Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Good News, Bad News : FFXIV:ARR

It's almost exactly a dozen years ago that I experienced my first MMO launch,  Anarchy Online, still considered by many to be the worst of all time. It set a benchmark of badness that I have yet to see equaled, although often it's been a close call.

When it began AO was quite literally unplayable for many. I remember having problems getting the game to run at all, problems logging in and incredible, unplayable lag. The first couple of weeks I spent far more time reading the forums than playing. Funcom suspended the subscription for several months and I don't believe I ever did subscribe even though in the end I played for quite a while.

Horizons managed to be playable after a fashion. It ran and people could log in at least. Unfortunately there didn't seem to be much to do when you got there. Huge tracts of land were virtually empty. The city, on the other hand, lagged so badly it was barely possible to get through the gates. I didn't manage the free month in that one.

Then there was Vanguard, commonly thought to be the buggiest, if not the worst, launch ever. Vanguard was the MMO I most wanted to play since I first played Everquest and I'd prepared for it. I'd been in the beta for several months (in fact I was in the betas for all the games mentioned above, so I really have no-one to blame but myself for going ahead and buying them) and found it utterly unplayable at first so I'd taken the extreme step of buying a new PC chosen specifically to run that one game.

I'm coming! Don't close those doors!
And run it it did. So Mrs Bhagpuss got an identical one and Chez Bhagpuss Vanguard ran
tolerably well from day one. Of course we still had the vast bug army to contend with but for us, as launches go, Vanguard wasn't all that bad. We played for a year and a half and both of us have been back plenty of times since.

Keen thinks the FFXIV:ARR is the worst launch since WoW. I can't really comment on that because not only did I not play WoW at launch, I didn't even follow it's progress at the time. It's only in later years that I've picked up on the notion that WoW wasn't a screaming success out of the gate. I was too busy plodding through EQ2, which launched just before WoW with a dull thud entirely appropriate to the thuddingly dull game it was until Scott Hartsman arrived on his white charger to save it the following summer.

So I've seen a few bad launches and every bad launch is different. FFXIV is probably having the best kind of bad launch there is, at least from the perspective of the company behind it. It isn't buggy or laggy or unfinished or broken. It's just way, way more popular than anyone expected. Or Square were woefully unprepared for the interest it's received. Either way, there are more people trying to play the game right now than there are servers to play it on.  A lot more.

The servers have been up and down all through the ironically named "Early Access" and as I write, they're down again. Yesterday a list was posted of NA/EU servers that have been closed to new characters for an indefinite period. I haven't committed the names of every FFXIV server to memory but it looks suspiciously like all of them.

Square have announced they are adding capacity to their Data Centers and making changes to permit higher concurrency. Good news, if not much consolation to friends and guilds currently scattered over servers or even regions.

Three tickets for "Goblin" please. No, three.
The long-nosed one in the hat's not with us.
After the utter debacle of the original FFXIV (which doesn't really count as a terrible launch, more a fairly smooth launch of a terrible game) one might have thought another disaster would be the stake through Final Fantasy's heart, at least as an online proposition. But no.

Yoshi P, the "hardcore gamer" super-bouncy, pro-active Producer Square entrusted with rebuilding the brand was his usual upbeat self in the Launch Day producer's letter. And well he might be. In the letter he states openly that Square expect FFXIV to run for ten years at a minimum. If the game does well any bad publicity received from problems at launch will evaporate like summer mist, a mere footnote in the history of a successful, long-lasting game.

Look at the list of horrible, failed launches above. All of those games are still running (Horizons changed its name to Istaria but its still there. They sent me a "What's changed since you last logged in" email only this week). The one Keen compared FFXIV's launch to is WoW, for heaven's sake! A diabolical launch didn't put them out of business, did it? There are worse problems for a company to have than too many customers wanting to buy what it's selling, that's for sure.

Cait! I've told you before, no busking the queue!
Silver linings for Square aside, it's a shambles and the way it's been handled is a disgrace. We all understand the trade-off between having enough servers at launch so that everyone can get in and the inconvenience and bad publicity of server merges in just a few months when all the tourists leave. Rift was the poster child for that approach.

It's not as though Square don't know how many boxes they shipped and how many digital downloads they sold, though, is it? Surely preparing for the best-case scenario where they sold all the boxes right away and might even need to throttle back digital sales for a while should have been in the plan somewhere?

Even if it wasn't, wouldn't a straightforward queuing system be more acceptable to everyone? I remember being six-hundred and some in the queue to get onto Faeblight and watching it tick down for an hour and a half before I got in back at Rift's launch. That would be so much better than being barred completely from joining friends or having to close and restart the client over and over and over again in the hope I caught the server when someone had logged out.

Enough. It's just gone 11.00am and that's when the servers are supposed to come back up. I have my two characters made on Goblin (the only two I'll be having for the foreseeable future - it's new characters that are barred, not just new players) and mid-day, mid-week isn't busy, if yesterday was anything to go by. Come teatime, though, if I disconnect I won't be getting back on and it'll be back to GW2.

It's not ideal, but then what MMO launch ever was?

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Shooting Unicorns

TAGN posted a great contribution to the never-ending MMO payment model debate yesterday. Some of the links are particularly... interesting. I confess I had to google Damion Schubert to find out who he was, which certainly cast his polemic in a different light.

Somewhere in the comments of one of those linked posts a suggestion got made that I haven't heard before. I'd credit the suggester if I remembered who it was. The suggestion itself, that I do remember: lower subscription prices.

The idea was that just maybe what's keeping a lot of would-be players from subscribing to MMOs isn't the subscription model per se but the specific cost of the subscription. Perhaps instead of removing the subscription altogether some plucky developer might try reducing it.

In the past, when people have discussed the future of subscriptions, back when people thought subscriptions had a future, it was always assumed that eventually prices would have to go up. I mean, for what else are you still paying the same price you were a decade ago? Subscription prices never did really go up much, though, did they? They bobbled around a bit, generally from $9.99 to $14.99 with all kinds of complicated multi-month deals thrown in to spice things up but few ever broached that mid-teens barrier.

As everyone always chimes in, $14.99 is a very small price to pay for an entire month's entertainment, especially when compared to other options like movies, concerts, meals out or even books. That's as may be but it still adds up if you play several MMOs. The limiting factor, obviously, is time, but with the current trend that's centering MMO gameplay around frequent content drops, holiday events and discrete chunks of content completable in a few sessions it's becoming far more practical than it used to be for even a fairly casual player to dabble in several MMOs at a time.

If a subscription cost $4.99 a month, well you could have three on the go for the cost of your current single, couldn't you? I would. I might go as high as four or five at that price. Not to mention the prospect of multi-boxing. Of course you do still have the issue of getting people to put in a credit card number, which apparently they don't like to do (and who can blame them given the history of security breaches for online games) but you're going to have to come up with some way to get money off them at some point, so the issue can only ever be stalled. If they're going to balk at the first hurdle, were they ever really likely to get their wallets out anyway?

A small subscription gives the company a guaranteed, known monthly income but it's probably wishful-thinking to imagine it will bring in three or four times the number of players to get you back to where you were, and even if it did presumably managing the extra traffic will up the costs. So, you're going to need a Cash Shop as well.

Most MMOs do have some form of in-game Store these days, regardless of payment model, a trend that's unlikely to go away any time soon. Does anyone imagine that WildStar won't have a Cash Shop as well as a subscription? Which brings us to Wilhelm's very well-observed musings on payment models and their effect on the sense of immersion we used to set so much store by but which he worries is now of interest to maybe half a dozen people: " will be flying pig mounts, pinwheel hats, and hotbars for sale all day every day" indeed.  (cf Syp at BioBreak)

Ah, immersion. Those were the days. Count me in as one the six. But then, isn't one man's subscription-based immersion another man's Krazy Kiddie Klown Karnival?

Let me present Exhibit 1: the illustrations throughout this piece, taken from the fully subscription based, no cash shop in sight Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn. Check out my Cait Sith Doll standing on one leg! See me grooving in my Moogle Hat! Marvel at Carbuncle my Blue Neon Ghostbunny!

Immersion, surely, comes from within. Within the player, within the setting, within the culture of the game. I'm no Final Fantasy expert. I've only played the higher primes (7, 11, 13) and those not for long or all the way through. Still, even I know that levitating fuzzy teddy-bears, giant comical ostriches and a cast of characters that resemble a cross between Where The Wild Things Are and In The Night Garden are entirely in keeping with the ethos of the long-established, much-loved brand.

Transplant Moogles and Chocobos into Age of Conan, however, and you might have a problem (and a lot of roast chicken and barbecued fuzzy-bear). Wilhelm has issues with Mount Creep in EQ2 and Harbinger Zero felt that game jumped the shark when they let players play Fae. I could never take Tyria entirely seriously after the first time someone fired a stream of Rainbow Ponies over my head when I was battering down a keep door in World vs World.

When it comes to immersion we all have our own breaking points but the idea that any of this is made worse by the specific payment model a game employs seems unconvincing. F2P wasn't even a twinkle in Smed's eye when the art designers of the Kunark expansion gave us Rats In Smoking Jackets But No Pants, just to give one example out of thousands and surely I don't have to remind anyone of Slappy the Cool?

Now if you'll excuse me, I think the Moogle Postman is at the door.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Let's Make Hay : GW2

This was the weekend I expected to be hip-deep in the FFXIV head start. So what did I do? Played GW2 non-stop, naturally.

Was it because my Early Access code didn't come. Nope. That turned out to be a fuss over nothing. If I'd just trusted the original instructions I could have saved myself a whole lot of pointless anxiety. That confirmation email that assured me "You don’t need to do anything now. We’ll email you again near the time that the Early Access starts with the next steps"? 100% accurate. That's exactly what happened with two days to spare.

Was it the notorious server downtime that Stargrace wrote about, then? Not really. The first of those did put a stop to my opening session after about three hours but since then I've only tried to log in once and if I hadn't read about them I wouldn't even have known there'd been problems.

The Asuran Necro Reaction
No, it's nothing Square did wrong, nor was it lack of interest on my part. I've certainly been thinking about logging into FFXIV often enough. It's just that every time I go to do it I seem to hit the GW2 icon instead.

The reasons are twofold. Firstly , Clockwork Chaos is without doubt the best episode of the Living Story so far (I know, faint praise and all that but it is good, or perhaps more accurately, it's to my taste). Secondly, WvW remains perpetually appealing and Yak's Bend has yet another very good match-up this week.

The invasions are both entertaining and worthwhile, an unusual combination in any MMO. I'd do them fairly often even if there wasn't much of a reward attached, the way I did countless invasions in the early days of Rift just because they were fun to do. Factor in the loot that rains from the sky so that you walk away several gold richer every single time, win or lose, and consider that the whole thing runs on the hour, every hour and the problem becomes not whether to join in but how to stop. The community may be going to hell in a Deluxe Gear Box but at least we're all getting rich.

The Human Mesmer Reaction
Mrs Bhagpuss and I did, however, manage to jump off the money train long enough for two runs through Scarlet's Playhouse. I liked that too. As Ravious observed ANet finally seem to have gotten scaling down, both on the open-world events and in this "Dungeon". The Playhouse scaled very nicely for a duo.

We died a couple of times on our first two-necro run mostly due to having no clue what we were supposed to be doing. We spent too long killing things we probably didn't need to kill. Lord Faren must have been getting pretty worried, although not as worried as we were when he jumped out of the pot in nothing but his Speedos.

