Thursday, January 30, 2014

Mr Raki Builds His Dream House : Vanguard

Some time ago, when Telon suffered the seismic shift of the latest round of server merges, my house fell down. I'd already rebuilt it once when our original server, Hilsbury, was merged and it was a big job, what with one thing and another. Yet another server merge was on the cards, with the last remaining European server rumored to be joining us any time, so I decided to wait and see how that wind was blowing before I got the hammer and nails out again.

In the event that merge never happened but I still never got round to putting my house back up. For a long time I kept my plot reserved but eventually I began to worry that, since I wasn't playing often enough to keep my coffers topped up, the slow drip-drain of 25 silver a week in upkeep would erode my limited savings to nothing, so I let the plot go too.

Now, with a definite end date in sight, that's no longer an issue, so a couple of days ago I rifted over to the Oasis settlement around Tar Janishar, climbed onto my virulent turquoise store-bought Griffon and flew down to my old neighborhood, Abella Cove to see if I could get the old place back.

Given this is an MMO that no-one plays, the shoreline looked remarkably built-up. I flew down and landed as near as I could remember to my old plot. There it was, still available! I snagged it fast and went to see if any new amenities had been added while I'd been gone. No such luck.

Abella has a fine crafting area in a large tent at the back of the dunes complete with vendors and taskmasters but it has never enjoyed the services of an escrow merchant. The nearest I know is some way south, past the ruined city of Venik Ragnew, near a dock that always seems to have a large sailing ship tied up at the quay.

By the time I'd flown all the way down there, negotiated the return of my building materials, along with some furnishings, from the Escrow merchant (the list of the things he was holding for me ran to twenty-nine pages) night had fallen and the moon was up.

After a number of false starts, as I tried and failed to remember just exactly what kind of house I used to have, finally I managed to get all my bricks in a line. A few blows of the mallet and down went the foundations, up went the frame. I'd taken so long working out what went where that by the time I'd finished the sun had risen across the bay.

I worked on, wanting to get the house finished before the burning Qalian sun rose directly overhead. The work went fast. It seemed like no time at all before my beautiful house was back to its former glory, just as though it had never been gone.

After rebuilding an entire two-story house complete with cupola in just a few hours I felt I deserved something to eat and maybe a lie down. If only I had a table. Or a bed. No rest for this fox. After the building comes the decorating.

It didn't take too long. I'd only brought the essentials: my rugs and pillows, my flower baskets and flowers, my tables and chairs, my books and my bed. And my bread and cheese, of course. Soon had everything back where it came from. Approximately.

I'd brought my chests, all six of them, but I left the contents, mostly hundreds of powders and dusts and skins and ores back with the Escrow merchant. I'll move them another day. For now I felt I'd done enough. I deserved a good, long rest on my comfortable bed, surrounded my books.

So there I am, back home in Abella Cove. The rent's paid til the end of the world. I'm not going anywhere. Ever again.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What's She Building In There? : GW2

Like small children, finding ourselves momentarily unwatched while mummy's distracted elsewhere, we've all been tip-toeing around Scarlet's Secret Lair this week, peering at her papers, puzzling at her pictures and rootling through her things. The whole time my necromancer was in there (and she took a good half-hour or more to explore every cluttered corner) I was expecting to hear that familiar taunting voice as Scarlet ported in to catch me in the act of stuffing treasures in my pack.

Sadly that didn't happen. Even though Scarlet only opens her puppet show every couple of hours she must have other important things to do outside the house for the rest of the day because once you find your way into the rather uncomfortable pied à terre she maintains below the Durmand Priory you're free to stay as long as you like without fear of interruption. It's just as well. There's a lot to take in as well as a lot to take away.

Since the discovery of the lair speculation has been running wild. There's a lengthy thread on the forums filled with ideas about where this runaway train of a storyline might be headed. Favorite theories include

  • Scarlet is working to end the Elder Dragon threat
  • Scarlet is trying to take an Elder Dragon's power for herself
  • Scarlet is luring the Elder Dragons to Lion's Arch where they will have a massive fight, destroy the city and each other, leaving her in complete and undisputed power
  • Scarlet is controlled by and/or working for one of the Elder Dragons
  • Scarlet is being run by some non-draconic power (Abaddon, The Mursaat, Dhuum) for purposes unclear
  • Scarlet is going to kill The Pale Tree
Dragon theories seem to be in the ascendant, even though ANet's Martin Kerstein stated right at the beginning, when they unveiled the Living Story process, that "There will be no mounts, no Cantha and no dragons coming with this story arc." Ah, but wait! In context what he was quashing was speculation that the Living Story would see a new dragon event added, along the lines of the three that have been in the game since launch, not that dragons had no place in the storyline at all.

If no-one ever said the inaugural Living Story season wouldn't have draconic influences or repercussions, then there could be a dragon in there somewhere. Sentiment seems to be running towards either the Jungle Dragon, unofficially named as Mordremoth, or Primordus, the earth/fire dragon currently being held at bay by the entire dwarven race somewhere in the bowels of Tyria.

One commenter came up with a very convincing and coherent outline that not only speculates on the final outcome but gives solid commercial and gameplay reasons why ANet might have chosen to go that way. I'd really like it to be true but I fear it would be a step too far. It's Zayd Akira, half-way down the second page. He writes with a freestyling disregard for conventional spelling, punctuation or indeed paragraph breaks but don't let that put you off; there's nothing lacking in the clarity of his thought or logic. The way Zayd nails exactly the issues with the Personal Story that are acting as a drag anchor on all future development and extrapolates clean and clear ways those outmoded ties could be cost-effectively removed and remodelled suggests to me that someone at ANet should be reading his resumé right now, although if so I hope he didn't type it up himself.

Whatever the outcome, everyone seems to agree it has to be something big. ArenaNet are hyping expectation with their claim that the final resolution of the storyline will "change the face of Tyria forever". My own pick of the theories, that Scarlet will launch a successful and fatal assault on The Pale Tree (alright, it's more of a hope than a belief) has already been deemed insufficiently climactic by some.

There's a real Catch-22 going on for the developers here and it's hard to see how they're going to resolve it. Experience by now must have taught them that no matter how GW2 players may say they want real, meaningful changes in the world an awful lot of them react extremely negatively when they get them. On the other hand, if the resolution of a year-long, frequently unpopular and unwelcome storyline turns out to be some weapon skins, a few achievements and the death of an NPC no-one liked anyway the forums will resound with howls for heads to roll. Again.

Speaking of deaths, there's got to be at least one, hasn't there? To give the whole story arc some impact, some gravitas, someone has to not make it through to the end. It might be Scarlet herself, but that would be a waste in so many ways. Sure, she's really hated by a lot of the playerbase and for all the wrong reasons: not because of her evil (or are they?) in-game actions but because she's been seen for a long time as a derivative, amateurish, poorly-written Mary Sue. At long last, though, there are signs that people are slowly beginning to come around to her.

On the forums and in-game there are more and more people prepared to admit to at least some grudging recognition that Scarlet might have some redeeming features. At the Marionette event I've heard plenty of conversation between players about what she might be up to and the haters and don't-cares are no longer in the ascendancy. People are beginning to be curious. It's taken long enough...

The first year of Living Story has been a very rocky road and a very steep learning curve, like driving a lorry full of explosives around hairpin bends on a mountain pass. Alright, not so much like that as like sitting in your office while people are mean about your work on the internet and you wonder if you'll keep your job, but I'm sure it's been the developer's equivalent of a white-knuckle ride.

Having weathered the storm of disapproval, Scarlet is surely too useful now to discard in one final, supposedly cathartic act. Certainly she could disappear for a while, a year or two even; defeated, hiding somewhere we can't reach, licking her wounds and plotting anew. Or, and it's the scenario I favor, she could redeem herself, cleanse the madness and take the otherwise untenanted Sylvari spot in Destiny's Edge 2 along with Rox, Braham, Marjory, and Taimi.

If the black spot's not to go to Scarlet then who gets it? Apparently the smart money's on Lady Kasmeer, which would certainly motivate Marjory if nothing else. It's my impression that both Marjory and Kasmeer, as characters, and their rather cleverly developed, carefully coded relationship, have been something of a hit with many players. If ANet learned one thing from the Personal Story it should have been that if you're going to kill off a character it had better be one, like Tybalt, for whom the players have developed some affection and who they'll miss when they're gone. Watch your back, Kas.

Of course this is all sheer imagination. We could go on like this for weeks and that's the fun of it. As far as hard facts go, for all the fancy theories based on confident detective work done in Scarlet's lair we can't even agree whether the wall-screen shows the future or the past. No wonder the devs are "having a good time reading the speculation" to quote Danicia the Community Co-ordinator. I bet they can't eat their donuts for laughing.

Whatever the final outcome, when it's revealed a few weeks down the line I very much doubt we'll get any lore-convincing explanation of where Scarlet's seemingly endless resources came from and I'm still of the opinion that, while there may have been some kind of twelve-month outline from the outset, the individual episodes have been turned out in a much more piece-meal fashion. And yet...

...and yet I can't say I haven't enjoyed it. It's been far too long, far too baggy and there have been far too many longeurs and lassitudes along the way but mostly I haven't been bored and often I have been intrigued.

ANet no longer talk up their iterative design paradigm the way they used to before launch. It's hard to iterate before a live audience as I'm sure they've found. The process served them well enough in development, though, and if we expect GW2 to be around for a decade or more then, as a first iteration, this Living Story may just have served its purpose after all.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Against The Fall Of Night: Vanguard

When the Vanguard servers power down for the last time on July 31 2014 the game will join an ever-growing list of online games you can no longer play and virtual worlds you can no longer visit. Exactly how that will play out remains to be seen. When the time comes some, like City of Heroes, have had to be dragged into the darkness, fighting all the way, while others, like Warhammer, slipped quietly away with little more than a respectful bow of the head.

Every week it seems Massively announces the closure of another MMO, usually some title from the vast gaming factories of the East, the name of which we recognize only vaguely if at all. Unplayed, unloved, unknown in the West, if these "sunsettings", to use the in-vogue management doublespeak, have any resonance in the West it's only to shore up the entrenched positions of the troops in the forever war between F2P and Subscription.

Perhaps ironically, it took the closure of Vanguard to make me think about this from a perspective beyond that of an invested player. Vanguard is far from the first MMO to close about which I have strong personal feelings or whose closure has emotional meaning. Endless Ages, Rubies of Eventide, NeoSteam, none of them forgotten, all of them missed. Still, it was only with the announcement that Vanguard is to end that it finally occurred to me that these closures represent something more than a simple denial of access for current and quondam players.

When it comes to new media and popular culture, institutions, both state and corporate, tend to be slow to adopt a suitable historical perspective. The BBC did not institute a corporate policy for archiving programs until 1978, more than fifty years after the first radio broadcast. In all that time it seems no-one believed that generations as yet unborn would be interested in such ephemera of the past. The tape itself was often considered more valuable than what was recorded on it. Tapes, once broadcast, would be wiped clean of content and re-used. Even by the 1960s, when the human race was approaching its apogee of accomplishment in the moon landings, even the importance of retaining something so crucial to the socio-historic record apparently passed BBC executives by.

In recent years recognition of this implicit and institutionalized cultural vandalism has grown, resulting in several drives to recover recordings, most of them technically illicit, from enthusiasts and hobbyists; a late and shame-faced attempt to correct a cardinal, some might say criminal, oversight that most now agree never should have happened. Still, the gaps remain manifold, the record incomplete.

Similar tales play out across many of the arts. Despite legislation requiring the mandatory deposit at the Library of Congress of a copy of every movie ever made since 1909, most silent movies and as many as half of all films from the beginning of the talkies until the start of the 1950s no longer exist. The legislation required they should be deposited but not that they should be kept. So they weren't.

Video games stand in a relatively happy position in relation to this sorry litany of thoughtlessness although not by dint of any greater wisdom or foresight among the gaming companies. The digital nature of games simply means that, at least in theory, every extant copy is equivalent to an original master and bytes are far easier to store than books, tapes or canisters of celluloid. Counter to that, of course, there are the issues of ever-changing hardware, operating systems and recording media, which may produce some significant challenges in getting the pictures onto a screen even when the ones and zeroes have been carefully preserved.

Such challenges, however, are meat and drink to academic institutions, museums and archivists the world over. The worry is not that the content will become inaccessible to our successors but that it will not be there to be accessed in the first place. As we move into the online age with entertainment of all kinds offered routinely and, increasingly, exclusively only through downloads and streams, along with the convenience this affords producers there must come an increased responsibility on them to consider their role not only as content providers but as custodians.

Vanguard, City of Heroes, Shadowbane, Auto Assault and all the rest may have been commissioned and completed as commercial products. As art goes, their status has not been, and may never be, high. Nevertheless, they do have standing as cultural artifacts, as documents of their time and as popular art. If we believe, as many of us do, and as the history of each preceding wave of new art-forms demands we should, that video games will, over time, come to share the same importance in the culture as books, cinema, radio, television and even comics then it is incumbent on us not to allow the mistakes of the past to be repeated.

As players, hobbyists and aficionados we can play our part by keeping such records as we are able, our screenshots, videos and recollections, while ensuring access to them through the various portals of the net. We can also keep safe our own digital copies in the hope that one day, like mammoths brought back to life from deep-frozen DNA, they may be seen in the world again.

The responsibility for safekeeping of the core code, the true resurrection key, however, lies squarely with those companies and individuals acting unilaterally to cause  these worlds to cease to be. They may never have another commercial release (although Asheron's Call 2 suggests that in this field of endeavor nothing is impossible) but future generations of art historians, sociologists, culturati of all stripes, will thank those who acted with foresight and curse the memory of those who did not.

So, let's hope for corporate wisdom or at least a self-interested concern for the long-term reputation of the brand. Or, failing that, a few mavericks with a sense of history, a social conscience and keys to the office.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Six Months : Vanguard

My plan for this Saturday morning was to post about Scarlet's Lair. Well, that's going to have to wait a while. Last night as I logged out of Guild Wars 2 I quickly checked my Feedly and got slapped across the face by this. I guess there's no way to break news like that gently, but still...

From there it was on to Smed's Ask Me Anything, a very interesting read. I went to bed feeling mildly uncomfortable at the thought of Vanguard's imminent demise and woke up this morning much the same. I've spent a couple of hours since then reading various responses and reactions, adding my own comments. Wilhelm is keeping a tab on such things so rather than list them here I'll just throw out the one link and let TAGN, as so often, be the blog of record.

Largely as a result of Brad McQuaid's Pantheon kickstarter and the soon-come EQNLandmark alpha I've been posting and commenting about Vanguard quite a lot recently. Thinking about it, too. Thinking I really ought to go back and play again, not just talk about playing. Get my Diplomacy moving. Go sailing.

Well, it's now or never. Six months to live. It's a disturbing thought. On July 31st the sun will go down over Telon for the final time. It's too soon to decide if I'll be there or not.

The first and last time I waited out the end of a world was in EQ2 Beta. We'd been there for the best part of three months. Hard months. We had a lot invested and even though nothing was meant to last, coming to the end felt strange, uncomfortable.

There was a huge end-of-the-world party at the Claymore in Antonica but just before the final countdown began I slipped away, back to my inn room in Baubleshire, where I waited out the apocalypse, alone with my cat. There he is, in the picture at the top of this blog, taken just a few seconds before oblivion claimed us both.

The end of that world was bittersweet because it was an ending and a beginning both. When the new servers came up, at character creation, I chose not to remake the same character I'd been playing. I stepped out onto the much-missed Steamfont server, itself lost in a long-forgotten merge, as the same class, the same race, but a very different individual. I chose to believe that particular gnome cleric I'd grown to know so well had simply retired, given up adventuring, settled down. I still remember his name.

When Vanguard takes its final curtain call there will be no such second coming. If it was hard to say goodbye to a beta character just a few months old, knowing that, while he took his well-earned rest, for me the adventure was just beginning, how much more painful will it be to watch one of my favorite characters ever disappear into the good night? Along with all his friends and helpmates. Forever.

Telon is the adopted home of my favorite MMO race, the childlike, over-serious Raki, fox philosophers all. Also my favorite class, that most indefatigable of hard-hitting healers, the Disciple. The marriage of both, my Raki Disciple, vies for a place as my favorite character in any MMO. Of course I'm going to miss him and I'm not at all sure I want to be there to see him die. But when it comes time, surely I can't let him die alone?

Ah well, that's a dilemma for another day. We have a stay of execution, a fleeting few months to revisit old haunts, walk familiar paths, remember. I'll be taking my camera. You know what? I think I'll rebuild my house. At least there's no need anymore to worry about where I'll get the gold to pay the rent.

Vanguard may have been a flawed MMO but Telon itself is a work of art and in these digital days there's surely no need for anything made of ones and zeros to be lost for good and all. Players will make a record and the internet will remember but I trust and hope that someone at Sony, understanding their custodial role, will ensure the code remains secure, in trust for the future. In time perhaps Telon may delight again as a wonder to admire or study in museum, university or gallery.

Until then, like the mayfly, yet we live.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

An Open Letter To Scarlet Briar : GW2

Welcome back Scarlet. Oh, how we've missed you. Yes, I know you've been out there all this time, invading backwater maps where no-one ever goes but, well, no-one ever does go, do they? Not any more. Last time I turned up in Timberline Falls or Blazeridge Steppes or wherever it was, there we were, just you and me. And your faceless hordes, of course. I did enjoy having your full attention for a while but it can be a little...shall we say, overwhelming?

No, much better to meet you with a faceless horde of my own at my back. Call me paranoid but I just feel safer that way. So there we were, out in the back of beyond once more, you, with another incomprehensible nefarious plan, us, determined to stop you or die trying. This time you arrived in a giant UFO dangling a hundred-metre high metal mannequin. Where do you get this stuff?

There's something strange about you, Scarlet. Besides the obvious sociopathy, that is. You seem to have infinite resources, unlimited capacity. You can build elaborate drilling rigs across every part of Tyria overnight, even in The Mists, and no-one sees you do it. You have technology far beyond anything The Pact can throw at you. You're up there in your spaceship and we're down on the ground firing arrow-carts. Where does it all come from? How are you doing it?

And yet, even though it seems like you can already do just about anything you want, what is that? What do you want? Sometimes dealing with you feels like dealing with a child. "Look at me, Mummy! Look at me!". Is that all you want? Our attention?

And now it seems you just want to play a game. Well, don't you always? This one even has rules of a kind. Your armies charge down the five lanes that lead to your...what is  that thing, a landing pad? We try to stop them. You let us in by turns and your giant puppet kicks her high-heels and slashes her sword as we try to cut her strings. 

If you win, we all die. If we win...well, if we win I don't know what comes next because that hasn't happened yet. But then, I've only played your game twice. The first time my team failed and so did most of the others. We all wound up dead. The second, my team trounced your defences and hamstrung your puppet but this time we were the only ones to succeed and it barely slowed you down. Everyone ended up dead. Again.

We know you too well, though, Scarlet. You say you know everything yet you never seem to learn. For too long you'll dangle that doll, every even hour, until we take in each and every one of your tricks. We learn so much faster than you.

Soon we'll bring it crashing down, over and over, whenever we like, yet you'll never stop. Until suddenly one day you do and we all move on to your next fiendish plan. Is that rational, Scarlet? Don't you ever sense some guiding hand in all this? Some outside force, a greater power, playing you and us both just the way you play that puppet?

That's our lot, though, isn't it? Destined to play out our roles without context or meaning. You with your mysteries, we with our compulsions. Because, after all, just what would happen if we ignored you? Does it really matter to us what you're doing out there in Lornar's Pass, any more than it mattered what you've been doing all over the back of beyond these last few weeks, while we've all been playing with toys and building snowmen in festive Lion's Arch?

There are dragons at the gate, Scarlet. There have been dragons at the gate all our lives. Jormag and The Shatterer in the north, Tequatl and Zhaitan in the south. A great evil bears down on us yet life goes on much the same. The dragons get stronger but they get no nearer. There are those who might say, if they want the swamps and the snows and the wilderness lands then let them have them. Orr is far away and no-one remembers when it was other than it is. Whatever it is that you seek in these wild lands, maybe we should just let you have it and be done.

When we first met you in Queen Jennah's great city, Divinity's Reach, already we'd heard rumor of you, your name whispered in the aftermath of those terrible events in Lion's Arch, when the charr cultural representative was murdered before the eyes of the Ship's Council. Then, you seemed a true power and a threat, bringing chaos to the heart of the polity. Now you play games out in the wilds and, like the dragons, you shrink to become scarcely more than a tale, fit only for scaring cubs in the fahrar.

Somehow, Scarlet, I sense your story is drawing to a close. Will we ever learn, who it is you are, or think you are? Do you have a plan, truly? Did you always? Did you ever? Or did you make it up as you went along? Was it really only ever about our attention? Because, after all, without that, what are you?

So, here we all are again. You pull the strings while we dance to your tune. Is that your great metaphor, Scarlet? Is that why you took the time and trouble to construct your marrionnette? Are you trying to bring us to some knowledge of ourselves and this life we both share? Are you our savior and if you save us will the game be over?

Courage, Scarlet. Courage all. The time to rest grows near.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Landmark: Saga of Heroes : EQN Landmark

Reaction in my Feedly stream to the recent splurge of information on Landmark, has been distinctly and surprisingly sparse. Indeed, other than Keen's post-of-record and my own linking squib I don't think I saw anything. Even Keen's detailed report didn't generate much comment.

Maybe other people didn't glean as much from it but for me the Livestream finally answered some of my most pressing questions, particularly concerning the importance and significance of Claims. When I gave Mrs Bhagpuss a brief summary of how it's going to work she said "Oh, like Vanguard then!" and that sums it up perfectly.

The similarities are quite striking.

Location, Location, Location
Are you sure that goblin was a qualified architect?

In Vanguard, all houses stand in the open world. You can't build just anywhere, there are defined housing areas, but there's no instancing. When Vanguard was very busy (Trust me, for a while it really was) competition for the best plots was intense. Certain housing locations were highly desired, either because of the facilities, which varied considerably from area to area, or because of the proximity to popular adventuring haunts.

Some individual plots were especially coveted for aesthetic reasons. There was a single plot on a small island (from memory it was just off the Dornal Coast in Qalia) we envied so much that every time we sailed past it on our sloops we'd throw stones at the house someone had built there.

I said you were cutting those beams too long but would you listen?

We spent hours exploring Thestra and Qalia for the ideal plot. My first house was in a windswept, isolated cove near Konarthi Point in Thestra. I was very happy there at first but after a while the solitude and the rain began feel oppressive and the sheer distance from anything and anywhere began to wear me down so I sold up and moved to the sunswept sands of Abella Cove on Qalia. Mrs Bhagpuss had already claimed a plot on the beach and it was a nervous Raki who dismantled his Thestran cottage, sold the bricks and traveled halfway across the world hoping all the plots hadn't gone.

Having seen the Livestream I now understand that staking a claim in Landmark is like that. It's no longer some nebulous, hazy concept but a straightforward, very comprehensible and practical proposition. Yes, the world of Landmark will be vast at the start and infinitely expandable. Yes, everyone will be able to claim somewhere to build. If you want the right place, though, the perfect place, then you'll have to explore and you'll have to compete.

All Fall Down
In Vanguard you own your house but you don't own the land on which it stands. You pay a weekly upkeep fee for the plot and if that lapses your house falls down.

Alright, it doesn't actually fall down. It disappears and the plot becomes available for anyone else to snap up and build on. You don't lose anything other than the right to that spot. Everything from the bricks in the wall and the tiles on the roof to the furniture, fixtures and fittings inside automagically flit away to Escrow, a form of storage accessible to any character on your account from any of the many escrow merchants who hang around housing areas all over Telon.

Wherever I lay my cheese, that's my home.

If you stop playing for a while and let your house fall down, all you need to do when you return is scout out a new plot (or reclaim your old one if it turns out that you were the only one who'd live there on a bet after all), pay the purchase fee, take your stuff out of escrow and rebuild.

Landmark works in a very similar similar way. There will be upkeep on your Claim. If you fail to meet the payments for whatever reason everything you've built will vanish and the spot will be free to be claimed by anyone who takes a fancy to it. All the materials you used to build it, however, and everything you had in and on it, will be retained for future use. Moreover, you'll also have the Template for the structural design safely saved away, meaning you can rebuild with ease, just as soon as you find another Claim to your liking.

Expand That Chest
My next chest's going to be this big!
In Vanguard one of the pragmatic reasons for owning a house is storage. Depending on the size of the house you can place a number of chests ranging from a couple in the smallest dwelling up to a dozen in the largest of guild halls. Chests are independent of the global storage system, so if you need something from one of your chests you have to go back to your house to get it.

For a while back when I was playing Vanguard regularly, acquiring and stocking chests in my house was a significant goal. Even with three continental banks and a generous amount of on-character storage I still never felt I had enough chest space. Now there's a surprise.

Landmark has a system of personal storage using upgradeable chests placed at your claim that sounds very similar indeed.  Vanguard also had an undocumented storage option: you could place literally any item in your inventory in your house and it would leave your packs and become a visible object in your home. If there was a graphic available you would see that. Otherwise it would display as a small, wooden goblet. It would be nice if Landmark works that way, too, although preferably minus the goblets.

Moving on... apart from the reassuring and welcome familiarity provided by the line of descent from Vanguard some other very welcome news came our way both in and out of the Livestream.

Beware Of The Flowers
Hey, I can chop this guy down to size, right, so I'm going worry about some overgrown daffodil?
The world itself, or at least the few snippets we have so far seen, looks delightful but an aesthetically satisfying surface, while vital for gaining attention, generally won't be sufficient in itself to hold interest indefinitely. My concern with procedural landscapes in principal is that by definition they lack any context that would make them worth exploring. Like a fireworks display, you can only ooh and aah at a beautiful view for so long before the experience becomes enervating.

I feel considerably re-assured that lack of meaningful context won't be any more of a problem in Landmark than it is in most other MMOs. I anticipate owning a sense of purpose as I explore, and also having to keep my wits about me.

The brief discussion on "hazards" and particularly the cameo appearance of The Chomper did a lot to convince me that there will be plenty to occupy those of us who aren't bursting with architectural fantasies just crying out to be realized, as did clarification of the need to explore, gather and discover before you can build.

I can now imagine making a role for myself as the supplier rather than the designer in this creative ecosystem, the trapper and hunter ranging deep into the forests in search of exotic pelts or the botanic explorer mounting specimen-gathering expeditions in a world where the flowers really are out to get you.  Yeah.

You Sure That's Real Money ?
There was financial news too. Firstly Dave "Smokejumper" Georgeson popped up to quell a growing insurrectionist rumor that upkeep would require real money payments via Station Cash.

His reply that "Some things have an SC *option* but currently there's nothing that is SC *only* except Player Studio items" does feature the ever-popular get-out clause "currently" but I think that's just standard self-protection. I'm happy to take it that Landmark will be Pay To Skip not Pay To Play.

Better yet came the confirmation that Player Studio will be rolled out to European players. Smed's twitter comment was definite if limited: "...on EU Player Studio – we had to figure out the relevant tax forms and legal regulations. This has never been about anything other than annoying taxation and legal things we had to get buttoned up.". Whether that really means "EU" or whether it includes the non-EU states bundled up in the PSS1 deal I guess we have to wait and see, as indeed will the rest of the world.

With the whole ethos of both Landmark and EQNext predicated on Player Studio, universal access will have to be made to happen somehow or the games just aren't going to be viable for whoever gets left out. Not, at least, if haves and have-nots are all playing together on the same servers. This is a step in the right direction although how far down that road we will be by the time Landmark goes live is anyone's guess.

And Finally
Happiness is a flat roof and no more plots between you and the horizon.
Terry Michaels, Senior Producer on Landmark, rolled out a short video . Mostly he summarizes things announced and discussed at greater length elsewhere but towards the end he mentions a forthcoming Dev Diary on crafting. With luck that should fit enough pieces into the jigsaw so we should at least have the frame finished even if we can't yet see the completed picture.

One Trailblazer and one Explorer pack purchased. Roll on Alpha.

[Sorry if anyone's seeing what look like half-finished versions of this post that keep changing. Blogger's Preview function has been broken for me for a while now and I'm reduced to live editing for the final cut. Finished now. I think...]

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Warning! Claimjumpers Will Be Chomped! : EQN Landmark

Yesterday's SOE Livestream finally gave us some real hard details about what Landmark is going to be. I was wondering how I'd find the time to write it all up but then I saw Keen's excellent round-up so now I don't have to. I'll just link to that.

Still so many questions to ask but at least now I feel I'm on some kind of firm ground.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Call Me Mister Fixit : EQ2

For an adventurer in EQ2 the path from the sunny uplands of level 90 to the still sunnier pinnacle, the current maximum level of 95, can seem a long and arduous one. All the more so should you choose to travel it alone. What seems like several lifetimes ago Mrs Bhagpuss and I, often accompanied by sundry stalwarts from our small but still intermittently active guild (rising level 42 at time of writing) trudged uphill both ways through the yellow dust of Withered Lands, then the newest and highest-level overland zone, completing the first leg of that journey.

The cap at the time was 92 and it was from there that my Berserker picked up the trail last October, this time unaccompanied, unless you count his trusty mechanical mercenary, Dok-Tok, who only appears at times of dire emergency because of the unfortunate (some might say unreasonable, seeing he's a machine) demands he makes for an equal share of all xp earned. The best part of four months later he's completed the entire main solo timeline from the Chains of Eternity expansion plus all of the equivalent in Cobalt Scar save for the Siren's Grotto instance. He also spent much of the last double XP weekend, potioned up to the gills, running round Chelsith, Chardok and Sebilis. And he's still just under half a level short of 95.

A couple of evenings ago he was browsing through his quest journal looking for crumbs anything in Cobalt Scar he might still not have finished when he came across something called "Adding A Little Something". The notes he'd jotted down said something about gathering cobalt chiori from blue roots and as luck would have it there were some growing (and glowing, in that handy way quest items have nowadays) right by his feet.

That's how he came to be leveling his crafting, finishing four full levels in two sessions of about four or five hours in total, on his way to becoming a top-level weaponsmith. The chiori quest was the beginning of a series that had him bucking up Acting Supply Master Grant, recent recipient of a battlefield promotion that left him suffering a crisis of confidence. That in turn led to a non-combat version of a large segment of the Adventure timeline, in which he solved in thirty minutes the Mystery of the Undead Otters that had taken his adventurer alter-ego several hours to unravel.

On it went. Up in the stockaded camp on the cliffs he took a look at what everyone was doing and showed them how they could do it better. He fixed ballistas, discovered a saboteur and set a trap for him, painted protectives on tents and devised a short-term force-field to defend against attacks from the air. In the course of his busybodying selfless devotion to the cause he discovered and exposed the drunken incompetence of Quartermaster Fahris, last seen demoted to Blacksmith 3rd class and about as happy about it as you might expect.

It's a really enjoyable series of quests, smartly written with a lot of humor and a few surprises. Taking place in a very dangerous zone and encompassing a good deal of traveling, the entire sequence could be completed by a cautious high-level crafter who'd scarcely adventured at all (although the sequence in the otter camp, under constant attack by undead as it is, might present something of a challenge to anyone likely to be one-shotted by a glancing blow from a mob in the high 90s).

Cobalt Scar has quickly become one of my favorite EQ2 zones. It doesn't come across all that well in screenshots but in game it looks quite beautiful, especially around the cliffs. Both the crafting and adventure quests make excellent use of the z-axis, as indeed does most fresh EQ2 content nowadays. Flying around soaring crags, swooping down to land on vertiginous ledges to gather enchanted ice or teleport fallen soldiers back to base, can be positively exhilarating.

Questing in EQ2 since my return as a part-timer has been most enjoyable and in terms of quality of player experience there's little to choose between the equally involving, entertaining and satisfying  adventure and tradeskill timelines. For the character, however, the difference in Experience with a capital X is stark and immense. Each completed crafting quest stage gives a huge chunk of xp, often as much for one five-minute quest as an adventurer might receive in a session lasting a couple of hours or more. Moreover, all the things you are required to make give great xp as you go along and most of the ingredients are given to you for free!

There was a time when crafting in EQ2 was very much a grind and at certain times it still can be. I personally dislike the changes that were made to remove discovery xp and replace it with increased xp from grinding writs, for example. When it come to doing the last five levels, however, there's just no comparison.

Would I want the adventure xp to roll in as fast? No, not really. Well, perhaps a little. As it stands, though, the contrast acts a tonic. Just when you're beginning to flag, when your steps are dragging and the end of the road just doesn't seem to be getting any closer, unbuckle your armor, slip on your apron, trade your sword in for a rolling pin and watch the Prestige Points rack up as those levels fly by.

Hmm. I wonder if they know what they're doing over in Vesspyr Isles? Maybe I'd better just go cast an eye over the workmanship there.  You just can't get the staff these days, y'know.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Backwards Into The Future With Pantheon: Rise Of The Fallen !

Brad McQuaid, probably better known to almost no-one outside his old gaming group as Aradune Mithara, is back. You may remember him from previous MMOs such as Everquest and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. Brad's sure hoping you do. His new Kickstarter campaign's counting on it.

Just how much he's relying on both the recognition factor and good old-fashioned nostalgia to enthuse potential backers of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen becomes almost painfully clear as you peruse his proposal and pick your way through the pledges and stretch goals. There came a point last night as I was scrolling down the increasingly unfeasible list of financial milestones when I wondered if I was in fact reading the design brief for EQ3.

You have to wonder, just how happy are Sony's lawyers to see Brad promoting his new Druid class (ours for just $1.8 million dollars) with the pithy tagline "Got SOW?", for example. That seems to go a step further than the typical, industry-wide "common influence" of "Halfling: Hairy feet, Outrageous appetite" or "Ranger: The guardian of the woods. The stalker of the forest". I suppose they have bigger things to worry about. Let's hope so, for Brad's sake.

Wilhelm and Keen both have discussions up and running and the topic of these stretch goals is a hot one. It certainly does raise an eyebrow when you see an MMO staple like crafting included only as the eighth stretch goal (a steal at $2.5 million) and one has to wonder at the designer's commitment to PvP when it doesn't appear on the list until 13th place, just behind a mobile app. Although come to think of it, having PvP only as a half-hearted afterthought would be very much in keeping with EQ tradition...

Kickstarter proposals often invite more questions than they answer. The fundraiser runs for a month and continual engagement with potential backers is part of the process. Expect to see many explanations, clarifications and amendments over the next few weeks. Even so, opening with a list of stretch goals most of which would appear to be things that anyone interested in the game in the first place might reasonably consider to be core components does seem to be offering up a whole bunch of hostages to fortune.

One doesn't want to harp on about it (especially not with the Bard class coming in at a cool $3.2m) but the longer you study these stretch goals the less inspiring (some might say the less palatable) they become. $1.4m gets us "New Content: Adventure Area. An amazing new area unique to the world of Terminus. Offering more content and things to discover." Come again? You're offering a zone as a stretch goal? With content and things? Let me get my wallet!

Backing cautiously away from the stretch goals, the basic premise has a certain appeal. In a long list of bullet points Brad describes something that resembles a cross between Everquest and Vanguard with a nod to Rift's back-story. How did that get in there? Of all the MMOs you could have looked to for inspiration when it comes to lore I wouldn't have thought Rift would even be on the list, let alone at the top, but :

"The player is a legendary hero, stripped of his or her powerful relics and left to explore the dramatically diverse and epic regions of Terminus with hopes of reclaiming their relics and those of lost heroes." Pantheon

"As an Ascended, you can draw on the Souls (and powers) of champions from Telara’s past." Rift

Perhaps not exactly separated at birth but can you deny there's a certain family resemblance?

Moving swiftly on (again) a few things stand out as warnings, at least to me. The tedious adherence to the new orthodoxy demands "Reactive combat where you can determine what the NPC is doing and react to it. (move, counter, deflect, etc.). Sadly it's an approach that seems likely to infest all MMO combat forevermore but it will probably bother few and attract many.

The strong emphasis on "Group-focused social gameplay" will be lauded now but early Everquest and Vanguard were both very enjoyable to explore solo, especially if you chose the appropriate class. Enforced grouping may turn out to be more controversial than Brad would like, when the game actually arrives, should people find themselves flagged LFG for lengthy periods with not much else to do (especially if they can't pass the time crafting because they failed to stump up enough dollars for tradeskills to make an appearance).

Then again, Brad believes that patient waiting is good for the soul. Here's his philosophy on that: "Designed Downtime should be a part of the game to ensure players have time to form important social bonds." Call me cynical if you like but I'd guess that "designed downtime" in 2017 will mean tabbing out to play another game, web browse or watch streaming video. In 1999, when we all sat for several minutes after every fight while our mana and hit points restored themselves (oh so slowly) you couldn't even run Everquest in a window, legally at least.

We didn't talk to each other and form social bonds because we were better people back then - we did it because the choice was that or sit in silence. The moment we got the opportunity to do something other than make small talk with strangers we jumped at the chance. Remember when they added Gems? You didn't hear a word from anyone for weeks!

It's very far from all bad news, though. Most of the proposal makes Terminus sound very appealing, with its "open", "non-linear", "huge" "constantly expanding and evolving" world, where you can "Travel where and when you want" to "explore, trade, and adventure". Taken as a whole it does sound very much like a game I'd at the very least want to try, which brings us to the Pledges.

Unlike the stretch goals, the pledges seem well-thought out and rather inviting. A mere $20 gets you a beta invite with $45 letting you in for the alpha. Not only is that very reasonable by current industry norms but I would be amazed, assuming Pantheon ever does launch, if six months later people weren't claiming it was so much better in beta. They always do and in my experience they're usually right.

Even if that's not the case, that $45 dollars also includes a digital copy of the game plus the first 30 days of game-time. That's not so much a pledge as a pre-order. $100 gets you all that plus a pet and a mount and a second copy of the game "for a friend". I can't help comparing that with the $200 plus tax Landmark is going to cost Mrs Bhagpuss and I for approximately the same deal for a supposedly free-to-play game.

Those pledges, in fact, are so attractively priced that I may well grab either the $100 or two of the $45 packs before the month ends. Only two things are holding me back. Firstly, I'll be surprised if Pantheon meets even its base Kickstarter target. Brad's counting on support from a niche that's already been heavily mined by recent Kickstarters and I'm not convinced there's enough ore left in that seam. Secondly, 2017...

All the pledges have January 2017 as the estimated date of delivery. Even if that happens, and these dates have a tendency to slip, three years is a long time not only to defer gratification but to predict what both my and the industry's circumstances might be. I don't plan anything on that kind of timescale, not even still being around, let alone what MMO I might want to play.

That, however, is a problem with funding Kickstarter projects in general rather than this one in particular. I'd far rather decide in January 2017 whether I want in, not try to guess now how I'll be feeling then. But if we all took that view no Kickstarter would ever fund. Oh the responsibility...

Oh well. If nothing else it's going to give us all something to talk about until Landmark.
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