Monday, September 30, 2013

Bragging Rites : GW2

Even as we reach the end of the inexorable two-week cycle and wave goodbye to Tequatl Rising, so we are already girding our loins for the inevitable arrival of the next round of The Living Story, Twilight Assault. There's a post up at GamingSF that so neatly sums up my own feelings I could almost just link to it and leave it at that. Almost.

There's a purely delicious irony in the idea that anyone could take a step back from Tequatl and say to themselves "Y'know what? This isn't happening. Let's go to Orr. We can kick back and have some fun!". Remember Orr? It's way down in the deep south and a lot of players were just discovering it for the first time around about a year ago. For many it turned out to be the place where they decided they'd seen about as much of Tyria as they cared to and suddenly found they had better things to do.

Orr has seen several rubs of the polishing cloth since then, all to its benefit, but it's still not what you might call a holiday resort. It's no Southsun, that's for sure. Okay, bad example, but the point is this; just how stressful must what you were doing have been if Orr feels relaxing in comparison?

I got into a short, good-natured spat in Map chat after my fourth (or was it fifth) failed Tequatl in a row last night. The plan was to stay up until reset, when I thought there was a reasonable chance we might down him. I'd asked during each previous fight whether anyone knew of any plans for a concerted attempt at reset. No-one did although like me several people were hopeful.

Because I play on a US server, reset currently comes at one o'clock in the morning. Tequatl decided to make his final appearance of the day just before then. We had our best run of the evening, taking him to somewhere around 80%. It was the only time we even got the megalasers up, although they didn't hang around long enough to charge.

At this point someone else asked about the next attempt after reset and got the reply that Yak's Bend hadn't managed to kill Tequatl all weekend. I took that to be my cue to leave, figuring I'd be far better off in bed asleep than waiting up for another attempt that would almost certainly fail.

Before I had time to log out a discussion started in Map about whether the Tequatl fight was "hard" or not, during which I felt honor-bound to observe that any event that failed almost every time must, by definition, be "hard" or else the term "hard" risked losing all contextual value. It wasn't a popular observation, or at least not with the self-identifying "Gamers" among the crowd.

The Tequatl Rising event has had quite an impact in a number of ways, the most pernicious being a hardening of the already-noticeable polarization of the playerbase into opposing camps roughly approximating the old "hardcore" vs "casual" dichotomy. Considering GW2's firmly-established place in the gaming canon as the casual MMO par excellence, any argument between its players over who's "harder" might seem about as cute as a fight between a kitten and a bunny rabbit, but as anyone who's spent much time around either of those cuddly creatures knows, when the claws come out someone could lose an eye. And anyway, as usual, the argument is really one of semantics.

The Tequatl fight is not "hard" in the sense that Gamers understand the term. The mechanics are simple to understand and easy to execute. In a larger sense, however, it's very hard indeed, requiring firstly the guaranteed presence of more players than are ever likely, naturally, to be present on the map at the time it takes place and secondly the means to organize them effectively should they, by some immense effort of will, be persuaded to come.

The much-discussed tactics that have been used to greater or lesser extent to gather and direct a sufficient critical mass of players so that this evolved dragon can reliably be put in his place are clearly unsustainable over anything other than the short term by any less than the most determined, organized, dare I say obsessive players. That's fine. Those people are there; they are as entitled to content that suits them as anyone else who's not paying the non-existent sub.

For the rest of us, the non-obsessives, we gave it a shot, it didn't pan out, the carnival moves on. Unfortunately, it moves on to what will in all probability be another divisive two weeks, the third Living Story segment in a row to offer at its center a single-location, self-consciously "difficult" set-piece event complete with those all-important bragging rights.

Ah yes, bragging rights. ANet have a variety of markers for those; Achievements, Titles, Mini-Pets, Armor and Weapons and Backslot Items. The trouble with Achievements is that other players have to make an active choice to look at yours. And Titles aren't so hot either, because other players can switch yours off. Minis are alright but you have to remember to keep summoning them. No, things you wear or wield are better and backpacks are the best of all. Always there, right in the faces of the little people running along behind you, so very hard to ignore.

The official announcement hammers the point home with all the subtlety of a Norn challenging a Charr to a game of Belcher's Bluff. "Show off your prowess with the new Slickpack back item. It glows, it gleams, and it lets the whole world know that you bested the dangers of Twilight Assault!" The small portion of GW2 players who give a damn, maybe. The whole world? I think not.

As for me, I'll pass on Orr as a post-Tequatl chill-out zone and I may well pass on the new dungeon path too (and come to think of it, isn't a single new path and a few bonus chests for WvW a tad light for a Living Story update?). No, I think I might just toddle off to somewhere a little more light-hearted, just for a while. Now if only I could think of somewhere to go...

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Group Hug, Anyone? : GW2, FFXIV

In the zeitgeisty way of these things, a flurry of seemingly-related posts turned up in my Feedly over the last few days, echoing some recent personal experiences.

Ravious at KTR detailed how his GW2 server, Sanctum of Rall, is dealing with the issue of AFKers at the Tequatl event by finessing the Overflow system. Jeromai at Why I Game had a powerful response to that, which he rolled up with a series of observations on the impatience, elitism and downright bad manners so often seen in modern groups.

Jeromai counterpointed his bad PUG example with a good one but Stargrace at MMOQuests and Stabs at Stabbed Up were singing the praises of going into tough fights with people you really know, people you can trust to stick with the job 'til the job gets done.

Meanwhile, Mrs Bhagpuss has put FFXIV on the back burner in favor of building castles in Rift and I have drifted back to GW2 and other worlds, both our choices guided at least in part by the inevitable, unavoidable tyranny of the Duty Finder. A certain malaise is in the air.

I'm beginning to wonder if I'm just getting too old for all this. I had to rewrite my original comment to Ravious's post because my initial reaction seemed unreasonable even to me.  I know all this server-hopping, guesting and guilds pimping themselves out as mercs-for-hire isn't technically cheating or exploiting but it sure feels like it to me. In a way that's worse because it suggests that activities that would once have been deemed unacceptable either by game developers or players or both are now seen not just as tolerable but almost praiseworthy. 

Just the four of us? Are you sure that's right?
I remember very clearly the days when Pick Up Groups had etiquette and rules of behavior that were largely understood and usually followed. One that was particularly closely adhered to was your responsibility to find a replacement if you had to leave. I can remember many times searching LFG and sending tells or calling out in /shout to get another healer or tank to come replace me before I left. I'd begin doing it well before I actually needed to leave to make sure the group suffered the least possible inconvenience.

Of course, there never really was a Golden Age of Grouping. There were good groups and bad groups then just like there are now. The big difference was that then you had some hope of meeting people more than once, of building relationships through repeated, shared endeavour, of turning PUGmates into acquaintances and acquaintances into friends. There was a payoff to not behaving like an arse that went well beyond the simple satisfaction of not behaving like an arse. Although that should never be under-rated.

A combination of closed, instanced dungeons and automated, cross-server group-finding mechanisms put paid to all that. Now your arseness or lack thereof is of the most transitory value or concern, at least outside of your own sense of self-respect. If you behave like a spoilt toddler and play like one too, the moment the group dissolves it's as though it had never been. On the other hand, even if your PUG gels into the greatest group of adventurers ever, short of all changing servers there's no way you can repeat the experience. What happens in DF stays in DF, with all that entails. It's a very high price to pay for fast instance pops and you don't always even get those.

Hmm. If I could tame whatever made this print I'd never need to group again.
Not surprisingly playing with people you already know really well is increasingly seen as the only way to have not just an optimal time but any kind of good time at all. Bad behavior is expected of PUGs, players who could set examples choose to absent themselves, the prophecy self-fulfills. With the heaviest of ironies players, who only a year or two back were demanding more and better open grouping and wider social access, are now devising cunning schemes to subvert or avoid the very mechanics that were put in place to give them the gameplay they said they wanted. 

I would still like to down Tequatl and I'd be lying if I said the time will never come when I'll take whatever kill I can get. If I end up knocking that dragon back into the ocean anywhere other than Yak's Bend, though, the victory will be hollow, the achievement tarnished.

There's nothing new about all this, that's the sad thing, or perhaps it the saving grace. It was ever thus. Clearly right now the wind is in favor of harsher mechanics, sterner rules, less patience among players and a work ethic that borders on obsession. The all-too-brief sunrise of MMO as light-hearted entertainment is disappearing behind the thunderclouds of serious commitment. Buckle down, learn your class, pay your dues. Anyone that doesn't comply to the new orthodoxy must be a moron, a slacker, an afker. Leave them, they're not worth it.

As usual, Wilhelm at TAGN has the middle path that works. Have fun with friends and a different kind of fun with strangers. If necessary, to stay sane turn the whole thing into a meta-game. Have your fun with them while they're having theirs with you but never let your standards slip.

A time will come when you'll need those standards again. Buff them til they shine.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Therre's Something In The Waterrr!! : The Return Of The NBI

A little over a year ago Syp of Bio Break and Massively fame ran a month-long event intended to encourage would-be bloggers to take the next step. This year Doone at T.R.Red Skies and Roger at Contains Moderate Peril have taken up the challenge.

The main hub of activity is the new forum they've set up, which this time is planned to be a permanent fixture, providing an ongoing resource and source of support and advice for bloggers old and new. The whole thing kicks off officially on October 1st but don't feel you have to wait until then to get started.

Last year well over one hundred blogs were created on the back of the NBI. A year later, Wilhelm at TAGN in his absolutely invaluable role as Chronicler of All Things MMO, checked back to see how many were still up and running. That turned out to be thirty, a pretty good score in my opinion, and some of the bloggers who began as Initiates last time, like Ocho of Casual Aggro , return this year as Sponsors.

If you've ever read a blog and thought "I could do that", you were right. You could and you very probably should. You might even find you enjoy it. 

Of course, I'm not really thinking of you. Oh no, my reasons for promoting the NBI are entirely selfish. Last year's crop produced two blogs that became personal favorites of mine, blogs I've read throughout the year and which have given me great pleasure, plenty to think about and a lot of laughs. I'm hoping this year brings at least a couple more blogs as good as Why I Game and That Was An Accident!

You could be working on one of them right now. What's stopping you?

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Longstop Kicks The Bucket : FFXIV:ARR

Brayflox's Longstop is behind me at last. Getting there kicked up a good deal of debate and analysis in our linkshell, in various struggling groups and downstairs in our kitchen while making tea. The dungeon itself and its place in the overall narrative seem to me to exemplify a number of FFXIV's strengths and weaknesses, aspects of gameplay that I can only imagine will become more pronounced the further we progress both in levels and in the lifetime of the game.

The peculiar architectonics, wherein travel along a central narrative highway is both mandated yet perpetually interrupted, have already been covered here quite extensively. It's not an unfamiliar approach in MMO design but I can't recall any time I've ever seen it employed this zealously and intrusively.

Accepting, like it or not, that this is the framework within which we have no choice but to operate, we come to the flaws in the structure itself. Some of these appear to derive from the way the Duty Finder operates and some from the underlying rules about dungeon play.

Brace! Brace!
Dungeons in FFXIV are instanced and require a group of four to enter. Each dungeon has a level cap. It doesn't prevent higher level characters from entering but they will be down-leveled to the dungeon cap with any skills or abilities above that becoming unusable.

Entry to all dungeons is via the Duty Finder, at least as far as I can tell. Information in-game is non-existent and sources out-of-game are contradictory. You can pre-make your party but you still have to use the DF to gain access. I've seen it claimed that by pre-making a party you can avoid the DF's insistence on Tank/Healer/Two DPS. Even if that's the case, you still must have your full tally of four people.

Certain dungeons are added to your Duty Finder only when you reach a specific point in the main storyline. Whether there's another way to enter those I don't know. I somewhat doubt it. The intention seems to be that all dungeon access should be channeled through the Duty Finder, probably because FFXIV's server capacity for instances is limited. There are a lot of complaints about this at high level.

I am Dragon, hear me roar.
The Duty Finder, of course, is FFXIV's take on the Dungeon Finder first introduced to the genre by WoW and quickly adopted as standard by most MMOs. GW2, which took the brave decision of launching without one, is in the process of trialling its own version right now. They are notoriously awkward and unforgiving devices and this one is no exception.

Enough with the exposition already! On with the anecdotes.

Brayflox's Longstop is a beautifully designed hidden valley in which an adorable tribe of goblins has made its home. You arrive there in search of cheese (yes, really) only to find the poor goblins quivering in fear at the invasion of their peacefully valley by a bunch of scaly bullies. Oh, those pesky dragons!

There are four main battles, all with reptiles or amphibians: a Pelican (yes, I know. Trust me, it's a lizard), a Drake, an Eft and a Dragon. The first three are straightforward enough. The Dragon is a right old pain. IGN has a good, succinct rundown on the mechanics if anyone's interested.

Oh, you all look very determined now.
It took me several days and about a dozen attempts to get a party via the DF that was capable of killing that dragon. There's an option to join a party in progress, which I always check, and about 50% of the time I arrived with the whole dungeon bar the Dragon already cleared, as a replacement for someone who'd bailed as the party repeatedly wiped on the final battle. If only one DPS had bailed to let me in then on we'd go, inevitably to another failure because swapping in a new DPS is hardly likely to make much difference unless the new DPS is of the super-uber-awesome variety, which clearly I am not.

If, as occurred more than once, either the Healer or the Tank had left too, we'd all stand around twiddling our thumbs and whistling for a while just to appear sociable. Occasionally a Healer might pop in, take a look around, see there was no Tank and vanish. I never saw a Tank arrive to join a party in progress and the general feeling is, why would they bother? Soon enough someone would decide they'd counted off the requisite seconds to pass as adequately socialized, make a brief comment and leave. Anyone else left would follow, pronto. 

This pattern also occurred a couple of times at the start of the dungeon, where the original four members had been unable to defeat even the Pelican, who is the very first thing you have to get past even to get inside. When this happened I made my excuses very quickly and left, which turned embarrassing when the DF put me straight back into the same party after I re-queued. From that I learned to go and make a coffee between attempts.

Are you by any chance related to Tequatl? .
Only once did I join a party mid-dungeon, and it was one of the most enjoyable, if unproductive, runs I had. The Tank and one DPS had left. I didn't ask why but from what ensued I can only imagine whatever had happened had been their "fault", because the Scholar and Thaumaturge were both highly competent and pleasant company. They were also as aware as I was that we wouldn't be getting a Tank, but the Scholar suggested carrying on using my pet instead, not to finish the dungeon but at least to get some loot.

I dismissed Eggy the Ifrit and called up Carby the Squirrel-Bunny and off we went. We downed the Drake with Carby tanking like a good 'un. A nice upgrade belt dropped, on which I lost the roll. Then we cleared all the mobs on the way to two more chests in side rooms before moving on to the Hellbender fight. On the way the Thaumaturge managed to keep up to four mobs mezzed simultaneously in a bravura display of old-school crowd control. I complimented him on his mezzing and he replied "I don't know what that is, lol". I felt old.

We eventually wiped after a spirited attempt on the Hellbender. The timer was too far gone for another try (all dungeons have a 90 minute kick-out) so we thanked each other for a good group and went our seperate ways. It was the most fun I had in Brayflox and exemplifies two things that I most dislike about the dungeon system in FFXIV: you should be able to go in with any number or kind of classes from solo up to four and there should not be a timer. Other MMOs with instanced dungeons and automated finders still permit you to go your own way at your own pace if you wish and so should this one.

The Intrepid Three. Plus Carby. And a Faery. Alright, The Fearless Five!
In all my dozen or so attempts, only once did I see the entire dungeon from start to finish. It took about 45 passably entertaining minutes to get to the Dragon and another 45 distinctly unentertaining ones to fail to kill him. The sense of an hour and a half wasted was palpable. That's another problem. It's bad enough having the roadblocks in the narrative to begin with, but when each attempt requires first a queue that could last anything from a few seconds to the best part of an hour, followed by three-quarters of an hour clearing to get to the fight you couldn't do the last time, which you now get to attempt for another half an hour until someone cracks and quits, well that's not my idea of time well-spent.

It's true that some of this could be avoided, or at least mitigated, by joining a good Free Company, FFXIV's name for Guilds. Good FC's, like good guilds in any game, aren't as easy to find as all that, however, and the way the Duty Finder has been implemented suggests strongly that Square aren't expecting most of this content to be done in guild groups but in PUGs.

Eventually I did end up in a Party capable, just about, of downing the Dragon. I joined at the final fight and stood outside the purple line watching as the other three wiped. All boss fights in FFXIV dungeons put up a barrier fifteen seconds into the fight. I once managed to be on the inside with my pet locked outside. Presumably the intention is to prevent attritional bind-rushing tactics. GW2 added something similar to its dungeons a while back. Games developers tend to be intolerant of player workarounds for content that's "supposed" to be done in a certain way.

There's always time to explore.
The three of them did pretty well so I was optimistic of our chances with four and indeed we might have succeeded on the first full-party try had the Tank been able to speak, or read, English. He was a good tank. He knew the correct tactic (spin the dragon on its axis, interrupt its breath attack) and what's more he was capable of executing it efficiently. Unfortunately he also liked to use the Limit Break.

The Limit Break is an odd duck. As the Party fights a bar in the top left corner of the screen fills up. Two bars in fact. At any time any member of the party can trigger this "Limit Break" to devastating effect, an effect which differs depending on who unleashes it. For melee DPS it's single-target damage, ranged DPS sets off a large AE, Healers some kind of group heal and Tanks a big defence buff.

Since we were fine on the healing and not dying front, and there was just the one Dragon to kill, clearly use the Limit Break belonged to the cat kicking the lizard in the ribs. Only, the Tank would keep using it. We wiped, then wiped again. In both cases we would probably have won with a full direct-damage LB.

We asked the Tank nicely. We asked him with authority. He was doing a great job otherwise so we certainly didn't want to upset him. The only result was that next time he used it earlier. I'm guessing "Limit Break" and his name were the only words we were typing that he understood so he figured we must be telling him to use it and since he already was, well we must just mean use it faster.

We crossed the line. No going back now.
Finally the melee used it at half strength. before the Tank could get his hands on it and we got the job done. It was satisfying, but mostly in that "at least I never have to do that again" kind of way. Except, of course, I will, just with the scenery and the name of the mob changed. And the names of the countless players with whom I will try and fail and will never meet again.

Even now, with the game both new and highly populated, this particular dungeon is hardly fizzing with activity. Soon enough it will be difficult to find Parties through the DF willing to attempt it at all, let alone ones capable of succeeding. Apparently Yoshi-P has plans for dealing with that when it happens. That will be very welcome but I think some different design decisions could have made for a much more enjoyable experience right from the start.
  • Make the Storyline functionally optional
  • Add dungeons to the Duty Finder according to character level not Story.
  • Allow direct entry into dungeons without use of the Duty Finder.
  • Allow free composition of parties by class.
  • Allow solo, duo and trio access.
  • Allow the use of Companions
  • Remove the kick-out timer.
Those I would see as essential. I would personally also like to see the Level Cap become a Recommended Level. These are instances. If you want to farm a level 20 dungeon on your level 50, as you can in most other MMOs, that should be your choice. You're not getting in anyone's way.

Enough with the gratitude. Make with the cheese!
It would also allow for anti-social players to progress the storyline by overlevelling. It's not the business of game developers to socialize their customers, at least not beyond the basics covered by the EULA and its codes of behavior. If people want to keep themselves to themselves and it's possible to facilitate them without inconveniencing others that has to be a desirable outcome. After all, who wants to be grouped with people who don't want to group?

And finally, I would put a cap on failure for story quests. A Three Strikes Rule. Demonstrate your incompetence three times and you should get a pop-up asking you if you want to skip this stage. All games that purport to be telling a story as one of their primary attractions should have a "turn the page" mode that prevents roadblocks.

If that makes it less of a game and more of an Interactive Entertainment, well, I'm fine with that.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Through The Keyhole - A Peek At FFXIV's Housing

Thanks to xyzzysqrl of The Forbidden Codex of the Pink Beyond for the tip. I hadn't seen this video of the upcoming housing system before so I thought I'd steal it and take all the credit pass it on.

The outside views are familiar from beta  and my earlier post  (apart from the winking windows) but this is the first look at the interiors that I've come across. Looks very tasteful, for a given value of taste.

I also read somewhere, in a report on some panel or other at some Tokyo Game Fair (look, this is not a news site and I'm not a journalist, okay?) that the update will include all three cities' housing areas, not just La Noscea. Oh, alright then I just googled it and it was the Tokyo Game Show, which also seems to be where the video comes from. This journalism thing's easier than I thought!

Now you know as much as I do, which isn't saying very much.

The One That Got Away : GW2, FFXIV:ARR

After a hard day's dragon-slaying there's nothing relaxes an adventuring sort like a spot of fishing.

Well, I say "dragon-slaying". In my own case, of course, I mean "dragon-fighting". No actual dragons died, especially not that one that's dead already yet manages to look so exceptionally well on it.

The Battle for Sparkfly Fen raged all weekend on Yak's Bend, fitfully and feebly the first few times when most of the server was asleep, then with increasing vigor and determination as the day wore on. I went so far as to join the Mumble channel, named with grim irony "Tequatl the Funless", to take direction and it was quite a revelation to hear the calm and orderly way in which teams were organized and orders issued.

Each attempt improved on the previous run. We whittled Tequatl from 75% to 50% and there seemed a good chance that if we just kept coming back every ninety minutes we might eventually drive the overgrown gecko back beneath the waves and reap the rewards we so richly deserved.

Sir! Yes, I do have prior experience on turrets, Sir!

Maybe we did. I wouldn't know. By late-evening in my time zone Yak's Bend was spinning up Overflows a good half-hour before the start of the window of opportunity, itself half an hour long. I managed to grab an invite via Mumble to escape overflow once but after that even the Overflows were supposedly spitting out Overflows of their own and there was no chance of getting back to The Yak.

The whole thing has been enormously instructive for me. I spent some lengthy periods just standing around in Sparkfly Fen, waiting. One time I was there for a full hour doing absolutely nothing before the show started. I enjoyed that time every bit as much as an hour spent fighting things, questing or crafting. Even before I joined Mumble, map chat kept me entertained and with the background chatter added it really did have that buzz of being part of the crowd at a sporting event or a festival.

Odd, unfamiliar thoughts began to drift through my mind, like "is this what people get out of raiding?" and "it's really quite relaxing to be told what to do, where to stand, what buffs to cast, what food to eat". Individualism's all very well but there's something to be said for just following orders.

Water sprites. They're more scared of you than you are of them. Just keep telling yourself that.

Still, it's good to have something to do with your hands while your waiting. Not being much of a one for jumping repeatedly on the spot (always a popular pastime in every MMO I've ever played, or at least those with a Jump key) I wish GW2 would discover fishing.

All MMOs should have fishing. Most of them do, or at least most of the ones I've spent any significant time in, not that I'm saying there's any causal relationship there. Fishing in MMOs isn't always just about the fish, of course. Many an impoverished Norrathian got his start on the adventuring ladder by fishing up and selling rusty daggers at two silver a shot and in Vanguard it was faster for crafters to fish Silver Masterwork Seals out of the sea than to, y'know, craft for them.

A Charr could wear that hat. Just sayin'.
In FFXIV, fishing is mostly about the fish. Probably. I'm only a level 12 Fisher so what do I know? I can say, however, that I'm not catching any rusty daggers, old boots, treasure chests or discarded furniture. Just fish.

Fisher is one of the Disciples of the Land, the gathering professions, and there are probably some cross-class, interdisciplinary synergies of which I am unaware since I haven't yet taken any of the other options. I just fish. There's a Fishing Log, which I have neglected even more than I've neglected the various Hunting Logs on my adventure classes. There are Fishing Leves, which I haven't done and Fishing Class Quests, which I have. Because, Straw Hat!

The fish caught can be cooked, of course. Maybe one day, when I get round to crafting I'll learn how to braise a haddock. For now I just hand them all to my trusty retainer for safekeeping. I hope she has a refrigerated compartment in those packs. And that she can keep her greedy Miqo'te paws out of it.

For the while fishing is its own reward. It's very pleasant to stand on a high platform in Limsa Lominsa and cast out into the sea far below or to ride my chocobo out Aleport and stand on the dock looking out across the shimmering water, waiting for the herring to bite.

If I could only stand between the reeking, plosive fish-heads on the wide, flat, sands of Sparkfly casting my bait out into those shark-infested, dragon-haunted waters, how sweetly the waiting hours might pass. And who knows what horrors I might hook?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Going On A Bear Hunt : GW2, FFXIV

Yak's Bend has downed Tequatl, which I know from reading the internet, not from being there when it happened. As more servers get their first kill, a certain amount of debate seems to be taking place around tactics, organization and competence. The wiki now boasts a very detailed walkthrough.

On a positive note, this event offers more strong evidence that server cultures are real and do matter. The OP in this thread exemplifies the degree to which a player's experience of an MMO can be defined by the server on which they chose to roll. As a very strong believer in multiple servers for MMOs I see this as immensely positive. I dread the day when megaserver technology allows MMOs to present themselves as bland, uniform, benevolently totalitarian paradises, crushing local idiom and practice with the oppressive, monolithic boot of efficiency.

On the other hand, there's the whole Guesting thing going on, complicated still more by the appearance of mercenary guilds offering their services to come show your feeble server how to Do It Properly. The fluidity of movement between servers plus the existence of unnamed, temporary Overflows, on some of which Tequatl has also been downed, blurs the lines more than somewhat.

It does seem that ANet are on to something here, even if the motivations behind all this activity are curious and unclear. In the mysterious, veiled world of MMO population figures anecdotal evidence acquires an unhealthy prominence but the near-constant generation of overflows throughout the Scarlet invasions and now for Tequatl Rising would seem to indicate that massive events generate massive interest. The exact nature of that interest is another matter.

Tequatl looks a bit dull, all those muted greens. Megadestroyer takes a much better picture.

There are the rewards, which include several things calculated to drive certain player personalities into a frenzy - mini pets, a title, new dyes. There are practical upgrades to gear - rare underwater breathers and ascended weapons. Then there's the more nebulous satisfaction of beating the Big Bad, both personally (if being a face in the crowd counts as personal) and collectively as a representative of your server. Lastly there's the fun of it all.

Playing FFXIV last night we fell into a discussion of the Brayflox's Longstop dungeon, Black Mages and pointy hats. I'd been grouped with a mage wearing a conical hat that reminded me strongly of Zippy the Pinhead (who, it turns out, doesn't wear a pointed hat at all - so much for memory), which in turn brought to mind Zippy's eternally unanswered and unanswerable question "Are we having fun yet?".

It strikes me that "Are we having fun yet?" would be the best possible name for an MMO guild. Or possibly for an MMO. I'm sure I don't know whether I am most of the time and from the comments and conversations around me I'm not sure how many other people know when fun's being had or even what having fun would feel like if they were to have it.

Brayflox's Longstop is aptly named. It's stopped both Mrs Bhagpuss and I dead in our tracks as far as the main storyline of FFXIV is concerned. It's not that its necessarily particularly difficult. It just has to be done if we want to see what happens next. How essential seeing what happens next is to continuing to play FFXIV is unclear at this stage.

Goblin village. Wasted in a dungeon.

S. Tolga Kirtiloglu posted a very handy list in the comments on an earlier post here of things one cannot do in FFXIV if one avoids the main storyline. The list and my own experience with it both stop around level thirty. Whether other aspects of gameplay and character development are gated beyond that I'm not sure. I can't immediately think of any that might be, other than access to some specific dungeons via the Duty Finder. I imagine that now I have gotten as far as Brayflox I could probably opt out of the storyline altogether and still progress at least as well as I progress in most MMOs.

Unlike deciding to drop the Personal Story in GW2, something I did almost from the beginning without a qualm or a second thought, dropping out of the main storyline in FFXIV doesn't sit comfortably. It will niggle at the back of the mind, something that should have been done but wasn't. It will fester. The corollary to which is that this particular dungeon now becomes something I have to do in order to go on playing the game with equanimity and satisfaction.

I have a very, very strong dislike of mechanics in MMOs that dictate my gameplay. Suggestion is fine. Encouragement is fine. Even bribery is fine. Telling me what to do is not fine, not at all. Revamping the Tequatl battle from an event I really liked to an event I'm not all that interested in might be a little irritating, but it doesn't tell me what to do with my time when I log in. It may change my options, but options they remain.

Everything's dead, time to explore.
MMOs are all grey areas when it comes to compulsion. The code can prevent activity but it can't control attitude. If you wanted to solo in Everquest you could. Just because everyone else raided didn't mean you had to join them. I'm sure there are players playing FFXIV and The Secret World right now who haven't read a word of the storyline or watched any of the cutscenes. There are probably characters being played every day who've never left their starting cities. "Play the game, don't let the game play you" is a very sound motto to have. It's been in my motto quiver for many years. Still, some roadblocks are easier to bypass than others.

There's every chance that in a day or three Brayflox and his annoying Longstop will be behind me. I will resent it, though. It will leave a taste and not a sweet one. Others felt the same about the sudden switch to a dungeon for the required Zhaitan fight to complete the Personal Story in GW2. Tequatl, assuming he's intended to stay as he is now, something I'm still not clear on, simply risks becoming a tick on a list of things I don't do. A neutral state. The difference is hard to define but unmistakeable when encountered.

On such design decisions player retention hangs.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

No More WAR

The only surprise in yesterday's announcement that Warhammer Online is to close on December 18th was that Mythic was willing to wait so long. The game has been on life-support for months (some might argue years) but tying the closure to the expiry of the licensing agreement with Games Workshop allows for a degree of face-saving on both sides. It didn't fail, it just...stopped.

I liked WAR. I came to only after it had been out for several years, at a time when Mrs Bhagpuss and I were in something of an MMO rut and were trying out a whole lot of games we'd previously ruled out (WoW) or barely noticed (Wizard 101). We played WAR for a couple of months or so, getting only as far as the thirties but having a tolerably good time, mostly in scenarios. We came back for another run when they added the "free to level 10" option and had much fun skirmishing for a few weeks before we drifted away once more, this time never to return.

Despite being totally immersed in MMOs as a hobby from long before the announcement of WAR right the way through it's development and on to its upcoming demise, I completely missed the hype train. At the time it all happened I was utterly unaware of the explosion in MMO blogging it brought, I'd never heard of Paul Barnet or his triple-threat bears and I had no expectations of the game or investment in the IP.

Coming to MMOs at the beginning of my forties, I was too old by decades to have had the seminal early-teens bonding experience so many had with Games Workshop's creation. My only brush with it was when I bought the original fat volume of the Tabletop RPG rules and GM'd the campaign that came with it. That was a fun couple of months and it made enough impact for me to take notice when the MMO was announced but I was busy with EQ, EQ2 and Vanguard. Moreover, the knowledge that Mythic, who'd made DAOC, a game I never really took to, were developing it did nothing to add to my curiosity.

It would, therefore, be going too far to say I'll miss it but I have fond memories of my squig-herding days. The scenarios were reliably entertaining, the PvE underrated, the world was immensely detailed and explorable (although that huge potential was shamefully under-exploited), the classes were intriguing and played very differently. There was a lot to like about WAR. It just never had a hope of matching the overblown claims of its developers or meeting the over-inflated expectations of its fans.

I wonder how many ex-players will even get around to patching up for one last look around before the sun goes down?

*Image borrowed from the internet because although I took plenty of screenies in the day I have no idea what happened to them. All rights belong to the rights-holder. If that's you and you'd like it removed, please let me know.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

You're Not The Boss Of Me! : GW2

On paper, my take on Tequatl Rising, the latest of GW2's inexorable biweekly updates, ought to be diametrically opposed to Jeromai's. That was certainly the case for the preceding two week's worth of 8-bit hell that he both completed and chronicled so exhaustively but which I scrupulously avoided to the point not just of skipping The Box itself but of not logging in to the game at all for the entire two week period during which it was the starring attraction.

The current offering eschews casio tonalities and kindergarten color schemes, offering instead a whopping great "evolved" dragon and a difficulty pass for all his Bossy pals; not just his dragon buddies Shatner and The Claw but all the rest of the Pinata Gang from the Fire Elemental to Megadestroyer. These bosses have been favored content of mine since the first of the various loot passes turned them from sideshows to main events, so having a whole update complete with Achievements and Dailies based around them would appear to be right up my street.

Well, you'd think so, but there's a catch. The one carry-over from Super Adventure Box seems to be the idea that if players like to do something they'll like to do it even more if they have to do it while someone sprays them with a fire hose and throws stones at their head.

Being in no particular way unhappy or discontent with the difficulty level we've had for the last few months, I was not clamoring for the Tequatl fight, nor any of these fights, to be made harder. I was not bored with them. I found them relaxing and fun. Believe it or not, I didn't do a few of them every day because I wanted the loot but because I knew if I went to The Frozen Maw or Jungle Wurm I'd be guaranteed a good time.

Last night I logged into GW2 for the first time since I got seriously stuck into FFXIV. My Necromancer virtually lives either in Sparkfly Fen or Mount Maelstrom so she got the call. She found herself in a vile green mist. Taking stock of her somewhat unfamiliar surroundings she noticed the inelegant addition of dozens of four-foot tall rotting fish-heads sticking out of the sand and being an Asura she began immediately to investigate.

After a kind bystander revived her, then revived her once more after the fish-head respawned and one-shotted her again just as she was thanking him for reviving her the first time, she took up a judicious observing role on a nearby podium until the traditional Hylek call of "Therrre's somethning in the waterrr!" announced the arrival of the star of the show.

A lengthy and quite enjoyable battle ensued, during which she adopted the traditional Necromancer role of area denial, keeping wave after wave of Krait and sundry undead from overwhelming the cannons, so long ignored but which now perform a vital, nay essential task. Lose the canons and you've had it, basically.

That went well enough, although it was already beginning to wear out its welcome by the time a clangorous sound announced the charging of no fewer than four Asuran megalasers. The Dynamic Event teleprompter warned that to lose even a single laser would spell disaster, which was exactly what happened not much more than a minute or two later when the first one fell to the mindless hordes of undead that had appeared out of nowhere (or possibly the sea).

Tequatl kicked up a vast tsunami and sent it rolling across the beach, leaving every player quite literally dead in the water, along with the event itself. Someone must have hung back because the revives began, along with the post-mortem. Guests from other servers said we'd done well to get the dragon to somewhere around two-thirds health, or maybe it was eighty percent. Hard to count when you're fighting for your life in two feet of filthy water, especially when you're only four feet tall. It was deemed "a good try", anyway. Apparently the best any server had managed at the time was half-way.

On a single exposure my feeling was "that was quite amusing but once is probably enough". From the comments in map chat that was an opinion shared by many, although sometimes without the "that was quite amusing" part. I'm not sure if this version of Tequatl is a one-week only performance, after which he will revert to something closer to his former punchbag persona, but if by any chance it does turn out to stay this way then I'd say the chances of gathering the required 80+ people to give him anything like a run for his money will be slim.

Next I checked the timer at Dragon Temple and saw that Claw of Jormag was due soon so I moved one of my rangers over to meet him. Most of the server seemed to have had the same idea and Jormag, as we know he isn't but everyone calls him anyway, flew in to face probably the greatest force ever raised against him, at least on Yak's Bend.

As well as giving all the Bosses (I hate that term with a passion but this is officially Boss Week so let's go with it) extra hit points and a fix for all the various bugs that have pretty much neutered some of them since launch (Hi, Golem!) a timer has been added to all of the events. A pretty generous timer in most cases, it has to be said, although I'd back Gamarien any day to ponder and muse his way through the full fifteen minutes he's been given to finish his hunt the for Great Jungle Wurm before he ever even gets to see the thing.

Claw of Jormag gets half an hour, which is not far off what it often takes. Or took. To my immense surprise, this fight seemed to have been made much easier. Firstly most of the leftover mobs now despawn when the ice wall goes down. Secondly the walls themselves seem to melt like, well like ice in a fire. Lastly, and most importantly, the golems no longer collapse into scrap metal at the slightest brush against an ice pillar. Oh, and his wings no longer fall off, which is nice, for him at least. Whether it was these changes or the sheer number of players present, far from needing thirty minutes we were done in less than half of that.

My last Boss of the evening was the Inquest Golem MkII. As Jeromai points out, this "World Boss" used to be soloable. My necro soloed him once, or would have had some johnny-come-lately not turned up when she had him at 5%, reducing her Great Achievement to a mere duo kill. Won't be doing that again. All the various AEs he always did but which everyone used to ignore now hit like freight trains. We still killed him, though, even though half the zerg jumped ship when someone popped into the zone and yelled that Teq was back.

My feelings on the whole affair are largely this: making these events harder does not make them any more entertaining. Ninety-nine percent of the people doing them are only doing them to get the loot and if the loot is deemed good enough they will jump through as many hoops as you care to put up, but that does not mean they like jumping through hoops, it just means they like loot.

While there are also achievements and it's flavor-of-the-fortnight it won't be hard to hold a critical mass to get results but I'll be interested to see how many people are bothering to do these Bosses by October, especially if Champions still dole out the same or better rewards for a fraction of the effort.

I'm very curious to try out all of my other old favorites to see how they've fared. Teq wasn't terrible although he's clearly not going to be handing out his miniatures any time soon unless and until the nerf everyone seems to be expecting arrives. Jormag was, arguably, improved. Golem I preferred when he just span round and round and let us dis-assemble him at our leisure but maybe that's just me.

In general, though, no matter how much players complain that bosses are too easy, I remain to be convinced that a majority of the players likely actually to go and do that content on anything like a regular basis really want things to be hard enough for the outcome to be in any way in doubt. Zergs like to swarm over things and tear them apart at no risk. That's what zergs do. And, for better or for worse, GW2 has built much of its positive reputation on providing that sort of gameplay to the large crowd that wants it.

Which talk of zergs brings me neatly to the changes to WvW. Seen 'em. Gimmicky. Don't like 'em. I think that's probably as much discussion as they require.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The River Flows One Way : FFXIV:ARR

For all that I'm thoroughly enjoying playing FFXIV, I'm not at all sure how long it can go on. I've done my best not to read ahead, research or inquire too deeply into what happens at the upper levels, nor to investigate what might constitute the endgame but all the same, information drifts in and impressions build up, creating a vague, foggy picture of the months and years to come, a picture into which neither I nor my characters easily seem to fit.

At the moment we're all playing on our "free" month or our legacy days, extended as a goodwill gesture to compensate for the rocky start. Soon enough, though, everyone playing will have to decide, firstly whether they want to begin paying for the service at all and secondly, if so how much?

Sun comes up, it's another day.

There are two choices. When you look at the matrix it looks like more, but all but one of the variations relate only to how much you pay, not what you get for your money. The two substantive options are
  • Entry - One character per world to a maximum of eight characters across eight worlds.
  • Standard - Eight characters per world to a maximum of forty characters across up to forty worlds.
The naming of these Subscription levels is interesting in itself, suggesting that the normative way in which players are expected to behave, the "standard", will involve multiple characters and potentially a lot of them. Single character play would seem to be the province of the novice or the undecided. No other incentive to upgrade is offered, so presumably if the Entry level player ever graduates to Standard it can only be because they want more than one character on one of their eight permitted servers.

I'm sure this is where he said he'd meet me.

Which is strange, because the mechanics of the game would seem to be more than simply unsupportive of the playing of multiple characters, indeed positively inimical to it. It's not just that a single character can accumulate every single class, adventuring, crafting and gathering all, to the maximum level. Nor is it only that there are mechanisms within the game that make chopping and changing between these classes simple and effective. Nor yet is it even that there are powerful synergies available for multi-classed characters.

No, those are just the very considerable positive re-inforcements that make single character play by far the most attractive and practical option. There's also an equally powerful negative re-inforcement against playing more than one character, namely that significant elements of gameplay are gated behind the Main Storyline and playing through that narrative is extremely time-consuming, even if you don't mind watching the same movie over and over again.

Sixth time's the charm.

I listed some of the obstacles, somewhat inaccurately, here in the "Storyline" entry. As I discovered only last night, getting your Chocobo to fight alongside you is not dependent on the storyline (although having the Chocobo to begin with is) and you can get to and from La Noscea by ferry, which, unlike the Airship, is independent of the narrative. On the other hand, I omitted to mention that only by completing certain stages of the storyline can you add some of the dungeons to your Duty Finder.

Whatever the exact details, the substantive fact is that to have access to a number of important facilities and activities within the game each of your characters must complete various stages of the main plot. It's a very good story, but it takes a long time to play out, there are many, many cut-scenes and many obligatory fights and set-pieces. You might be ready to go through it again a year or two from now, but if you're the kind of player who tends to have half a dozen characters as works-in-progress by the end of the free month (guilty as charged) it's more than just a daunting prospect, it's more like a brick wall.

Tell me about it!

The structure of the game having undermined one of the foundations of my habitual playstyle, what's left to encourage me to continue once my single character reaches the cap in all the classes that interest her?

Completion of the storyline, perhaps, although if as I suspect the tasks required to pursue the narrative eventually spiral out of reach of my ability to complete them then any closure may well have to come via YouTube.

Exploring the world and what it has to offer is a powerful motivator to continue, of course, but eventually I'll have been everywhere, seen everything and have more screenshots than I'll ever need.

Without an army of characters to level up, sooner or later the Endgame will loom, dark and foreboding, filled with all the grim, joyless finality its name portends. I don't really do endgame. Repeated runs through dungeons to get gear with incrementally increased stats in order to make repeated runs through the same dungeons at a harder setting to get incrementally better gear to go on repeated raids to get incrementally better gear to go on harder's the worm eating its own tail forever and much though I dig repetition this is not the repetition I dig.

Two Topaz Carbuncles. Winning ugly.

Prospects for a run in FFXIV to match the uninterrupted twelve months I spent in GW2, for example, seem bleak. I won't be having nine characters at level cap in FFXIV any time soon.

It's not all doom and gloom though. Leveling up multiple classes on one character may not be as much fun as leveling up single classes on multiple characters but it is still fun. A lot of fun, as these things go. And leveling is distinctly on the slow side by modern MMO standards so it's going to take awhile, easily long enough to bridge to the first major update due, I believe, end of November/beginning of December, an update which brings both the first taste of PvP and, more importantly, housing, both of which offer the potential of open-ended content.

That's all in the future but for now there's more than enough to keep me occupied, plenty of new places to discover, sights to see and experiences to savor. And despite all the logic of the above I'll almost certainly go for the Standard Monthly sub with the extra character slots. Being contractually tied to a single character would be claustrophobic and anyway I'm pretty sure in time I'll think of something amusing for a few more characters to do that doesn't involve grinding through the narrative all over again.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Another World or Questing In Eorzea : FFXIV:ARR

A while back Syl posted a thoughtful and timely piece on how the MMO wheel turns, how content and mechanics that once were popular become stale, drifting out of use for a while only to reappear in due time and to great acclaim as something fresh and new. Hardly surprising, perhaps, since the same process happens in just about every aspect of our lives.

Bitter Vet Syndrome.

A few days later J3w3l noted that having the complete, undirected freedom of the sandbox isn't the universal good it's sometimes claimed to be, even for its advocates and some kind of guidance on where to go and what to do next is needed to bring the possibilities into focus.

Opening for Morale Officer at The Silver Bazaar. Must be indefatigably perky.

The apparent popularity of the revamped FFXIV has taken many by surprise, not least Square Enix themselves. The Nosy Gamer comments on his most recent Digital Dozen report, in which FFXIV pushes GW2 down to third, seizing the second place ArenaNet's creation has occupied consistently since launch "That level of interest is unsustainable (I think) so I'm interested to see what the numbers look like on 6 October when the free month expires for those who purchased the game at or before launch." Me too, especially after it was pointed out last night that the Goblin server, on which I play and which had been re-opened, is once again closed to new characters, with short queues popping in prime-time even after Square added a 30 minute afk kick.

FFXIV is often referred to as an "old school" MMO. It's a fair description, if only in comparison to recent entrants to the genre. Most of the major and not-so-major Western launches of the last couple of years - TERA, Neverwinter, GW2, Planetside2, Defiance, Dragon's Prophet - have relied on fast-paced, action-led gameplay. In a period when, arguably, The Secret World represents the nearest thing to a traditional MMO on offer, FFXIV really does fly the flag for the familiar and comfortable feel of level-based, quest-driven progression towards a Trinity-centred, dungeon/raid-based gear-grind endgame.

And some form of depressive illness, unless I miss my mark.

Everything we all said we never wanted to see again, in other words. Apparently we lied. Or were mistaken. Or something. Maybe quality just will out, because other than the log-in and launch infrastructure issues caused by its unexpected popularity, as a game FFXIV arrived in an eminently polished, finished, content-rich, bug-free state. Perhaps it is all about the polish in the end.

Quality and polish aside, though, go back a year or three and I was one of those people who thought we'd seen enough static content in general and very particularly enough of those quest hubs where NPCs hang out wearing punctuation for a hat. The taste of dynamic content in Rift was sweet for a while and even when it cloyed it left a taste for more. Freeforming in GW2 lasted well and still holds its flavor. EQNext remains the outstanding object of my desires. Given that I also have no interest in gear-grinding, repeated dungeon-running, raiding or endgames in general, I would say my interest in new forms for the genre remains as far from being over as it is from being satisfied.

In which we learn that the recruitment process for the Yellowcoats is not as rigorous as it could be.

So why am I playing so much FFXIV and enjoying it so much?

Well, there's the wonderful way it looks, of course, already so heavily documented here and in the hundreds upon hundreds of screenshots taken. There's the opportunity to explore a fantastic and fantastical world with, as Lani so accurately put it in the comments, "the minimum of Achievement B$". There are the involving and interweaving classes, the intriguing races, both playable and otherwise, the whimsy and the lore, all covered here at least in passing. There's the excellent narrative, of which once again, given my previously expressed distrust even of the concept as it applies in MMOs, let alone as a core game mechanic, my wholehearted endorsement could be construed at best as ironic, at worst hypocritical.

Are you sure you don't need your glasses, S'nairoh?

Then there are the quests. Ah yes, the quests. Now we get to the heart of it. In the post linked above Syl took particular exception to these and she's not alone, not nearly. Keen, as I mentioned elsewhere, loathes them. J3w3l despises them. I bloody love 'em!

Are they anything new? No, they are not. All your old favorites - kill these, carry this, get me that, guard me here, take him there. The mechanics matter exactly as much and as little as the condition of your seat in the cinema; comfortable enough not to distract is all that's required. In MMOs I come to quests primarily to learn about the lives of the people who really live there, the full-timers, the NPCs. If running errands for them opens the door to their lives as they're lived when I'm not around, even a little, then it's a very small price to pay. 

Everquest, contrary to its name, famously wasn't about questing, yet it was as shot through with quests as the gold threads in a lounge-singer's tux. You could talk to any NPC and they'd talk back and if you could hit on just the right tone maybe you'd be asked a favor that would let you see a sliver of his life. Coming from a background of text adventures in the 1980s it all seemed entirely natural to me.

The Miqo'te? Oh, that's where she went! We thought she was lost!
(Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?)

Then along came WoW. Quests stepped out of the backstreets and bars to take up their positions in the squares and crossroads of Azeroth. Like prophets foretelling the end-times the new breed of questgivers held their placards high, demanding attention. That's how it stayed until the dynamic wave, now seemingly receding, washed them all away, replacing them with a world wherein work was handed out with a nod and a wink or a tug at the shoulder and quests became something that happened to you, not by your agency.

The first step is admitting you have a problem.

Which is all fine and dandy and well and good and long may it continue, but just because we invented television doesn't mean there's no more use for the radio, or, more appositely, for books. I like reading, a peccadillo that extends even to the text in computer games. Well-written prose is well-written prose wherever you find it and when I find it I appreciate it.

The Secret World stands as the high-water mark of MMO prosody thus far. FFXIV quest text
can't match those standards. It is, however, sufficiently deft and mellifluous to merit close reading for pleasure. It's quirky, nimble, amusing and occasionally poignant. It's also remarkably consistent in tone and style, as though the entirety of the quest codex was compiled by a single individual, clearly one steeped in both the traditions and tropes of the genre and, somewhat unpredictably, possessed of a sound working knowledge of British vernacular and dialect speech.

Says a lot about the goblin mind. Such as it is.

Is it worth playing FFXIV just to read the quests, the way it certainly is worth playing TSW to watch and listen to the cutscenes? No, they aren't that good. If you're already playing FFXIV, though, do the quests, the optional, side quests, not the obligatory class and main storyline narratives, add enormously to the pleasure and depth of the experience? I contend that they do.

Put aside the knowledge that yet again you're setting out to kill an arbitrary number of irrelevant creatures. Ignore the inevitable suspicion that having done so you'll be sent straight back to pick up something you passed on the first trip. Think instead about what it means to the notional person who sent you on this errand, how he expressed his needs to you and how your actions will, or won't, change his life.

If you let them, these vignettes will open windows into another world.

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