Scarlet was a doddle to down when she was waving her giant club around but kiting her into the canonfire was tricky. She seemed to prefer standing back and banging away with her rifle to playing Chase Me. The best strategy we came up with, on the second go through, was to hang around the Minstrels. (There's a joke about drummers just begging to wedge itself in there). Whoever was firing those cannons (and who was that anyway?) must have been a music critic.

Hello? Necro on fire here!
In the first run the part we had the most trouble with was probably finding the way to the centre for the Big Finale. I don't think it was such a great idea to have the exit dead in the center of the path. No-one actually left the map by accident but Mrs Bhagpuss DC'd at the exact time we were passing it and I thought for one minute that's what she'd done. I'm not sure if that would have locked her out of the rest of the instance but I'm glad we didn't have to find out.

Second time through Mrs Bhagpuss was playing her Ranger and I was, as they say, "on my Mesmer", which was the problem. We had several completely unnecessary deaths because I was so "on my Mesmer" I insisted we go all fancy dan at the centaur patrols - portals, veil, mass invisiblity, the whole Mesmer nine yards .

I got stunlocked, opened a portal in the wrong place, got another portal bugged. We both died several times as I messed about with clever plans before we looked at each other and said, "Let's just run it. Y'know, like the necros did first time. When no-one died". So, that worked. Sometimes it just doesn't pay to try and play smart.

Slave to the Rhythm
The bit with the barrels seemed random when we did it with the Necros but next time the pattern began to emerge. Didn't make much difference either way, to be honest - we ran, Scarlet jumped, barrels exploded. She had enough, made some speeches and threatened us with her List like a demented vegetable Santa Claus and that was that. Jolly good fun was had by all, not least by both Scarlet and the actress playing her.

The whole episode is going rather well. To my own immense surprise I've already completed the seventeen achievements needed for the Infinite Watchwork Tonic, which is a lot better reward than yet another Mini I'll never use, even if the model does look ludicrous and needs a good oiling. (It creaks when you walk). There's a good chance I'll complete it on both accounts.

I've had two of the ugly clockwork shoulders drop as well as, and far more welcome, an Abyss Dye. So far I must have made at least fifty gold just on coin drops and vendor sales and I could probably double that if I sold the mats I've banked on the TP.

What with all that going on and having to keep Stormbluff Isle and Northern Shiverpeaks in their place it doesn't look as if I'll be seeing all that much of Eorzea for a while yet.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Impossible Things : GW2

Several seemingly unrelated things cropped up this week:

Wilhelm wondering where all those dwarves came from.

Green Armadillo postulating a link between payment models and community value.

Jeromai speculating wildly.

 Massively reporting on ArenaNet's decision-making process.

The Big Villain behind the last six months' worth of Living Story showing her face at last.

Unrelated? Maybe, maybe not...

The current two-week slice of GW2's Living Story might be the most finely-tuned so far. ArenaNet's once-lauded iterative development process at work? Some of that, perhaps. Or is it this, from the very short Massively article linked above: "the game's current update plan came about as a result of looking at the game's metrics and determining what players were more likely to log in for".

All pile on! All pile on!
If that's so then I guess what players are most likely to log in for are rolling 24/7 zerg-based lootfests with Achievements attached. Nothing wrong with that. Indeed I'd like to see someone make an entire MMO based around the concept. I just wasn't expecting it to be this one.

The current hourly invasions are extremely reminiscent of Rift in beta, when towards the end of a couple of weekends the devs opened the planar faucets and let invasions stream out. In Rift-beta the big draw was the novelty and the sheer exuberant chaos of the thing as everyone struggled to push back the Planar hordes just because, while in GW2 the big draw is loot. Indeed, in no more than a couple of days and significantly after a substantial proportion of players have their achievement boxes neatly ticked, few seem to  care about winning at all.

Scarlet's invasions are on farm status already. Suggest working towards victory and expect to be roundly scorned. Keep the event going, call the Champions, link the Waypoints, farm farm farm. I'm not suggesting it's not fun; it is. It's a whole lot of fun. As Mrs Bhagpuss pointed out to me after a day of it, it's a gang of kids tearing around the woods in the summer holidays, hitting things with sticks. That was always fun and always will be.

It's nowhere near as much fun, however, as racing against the clock to beat the odds, sharing a hard-won victory with hundreds of like-minded souls. The first two evenings, when everyone was desperate to succeed, were viscerally thrilling. Now it's just a rewarding romp.

Die! Die! Die! Die! Die!

I did four invasion events last night, three on overflow servers, one at home. The first was an overflow whinefest, which we failed. The second, on Yak's Bend, was a cheerul, good-natured farmfest, which we failed. The third was a virtually silent Overflow, which we failed. In all three almost no-one seemed to care that we failed. Some even exulted.

The final one, the one I wasn't planning on doing because it was too late but got caught up in despite myself, was a focused, intense, exciting Overflow which we won. That one was ten times more thrilling, involving, immersive and, yes, fun than any of the others.

It took just two days to go from every invasion feeling like that to it being the exception. That's too soon. I don't expect the thrill to last forever but two days? Maybe that's what happens when you give the people what they want not what they need. You don't always need a cynical approach to payment models to degrade the community of an MMO. Sometimes just listening too hard to the people paying your bills will get it done.

Of course, that begs the question of why the same event on the same evening had a distinctly different "feel" on each of four servers and why that one Overflow gelled, focused, acted and conversed so differently from the others. No-one organized it that way. No charismatic Commander gave a rousing speech. It just happened, like most memorable experiences in MMOs. Maybe communities have moods just like the players who comprise them. Best just to savor the good ones when you get the chance, I guess, not expect kittens and rainbows every time.

Excuse me? Do I know you?

So much for the players and the play, what about the plot? Indeed, what about Scarlet herself?  She certainly makes for a passable arch-villain, but who the heck is she? As I understand it, our villain, our nemesis, is someone we've never heard of before. Maybe I've got that wrong and it's just me that's never heard of her. I really hope so, because as anyone who's ever read a mystery novel knows, a whodunnit has to play by certain rules, the key one of which is that you must be in with a chance of guessing who the murderer is.

Imagine Poirot gathering all the guests together in the country house, everyone casting surreptitious glances at the others, trying to figure out who looks guilty only for the little Belgian to turn back from the French windows and announce "I've brought you all together today to set your minds at rest. The killer is not one of you, not at all. No, it was someone else entirely, someone none of you has ever met, of whom you have never even so much as heard a whisper!"

That's not going to work, is it? It really doesn't help that she's also an obvious amalgam of several Batman villains but that's a lesser drawback than her previous complete lack of existence. I really do hope it's me that's not been paying attention because if not, that's one hell of a structural problem right there.

Not that structural problems with the narrative are unfamiliar ground either for MMOs in general or GW2 in particular. Jeromai's speculations are far, far more intriguing than anything the game and its increasingly arbitrary approach to both lore or narrative are likely to provide. I'd dearly love to invest in the backstory, to become immersed in the narrative, to take sides, argue long into the night over minutiae but for that to happen I'd have to believe that more lies at the back of all this than an oil-and-water mix of expediency and enthusiasm and that's a struggle right now.

Plenty more where they came from. Erm, where is that, exactly?

All of which brings us to those extraneous dwarves, or in our case, Aetherblades. And Steam Creatures. And Twisted Minions. I'm good at suspending disbelief; really I am. I can believe any number of impossible things before breakfast so long as it gets me a to story I want to hear. I'm reading a novel right now where the main character wakes up every day of his life in a new body with not the slightest hint of an explanation why or how and I'm fine with it. Yet when I'm fighting Scarlet's Invasions I find myself asking "Where the hell are all these pirates coming from? How many of these robots has she got? How is she doing this?"

The upshot is that I don't think this is a circle that can be squared. You can't always give people both what they want and what they need. You can't always make a compelling, addictive game and a convincing, immersive world at one and the same time. You can't expect the internal consistency of a novel from four separate teams knocking out a chunk of story each every couple of weeks against an implacable deadline.

We are where we are. This is what we have. We should enjoy it for what it is. It's good to point out where things aren't working but better to remember that they may only not be working for us. It's good to suggest how things could be done better, but remember that others may be perfectly content with the way those things are being done right now. Other MMOs will happen along in due time and do things differently. Some of us will prefer one, some another. Some will lose patience with them all. Nothing is ever going to be perfect. Take from it all what you find worth taking and let the rest slide.

And never, ever, expect an MMO to make sense.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

You Pays Your Money...

Everyone's talking payment models again...yawn. Just a couple of observations before the whole topic sends me off to sleep:

1. If there's a qualitative difference to the experience of playing any MMO that derives specifically and uniquely from the payment model rather than from the intrinsic merits of the MMO itself,  I have so far been unable to discern it. An MMO is either enjoyable or not enjoyable for reasons that are unrelated to how it chooses to fund itself.

2. A payment model is in itself neither a reason to choose a particular MMO nor to avoid one, unless and except that the costs involved are actually beyond the financial scope of a given player. Something isn't either worth what you pay for it or worth nothing. It's a sliding scale. If it's worth more to you than you're asked to pay, it's a bargain. If it's worth less, it's expensive. If you don't want it at all it's worthless at any  price, even if that price is "free". Only you can decide what something is worth and you can only decide what it's worth to you, not to anybody else. There's no absolute or universal scale of value. Usually there isn't even a commonly agreed average.

As far as the MMOS that are kicking up this rumpus go, I'm not very interested in either. I play a lot of MMOs but some, like TESO, just don't interest me from the outset and others, like WildStar, become less interesting the more I find out about them. I haven't yet bothered to try SW:TOR or Age of Conan, for example. TESO I probably won't try at all, even if it ends up going free. I might have tried WildStar when it launched if nothing much else was going on around then but even if it was Buy-to-Play just the box fee would probably have been enough to put me off.

On the other hand, I've bought FFXIV because I knew from the beta I wanted to play it. Our Early Access codes finally arrived and we're champing at the bit to get started. If I enjoy the first month enough I'll subscribe until I don't enjoy it any more, or until I haven't got time for it because something else has come along.

Play the MMOs you want to play, pay whatever you need to pay, stay clear of the ones you don't like. That's really all there is to it, isn't it?

The other hot topic, in which I'm a lot more interested and have a lot more to say, is GW2's latest Living Story update. Unfortunately I don't have the time right now both to write about it and do it so since Jeromai and Ravious covered it very nicely I'm going to go play. I'll just offer these pictures and a couple of observations:

1. This is the gameplay Trion told us Rift would have, and which it briefly did have on the couple of beta weekends when the devs cranked the invasionometer up to 11. Two years late and in the wrong game but better late than never.

2. Now who does Scarlet remind me of? Let me think, let me think... no, don't tell me, it'll come to me in a minute...Holy Sincerest Form of Flattery, Batman!

Monday, August 19, 2013

A Cottage By The Sea : FFXIV

I mentioned FFXIV's housing yesterday but I never got round to saying much about it. Not that there is much to say. All we got to see was the equivalent of a new-build estate before anyone's moved in. There wasn't even the equivalent of a Show Home. All the doors were firmly locked. Even so, it was mightily impressive.

Where's the agent? She said she'd meet me here!
Arcanists start in Limsa Lominsa so the housing area I looked at was in Lower La Noscea, just outside Red Rooster Stead. Whether the other two starting cities also had housing areas up for testing I couldn't say. I had enough trouble getting one character up and running given the immense attention the game was getting at the end of the short open beta without trying to make one for all three cities.

I hope that's haze not smog
Nothing in the game told me where to go, which seemed odd given that the housing was supposedly there specifically to be tested, about the only that was this time round. I had to shout out asking for directions.

Shout has already established itself as the de facto general chat channel since one hasn't been provided. Players will always find some means of chatting openly in MMOs and if they can't they'll leave, saying no-one plays that game, so it's largely pointless to try and resist offering an official channel. Better to have one that can safely be closed by everyone who objects than leave channels with an actual use to be overwhelmed with arguments over whether the game is or isn't better than WoW. (Although that's an argument that's tellingly heard with less and less frequency these days).

Hit me with a flower. On second thoughts...
The community was in the typical "Me! Me! I know that one!" mode that all MMOs pass
through at the start so I only had to ask once. The map function has improved considerably from earlier in beta and I had no trouble scoping out a route. Limsa Lominsa's aggressively three-dimensional layout makes it by far the most challenging city in which to start, from a purely topographical perspective, and the hardest part was getting out of town. Other than that, travel in FFXIV seems extremely safe and easy, at least at low levels and even at level one the trip across country was uneventful.

Yes it's lovely but what does it do?
If the housing area had a name I missed it. It did have a board at the gate but like all signs in FFXIV it was in what I assume must be Eorzean, not one of my languages. It was night when I arrived and under the oddly misshapen full moon and a thick wash of stars the housing area appeared as a good-sized town.

Bring me an ice-cream!
The streets were empty. I saw maybe three other people the whole time I was there, both that night and the next day. There didn't seem to be much "testing" going on but then there didn't seem to be anything you could test.

The "town" was absolutely gorgeous. It had a magnificent sandy beach onto which soft waves continuously rolled, a wooden pier and a promenade lined with untenanted stores. A vast aqueduct dominated the aspect, complete with turning waterwheels high out of reach, while a much more accessible water feature brought fresh water down a series of shallow terraced falls through the center of the town.

I'll take it. Can I move in right away?
There seemed to be a wide range of houses, from small cottages to mansions. They all had gardens or yards and a range of furniture and plantings from wagons to palm trees suggested the decorative possibilities, although the absence of collision detection gave things a weird, ghostly feel.

That's me in the boulder
It reminded me most of Everquest's housing areas and, albeit less so, of LotRO's.  I would guess that FFXIV will follow the "fantasy decorator" model rather than the much more elaborate EQ2/Rift "fantasy architect" style. Hard to be sure because what was on view was indistinguishable in context from any other location in the game save for the complete absence of NPCs.

Whatever the mechanics turn out to be, it looks beautiful. I want to live there.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Signs Point To Yes : FFXIV:ARR

The Open Beta for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn is a bit of an odd duck in itself but my own participation or lack thereof is odder yet. I'm finding the whole thing immensely confusing so far. Not the game itself, which is elegantly old-school and entirely comprehensible. No, it's the getting to play it part that's puzzling me.

I started to detail the problems I've had so far pre-ordering, registering and accessing the game but by the time I'd done five paragraphs on the delights of just changing an email address it was apparent I'd be talking to an audience of one and even I was bored.

Suffice it to say that Square Enix's reputation for gnomic inaccessibility is very far from an urban myth. Having exhausted the options available through the SE Knowledge Base and my own patience I'm now waiting on a reply to a Customer Service ticket in the hope of at least getting the details of my account correct before I can move to the next stage of trying to get the pre-order code so I can play the damn game on the 24th.

None of this stops me logging in and playing right now, of course. That would be far too logical. My beta login works just fine. I made a character last night just so I could get a look at the Housing test area, which as I read the SE runes is only there for open beta not launch.

Just making the character brought its own problems and not because of the wealth of options on offer. The uncertainty over my account details made me wary of starting a character that I wanted to play. Progress in Open Beta carries over to Launch but I can't be certain the account I'm using for beta will do the same. The "one character per server" issue, about which I was very concerned despite the "all classes on one character" design, makes character creation seem like a much bigger deal than usual too.

Fortunately it turns out I'd misread that part. It's not, as I'd thought, one character per server plus a separate monthly fee for each character thereafter, which I think was how it worked in FFXI. In fact the basic $12.99 subscription offers one character per server up to a maximum of eight but for a very small increase to $14.99 the limit jumps to eight characters per server up to a maximum of 40. That's a vastly better deal and If I play beyond the free month (which also allows eight characters per server) then I'll be more than happy to pay that extra $2.00.

Then we come to the servers themselves. There are a lot of them and they're nearly all full.

Wait! No they aren't!

Wait ! Yes they are!

For Open Beta there's some kind of real-time throttling. Once you've made your character you pick the server you want (and you can play anywhere, there's no region-locking) and check if it's taking new starters. If it's greyed-out it's full but don't despair: wait three minutes, hit the Refresh List button and if enough people logged out you can slip into someone's still-warm slot.

The relaunch of FFXIV hasn't been getting the degree of attention of, say , the GW2 launch this time last year or the recent EQNext reveal but there really is an enormous amount of interest. The servers (and as I said there are a lot of them) were packed in all the closed betas and now Open Beta is here they are just heaving like anthills.

I'd tried four or five times for the server I wanted without any luck and it was getting late. Given my concerns over permanency I decided to send the character anywhere that would have her just so I could get in and have a look around so I opted for the only place that would have me, an EU server the name of which I've already forgotten.

And I still couldn't get in. There were so many would-be Lalafells and Mi`Qotes hammering on Square's battleship-plate doors that the rivets were popping. I got a log-in bug that looked unnervingly like it might relate to the account issues I'd been having until a reassuring Google suggested lots of people were getting the same. The recommended fix was a simple client restart, which was just as well because mine had frozen.

And stap me if when I logged back in the very server I'd wanted in the first place hadn't thrown its doors wide open. Serendipity, silver linings etc.

So here I am with a character made and named in haste in the expectation she'd either never make it to Live at all or if she did it would be on a European server where I'd never see her again, only to find that now she's on the server where I plan to make my home.

Sod's law says she'll probably not only make it through to Live after all but end up being the character I play the most.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Meta Enough For You Yet? : GW2

Trampled underfoot by the Borlis zerg, my poor Asuran necromancer lying crushed into the dirt at Bay, I took a moment to tab out of GW2 to check Feedly. A link to Massively led me to the following headline :

Release page for Guild Wars 2's upcoming patch vandalized by marauding villain.

For a fleeting moment I thought hackers were back at their tricks but then the wording struck me. No-one short of Shaggy or Velma could conceivably use the term "marauding villain" and expect to be taken seriously. Something stranger than a simple hack attack must have happened.

Indeed it had. ArenaNet have splashed virtual paint over their own website, slashed red crosses through Queen Jennah's eyes and turned her pouting smile into a scary clown frown. Well, it got my attention. I'm a sucker for a touch of postmodern decontextualization, me.

A few very lucky websites also received this lovely fob-watch. Perks of the job I guess. (The GW2Guru folks kindly donated theirs to the upcoming Pink Day In LA charity event).

With the watch came a rather clumsily scanned poem. I won't reproduce the whole thing, but the first verse is certainly intriguing:

Tick tock goes the clock
It's almost time for time to stop
Something you all must understand
Your world is built on fog and sand

Make of that what you will. It's almost enough to make me believe Jeromai's theory. I hope that is where we're going with this. It wouldn't be original but at least it would be a closed loop, and I've wanted to know what those Steam creatures were up to since the first time I ran into them out in Lornar's Pass.

It all kicks off on the 20th, which falls very conveniently between the end of the ultra-short FFXIV open beta and the beginning of Head Start. After all this build-up, I do hope it's a one-off event like the Karka invasion last November, even if that means I miss it and end up watching it on YouTube. I'd really hate to think all this is leading to something that repeats every couple of hours so we can go on another two-week Achievement binge.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

There's A Great Big World Out There : EQ2

Remember Milo? He was the ratonga that chose not to leave the Isle of Refuge. When SOE retired EQ2's original starting zone Milo retired along with it, even though his career had never really begun.

He was always an odd character. Thanks to EQ2's /played command I can see that he was born just before nine in the morning on a Friday in February back in 2005. I can vaguely remember creating him. I think there was something I wanted to do or see on the starter island but I wanted to avoid making yet another character that I'd end up playing, so he came into the world on Everfrost,  a server where I knew no-one, as a Guardian, a class I had no interest in playing. In retrospect if I didn't want to play him it was probably a mistake to make him a ratonga.

He did whatever long-forgotten thing it was that he had to do but then he hung around. I'd log him in when I wanted to potter around on my own just for a little while. At some point I decided he'd be the best-dressed, most-skilled rat on the island so he did every quest (other than that annoying scavenger hunt for the gnome on the beach that I never completed with anyone and now never will), killed every Named, gathered and mined and crafted until he was as well turned-out as it was possible for a refugee to be.

Over the years he was seldom played but never forgotten. When the sad news of the Isle's demise came I thought that would be the last of him. Not so. For some arcane, never-explained reason, after all the fuss and bother the announced closure of the zone kicked up, the zone itself didn't vanish in 2010, it just closed its port to new arrivals. Characters who declined to board The Far Journey went on being playable and Milo had several more active days in the sun, although at almost level 10 there was very little left for him to do.

A Traditional Freeport Greeting
A few weeks ago Tinkerfest began, drawing me inexorably back to Norrath once again. Logging in I noticed Milo looking at me quizzically from character select and on a whim I picked him. Zone unavailable. A quick check confirmed my first suspicion. The Isle of Refuge sank beneath the waves for the final time sometime in March 2013.

Where did that leave Milo? Had he really left it that moment too long to ask Captain Varlos for passage? Was he gone for ever?

Well, he was still there in the character roster so I petitioned to have him moved to somewhere that still existed. I gave it a day then logged him in and there he was, standing in The Commonlands right outside the gate to North Freeport.

It's a fixer-upper but the price is right
As it happened, that suited me perfectly. He would have arrived in Freeport on The Far Journey, after all. It seemed a bit strange that he was outside the gate rather than, say, on the East Freeport dockside but at that point Milo was just happy to be alive.

Coming from the simplicity and seclusion of the Isle, Freeport
was somewhat overwhelming. It's also not the friendliest of places. Milo's well able to look after himself, though. He's a ratonga after all. It didn't take him long to get set up in his own inn room and get himself a paying job or two. When he arrived he found himself standing right next to Mooga the crazy ogre cook and she's always looking for kitchen assistants; not what he's used to but she pays in kind and a rat's gotta eat.

From there he was off and running. Right now he's level 35 and exploring Steamfont with
his happy-go-lucky gnomish friend Bellut Shortsong. Okay, technically Bellut's a mercenary and his friendship's negotiable but they get along. Milo found a few Kobold Paws that sold well on that Brokerage he was told about as soon as he set foot in Freeport and now he has quite a few platinum coins safely stashed away. Bellut's still taking payment in silver so their continuing relationship is assured.

I, on the other hand, find myself leveling up yet another character in EQ2, on yet another server than the three on which I already have literally dozens. And it's every bit as much fun as it always is.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Unintended Consequences : GW2

The wealth of activity the Queen's Jubilee brought to Tyria will all have vanished in a few weeks. The changes to the infrastructure that arrived alongside it will stay with us for the foreseeable future, landing with an impact that has far greater potential for change than a few hot air balloons dotted around the countryside.

The Living Story wrapper tends to obfuscate the normal patching process. Every two weeks we all cast the runes trying to decipher the rambling, incoherent narrative and chase madly after the shiny at the end of the Achievement rainbow.

Meanwhile the traditional tuning and tweaking that marks the progress of an MMO in full sail creaks and groans in the background. In other times, in other games, those are the changes that would be the hotly-debated talking points; here they can pass with barely a comment.

Two innovations slipped in by the back door this time, both greeted with quiet but apparently universal acceptance. Firstly, The Wallet pulls a number of items that were previously held as virtual physical icons out of storage and into a game-window. It's a common practice in MMOs seeking to avoid currency clutter. Secondly, all Champion mobs now leave a Steel Chest behind when they die. Each of these changes has wide-ranging implications for how the game will be played in the future, one very personal, the other very public.

Don't go in dungeons much, eh?

The Wallet raises issues that are mostly metaphysical. For the vast majority of players it will almost certainly be received as a universal good. Who doesn't want to have all their currencies neatly tabulated and stored in one place rather than spread out across the inventories and banks of half a dozen characters? Who doesn't want the vault space back?

Well, people who play their characters as individuals, perhaps? Players who don't see their characters as an amorphous mass of "Toons", mere ciphers of the hand behind the keyboard. Players who don't see why an Engineer who never lifted a flamethrower to defend his borderland should be able to claim a thousand Badges of Honor that were earned in hard battle by some Ranger the Engineer never even met.

It's hardly worth bothering about in GW2, of course. The base unit there is and always has been The Account. All this new refinement really does is shift the underlying structure towards a more coherent form. The game arrived with an ill-thought-out muddle of Account- and Character- based functions that already required a good deal of double-think to reconcile.

As a character-player of longstanding I regret the trend toward Account-based play now becoming widespread across the genre. It makes for lazy play on my part when, as I inevitably do, I take advantage of the indisputable convenience it brings. Under any system, however, character-play ultimately rests in the hands of the person guiding the characters. If I was really that interested I could still keep notes of who earned what to make sure no-one got a free ride.

Alternatively (and it's the lazy fix I choose to make) I can consider all my characters part of a team, create an organization for them in my head and play them accordingly. With two accounts I even have two separate teams, which allows for both co-operation and competition. And banter.

They also serve who only stand and wait at the bank

So The Wallet is assimilable into most existing playstyles. Any changes to gameplay that it brings to the individual player are invisible to others around him or her. Not so the Champion Chests.

This isn't the first time ArenaNet have fiddled with the reward mechanism for stronger creatures. At first Champions, the unnamed Nameds of Tyria, dropped nothing, or rather they had exactly the same chance at dropping exactly the same loot any other, weaker mob around them might drop. So no-one killed them if they could help it. A lot of extra work for no extra reward.

After a few months Champions received a pass that guaranteed they would always drop something. That prospect caused some excitement, which quickly dissipated when it was found that what they always dropped was a Blue item worth a few copper to a vendor or, if you were very lucky, a Green worth a silver or so. End result, Champions continued to be ignored.

Other designs are avaialble
Last week all that changed. Every Champion now drops a Steel Chest. The chest drop mechanic was itself added earlier this year, providing a visual indicator of the quality of loot as it hits the ground. A bag is Basic, Fine or Masterwork, a wooden chest Rare and a steel chest means you've found something Exotic or Ascended. Top of the shop, in other words.

In the case of Champions there's another wrinkle. Inside the chest is the drop the Champion used to have, if any, plus some kind of Exotic bag or pouch and inside that you'll find coin, skill points, crafting materials, weapons and armor, and if you're very, very lucky, a unique weapon skin. And that has become, overnight, quite literally a game-changer.

A few months ago a similar change was made to "World Bosses", the Dragons and other meta-events around Tyria. They began to give first a flurry of Rares and then another guaranteed Rare on top of that. For a while there was a frenzy, which then settled to a routine. All but the least-accessible "dragons" were dutifully farmed by medium-sixed zergs day and night.

I first observed the new emergent behavior that has replaced this tradition when I was crossing Frostgorge Sound in search of balloons. Map chat was alive with people calling "Drake", "Shark" and pinging waypoints. It transpires that within days, quite possibly hours, of the new loot changes a whole culture has sprung up. PvE "Commanders" sporting their 100g tags are leading zergs of greed-crazed adventurers on kill sprees through any high-level zone that sustains a large population of fast-respawning Champions.

Wait for meeeeeee
In the spirit of enquiry I joined zergs in Frostgorge and Cursed Shore last night. I learned a lot. For example, the Escort event near Anchorage Waypoint in Cursed Shore can be farmed for anything up to thirty or so Steel Chests in a ten minute run. When it ends there's just enough time to sell the loot and race around another half-dozen Champion spawns in the zone before returning for another go.

This event recycles constantly with an eight-minute refresh, provided you do it right. I forget whether we were supposed to Fail or Succeed, but get that the wrong way round and it's a two-hour wait. We were fortunate enough to have some Commanders guesting from another server where that had happened, or rather where the event had, as they bitterly described it, "been trolled" .

On the right target for once
Our guests were unimpressed with our zerg, which had mustered perhaps thirty or forty people. It was big enough to spawn the Champions required but too small to kill them efficiently. Apparently their own server is already in the habit of bringing three hundred workers to this particular farm. They were also critical of our rotation and our naming conventions, which again have apparently already been codified and set in statute on their home server in less than a week.

This is but the latest revolution in a repeating cycle in which ArenaNet introduces a change that is seen by a significant proportion of the playerbase as a quick and dirty route to loot. It began with the Fractals, which differed slightly in that the driver was loot you couldn't get anywhere else, then moved to the Dragons and now to Champions. Interspersed or layered on top are the limited duration hotspots like the Southsun riots and the current Crown Pavilion.

I'm the last person to say this kind of gameplay isn't fun and people certainly seemed to be having a good time, as was I with the best part of a bottle of red inside me, but I do have to wonder why it's only become fun now that there's a substantial material reward tagged on the end. After all, exactly the same gameplay was available two weeks ago but absolutely no-one was interested in doing it back then.

In 2010 Mike O'Brien, President of ArenaNet, published the GW2 Design Manifesto. In the opening paragraph he wrote "We believe that gamers want to try new things, new experiences, and that they’ll reward the companies who can bring them something new."

Or you could just let them run around smashing loot pinatas. That works too.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Red Balloon : GW2

Ten years might be considered a tad premature for a Jubilee but Queen Jennah probably calculated that if she waited the traditional quarter of a century she might not be around to celebrate. Remind me, has that peace treaty with the Charr ever been ratified? And what about all those seditionists brewing up discontent and tossing bombs, not to mention the machinations of Minister Caudecus.

High heels, really?
Add to these destabilizing factors the enigmatic and seemingly inexhaustible hordes of Aetherblade pirates descending from an armada of aerodynamically-challenged airships and it's perhaps understandable that, in an attempt to bolster her shaky rule, Jennah's gone on a charm offensive.

It's no expense spared, too, and given they've not long funded a devastating war, the coffers of Divinity's Reach run surprisingly deep. Makes you wonder about Krytan tax rates. Maybe it explains all the piracy in the farmlands and sullen insurrection in Ebonhawke. Anyway, wherever the gold is coming from there's enough of it to pay for state-of-the-art clockworks to replace the entire City Guard.

Logan Thackeray's not best pleased. Put that down to professional jealousy if you will, but he'll probably be proved right. Handing your entire state security apparatus over to a bunch of mechanical toys could be described as a brave decision. That or insane.

Where do these things come from, anyway? Who designed them? Who manufactures them? Were they adequately trialled before being put into service? Who'll be held responsible when, as they inevitably will, they run amok?

Jeromai has an intriguing theory about what's going on. Me, I just want my balloon.

Carpentry not clockwork
Ah yes, balloons. It's not enough to purchase and deploy an entire army of watchworks across the city, to renovate a gigantic crater and refurbish it as a crazed playground for greed-maddened adventurers, to fill it with mechanical hordes, employ a team of mesmers to keep said mechanicals constantly englamoured and hire a cadre of elite champions to fight all-comers day and night.

No, what good would that be without a fleet of hot air balloons distributed across the entirety of civilized and uncivilized Tyria (Orr always excepted, the undead being notorious party poopers), to ferry anyone with nothing better to do back to the Capital for fun and games at the City's expense? The Court of the Sun King had nothing on this.

Still, it's not my money. Why should I care? I get a balloon!

Thus it was that yesterday was spent traveling first east from The Black Citadel then north through the Eternal Autumn of Ascalon before looping back west across the frozen wastes of Frostgorge Sound. Thence  on to the Norn lands, through Lornar's Pass out onto the tundra of Timberline Falls then deeper south all the way to the sweltering heat of the Maguuma jungle around Mount Maelstrom.

As I traveled, I marveled at the intricate carpentry of the gantries, each dwarfed by the billowing scarlet canopy of a hot-air balloon. At the foot of every gantry waited a Pilot, eager to offer free passage on his craft. Sometimes the balloon was primed to depart, the gates open and inviting., other times some dignitary was late in arriving and nothing could proceed until he was found and safely fetched. A few times I arrived to find the balloon under Aetherblade attack. Now and again the Queen had sent a Champion to give a demonstration of the entertainment on offer in the Crown Pavilion.

I escorted dignitaries. I drove off sky pirates. I
No Bandits, No Pirates, No Centaurs
sparred with Champions. At the top of each gantry stair I found a coffin-shaped coffer full of what I can only call loot. Queen Jenah's largesse truly knows no bounds, nor sanity. I took everything, declined the free passage, jumped down.

Still not got my balloon, though. On to the next stop.

Back up through Sparkfly Fen, heading north once more into Bloodtide Coast. A quick visit to the bank in Lion's Arch to empty my packs then out into Northern Kryta. Gendarran Fields and Harrathi Hinterlands all passed under my weary paws (charr ranger on a mission - got to have balloon to bat about). In the end there was nowhere left to go and still no balloon. I opened my map and waypointed to Caledon Forest and there, after nearly a full day's traveling, finally I received my reward.

Was it worth it? Hell yes! It's a balloon on a string!

I prefer Travel Faciitator
It took all day and it was all fun, all the time (except when a tower bugged). It was satisfying, too, because I chose my own itinerary, took it at my own pace, felt in complete control throughout, knew why I was doing it, knew that I would be able to complete what I'd set out to do and knew the end result would be something I'd value and could keep. If I was tweaking it, I'd cut the requirement from thirty balloon visits to twenty, but that might just be because I know I'll be doing the whole thing again on the second account. Thirty is probably just inside the entertainment envelope.

It was certainly a lot more to my taste than the current favorite Jubilee pastime, zerging the Pavilion. Which, naturally, I'm also doing because, loot.

I can only stand it in short bursts, no longer than three or four boss pairs at a stretch. Necromancer is my farmer of choice for this one; laying down Marks and Wells gets credit on everything and Death Shroud means she hardly ever dies even in massive AE storms. The most difficult part is fighting through the lag to get to the chests. I missed three yesterday because I couldn't even find them in the crowd.

The Queen's Gauntlet  I did only once. I won right on the timer (I was downed when it kicked me out but I got credit for a win). Not felt any desire to try again, despite the stacks and stacks of Entrance Tickets piling up in my bags.

Overall, I give The Queen's Jubilee installment of The Living Story an A* for graphic design, a B- for content and an F for logic, consistency and making any kind of sense at all.

Come to think of it, those grades could stand for the whole of GW2.
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