeks in Metrica Province just trying to get to the bottom of all the feuds and mysteries there.

Brisban Wildlands is a change of pace. It's well named,  a scrubby, unloved-looking place and at first sight there doesn't seem to be much going on. There's more to it than meets the eye, though. A lot more. It has some spectacular set pieces and some quite stunning hidden gems, like the mushroom valley and especially the event where some mysterious supernatural creature turns the Great Hunt of a bunch of Sylvari back on them. I felt like I'd walked into a horror movie.

At level 30 the question is where to go next? Brisban Wildlands connects to Kessex Hills, but that's another 15-25 map and that would take me to Gendarran Fields, which is only 25-35. I'd be completing one map under level and in doing so leveling far enough to be over-level for the next and then I'd never catch myself up.

Instead I decided to pass through Kessex and Gendarran Fields along the road and head into Lornar's Pass. Which puts me on the same track as a Human or a Norn. Only better because, Asura. At the rate I'm going I should be in Orr some time around Wintersday.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Testing Experience: Everquest, EQ2

Isey posted a comment that got me reminiscing about my very early days on Everquest's Test server. I started to reply but I had more to say than would fit into a comment so...

My very early experiences on EQ1's Test server were what really nailed me onto MMOs, I think. I started EQ in late 1999 and by early 2000 I was already finding the community a little difficult. I server hopped a few times looking for something that felt right and ended up on Test.

At that time it was normal for Test to be taken down on the fly with no warning several times during a single evening play session. When the server came back up, which could take anything from a couple of minutes to many hours, there would often have been a roll-back. All the experience you'd gained, any levels, any drops you'd found, any progress of any kind - gone.

Oh Noes! That is not right!
Even if there was no roll-back your character would be restored at the last "save". In those days Everquest saved your character automatically but incrementally. I can't recall the exact increments but they were in minutes not seconds. When this automatic process kicked in a message would appear in the chatline telling you your character had been saved.

The game also saved progress when you took certain significant actions like crossing the invisible barrier from one zone to another. In Everquest it was always wise to hunt near a zone line for reasons of self-preservation (although not at one, where the risk of being run over by the train of mobs following someone else's desperate flight was ever-present). On Test, doubly so. Skipping back and forth between zones was like putting your xp in the bank.

At that time the level-cap in EQ was fifty. The visual indicator of your character's level was a yellow bar divided into five sections known as "bubbles". Later a blue line was added beneath which broke each bubble down into a further set of ten. That happened because gaining xp in Everquest was so attritionally slow at that time that you literally could not see any movement whatsoever on the yellow bar when you killed anything, which was deemed to be somewhat disheartening.

A later add-on version
After the blue line was added we used to talk about "doing a blue" or "getting a yellow" and
it became possible to talk about progress in timescales shorter than "a session" but back in early 2000 a full evening's play on a normal server would possibly, maybe get me one yellow, 20% of a level, if I was very lucky, stuck at it, killed non-stop and, most importantly, didn't die. One death would wipe out the majority of that progress.

It would seem counter-intuitive, then, to move to an unstable server with a much higher risk of losing progress but there were good reasons, or reasons that seemed good to me at the time. In 2000 Everquest was a runaway success. Servers were bursting at the seams with players. One of the main complaints was overcrowding. Certain areas had xp modifiers or had mobs that dropped items which could be handed in for bonus xp and those areas were permanently camped, often with waiting lists. Even at low levels mobs had a respawn time of 12-20 minutes. You either waited a long time between spawns at the good spots or roamed around and took lower rewards off whatever you could find. If you could kill it. If someone didn't steal the kill.

At busy times the atmosphere could get overheated, fractious, recriminatory. I heard somehow that fewer people played on Test because of the risks involved. Better yet, in recognition of those risks and in an attempt to offset them, Test had a large, permanent bonus to xp.

There was no way to transfer to Test, nor to bump up your character's level, nor to get free gear. All those inducements and incentives came years later. At that time if you wanted to play on Test you rolled a character there and leveled up just like any other server.

Alright, who saw me first?
I rolled a necro, a new class to me. I picked it because I'd read the necro could solo, something that was supposed to be beyond most classes in Everquest (In my experience most classes could solo, with the exception of Rogues and Warriors, and even there some determined individuals managed it somehow. Whether soloing them could be classed as any kind of entertainment is another matter).

I loved playing my necro. He seemed very powerful and versatile compared to the ranger and cleric I'd been playing before. Not that there weren't problems. The trick I mentioned before about zoning to force a save clashed badly with the inability of pets to cross a zoneline. Same thing if you camped out to character select, which would also force a save but cause any summoned skeletons to collapse in a clatter of bones.

After a while I discovered that dropping a coin would force a save. Those were the days when you could drop anything on the ground - armor, weapons, food, gold. You'd see it lying there where you dropped it and you could pick it up. So could anyone else. That's how we traded items from one character another on the same account in those days before shared banks and in-game mail.

Boy, twinking was a scary thing to do back then. Take some precious item like a Shiny Brass Shield, drop it on the floor and camp out then log another character back in as fast as you could, hoping no-one else saw you drop it or just happened to pass by and picked it up. I used to do my swaps in one of the upstairs rooms in an obscure Freeport Inn and I was always paranoid I'd been followed.

Anyway, I quickly got used to the outages and the roll-backs, to the ritual of dropping a copper every time I looted anything worth keeping or made any noticeable progress. I loved the lower population density. I could get camps worth camping without having to wait. Even with the occasional roll-back, what with playing a more capable class and having the benefit of the boosted xp I was having fun and going faster.

Then came The Wipe. I'd made it into the mid-20s, much higher than any character I'd had before. I came home and logged in to... nothing. With no warning whatsoever there had been a full character wipe of the entire server. Huge controversy ensued. Verant, as it was then, made various contradictory statements and took several positions. I'm not sure the truth ever came out in full, but as far as I remember it was eventually established that the wipe had been done by someone who didn't have proper authority as part of some in-office power play.

After several days of dithering a decision was made to reinstate all characters, naked. We got our characters back but we didn't get our stuff. A one-time offer was made for Test characters to move to a Live server of their choice. I thought long and hard about it and decided to move to the then newly-opened Lanys T`Vyl. Thus ended my first run on a Test server.

Meet and greet in Thundering Steppes
I'd been bitten with the testing bug and I'd also found my limit. I'd take pretty much any disruption, difficulty or disadvantage up to losing my character as fair trade for the excitement, novelty, camaraderie and fringe benefits of helping to test new content and systems while I played but I had to have a permanent character. If that's in doubt, I'm out.

Like Isey I subsequently played on DAOC's Test server, although never as my main server, and saw it utterly ruined by the decision to allow copies of Live characters to be imported. I would have played on EQ2's Test server from the beginning had they not delayed its launch for several weeks so that by the time it came up I was established elsewhere. I made and played a character there as soon as it became possible and when Mrs Bhagpuss and I came back for a second run at EQ2, when Scott Hartsman began to turn the sinking ship around, we made Test our permanent home. That lasted five years, until we moved to try the beta version of the Freeport F2P server and somehow never came back.

It may be that my days of testing are over. Other than SOE I'm not sure if any companies run full-time, as-Live Test servers any more. Even SOE have moved on, doing most of their testing on Copy and Beta Test servers these days. Perhaps it was something of its day and that day has gone. If so, I'm privileged to have had the opportunity to experience the brief flowering of something very rich and strange.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Warm Impermanence

Wasn't planning on banging on about betas again but it's a topic hard to avoid right now. Syp posted an interesting addendum to his earlier piece today and Ravious drew attention to some very interesting insights from the WildStar folks. A few days back SynCaine had something to say about how rough a real beta can be and Keen joined the chorus on what a pain it is for a Blogger to have to keep NDA.

I could riff off any of those. Betas fascinate me. They have an allure that released MMOs rarely match. There's the obvious attraction of sitting in at rehearsals, slipping behind the curtain, seeing how it all works. Maybe you'll get the chance to suggest a line reading, hear it taken up and used.

And yet, beyond all that heartwarming community stuff, isn't there something almost transgressive about the experience. Should you really be there? Is it allowed? Are you sure? Won't you get caught?

Betas offer all the stuff we say we want in Live MMOs. Access to the people who make the games. Answers to questions and action on suggestions. New content in floods and streams. A truly dynamic world, where anything and everything is mutable, where drastic, irreversible change can happen any time, to the game, to the world, to your character, yes yours. Even permadeath, that character, all your characters, gone for ever, wiped, maybe without warning. Never coming back.

A full-on game-building, bug-crushing, system-shaking beta in the grand tradition compresses the kind of change you'd play Live for years to experience into a few crunching months. Beta characters live fast, die young and leave a portfolio of screenshots with more intensity of memory than you get from half a dozen expansions. Betas are fever dreams.

This is why I played for five years on EQ2's Test Server. The bugs, the glitches, the chaotically unbalanced new content, the rollbacks, the redacted, rescinded, revamped changes that were tried and retried and never went Live. The sense that nothing was fixed, no ground was solid and the world was against you. The only MMO home I ever found that combined beta vigor with permanent characters.

So I play a lot of betas. And until someone works out how to make Live MMOs that hold the same thrill I guess I always will. If they'll have me.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Your Name's Not Down: Neverwinter

This weekend I have mostly not been playing Neverwinter. I had been planning to, although I'd be hard put to explain what the point would have been given that Open Beta (aka Soft Launch) begins in just a couple of weeks. In the end Perfect World saved me from myself. No keys from previous beta weekends were valid for this one. You had to pony up for one of the Founder's packs or get a Friend key from someone who did.

As someone pointed out in one of the many threads complaining about this, MMOs usually invite more people into beta the nearer they get to launch not the other way around but then I guess this isn't really a Beta even in the lax modern usage of the term. It's a marketing exercise to sell more Founder's Packs to people sufficiently disinterested to have bought one for the previous three weekends but too impatient to wait another two weeks before they can play full time for free. A very desirable demographic to court, I'm sure.

Naturally that's not what PW say they are up to. The official reading is "Beta Weekend Four is exclusively for Neverwinter Founders as our way of saying thank you for their ongoing support and ensuring Neverwinter’s success!" I'm sure there's some of that, too. Without a subscription to fall back on it must be even more important to come up with ways to generate some kind of loyalty.

That one? Oh that one's called "Not One Of Us"

I know from experience that the subscription model can encourage an astonishing degree of inert, apathetic pseudo-loyalty, where the direct debit just rolls on for months even though the game no longer gets played much. Or at all. If you're getting my $15 every month you probably don't care whether I'm logging in or not. If you're counting on me using your cash shop, though, you do need me to show my virtual face once in a while.

I think this is the kind of thing Mark Jacobs is alluding to in his attempt at an incendiary interview a la Lord British, forensically dissected, not to say skewered, by Wilhelm at TAGN. I'm sanguine about it either way. I played MMOs when they were all sub-based and I play them now most aren't. I liked it then, I like it now. Fund them how you want, I'll adapt.

So, with Neverwinter out of the way for at least a couple of weeks, I was able to commit a lot of time this weekend to another beta. A real one, with a proper NDA so I can't talk about it or even name it. As Syp said last week, "it sucks to be in a beta you can’t talk about on a blog". And don't even talk to me about screenshots.

No take picture! No take picture!!

Suffice it to say, however, that I spent many, many hours logged into that beta these two weekends past, excitedly leveling up a character that I know will be gone forever in a few weeks at most. (Could be gone as I write - it's a proper beta, they have wipes). As a result my take on the game that shall not be named (pending NDA) has gone from "might give it a run if it goes F2P" to "You can have my money! Just let me play!"

Like most really interesting upcoming MMOs, that one's still a good way off launch. Months at least. So, I will be playing Neverwinter because it looks interesting enough at the ever-attractive price of "free", even though I definitely wouldn't pay to play it. What that says about the value I put on my time I don't really want to think about...

If Mark Jacobs is right and the water does go down the F2P plughole in a few years, sucking most of the shovelware and some of the decent stuff down the drain, will it matter all that much? All I ever seem to do is moan that there are more MMOs I want to play than I can hope to find time for. Maybe it would be doing us all a favor for some of the herd to be culled. On the other hand, to paraphrase Spenser, the worst MMO I ever played was wonderful.

I'm probably not the best person to ask.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A Long, Long Time Ago...

I was going to write about something else today but I can't ignore the dust kicked up by Syl yesterday and scuffed about by Nils today. This is a topic worthy of a PhD thesis (probably someone working on one this very minute) and I don't propose to attempt to address it in any depth in a blog post. I just want to focus on one aspect: the difference between Story and Lore and why the former may not matter but the latter inestimably does.

Arguably, Story and Narrative are synonyms, as are Storyteller and Narrator. I'd suggest there are subtle differences but it's probable that using one in the place of another wouldn't cause fatal confusion. Lore, however, is not a synonym of either. A story doesn't have to have a traditional beginning, middle and end but it always has a direction, always goes somewhere. Lore does not go anywhere. It just is. You follow a story. You live the lore.

Lore in MMOs is, of course, a specialized use of the term. In life, lore is a somewhat archaic concept, usually ascribed to things that have acquired thick patina of time. How to charm warts, perhaps, or the portents of weather. When we use it here, that's not usually what we mean.

In post-Tolkeinian fantasy, particularly in its long, episodic or continuous forms, the term Lore has come to mean a conflation of History and Fact. Our world generates both spontaneously, continuously but imaginary worlds don't come into being replete with meaning. When we cross from character creation into a new land, that land hasn't been lying there undiscovered for millennia accreting context. Someone sat down and made it all up.

Not someone. Many someones. There may be a person or a team specifically responsible for creating The Lore. They may have seeded the world with more scrolls, books and  inscriptions than will ever be found, let alone read by even the most obsessive fan. They may have given snippets of dialog to every psuedo-living creature able to stumble over the lowest bar of sentience. They may even, if no-one has been able to stop them, have created quests in which The Lore is Handed Down to The Deserving. Still, there's more to it than that.

If this imaginary world is to be somewhere worth spending whole months, years of real, actual, irreplaceable life it has to be at least as compelling as the world it replaces. It has to feel as though you are walking on different soil, breathing different air, being somewhere you otherwise never could be. Every decoration on every wall, every strap on every sandal, every calling bird or barking dog has to work together in harmony to create a true sensation of place.

All that is Lore and lore is the bedrock. It should be there in everything from art design to music to voice. It should be in the shape of a sword, the cut of a coat, the feathers in a hat.

These worlds don't make themselves the way ours made itself, by chance and deep time. They're thrown together in a few short years with compromise and under constraint. When the worldgate opens and the player horde floods in, yes we change that world and make it ours. We should. But there must be a world already there, waiting to be changed.

Don't tell me stories. Make me worlds.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Fiddly Feedly Fixed

Just a brief update on the Oh Noes! They killed Google Reader! panic of a few weeks back.

In common with a lot of people (three million and counting so far) I jumped to Feedly. I can't say I liked it much at first. The layout was clunky and far from intuitive. It worked, though, pulling everything smoothly and painlessly from Reader, so I stuck with it.

I forced myself to stop checking Reader and practiced going straight to Feedly. Just as well, because the other day when I went to the Google drop-down "More" menu from which I used to open Reader, Reader was gone.

So, I was using Feedly but not happily. Then two things changed. First, I got round to setting Feedly up on my 7" tablet. Wow! What a difference. Feedly on a tablet is just gorgeous. That whole "you're looking at a magazine" thing they were trying for, which looks just awful on a desktop monitor, works perfectly on the handheld screen. It feels so natural to use and looks utterly charming. It's a positive joy to use.

It's so enjoyable in fact that I was considering giving up blog reading on the desktop altogether and using the tablet even at home (currently I mostly only use it when out of the house). The problem with that would be commenting. I can and do comment from the tablet but I can't say it's pleasant so I tend to comment a lot less than I would if I was sitting in front of a real keyboard. Of course, that might be a good thing...

Then a couple of days ago Feedly issued an update for the desktop version, optimized for a range of browsers, which they said was in response to recent user feedback. Presumably from the those three million users they've gained from Google. I patched the new Firefox version and the result is that I'm now very happy indeed with Feedly.

The new layout is clean, elegant and eminently usable. I can see everything I need just where I need to see it, at a glance. Feedly is now not just a good replacement for Reader, it's a much superior product all round and I heartily recommend it.

I guess Google did us all a favor. Odd how ungrateful I feel.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

You're Not Going Out Dressed Like That: GW2

Syl has an excellent post up about the various cosmetic options in GW2 and why they ought to be better than they are. Appearance and how it's handled in GW2 is just one of the many ArenaNet design decisions that mystify me. As I said in the comment thread over there I simply have to assume that ANet know something I don't, something which, if only I was privy to it, would makes sense of some of these seemingly nonsensical decisions.

The selection of items that dribble into the Gem Store seems both extremely limited and, in my opinion, poor. I'd been thinking that the choice of adolescent-oriented leisurewear probably reflected ANet's idea either of their de facto market or some demographic they desired to cultivate. Then I read the disturbing Penny Arcade piece linked by Feldon at EQ2Wire. That certainly put a different slant on things. Maybe we're not getting what they think we want but what they themselves would want in our place.

Cat hats. We want them.
  It's not just cosmetic and appearance items that puzzle me, though. Psychochild points out in the comment thread at MMOGypsy that Tyrian high level armor can be as hideous as any immersion-breaking hoodie. Partly that comes down to personal taste, of course, and it's hardly unusual for MMOs to feature garish, ridiculous or risible armor options at the top end, but I do struggle to find much that I would want to wear for looks once Exotics come into play.

I can't imagine the Fine Transmutation Stones were ever intended to transfer the look of a low-level item onto a high one but that tends to be what I use them for. Most of the really striking, unusual, attractive pieces I've seen are on Karma vendors, often low and mid level ones. Those are the pieces I wear for as long as I can and then stash in the bank to transmute onto whatever baroque embarrassment I end up using for the stats at 80.

Don't mind him. He's delusional.
Why do we have seven quality tiers for gear anyway? There's an MMO convention of putting completely useless, no-stat armor on vendors all across the world that I have never understood and it's a convention to which GW2 is fully signed up. Tyria is littered with Armorsmiths and Weaponsmiths offering complete sets that no-one will ever buy. That's pointless enough but then we come to Blue gear.

Blues are Magic Items like the watch you bought for £15 in the pub last night was a Rolex. For a few levels you have no choice but to wear Blue because that's all that's on offer but by the time you're in your teens Green appears and at 39th it all goes Yellow. You don't need to upgrade because you can happily solo to 80 wearing Blues (or naked for that matter), but that begs the question "if it doesn't matter what you wear, why have different grades at all?".

Given that no-one really gives even one hoot what they wear to level up in, gear only starts to matter at the cap. At that point Blues and Greens are widely referred to as "trash", fit only for vendoring or salvage. For a while you might wear Yellow Rare but everyone's goal is to get into a full set of Orange Exotic at the earliest possible opportunity. Only once all your slots are comfortably tangerine can you settle down and get on with the real business at hand - Legendary and Ascended.

I can't see any reason we couldn't just do away with White, Blue and Green gear altogether. Start with a minimum spec of Rare Yellow at level 1 (probably going to have to think of another name..). Maybe get Exotics dropping at 39 if that's supposed to be some special watershed. Up the coin and salvage drops from mobs to compensate for all those "magic Items" that we used to sell and scrap to earn a living and bobcat's your Charr uncle.

Oh I don't know. I only play these things. I'm sure there's some clever reason its done this way. Just like there's some clever reason not to release, or apparently even work on an expansion in the foreseeable future and some clever reason to give away regular, large-scale free content dumps for the rest of this year instead. I struggle to think of any explanation for the willful disinclination to take our money other than that the game is already exceeding whatever financial targets it was set and exceeding them handsomely.

The alternative is too disturbing to contemplate.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Very Like A Duck: City of Steam

Idly flicking through my bookmarks this afternoon it occurred to me that I hadn't visited the City of Steam website for a while. Open beta's looming. Probably should take a look...

Play button still greyed out. No sign of beta dates. Anything new? Just some Design Journal promo. Wouldn't normally pay much attention but Mechanist Games do knock out some interesting behind-the-scenes blog posts from time to time. May as well just see what it's about...

"Off To The Wilds We Go!"

Hang on, what's this? Well, stap me! I really wasn't expecting that.

As I've mentioned before, in answer to the self-asked (and awkwardly-phrased) question "Why am I  hearing it being called an MMORPG?" the City of Steam FAQ replies "...we like to think of it as an online RPG with MMO characteristics". Well it's your game, you can think of it as whatever you choose but no matter what label gets hung from the clocktower, one thing I thought we were sure about was that CoS was going to be a lobby-based game with instanced dungeons. And that was all.

Courtesy CoS Website
Apparently not. Out of nowhere comes an announcement from The Nexan Archeology & Geology Society introducing :

"The Wilderness...a public area...you can be in there with dozens of people, killing mobs, doing quests, all while getting loot and XP"

Hang on - that's what we on planet MMO call "a zone" isn't it? And there's more. It's also

"...the link between suburbs, so if you want to travel from for example The Refuge to Heartland Road, you can take the Wilderness route".

So now it's a public PvE combat zone that connects the City to one or more instanced dungeons. This is beginning to sound awfully familiar. But it doesn't end there:

"There are going to be public events in these areas, random rare mob spawns and some other things we’ll talk about soon".

 Now let's not get carried away but isn't this beginning to sound less like "an online RPG with MMO characteristics" and more like a plain, old-fashioned MMO?

Wherever this is heading, I think I like it.

Bounce! Bounce! Everybody Bounce! : EQ2, Rift,GW2

Spring is here - Everybody Bounce!

Over in Telaria there's a little fenced-off plot where you can jump up and down like toddlers at a three-year old's birthday party. See those water-filled balloons pop! For added ridiculosity, bounce on your unfeasibly gigantic horrorshow mount alongside half a raid force in full war armor.

Bouncing is srs bzns
I did that last year and it wasn't much fun. TAGN and his Saturday Adventure Group made a much better fist of it than I did. I gave up after a couple of tries. There were some rewards I wouldn't have minded getting but nothing really grabbed me. As far as mounts go in Telaria, I like the two-tailed cats and...well, I like the two-tailed cats.

You Are Here
Over in Tyria they have the Super Adventure Box. Well, we all know about that. The whole Internet knows about it. We recently had the unexpected pleasure of a friend from EQ/EQ2 joining us in GW2 and knowing his propensity for throwing himself off high places I guessed this would be his kind of thing so we ran through the first world again the other night, without the training wheels this time. It was fun but a little does go a long way and again there's nothing in the rewards on offer that does much for me.

And so to Norrath. In a little oasis just off the beach in Sinking Sands stands Princess Evelynn Fadia and she has a game for you to play. It's called the Bristlebane Bounce. What you have to do is "Race around the Croc Hunter Camp gathering shiny baubles by propelling yourself through the air with Bristlebane Bouncers".

Maybe I should run up the top of the cliffs and jump down...

The baubles hang high in the air. Really high. Scattered among them are fish. Yes, fish. Where Bristlebane's involved it's best not to ask too many questions. Like why is a Princess running a carnival stall? The important thing is this: if you hit a fish in mid-air it bounces you higher still. All the best baubles, the gold ones, are way up at the top. Going to need a good fish slap to grab them.

I'm not sure if this is new to Bristlebane Day (Bristlebane fortnight, more like) this year but I can't remember doing it before. I noticed Mrs Bhagpuss bouncing there the other day and I'd been meaning to give it a go. I finally got to it this morning.

Would make a fine coat
There's something about EQ2 mini-games that just works for me. Some mini-games I've played in Rift and LotRO seem earnest, plodding, even dour. GW2 mini-games, contrarily, aren't mini at all. The regular jumping puzzles and the S.A.B. are full-on games in their own right and they sometimes leave me more exhausted than doing a Fractal.

EQ2's pitch is perfect. Mini-games like the gnomish sky racing circuits or the many variations on "whizz around running over stuff for a high score and prizes" are fast, frenetic and fun. Moreover, they contrive to be just hard enough that I can't sleepwalk through them and just easy enough that I convince myself one more try will do it.

Remind me what holiday it is again?
Do what? Get the prizes! That's the other part they get right. Stuff I want. Also, stuff I get that I wasn't expecting. Yes, I could look it up on the many estimable EQ2 info sources. EQ2Traders always covers holiday events in exhaustive and entertaining detail. Usually, though I just dive in and it all comes as a surprise.

Surprises from Bristlebane aren't always welcome but these turned out just fine. A full set of appearance clothes that make my ratonga beastlord look like he stepped straight out of a pack of playing cards, a Friesian bovoch housepet and perhaps best of all a great title. That's what motivated me to spend two hours bouncing after breakfast.

You said it.
Two hours, because I'm a bad bouncer. My best run netted me 69 points. The current high score on the billboard stood at 297. Which is where SOE win again. Holiday events in Norrath generally set a very low bar. It almost feels like someone wants you to have fun, even get what you want. The title comes with persistence. After a few dismal runs up it popped. Some of the clothes were on offer even after my most terrible attempts (32 being my worst). To get all the clothing options and the pet I think I had to break 65. Even I managed that. Eventually.

I envy anyone coming fresh to EQ2. Under the recently revised Freemium model it has to be the best value offer of its kind anywhere. And while I may be living elsewhere at the moment, I'll always be back for the holidays.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide