Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Next Stop Kessex Hills. All Change Here! : GW2

Another fortnight, another Living Story. Ho hum. Or maybe not...

For what might be the first time since launch, certainly the first time I can recall off the top of my head, there's been a full-scale change to one of the regular overland zones. We saw the addition of new NPCs and add-on instances in Wayfarers Foothills and Diessa Plateau way back in the opening chapters, several zones still encounter regular disruption from Scarlet's invading hordes and the new, improved Tequatl casts a pall over the Splintered Coast, but until now the only physical restructuring I can remember is the recent draining of the lakes in the WvW Borderlands.

To a degree this is similar in that the vast krait tower has appeared in the middle of Viathan Lake in Kessex Hills. It's not an area I was particularly familiar with, as the statistics on the loading screen below make plain, so I don't know what, if anything, in the way of content has been usurped or inconvenienced by Kasmeer's renting of the veil. Not much, I suspect. Nevertheless, the map and the territory have both undergone undeniable and significant change.

The Tower of Nightmare update also introduces two significant changes to mechanics. Well, they're new to me, at least although maybe they already exist in one of the many parts of the game I don't know in as much detail as I might, like Fractals or Dungeons. News of the crisis came via the usual letter but when my ranger waypointed in to Kessex Hills instead of arriving as expected at Overlord's Waypoint a second loading screen appeared right after the first and he found himself in the new instance.

It kicked the whole thing off with a much more fluid, in media res impact than the usual anti-climactic hunt for the relevant NPC. Of course said NPC was still standing there waiting for me and nothing really happened until I spoke to him to tell him I was ready, but still, it's a start. If we can just get to a point where our character's very presence is sufficient to get things rolling then we'll really have made some progress.

The second innovation occurred during the first fight. A couple of Krait had fallen to a merciless barrage of arrows and my attention was on the ones still standing when it dawned on me those lying on the ground weren't in fact dead. They were downed and throwing rocks, just like a player would. It occurred to me that one of their slimy krait buddies might be able to revive them so I closed in to see what was going on and stap me if the "Finish Them!" stomp box didn't pop. So I spiked them.

It was joyous. I did it as many times as I could. Most of the mobs went into the downed state; a minority just died like normal mobs. I couldn't see an obvious reason for the difference. If I was going to be cynical I might speculate whether adding this mechanic to PvE mobs mightn't be a means to increase sales of Finishers in the Gem Store but it's so much fun I don't care. I'm happy with my plain old stake anyway.

The instance itself was excellent, if rather short. Perfectly pitched in difficulty for soloing. I found myself playing my ranger the way I did back in beta, sending the pet in to get agro, pulling carefully to get singles. The big fight at the end was set at just the difficulty level I like best - I was always going to win so long as I kept my concentration. Very satisfying.

As for the plot, Marjory Delequa and Lady Kasmeer are a very odd couple. Whatever's going on there is...intriguing. And we all hate the Krait, that's a given. The Nightmare Court I have never taken to (or against) but they ensure the theme of unlikely bedfellows first encountered with the Molten Alliance continues. At this rate I might even begin to suspect there's some method to the seeming madness of picking these allies out of a hat.

But, to return to where we began, perhaps the most impressive part of the update so far came when I came out of the instance to find myself in a Kessex Hills indistinguishable from the personalized version I'd just left. Can it be true? Actual change?

We'll see. I'm guessing that tower's there to stay, at least.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Off The Map : GW2

World vs World may be addictive, thrilling, rah! rah! rah!. All of that. Mad King Pumpkinhead vs Crazy Prince Eddie may make for an amusing, if slightly tasteless, diversion. Swatting Tequaatl may get you a tiddly dragon and a title. Fine and dandy.

Don't see much of the world that way, though, do you?

I was flipping idly through the pages of my Achievement book, passing time waiting for something to happen, most likely Righteous Indignation to fade off some choleric camp Supervisor, when I happened to notice I was just a discovery or three away from notching up Explorer for Ascalon and Maguuma both.

Not being much the Achiever I didn't really know what that meant. I know about the map completion one that by now everyone but me has done. The one where you touch all the things marked on the map. I'm not much of a toucher for the sake of touching. My ranger, made on launch day and played more than anyone else on the team, sits at 58% on that one. None of the other eight come even that close. 

Map completion never struck me as exploring. More like box-ticking. Even the title it gives, "Been There, Done That", reeks of ennui. Ascalon Explorer, on the other hand, now that has a ring to it. And I love Ascalon. Always have. The thought that there might be some bits I hadn't seen came as quite the spur.

What makes an Explorer in Tyria? Turns out it's not hitting those same map completion markers after all. Started out doing that. Scoured my maps for dull dots. Went to light them up. Nothing. Waypoints, maybe? Nah, can't be. Already found all those ages ago.

In the end I had to look it up. To be an Explorer you have to visit all the places that sit on the map with their names in white letters and pop up once across the screen the first time you cross some invisible border. Anywhere still waiting to be found remains a blur on the map and there were two blurs right there in Blazeridge Steppes.

The first was way off to the Northeast, as far as you can travel; on the way to nowhere with no reason ever to go. I went. There's a cave filled with Secessionist rebels and a Charr outside offering her heart for help. A heart full of fondness for me, which is more than I could say in return. I didn't remember her at all.

I'd been here before, long ago, then, but it seems I didn't go deep enough. Exploring the cave over the cooling bodies of the dead, in a room far at the back I saw broken stairs that looked like you might climb them if you could only reach. Some clambering and leaping with that feline grace so emblematic of the Charr brought my head against the high ceiling and lo and behold a hole, invisible from the ground.

Through the hole, a hidden valley, home to wild boar. A grizzled old one did his best to gore me but I put him down, skinned him then took my pick to mine the rich node he'd been using for a scratching post. Save for the odd aggressive giant pig it was a truly idyllic spot. Verdant, lush, fed by its own clearwater stream and quiet. So quiet.

Did finding it make me an explorer? Yes...and no. It made me an actual, virtual explorer for sure. I'd poked around and scrabbled and found somewhere I never knew existed, that possibly most people who've ticked all the boxes have never seen, but it didn't increment the Ascalon Explorer counter. After all, there was only one white name in that corner of the map, Terra Carorunda, and I already had that from when I'd helped that Charr with her secessionist problem all those months ago.

Back to the map. Look! There's a fuzzy bit in Iron Marches to the West. A swift trip through the aether to an adjacent waypoint led to a disturbing discovery: The Infestation. Perhaps it's best to draw a veil over the descent through caves glowing weirdly with the sickly purple light of The Brand, the rubble-strewn floor thick with nests, the distorted chittering of countless corrupted devourers, the battle with that massive Branded Siege Devourer and, most terrifying of all, the huge and terrifying Branded Devourer Queen, skittering across the corpses of the Sentinels foolish enough to challenge her.

That was the place alright. No-one in their right mind would go in there and I hadn't either. Well now I had. One more discovery to go. Back to Blazeridge to gawp at the closed, barred gates of the Ogre stronghold Agrak Kraal. Will we ever see them opened or will they always keep their secrets close, like so many more?

All told, the whole adventure took not much more than an hour but chances are I'll remember it long after all the keep saves and candy runs are forgotten. There's a whole, wide world out there and I still haven't seen the half of it. Next stop, Maguuma.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Jumpers For Goalposts : GW2

Week one of the opening Season of GW2's new WvW League finished on Friday. Yak's Bend romped home to victory over two servers ranked above us under the previous system. This week we face a tougher challenge against probably the strongest team  in the Silver League, Fort Aspenwood.

Gaming last week was almost wholly given over to World vs World. I think I played EQ2 twice for a couple of short sessions and I gave some passing attention to the Claw of Jormag and The Shatterer once in a while, but most likely ninety per cent of my time was spent in the Mists.

J3w3l mentions the lag in her recent post and it was indeed ferocious. Zubon observes that the new achievements move the focus of WvW even further towards PvE and indeed they do. Both posts make some very valid points about the shortcomings of WvW in general and the League system in particular and further apposite and accurate criticisms are made throughout the comment threads.

D'you smell necromancer?

There are so many things wrong with GW2's WvW that it really shouldn't work at all. And yet somehow it does. The appalling lag, which is apparently even affecting other parts of the game, comes from the increased numbers all trying to push into the Mists at once. The ever-more frequent and longer queues are the result of an upswing in demand. The in-development Edge of the Mists WvW chillout zone is getting made because there are more people wanting to play WvW than can be accommodated on the existing maps.

These are all strong indicators of success. More anecdotal but arguably more important is the sheer persistent presence of the same names day in, day out on the battlegrounds of Yaks Bend. We have a dozen or more commanders that have been leading the charge for most of this year. Several of them have been there since launch. But it's not just the officers, it's the troops as well. Everywhere I go, be it roaming around picking off sentries and yaks or thundering across country in the heart of the zerg, I see name after name after name that I recognize. On Yak's Bend, at least, win or lose, feast or famine, the same people keep coming back for more, time and time again.

*bzzzt* What is your bidding, Mistress? *bzzzt*

Which is odd. WvW is very repetitive. There isn't a lot of variety and the scope is limited. The League system has added some much-needed focus and the Rank and Achievements some extra shinies but even so compared to World Exploration, Living Story, Personal Story, Fractals, Dungeons, Holiday Events and all the rest WvW can't help but look a little light on content. As J3w3l says in a comment "WvW just isn’t meant for that kind of full time, long-term play."

So why do people keep doing it? It's not very helpful to say "for fun" or  "because they enjoy it". Indeed, if you listen to some of them having fun and enjoying themselves seems about the farthest thing from their minds. People complain as bitterly about their lot in WvW as they do about every other part of the game.

Could it be the rewards? Not likely. For a long time the cost of repairing your armor was enough to use up any coin you made from the smattering of drops and once you started buying siege blueprints you needed a second income right there. Even now that rewards are very much improved it's still nothing on a par with Champion farming or dungeon-running.

Yes, dear. Very nice. No need to shout.

For some it may be about the challenge of pitting wits and skills against other players but as Zubon points out, and as many others have complained, it can often seem to be more about beating on doors and fighting NPCs than straight-up battles with other players. The whole structure of WvW doesn't exactly lend itself to tests of PvP prowess.  And why should it? There's an entirely separate part of the game given over just to that after all.

What about leadership, then? Like leading a raid in PvE, being a Commander in WvW is certainly a test of someone's person-management skills but just as most PvE players don't lead raids so most WvW players don't run about with a blue dorito over their heads. It can't be that.

Perhaps it's the comforting herd mentality of the zerg. It surely is exhilarating, streaming across the map in a pounding horde, trampling hapless strangers underfoot, melting gates and usurping castle after castle with scarcely a pause for breath. But there's only so long you can keep that up, isn't there?

Perhaps you should have thought of that earlier.

The original conception was that a combination of server loyalty and pride and perks for doing well that would benefit the entire server would be all that was needed. Weeks of single-day matches followed by months of unrestricted free server transfers killed whatever small chance that plan ever had of working before it even got started. Nevertheless, despite all that, on Yaks Bend at least, server pride is a thing. 

So, there's that. And there's the awful addictiveness of that map and those numbers. The changing of the colors, the ticking of the counter. The incremental just-one-more try, last-ditch, once more unto the breach, win this one for the gipper-ness of it all. That's a big part of what keeps me coming back, anyway.

But most of all I hear the wise if incoherent words of Ron Manager whispering at the back of my mind :

'It's a far cry from small boys in the park, jumpers for goalposts. Isn't it? Mmmmm. Marvellous.'

Not really. Not such a far cry at all.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Train Stops Here : City of Steam

It's not often the announcement that an MMO is about to close down deserves to be greeted with a rousing cheer. Can't say I can think of a single example. Until today.

City of Steam was a browser-based MMO with enormous potential. During the long run-up to launch lots of people got quite excited about its quirky mix of steampunk and fantasy tropes, its splendid fin-de-siecle atmosphere and its first-rate art design and graphical polish.

I was lucky enough to spot it early on and I enthused about it in a more than a dozen posts, from the pre-alpha Sneak Peak through the various alpha and beta stages. Throughout the development process Mechanist Games, the internationally-staffed, China-based independent developer, maintained a cheerful and friendly stream of communication with their committed and enthusiastic audience. One of the developers even popped in here and posted a comment.

As all MMOs tend to do, City of Steam changed a lot in development. Whole aspects of the game were mooted, developed, tested and dropped. Systems and mechanics came and went. There were changes I liked and others I didn't but on balance things seemed to be trucking along nicely.

Some day a real rain will come...

Then came the soft launch. I'm not even sure whether the game ever officially came out of extended open beta but somewhere along the way it had acquired a distributor, R2 Games, joining their extensive roster of rather generic F2P MMOs and from that point on things went downhill fast.

As this post from July this year suggests, the wheels were coming off this particular train before it had even left the station. Suffice it to say things didn't improve. I played for quite  while, seeing fewer and fewer people around each time. There were no further additions or developments to the game over the summer and Mechanist Games, previously so chatty, disappeared behind a veil of silence. In the end I just stopped logging in.

On the forums much ire and disappointment was expressed. Various theories on what went wrong were expounded. Plenty of commentators glared darkly in the direction of R2 Games. Rumors abounded but few hard facts emerged. The game, having slumped out of the doors, seemed content to slouch, shiftless and idle, daring anyone to care.

My family and other goblins.

Whatever the truth or otherwise behind all the rumors and speculation, something must have been going on. Someone other than the disenchanted ex-players did indeed care. Statements don't get much more cryptic than the second paragraph of the announcement but what's not being said comes across as clearly as though we were hearing it echo across The Nexus through a megaphone:

"Circumstances have contributed to a significant loss of players and we've decided to cease the current game operations for the Global English version and take City of Steam back. This is a decision we have taken months to reach, and are confident that it's best for the health of the players, the community and the game itself."

The game isn't vanishing forever. Mechanist Games are taking a step back and trying again. Good on them. I dare say that for many long-time supporters of this charming, flavorsome game the announcement that this iteration is no more will come as a welcome relief. And as FFXIV: ARR amply proved, sometimes you do get a second chance to make a first impression.

I look forward with renewed interest and enthusiasm to City of Steam: Arkadia. Do better this time, that's all I ask.

Guilds. Huh!. What Are They Good For?

One of the innovations of the 2013 NBI has been the Talk Back Challenge Event, which Wilhelm conveniently summarised with links in his own recent contribution to the discussion.

Guilds have been a thorny subject with me almost since I began playing MMOs back in the 20th century. It was a good while before I even realized they existed. When I installed Everquest late in 1999 there was only one computer chez Bhagpuss. Why would anyone need more than that? Most people didn't even have one!

For a year or more, Mrs Bhagpuss and I had been in the habit of taking turns playing rpgs like Baldur's Gate or Might and Magic VI, one of us playing and the other watching and making "helpful" comments. When we ran out of interesting RPG options I decided to dip a toe in the very scary waters of online gaming. There wasn't a whole lot of choice. I settled on Everquest because after much research I came across far too many UO horror stories in which some hapless newbie spent hours standing in one place hacking at a tree only to be murdered in cold blood by another player as he trudged back through the forest weighed down by logs.

Within a few days of watching me play EQ, once she'd gotten over laughing herself silly at my flailing attempts to kill bats outside Freeport, Mrs Bhagpuss decided she wanted to play too. First she shared the account (sorry, Smed) but it was apparent very quickly that that wouldn't cut it. Then for a while we both had accounts but still shared one computer. That was never going to last, either. Finally a second PC was purchased and off we went.

D'you think the Guild Lobby might be letting in the damp a little?

And just what does this little stroll down memory lane have to do with guilds, eh? Hush, I'm coming to that. It's my contention that this fractured introduction to online gaming, sliding in sideways from a shared-but-separate offline experience, strongly informed my original attitude and formed the foundations of an approach to gameplay that has persisted ever since.

From the beginning I always felt I was playing alongside other players rather than with them, yet the difference their presence made was immense. It was immediately apparent that inhabiting your own character in a fantasy world was flat-out more convincing when all around were other characters similarly inhabited by humans. It was the difference between listening to music alone at home and seeing a band play in a hot, sweaty club.

Back in the day I saw a lot of bands play in a lot of hot sweaty clubs but I never found myself buddying up with strangers, swapping phone numbers and going to a whole string of gigs with them. The audience was essential for atmosphere but the music was the focus. That's very much how I felt about players playing around me: great for ambience and atmosphere but essentially background not content.

So for a long time I didn't just not join a guild, I didn't think about joining one. Mrs Bhagpuss, however. did. She may dispute this but I remember her as a serial guild-joiner almost from the start and it was through her that I became dimly, then acutely aware of the intricacies and vicissitudes of guild life.

And, comrades, consider this magnificent Peoples' Caravan, available for guild meetings.
Can your so-called Secret Societies offer you such?
As time wore on and MMOs came and went, many guilds were joined, were left, fell apart. Sometimes I followed Mrs Bhagpuss into guilds, sometimes I accepted guild invites that came up during a particularly enjoyable PUG. By late 2001 we'd even had a bash at forming a guild of our own (actually the offshoot of someone else's guild that we offered to run on another server).

The peak of my guild activity took place through the high summer of Everquest, from 2002 to 2004. That was the time when much of what we did revolved either around the activities of a single guild or a custom chat-channel that operated as a cross-guild clearing house for adventure. Those were the days when I grouped more than I soloed. Sometimes I even raided, although what we called "raiding" then was more akin to battling The Shatterer or Claw of Jormag than the baroque formality of a modern raid.

Guild-centered gameplay continued when we moved to EQ2 but the dour, attritional pre-Hartsman tenor of that game sucked the energy and heart from everyone around. Within a month or two guildmates were dropping like clumps of fur from a mangy spaniel.

EQ2 was hemorrhaging players, some back to Everquest, others on to WoW  and when the inevitable server mergers came I decided for the first time to form a guild of my own. Well that's how I remember it, anyway. Others who were there might have a different version of how it happened but the guild that grew out of those ashes, tendrils of which can be found in just about every MMO I've played seriously since, was named by me and I'm the co-leader of all of them so I get to write the histories.

I'd throw you an invite but we kinda have this rule about height...
The pattern was set. Much like Wilhelm, every time I, or Mrs Bhagpuss, or usually both of us together, move to a new MMO and decide we might be there for a while a new guild gets created, always with the same name. We have a couple of fellow-travelers who join us for a while should they happen to find themselves in the same world and we pick up like-minded individuals as and when we run across them.

It gives us a familiar guild tag, some useful facilities (life without a guild bank can be hard) and a good deal of pleasant conversation. I'm happy enough playing my MMOs alone but without a doubt the whole experience is enhanced by the quiet drone of comfortable chat in the background. What we don't have any more, and what I absolutely do not miss in any way, shape or form is guild drama, guild politics and people whining that they're bored and expecting me to act as entertainments officer.

Of course, we don't do very much. Sporadically we may have fits of group activity, particularly around holiday events. Now and again someone might get a fad for running dungeons for a week or two. A guild hall even got bought and fitted out a while back, somewhere. I think I went in it once.

If you asked me for my thoughts on Guilds, which, come to think of it, is exactly what this challenge does, my immediate response would be that I'm agin 'em. But that's not really true. The real truth is, I don't like guilds that tell people what they should or shouldn't, can or can't , must or mustn't do. Not unless it's me doing the telling.

A guild that allows friends and acquaintances to rub along together in quiet harmony is an asset to anyone's gameplay. A guild where you dread to log in because of what's going to be expected of you or who you're going to have to deal with, or one where you seethe with frustration because things aren't being done the way they should...well, I'd rather solo.

Wouldn't you?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Tip Your Commander, We're Here All Week : GW2

Last night was another great session in World vs World. Don't take my word for it. Listen to someone who was there...

Still not convinced? How about this?

It really was, too.

Borlis Pass spent most of Monday morning and much of the afternoon trying to take the Keep at Dreaming Bay. While I was writing yesterday's blog Mrs Bhagpuss was in the Lord's Room fighting for the honor of the Yak. I could hear the sounds of battle through the open door. I was itching to put down my blogging pen and pick up my overdecorated bow (I must put a new skin on that thing. Been meaning to do that for, hmm, must be over a year now...) but I stuck to my task.

I needn't have worried about missing out on all the fun. It never stopped. Borlis eventually got their way but we soon kicked them out. Then they came back so we kicked them out again. And so it went on.

The new Season format seems to have acted like a Charr cattle prod on the stolid Yaks. Not only are we out in greater numbers at all times of day, people seem to be listening to the Commanders and even paying attention to what they say. Not all the time, oh no, that would be slavish and Yaks are proud individualists (that's the polite version) but often enough to make things happen with a level of focus and co-ordination I haven't seen for a long time.

When Borlis came back twice more for Bay and beat down the inner gates I stood where I was told and did what I was supposed to do and so did most of the troops. And it worked!

The tides of war change quickly, of course. Things didn't always go our way and even when they did they didn't always take me with them.

Three times, yes, then the long run back from the Waypoint. Still, knowing you did your part puts a spring in your paws. I made it back in time.

Most of the action I've seen has been with Borlis Pass. They are a handful. They move fast and change direction often. Can't help but feel a grudging admiration for their determination, their sneaky plans and their sudden counter-attacks.

Tricksy or not, last night I camped out under the Yak's Bend colors flying from the battlements of Shadaran Hills Keep on the Borlis Borderland and look! There's our flag, still fluttering in the snow-laden breeze half a day later.

With luck by now someone will have turned the treb around and stopped lobbing cows into the Lord's Room. After all, If we're keeping it all week we'll want it to look nice.

Monday, October 21, 2013

A New Season : GW2

With all the Halloween hoo-hah going on right now it would be easy to miss another major, less transitory development happening in GW2. Last Friday saw the start of the first World vs World "Season", along with the implementation of a whole new set of achievements and rewards in support.

Looking at the North American side, where I play, the two dozen servers have been split into three leagues, unoriginally dubbed "Gold", "Silver" and "Bronze". The Gold league comprises the top six servers, while Silver and Bronze have nine each. For a while this was going to be just two leagues of twelve but reason prevailed and the hardcore WvW servers were silk-roped off into a premier league of their own to save the six servers below them from having a predictably miserable time.

Even so, there's some anxiety over the fairness and fun-ness of the matchmaking. Zubon at KTR has a series of posts that go into the prospects and shortcomings of the system in some detail. In common with every variation on the WvW format so far, and there have been a number of them, swings swing and roundabouts turn.

A combination of a weekend work schedule and some still-unresolved computer problems prevented me joining in from the beginning but last night I managed to get to the match at last. I spent a good five hours in the Borderlands and highly enjoyable it was, too.

Our opening match pits Yak's Bend against long-time rivals Ehmry Bay (always known as EBay) and relative strangers Borliss Pass. One of the oddest things to assimilate under the new system is the knowledge that for the next seven weeks the servers against which we will play are already decided. Moreover, it's likely to be relatively easy to predict the rough outcome of each match well ahead of time, although as in any competitive activity unexpected outcomes are always possible and an upset is always on the cards.

Having said in a comment at KTR before the match began that I didn't expect this new system to lead to anything much different for Yak's Bend than the perennial mid-table stasis to which we have become either inured or reconciled over the course of the year, I was surprised to notice a distinctly different tone to proceedings when I finally arrived on YBBL. For one thing everything now seems to be happening on fast-forward. In the whole longish session, during which I spent time on all three borderlands, I never once saw us fortify or seriously defend anything. Strategy seems to be much more about an endless tit-for-tat taking of camps, towers and even keeps.

My understanding of the larger plan is limited since I'm not currently in the server's WvW voice chat, which has moved in the few weeks since I Iast paid attention from Mumble, which I have installed, to TeamSpeak, which I don't. Direction of ancillary forces still largely takes place through Team and Map chat, though, and if in doubt there's always a blue dorito to follow. I just go where the action is and respond to map calls when they come, a "strategy" I've been employing for over a year and one which serves to keep me richly entertained more often than not.

As well as everything happening faster, a change of pace I very much appreciate, the addition of full-scale Achievements for WvW Seasons akin to those available for episodes of the Living Story seems to have had an immediate and unmistakeable impact on behavior, even more so than when Ranks were first introduced a few months ago. More than once last night Commanders were heard questioning the motivations of their troops and exhorting them to drop working on personal achievements goals and go where they were needed instead. One commander eventually became so incensed by the lack of community spirit evidenced by his own zerg that he mapped to another border without them, announcing he was leaving them to look after themselves, much the way a biology teacher at my school would send himself out of the classroom when his students became too unruly to manage.

WvW always had Achievements, of course. The problem was, and still is, that those that came at the start are mostly seen as an insane grind completely out of synch with Achievements anywhere else in the game. Just as an example, the second tier of the original Achievement "Stonemist Stands Firm - Again" requires you to defend Stonemist Castle one thousand times. That's for the second tier of a five tier achievement. They're all like that. They make getting a Legendary Weapon look like finishing a Daily.

Consequently, those Achievements never seemed to have much, if any, impact on how people played. When Ranks were added there was a brief flurry of interest but since they feed off general World Experience rather than specific activities, if it changed anything it was more likely to be how much WvW people did not what kind. The new Achievements are different from either of the previous systems and potentially much more appealing for two reasons.

Firstly, unlike the original achievements, these are both attractive and manageable. They aren't just like Living Story achievements, apparently they are Living Story achievements. They appear under the Living Story tab, at least. Like the LS installments, there's a Meta-Achievement for completing a set number, fifteen in fact, during the Season, with the reward varying depending on your server's final place in its league. Dulfy, as always, has the full details and each achievement looks highly, um, achievable, asking for example for the capture of one hundred camps or the destruction of thirty gates or walls. Given that there are seven weeks to complete it all the bar is set at an eminently jumpable height.

Secondly, unlike Ranks which have to be ground out separately on every individual character, Season Achievements are, like all other achievements, proper to the whole Account. Not only may this make playing more than one character in WvW more attractive for some than it has been until now, there are also some synergies to be gained by doing some of the Achievements on different characters, as Dulfy points out in her commentary.

It's very early days. The first of seven matches has just begun and I have only seen a single session. On the limited evidence and experience so far, however, I would say these appear, on the whole, to be positive changes likely to open WvW up to a wider range and greater number of players. Certainly we had queues on Yak's Bend for most of the Borderlands last night, which is not a regular occurrence.

The quality of WvW life is going to vary from server to server depending on both the league in which the server finds itself and the server's relative strength within that league, but then it was ever thus. Presumably at the end of each Season there will be promotions and relegations, so even for the weakest servers its only purgatory, not eternal damnation, although after six or seven weeks of being roflstomped by all-comers  it may well feel like it.

On a personal level I'm not best pleased, to put it mildly, by the inclusion of no fewer than five Jumping Puzzle Completions in the list of Achievements. It is possible to complete the meta without hopping about like a demented frog but only if you complete everything else. On the bright side, I would lay odds on some official server runs complete with full defense and portal teams at some point in the Season. Yak's Bend is nothing if not inclusive.

In the end no system will ever satisfy everyone. The best we can hope for are changes that move in directions that we feel are both good for the game and good for us. It's a hope likely to be confounded more often than not but this seems to me to be one of the more optimistic developments of late.

Enough talk. To War.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Good News, Bad News (Again) : EQ, EQLandmark, EQNext

Yesterday brought a couple of snippets of news from Norrath, one unexpected and welcome, the other unhappy but inevitable. As tradition demands, first the bad news: EQMac will close down in November.

For years I'd had it in mind to go time-traveling, back to Everquest's golden age, a world  locked forever changeless behind the impenetrable gates of the Empire of the Apple. Once I even, naively, looked into the possibility of buying a Mac purely for the purposes of playing it but it seems an old Macintosh really will never let you down because no-one ever sells one on the cheap.

Later rumors began to circulate about the possibility of slipping in around the back somehow by way of a PC workaround. I looked into that, too, but like another even more grey-market option on the past, to get in requires a copy of the long-gone Everquest:Titanium , currently retailing for $80 and upwards plus international postage. Cheaper than a used Mac, for sure, but still expensive for a whim.

And a whim is all it would be. Unlike some, I'm very happy with where Everquest is now. I still play on and off and I when I do I enjoy the 2013 version as much as I enjoyed the 1999. Except for one thing: Freeport. I do hanker to walk the streets of the old city one more time. The revamped version is an atrocity.

The loss of that notional possibility is, of course, the faintest ghost of a disappointment compared to the anguish regular players must be feeling. Almost two years ago, when the closure was first mooted, a strong popular campaign brought about a reprieve but with the recent round of belt-tightening at SOE I'm sure most EQMac players have been only too aware they were living on borrowed time.

That time has finally run out and I'm afraid there will be no second happy ending. In the wise words of Bryan Ferry, nothing lasts forever, of that I'm sure. It's more surprising that MMOs go on so long as they do than that eventually they must stop, although when you consider a game like Istaria (nee Horizons), a complete failure at launch, now about to celebrate its tenth anniversary with a big content update and a bullish wish for ten more years, then almost anything seems possible. Still, with every closure we all feel the chill a little more keenly.

And so to the Good News. EQLandmark will not be included in the PSS1 deal and SOE will handle all the accounts directly worldwide. Ditto for beta applications.

As long-time readers of this blog may remember, the general feeling when SOE decided to throw its European players over to PSS1 was that there was no spoon long enough to sup with the German wolves. Over time and with an enormous amount of public protest and campaigning the roughest edges got smoothed off the deal and something approaching an acceptable compromise was reached.

He's a big monkey but he's out of shape.

I can't speak from personal experience about what it's like playing under PSS1, although indications on the forums are that it hasn't gone much better than anyone expected. I still play my SOE MMOs on US servers using the original SOE accounts and I pay my All Access subscription directly to SOE (well actually to some third-party mediator according to my credit card statement, but anyway not to PSS1).

It's an uncomfortable and precarious position. The fundamental reason we're still paying for two All Access accounts we barely use and almost certainly don't need is because of the uncertainty about what might happen if we gave them up. We've known all along that EQNext would not be included in the grandfather rights because it was made clear that any new MMOs launched after the compromise agreement was hammered out would be excluded.

Once we learned of the existence of EQLandmark there was no reason to believe the same rules wouldn't apply. But, almost miraculously, they don't. My entirely uninformed assumption (see Wilhelm's excellent discursion on MMO bloggers assumptions) is that trying to sort out the legal issues involved in EQLandmark's player-made sales has already made several lawyers' heads explode even without factoring in reciprocal arrangements through a third-party license operating under an entirely different legal system so someone finally said "Stuff this for a game of soldiers, we'll do it ourselves".

Ya just gotta believe.

Whatever the reason, I see it as both unalloyed good news and a crack in the dam. If nothing else it says that SOE is still interested in markets outside the US (they could simply have chosen to make EQLandmark unavailable outside the USA, after all). It also means that if worst ever does come to worst there should still be at least one Everquest franchise title left for us to play.

What we'll actually be doing in EQLandmark remains, as Keen points out, mostly mysterious but my beta app is now in so fingers-crossed. The beta is without NDA, too, so if I get in all will be revealed.

Don't hold your breath, though. Smokejumper also clarified that the screenshots he's been releasing are from the pe-alpha version. Beta could be a while, let alone live. Then again, it was always going to be a "Winter" launch and technically Winter runs December through March. We're not late yet!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I Wouldn't Start From Here : WoW

The return from holiday (yes, we really did go to the Costa del Sol, albeit only for as long as it took us to put our backs to the sea and head for the mountains) brings with it a blog backlog of impressive size. Working my way through it I came across a Tobold post in which he bounces off something Syp wrote for Massively about recommending MMOs.

Tobold moves the discussion on to recommendations specifically for people new to the genre and focuses on World of Warcraft as an example of a particularly newbie-friendly game. That, of course, is its reputation. Mrs Bhagpuss and I were actively put off trying it for years because of the stories we'd heard about just how over-simplified it was.

Boots: zombies for the burning of
When we finally came to play WoW our experience turned out to be very different from what we'd expected. The world was complex and detailed, the mechanics were solid and had depth and the quests and other activities were thoughtful and entertaining. It was, in other words, a solid, satisfying MMO.

What it wasn't was fall-off-a-log easy, even in the starter areas. There was a lot of traveling to do and not all of it was safe. It was entirely possible to jump the rails right from the start, set off in a random direction and explore the world at your own pace. Even at the time (which was somewhere around 2009 I believe) I wouldn't have said it was the easiest of MMOs for a complete newcomer. Indeed someone I worked with, an experienced console gamer new to MMOs, started playing WoW around the same time and made quite heavy weather of it, giving up around level seventeen and never going back.

He did start as a blood elf, which might have had something to do with it. WoW, in common with many MMOs, doesn't offer anything remotely resembling a uniform experience for the new player. The starting areas vary wildly, in color palette, emotional tone, layout and visibility. The forest where the blood elves lurk is dark and difficult to navigate whereas dwarfs start in snowfields bright enough to cause snow-blindness.

One of the things that struck me as I played through the Goblin islands recently was just how newbie-unfriendly WoW seems to have become. Bearing in mind that I was playing the introductory free version designed to lead new players on to permanent residence, the whole experience, while highly enjoyable, seemed almost designed to confuse.

For a start I was level twelve before I saw another player. The entirety of the Goblin storyline prior to reaching Oggrimar seems to take place not just on islands geographically isolated from the rest of playable Azeroth but in some kind of private instance. I did quite literally see no other players at all. Someone must have been able to see me, or at least find my name, because I received one very polite tell inviting me to join a guild. Other than that I appeared to be playing a single-player RPG.

Vents. They're vents. Not holes.

Doing the first dozen levels not just solo but alone would be off-putting enough to a would-be MMO initiate but then we come to the mechanics. They may have been state-of-the-art in 2004 but things have moved on a little since then. There's some great, intuitive connectivity between the quest journal, quest tracker and the map, but the choice of brown-black against brown-orange for the quest window looks idiosyncratic, putting it politely, and the font is...odd. It seems to use a mix of upper and lower case in the headings. The quest text itself is dense and oddly formal. The whole effect is strangely old-fashioned.

The map goes one better (or worse) with an orange on orange theme. It looks weary, somehow, as if the game itself is feeling tired. Apart from major geographical features all you can really see are places you've already opened up and any quest objectives you're tracking. There's absolutely no sign of the kind of hand-holding now common in MMOs; no glowy trails or arrows on the ground let alone an auto-route feature that runs you like a robot from quest-giver to target and back.

In the Goblin starting town, the first place a new player playing a Goblin would ever see, getting to anything by following the map requires a good deal of luck. It's an amazing, fascinating, hysterical place but Goblins built it and they don't abide by zoning regulations. Just because you have a quest marker on your map don't think you can walk in a straight line to get to it. It's probably behind a barbed-wire-topped wall with a gate on the far side below the loop of sky-hanging freeway.

One rocket-propelled shark with laser attachments, hold the irony.
As in many MMOs I spent a good few minutes at the start of most quests taking wrong turnings, doubling back, climbing up things and dropping off and ending up back where I started before I found my objective. Once found a new game began - figuring out which clever trick the quest wanted to teach me this time.
Whoever did the quests for the Goblin isles clearly wanted to show off every tool in the kit. Drive a car, pilot a mechanical shark, ride a wolf, use an exoskeleton, ride on a rocket, fly with rocket boots, place bombs, throw bananas...a seemingly endless succession of new ways to click on things in a certain order or a certain place, never to be repeated exactly the same way again.

Even for someone steeped in arcane clickery it was confusing. For a genuine first-timer it could be overwhelming, especially with the island shaking and rumbling and fiery meteors landing all around. And with no-one there to ask I ended up tabbing out to look things up several times.

As long-term, committed,  highly experienced MMO players we almost certainly underplay the complexity of the systems and processes we take for granted. Tobold pooh-poohs the idea that you need to be an intellectual to play MMOs and he's right as far as that goes but you do need to be both literate and able to interpret poor or partial instructions because most MMOs require you not only to read a lot but also to read between the lines. A good sense of direction, a good visual memory and some better-than-basic map-reading skills are important, too.

When it comes to recommending an MMO to someone who's interested but completely inexperienced I think the most important factor is who is going to be playing it with them. If there's someone patient around, willing to answer questions without getting frustrated at the apparent obviousness of the answers, then which MMO probably doesn't matter all that much. If the newcomer is planning on flying solo from the start then I'd look for an MMO with an open, non-judgmental, co-operative ethos where players like to be helpful.

On that basis both The Secret World or GW2 would indeed probably be a better place to start than WoW. The mechanics and the jargon are going to be tough enough to come to grips with no matter what the game.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Keeping The Flame : NBI

Writing a blog can feel like building a fire. Slow at first, little sign of life for all your careful work, blossoming into something quick and thrilling, fascinating and compulsive. Only later with the flames crackling high do you begin to realize. Though the embers may be hot, the glow steady, without constant feeding a fire will die.

As you begin to find an audience you'll observe brief bursts of attention flying up like sparks each time you post, the bright flare whenever some blogger with more traffic links to you, maybe once in a sweet long while a plume of flame when a post or quote of yours features in the official Twitter feed or forum of some game or other.

As has been observed (although I can't quite remember where) few posts draw more readers back to your fireside over a prolonged period than good, useful how-to guides. A back catalog of those will lie beneath your blog like a bed of coals keeping the page view pot simmering as long as interest in that content or that game remains.

Analyses, even simple reports, of stories and topics in the news are the good, dry logs that you pile on from time to time. Some new branch will fall most days, tinder-dry and ready to blaze. Most MMOs generate controversy among their own players like a dog generates fleas and even if your own MMO of choice is currently moribund the dilemmas of others can usually be turned to cast a mirrored light. A rules change here, a new payment model there, the inevitable, unquenchable rumor mill.

There's always tinder and there's always flint. Strike them well and send a column of smoke to draw the curious from afar to comment on what they find and spread the word.

Still, no matter how hard you work, how well you bank your coals, how ardently you feed the flames, in the end your fire will burn out or you will. Blogs are ephemeral. If you're writing for posterity this isn't your medium. Blogs don't burn with the unquenchable volcanic heat or smoldering peat-fires of novels. Once written they don't sit there, burning, for years, decades, centuries, attracting readers by the generation to bask in the reflected glow of their critical reputation.

Nor are blogs newspapers or 24 hour rolling news channels, an endless series of three-alarm fires and conflagrations running out of control.  Dedicated, professional (well, commercial) news sites fill that role, more or less efficiently, already. They're the places you crib your "news" from if you aren't cribbing it from another blogger who cribbed it there already. That's how we make a zeitgeist, after all.

No, at best you might aspire to become the Blogger of Record for your personal interests within the medium, a role magnificently defined and exemplified by Wilhelm at The Ancient Gaming Noob, used as a reliable and well-categorized source for data-mining by bloggers yet-to-be, a beacon of fact standing bright against a darkening night of unsubstantiated imagination and poor memory.

Over time, if you keep this thing up, you'll see your audience flare and fade according to factors both apparent and unseen. Pile on the fuel of new or popular games or trends and watch your page views rise on the updraft, your comment threads flare and burn. Use the green, unseasoned logs of MMOs few others play or topics about which no-one but you seems to care and see your blog, damped down, smolder, sputter, smoke.

Long after all your news stories have gone to ash, the controversies they feverishly analyzed, the very games that contained them all but forgotten, when your once-popular guides barely register a page-flick, referring as they do to content long-lost beneath the geological time of MMO expansions, there's one reader and only one who you can always count on to retain an interest.


Yes, for all the extended metaphor as inexorable and deadly as a pyroclastic flow it turns out I'm here with the same advice as (almost) everyone else: write for yourself.

Oh, write amusingly, entertainingly, instructively, attractively, coherently, even wisely by all means. Attract the attention of an audience, make them welcome, draw them in, involve them if you will. Just remember that even if they stick with you (and if you make it worth their while they may well turn out to be more eager to stay the course than you are) in the end you're building this fire first and foremost to keep yourself warm.

Build it well and it will keep you warm on many a dark night of the soul.

Plus you can bake potatoes.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Postcards From Costa Del Sol : FFXIV

Inventory Full is on holiday. Again.
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide