Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Landmark - New And Improved. Apparently.

Just thought I'd pop up a link to the  

New Improved Landmark Blueprint.


Time to revise all estimates for Open Beta. Before Alpha I thought it would be May-June. Even during Alpha, when Smokejumper guesstimated we might see the first iteration of combat before Closed Beta began, I still thought an early-mid Summer soft launch was on the cards. Now it looks like maybe October at best.

I wouldn't be that surprised if Landmark was still officially in Closed Beta come Christmas. Of course, with closed beta buy-in packs ongoing, the Cash Shop stocked and taking money and Player Studio coming online in the next couple of weeks, you could argue that a soft launch is already happening. All the same, if there's ever going to be a transition from a few thousand players to thousands and thousands of players, the pay wall has to come down sometime and this Blueprint doesn't suggest that's going to happen in a hurry.

The comments on the difficulty of AI pathing in a voxel-based world are very interesting. For anyone who's not all that interested in Landmark but very much interested in EQNext, the upside must be that all these systems need to be developed before Next can become A Thing and presumably most of them will port wholesale from one game to the other. Even so, the prospects of getting our hands on even an Alpha Founders Pack for EQNext look further away than ever.

Oh well. July could be interesting. Not so sure about May and June...

There And Back Again

Yesterday, when I was making some largely incoherent observations on leveling speed in GW2, Tobold was examining the topic rather more clinically in the context of the upcoming release of WildStar. The gist of his argument is one with which I sympathize, namely that if  company wants me to play their MMORPG for a period measured in years rather than months they might want to consider the pacing.

Unfortunately for Tobold, and me, and anyone else who hankers after the slower pace of our MMO salad days, the likelihood of any major game developer deciding to release a triple-A MMORPG in which the majority of the appeal relies on a two thousand hour journey from creation to cap appears remote. The developer meta for these things tends to thrash around in attempt to hit all the targets but for some while now the prevailing wind has blown towards accessibility. It's all about facilitating social play rather than giving players a giant mountain to climb and letting them get on with it.

The current orthodoxy holds that commercial success in the field rests firmly on supporting (or exploiting) the bonds players form between themselves. With that comes an overriding desire to ensure that players who come to a new MMO must at all costs be able to find, meet and play with their friends. There's also an assumption, which goes virtually unquestioned, that all players whether or not they come pre-equipped with a set of gaming buddies will, as a first priority, require a Guild or a Clan.

When new cultural forms arise incrementally and haphazardly, as appears to have been the case with online roleplaying games, sifting cause from effect can be tricky. I do wonder whether the pre-eminence of Guilds as the social structure for MMORPGs might not have more to do with the very difficulty and inaccessibility of the content in those early games than with any innate desire among the players for meaningful social contact. The difficulty of soloing in Everquest has often, in my opinion, been exaggerated, but it's beyond question that those who wanted to progress faster, more efficiently or further certainly benefited enormously from having a network of like-minded players for mutual support.

I do sometimes wonder what the hobby would be like now had it come into existence back at the stub end of the 20th century with the concepts and attitudes that underpin Guild Wars 2 in place rather than those that derived from MUDs. How would things have played out if back then gameplay in the very first MMOs had been designed scrupulously to avoid almost every aspect of competition? If every resource, from crafting nodes to experience and loot gained from killing mobs or completing quests, was not just shared around but handed out equally to anyone participating, regardless of the extent of their contribution?

What if, in addition to these communitarian principles, completing the actual content itself had been as simple and manageable as it is today? If a new player coming to a new MMO could expect to progress pleasantly, productively, efficiently alone, all the way to the level cap? Had things been that way from the beginning, had the infrastructure of the games themselves automatically provided everything a player needed to succeed, would players still have chosen to form numerous, discrete, collective organizations just to have an identity larger than the individual?

Perhaps ironically, the all-pervasive online social networks that have changed the culture far more broadly and profoundly than anything within gaming could ever have done scarcely existed when the early MMOs had their brief ascendancy. Even WoW's breakout success pre-dates the adoption of Facebook and Twitter as mainstream global communication media. The extent to which awareness of that always-on connectedness now informs the design decisions underlying all forms of entertainment would be hard to overstate. Had we not, in those more benign and kindly worlds that might have been, needed to create Guilds so we could huddle together for mutual protection, perhaps in the end we'd simply have imported our Facebook groups and Twitter followers instead, with much the same effect.

Somehow I doubt it. Gamers, especially those coming from the RPG end of the spectrum, seem surprisingly resistant to drinking the social networking Kool-Aid. I have my suspicions that in an alternative history of MMORPGs that began with the emphasis on inclusion rather than competition we'd now be looking at something very much like the culture of playing alone together we've been moving towards this last half-decade but without even the nominal nod to socialization that Guilds provide.

All of which brings me to Shards, the as-yet barely-existent glimpse of what might one day become a new twist on the MMORPG rope. It's brought to you by Citadel Studios (aka The Company Formerly Known As Mythic). The "teaser video" is largely useless but this Massively piece is more informative.

The idea of what we might call Minimally Multiple Online Roleplaying Games is an intriguing one. These player-run servers, catering for dozens rather than thousands of players, might be a route back to the good old golden age days of 2000 hour leveling paths and reputation that counts for something for the few hundred people who still miss all that. It would also, neatly for my thesis, preclude the necessity for Guilds, given that the population cap for the entire server would scarcely meet the requirements of a modern-day "small family guild".

John Smedley recently raised a similar possibility for H1Z1, SOE's soon-come entry into the ever more crowded zombie survival market and while no-one knows what Landmark will grow up to be, one theory is that it could become a "make your own MMO" machine. It's all just one more step along the path to niche, a path we now seem to be traveling down at such speed that last year's Big New Idea, crowd-funded MMOs aimed at special interest groups numbering in the tens of thousands, is already beginning to look old-fashioned and unwieldy.

I have to wonder, if we keep on heading in this direction, will we eventually find we've re-invented the single-player RPG? And if the StoryBricks AI is as good as they say it is, would we even notice? Then again, perhaps that's all some of us ever wanted anyway...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Return To Ascalon : GW2

The Guardian is overpowered. There's no two ways about it. When GW2 began I read several accounts by those who'd taken the class as first choice and I was struck by how easy they made their experiences sound. It wasn't as though I was having a hard time with the Ranger but it seemed Guardians were having a softer ride still.

Despite those reports, as I leveled all the classes Guardian was the one I was least looking forward to. It's a paladin of sorts and paladin is a class I've always found worthy but dull. I left it to the end and when I finally got around to it I coupled it with the race I least wanted to play, that Elf-substitute, the Sylvari. That way I'd get two bitter pills down in one swallow.

As I played one up I can't say I warmed much to the Sylvari as a race. I'm fond enough of my single Sylvari character but I don't think I'll ever make another. The Guardian class, though, turned out to be an unexpected pleasure and now, with added Charr, it's gone beyond a pleasure to a joy. There's no ambiguity over how I want to spend my gaming time at the moment.

This is a crucial week in the Season for Yak's Bend, a match we have to win to stay in contention for a top three placing. Bodies on the ground matter, even indifferently skilled ones, and most evenings I manage a few hours in the Borderlands with the only two classes I can play in WvW with any facility - Ranger and Elementalist.

Duty done, the rest of every day's Charr Guardian day. After Diessa we moved on to Snowden Drifts, filled that out, taking her to 25, perfectly poised for Lornar's Pass, which nominally covers 25 to 40. The final point of interest lit up just after she'd dinged 33, by which time she was surrounded by level 39 and 40 mobs.

In common with other MMOs GW2 has a few ways of reminding you that you're running ahead of yourself. The distance at which aggressive creatures begin to pay attention to you increases substantially once they have more than a five level advantage and there's a level-based sliding scale for glancing blows, which reduce your damage by half. Playing a  Guardian solo it was hard to feel engaged with combat unless the creatures we were fighting towered four or five levels above me.

Even that was well inside my comfort zone. The point at which the "challenge" approximates what I remember as normal leveling play in older MMOs like EQ2 or LotRO comes at a very specific point: six levels above your character level. That's when the unmodified chance of Glancing Blows hits 50% and its what I would consider the sweet spot for enjoyable fights that require tactics, concentration and engagement.

It also appears to be the very highest level-differential at which whoever decided on the rules wanted or expected players to operate. Once you cross that six level gap your "chance" of landing a glancing blow becomes a 100% certainty, which isn't much fun and which, I think, we can safely take as a message from the developers that you've pushed your luck too far.

At this point I should make it clear that I'm very much not one of those people who demand "challenge" in everything or who irrevocably links risk with reward. Nor do I necessarily feel MMOs have become too easy to be entertaining. I agree with Wilhelm when he observes that  "the strongest force in the universe is laziness" and I'm generally more than happy to take the low road.

It's not, after all, as if I'm comparing the experience to, say, Everquest, now supposedly a dumbed-down, weak-beer parody of its former self, yet where, in 2014, playing the best solo class in the game, fully dressed in good, level appropriate gear, near-raid-buffed from MGBs and with a mercenary NPC providing heals, I still have to pay full attention to what I'm doing at all times when fighting mobs several levels below me because not to do so would mean a swift death and twenty minutes recovery time. I'm not comparing GW2 with that. That would be silly.

I'm merely observing that it's perhaps an odd quirk of design that places what feels like a natural, comfortable, easy-but-satisfying level of gameplay right at the very upper margin of the range of the feasible. Or perhaps, as I began by suggesting, it's just that Guardians are overpowered.

You might argue that, since GW2 gameplay is built around a core of loose alliances and informal non-grouped group play, content was never designed for or aimed at soloists; that  although for something like 80% of the time the game's been around, most leveling-by-map-exploration has, by necessity, been a solo activity, it's nothing more than an unintended accident of circumstance and one that the Megaserver is here to correct.

You might argue that if it wasn't for the glaringly obvious fact that almost without exception content in GW2 gets easier the more people there are to do it. Oh, granted, it often takes longer. It's always been fastest and most efficient to complete most group events with a handful of people rather than a zerg or a blob. But unless you equate time taken with difficulty rather than just with inefficiency, more people never make things harder.

Then again, perhaps it's down to the post Feature Pack retuning of sub-80 content that was carried out in recompense for the loss of character-power inflicted by the Great Trait Revamp. It's hard to remember, being so long since I last leveled a character, but it does seem easier this time even without those traits.


Speaking of Traits, at 30 I was finally able to open the window to see what lay in store. I was curious to see if the same "wait and see" approach would leave higher Traits locked away from view but no, once you hit 30 you can see them all. Of course see them is all you can do. I had one Trait point at 30 and at 33 I still have one Trait point. I get another at 36 and the third at 42. Hard to imagine why anyone thought this could ever be a good idea.

Even though you don't have the points to use them, there's nothing to stop you unlocking the Traits themselves, of course. You can now mouse over to see what they are and where you earn them. For example, I can see that to get the Adept level Trait "Master of Consecrations", which "Reduces recharge on consecration skills and increases their durations", I would need Map Completion for Frostgorge Sound, a level 80 map. Or I could pay 10 silver and two skill points to a trainer, which, if I didn't already have the resources required, might take, oh, five minutes rough and tumble on a map my own level. Hmm. Tough one. What would you do?

Scanning down the list it seems to me that as each trait point is acquired almost everyone will immediately go to their trainer and purchase the one they want right now, because even if someone was flat broke it would almost always be quicker and easier to earn the silver and the skill points than to do the forfeit. Indeed, given that many of the unlocks require map completion, you'd have earned everything you needed to pay the fee almost as soon as you started, so why carry on?

Meanwhile, in the background, as players naturally play through content, odd, random Traits will unlock themselves here and there. I already have "Inner Fire" unlocked, for example, because the requirement for it is Map Completion for Lornar's Pass. In three levels I'll even have the second point I need to open the first Major Trait slot and use it.

In operation, as I anticipated, it's not at all a bad system. It's easy to understand and it gives the player choice in how to access it but it seems extremely unlikely to form any kind of framework for providing self-generated, self-directed gameplay. Not only is the Trainer option clearly faster, easier and cheap but the points accrue so very slowly that there's no incentive whatsoever to go out and open Traits in the first place.

Not a disaster, then, but certainly a missed opportunity. Something easily pushed to the background as one pursues the unchallenging but highly enjoyable task of incrementing that number in the bottom-left corner of the screen. My Guardian is now in Fields of Ruin, feeling very overpowered indeed against the level 30 mobs but glad to be back in the warm Ascalon sunshine after days spent shivering in the snow.

Mind you, being overpowered in level-appropriate content didn't help much on the run through 40-50 zone Blazeridge Steppes. Even though she did make it through with nothing worse than singed whiskers there were some very tense ten hit point moments along the way. Thank Dwaya for Renewed Focus, that's all I can say...

Now Ebonhawke, my second-favorite city in the game, awaits. We've already herded farm animals and torn down posters. We even found the famous Pipe Organ and attempted a tune. It's an adventurer's life for sure. Overpowered she may be, or the content undertuned, whichever it is, but there's entertainment yet to be had and plenty of it. If current parameters hold, Map Completion of Ascalon should come somewhere around level 65. For a Charr that's all the incentive required.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Megaserver - The Verdict : GW2

An interesting thing happened on Yak's Bend yesterday. The King Over The Water came back. Or maybe it was Arthur, returning at our time of greatest need (except that was last week, so if so he's late...).

Yak's Bend did far better in WvW's Season One than most people expected, even most people on Yak's Bend. It was a team effort, of course, but much of the credit went to a handful of commanders, one of whom, already popular and well-known, pretty much wrote his own legend during those weeks. He may not have been Space Famous but he was as World Famous as you can be on a GW2 World.

After the party came the months-long hangover. A lot of people drifted away. A couple of big guilds upped camp and moved worlds. Our superstar commander hung around for a while then just vanished. It seemed no-one knew where he'd gone or if he'd be back, not even his guild.

Gone he was but very much not forgotten. As Season Two drew nearer there was much speculation. Surely he'd return? Every day in WvW people would be asking about him. I asked about him. No-one knew anything. The Tourney began and there was no sign of him. Weeks passed. We won. We lost. Other commanders stepped up. The war machine rolled on. Still, now and again, his name would be invoked.

Then, with no fanfare or warning, yesterday there he was. I got home from work and I'd hardly got my coat off before Mrs Bhagpuss said "Guess who's back!". He was my second guess, after our missing guildmate. Apparently word had spread so fast and wide that people were logging into GW2 from work just to say "welcome back". When I got on and went to WvW his name was all over map and team.

He wasn't online right then but even without him other commanders were leading while acknowledging tactics they were using as ones they'd borrowed from him. When he did appear later in the evening, while we were cataing Northern Shiverpeaks' inner garrison, I felt sufficiently moved to welcome him back personally even though he has no idea who I am.

In GW2, since the coming of the Megaserver, this is something that could only happen in WvW. Why? Because under the Megaserver the rest of Tyria has become the place where not only does no-one know your name, no-one knows anybody's name.

Ravious gave his impressions of the megaserver earlier this week. Broadly he seems in favor although his wife very much is not. Jeromai offers a much more critical view and it's his analysis with which I find myself in sympathy. I have tried to be open-minded and positive about this huge change and there are some good things that can be said about it, but the more I see, the less I find to like.

As I've been playing this week I've been making a list of Megaserver pros and cons:

  • Cities bustle and buzz the way cities should
  • I've seen more roleplaying in cities in a week than in the previous year and a half
  • More events run in general, infrequently-seen events run more often and more group events can be completed 
  • Very unpopular maps with no desirable large events now feel moderately well-attended
  • Load times for most maps are much longer. For busy maps they measure in minutes not seconds.
  • Map chat has degenerated appallingly. Maybe we were lucky on Yak's Bend but open channel conversation used to be mostly polite, intelligent and respectful. Now it's an earsore that needs to be switched off after a few seconds in most maps.
  • Wilderness areas feel like crowded city parks.The attractive xp bonuses for hunting and exploring in out-of-the-way places has become elusive in the extreme.
  • All major events with desirable rewards are massively over-attended. Any previously required tactics or gameplay no longer exist. Every "fight" is an 80-strong zerg and lasts seconds. Scaling cannot compete. The only factor slowing these events down is massive lag. I was getting 3FPS at Jormag last night, for example. Mrs Bhagpuss, whose computer has begun to complain if there are more than 50 other players on screen, can't attend some of the big events any more without suffering screen freezes. 
  • Genuine lower levels and even some downleveled 80s struggle to get credit for most stages of a large event because they either can't do enough damage or the stages finish so fast.
  •  According to most reports, although I haven't attended one to see for myself, the more complex events like Tequatl and Three Headed Wurm, always hard, are now barely possible at all.
  •  Community  as a concept and communities as entities have been destroyed. Jeromai's post linked above covers this extremely well. The overall effect has been as if the earliest version of WoW's Dungeon Finder had been applied to an entire MMO. Everyone is a stranger, all sense of responsibility or fear of consequence has been removed.
So, a lot more Cons than Pros. Even so, some of the positives are worthwhile and the worst of the negatives could be mitigated if most of what ArenaNet had claimed about how the Megaserver works had turned out to be true. It didn't.

"The megaserver system is a weighted load balancer for players. It aggregates data about you, like your party, guild, language, home world, and the map copy where people you like to play with can be found. Using this data, it ranks all possible versions of a given map by attributing a score to each. You’re placed in the map with the highest score, which is the one with which you have the most affinity." Source

That's the high-falutin' claim and it's nonsense. Either it's just PR guff or whatever algorithms they're using simply don't work. In my experience so far, many hours on many maps at many different times of day, not only does the system not place me with people I recognize from my home world, it can't even place me in the same map as someone I'm grouped with if we cross from one map to another. It just doesn't work.

I question whether there really is a "Megaserver" at all in any meaningful sense. This seems to me more like a clever smoke-and-mirrors rebranding of the existing Overflow technology. We're all just being pushed onto overflow servers far more frequently than before and the experience is just what you'd expect.

Using "Megaserver" to describe this effect is highly misleading. It's a term that brings to mind something like the single shard universe of EVE Online. I'm personally a big advocate of individual servers for MMOs but if we are moving to a future where all players must share a single common game-space then it has to be done the way EVE does it, with meaningful repercussions and consequences and with everyone genuinely in the same space. It has to be done in such a way that someone like the Commander I began this post by talking about would become more Space Famous as a result, not more anonymous. 

The upshot is that, post-megaserver, GW2 is a chaotic mess.

If you're pottering around on your own leveling up it's arguably better than it was, although I'm doing exactly that and my argument would be that even then it's at best a neutral change. Most events were always soloable and most events are more fun from a narrative and role-playing perspective when soloed. Other people around very definitely make them easier but they don't often make them more entertaining. 

If you love to run in a huge zerg, waypointing from event to event to autoattack something you can't clearly see, at single-figure fps rates, for thirty seconds before clicking "Loot All" and moving on to rinse and repeat, all the while chortling at sexual innuendo and scatological puns then this is probably the best update GW2 has ever had.

If you're anyone other than a leveller who hates to solo or a dedicated zerger with an adolescent sense of humor, however, there's not much good to say about any of it. My only hope is that the old ANet iterative process (if they still have that going on) might eventually come to shape the "Megaserver" into something resembling what we were promised. Some hope.

WildStar: An Uninformed, Unexpected, Unfair Review

A long, long time go I was interested in WildStar. There's written evidence that I thought it might be "the new EQ2". Embarrassing to admit it now, even if whatever caused that rush of blood to the head did very soon wear off.

WildStar went on to become one of those odd MMOs where every new piece of information, every press release, every livestream, every blogger's hands-on, every news-site item chipped a little off the gloss. I found myself becoming less and less interested to the point where I'd gone beyond no longer caring about the game to arrive at a place where I actively avoiding reading anything about it at all. Consequently and to the best of my knowledge I never even bothered to apply for beta, which made it something of a surprise to come home from work a few days ago to open my email and find an invitation from Carbine to this week's unscheduled beta weekend sitting in my inbox.   

Tobold, sufficiently taken with WildStar to break his self-imposed MMO fast, interprets the bonus access as a sign that Carbine need more bodies on the ground to test their still-buggy new UI. I smelled fear. Possibly desperation.

Pre-orders not hitting targets? Cast the net wider. He didn't even apply? So what? We have his info on file from some other game , don't we? Just set the hook. Maybe he'll bite. Either that or I did apply, late one night, after a bottle of red, months ago. Always possible.

Whatever, I had a key so I used it and here are my unformed early thoughts and reactions:

It's ugly. That's my overriding impression. If I had to sum up the entire game in two words those would be the two words that I'd use. It isn't the choice of cartoony graphics per se - I like cartoony graphics because I love cartoons.Tex Avery, AAP, Ub Iwerks, 1960s Hanna Barbera, Rocko's Modern Life... I used to take all that stuff pretty darn seriously.

It's not the aesthetic - the aesthetic is fine. It's not the detail either, although compared to some, most,  other recent MMOs the detail is less detailed than perhaps we've come to expect. No, it's the miserable camera that just won't settle on anything for a second or find an angle it finds comfortable. It's next to impossible to get a good look at anything. And the flat, featureless backgrounds that make your eyes ache just to look at them. I just felt so tired. 

That leads me on to my second major complaint, one that I've seen raised elsewhere, much though I've tried to avoid reading about the game: it's visualy frenetic, exhausting, enervating, just altogether too much. It literally gave me a headache.

The font is wearing to read. Thin. Not characterless (if only it were that) but full of the passive-aggressive threat of an overly self-controlled stranger in a bus terminal. The color palate is reminiscent of uncomfortable institutions; hospitals, perhaps, or the kind of correctional facilities you might envisage in a mass-market dystopian fantasy for "young adults".

The much vaunted "telegraphs" feel like trying to read with talk radio playing in the background. They don't seem very relevant to what you're doing and you can almost but not quite ignore them. The 140 character twitteresque quest texts are surprisingly effective -  terse and to the point - but any benefit of brevity they might have offered is undermined by the never-ending verbose gibbering that fills the screen.

NPCs jabber in hideous, angular speech blocks (you can't in good conscience call them bubbles), while blocks of text pop up from anywhere and everywhere at any time. I have never seen a busier screen and most of the business is text. The audio is busy, too, with stock phrases rattling out like a documentary on Tourrette's or some failed Steve Reich experiment.

The tutorial goes on forever. Forever and forever and forever. I made my character last night and played for a loooong time and then the server crashed and I went to bed. I picked up where i left off tonight and finally, after about an hour and a half, I shook free of the introduction and stepped out onto Nexus. Which was not as much of a relief as I'd hoped and expected it would be.

Claustrophobic. That's another word for WildStar. Short draw distances, tight horizons, limited perspective. It's a very controlled, tight game. Limited color palette too. After "exploring" for a while I ended up stuck in some kind of instance (flashback? projection? simulation? No idea), gave up and logged out.

So, I hated it, right? Nope. I quite liked it. I'm not about to pay a sub but if it was F2P or even B2P I'd be in. Why? I fell instantly in love with my character, for one thing. I haven't followed anything about WildStar's lore so I don't even know the name of the race but just look at those screenshots (which, by the way , look far better than anything looked in the actual game). Isn't he adorable? More to the point, doesn't he look like Benny the Ball's very slightly smarter cousin? And if there was a Top Cat MMO would you really ever want to play anything else?

The there's the gameplay. It's hardly intellectually challenging but then neither are most MMOs. What it is is familiar, comfortable and satisfying. They've sprayed a new-game sheen on top but underneath it's every hotbar combat MMO you ever played and that works for me. As for those heavily-hyped Paths - I have no idea. I took scientist, almost at random. You get a drone you can name, it scans stuff and you get books and titles. It's TSW and EQ2 and Rift and every other "collect the shiny" MMO. Works for me.

So, that's my 5 hour Eurogamer review.  I realize It's like reviewing a 500 page novel after reading the first page. I'm currently around three thousand five hundred hours into GW2 and I don't feel qualified to give any kind of definitive summation there, after all. It's not likely I'll get much further into WildStar to unravel its subtleties, assuming it has any, but it was nice to get a glimpse behind the veil.

I'd be surprised if this turns out to be a success even on the scale of FFXIV:ARR or Rift, let alone the long-mooted  WoW-killer, but I wish WildStar well. If it ever goes free-to-play I'll be happy to give it a decent run. Providing I have enough ibuprofen on hand.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

This Is No Time To Stop And Smell The Flowers : GW2

Ascalon is my favorite region of Tyria. Plains of Ashford and Diessa Plateau were the maps where I began my long love-affair with GW2 all the way back in beta and their power to charm hasn't faded though the crowds that used to fill them have. Over the long drift down from launch I've become used to roaming the burnished fields, brittle and golden in the eternal Ascalonian summer's end, alone.

Well, those days are over. The Megaserver's here and with it the crowds are back. Diessa even has some kind of Champ Train running - Nageling Giant, Spider, Seperatist Agitator, Wurm. I'm learning the names if not the rotation. The reports of the Death of the Champ Train turned out to be greatly exaggerated, by the way. Rumor has it most zones have one now.

There was a line for the Breached Wall vista, one of the hardest vistas in the game. I had to stop twice and wait for some Norns to play through because there wasn't room to make a couple of the more difficult jumps. The hard skill point at the end of the underwater tunnel at the West of Blackblade Lake wasn't very hard at all with a constant flow of people making sure the Veteran mage who guards it rarely got to cast his devastating AEs.

Vet's dead, baby. Vet's dead.

It's not quite like it was at launch. MMOs only ever have that extreme, hysterical pitch when everyone levels together in the first few frenzied weeks or in the bubble that forms after the release of specific level-based content like a new race or an expansion with a raised level cap. Instead it's more the steady hum of like-minded players all choosing to be in a particular place for specific reasons of their own.

A lot of people are clearly bent on map completion. Map chat rings with questions about specific PoIs and vistas and how to get to them. There are also a heartening number of genuine new players, asking typical new-player questions like "does anyone need a 5-slot bag?" (answer: no, no-one in the entire world, not even if it is purple") and "what's Meatoberfest"? (answer: it's a Charr thing. You wouldn't understand. Maybe if you're a Norn...)

Warm beer, burnt meat, explosives - I think I was at that party in 1982

Against my normal run of play I, too, was Doing Map Completion. Partly because I want to try and gauge how the new changes play with what I take to be the normative new-player playstyle, which would be to finish a map before moving to the next, and partly because I might as well get in practice because Map Completion is one of the prime requirements for obtaining Traits through gameplay.

I have two things to say about Map Completion:
  • The level ranges given on the maps in no way reflect the level required to complete them
  •  Not only is Map Completion not exploring, it is the very antithesis of exploring
GW2 was never designed to allow a player to level steadily and sequentially through adjacent, level-appropriate maps. This was a major issue for many players at launch but players have learned or the culture has changed and you rarely hear complaints about it any more. Far from it. People seem much happier to level at the fastest conceivable pace by any means that comes to hand (crafting, Champ trains, Living Story, WvW) then come back and finish off the bits they missed (aka nearly everything) at a comfortable Level 80 with all the mis-scaled downlevel advantage that brings.

Who are you calling chicken?

At launch I was the one in map chat patiently (or not) explaining to some guy that GW2 wasn't "that sort of MMO", that you didn't have to finish a map before moving on, that it didn't matter that you had finished your racial starter map at level 10 but the map said it was supposed to go 15, that it was fine to go to another racial starting city and do their starter map too, that you could get xp doing almost anything - crafting, gathering, helping Blood Legion NPCs in full plate armor to stand up after a dandelion seed floating by on the breeze had knocked them unconscious. ..  That was then. Now I am that guy.

Truth be told, as a Charr I always had a problem with the whole set-up. It's bad enough that your Personal Story takes a dozen episodes teaching you the supreme importance of loyalty to your Warband and the Charr military-industrial complex, then cuts you loose from both as some kind of half-assed secret agent. The Personal Story is utter twaddle but at least it has some kind of narrative to cling on to, to explain why you're doing everything but what you imagine your character might actually want to do.

Yes, that's bad, but It's worse still if you decide to ignore it all and just run around doing whatever you like. So what am I now? A Gladium? A renegade? How come they don't arrest me for desertion the moment I set foot in Black Citadel? It's not like they don't know who I am - everyone I speak to calls me by my name and recaps my back-story.

You just ate meat from a guy who lives in a cave full of giant spiders. What did you think would happen?

So its hard enough staying in character just exploring Ascalon. I can just about rationalize it as some kind of rite of passage to discover my Charr heritage and I guess, at a push, I could stretch it to cover Getting To Know The Enemy in Kryta or Cultural Exchange in the Shiverpeaks but the further you stretch it the thinner it gets.

Which makes it a problem that so far I'm completing each map in about half to two-thirds of the supposed intended level range. And come to think of it, why does that happen, exactly? Because leveling in GW2 is about as difficult as eating a jam donut, that's why! And always has been.

I "finished" the level 15-25 Map Diessa Plateau last night by dinging 20 on Map Completion.
Well that's an hour of my life I'll never get back
I'd started it several hours earlier at exactly Level 15, wearing a complete set of Fine quality crafted armor that I'd made for myself at the forge in Black Citadel. I had 11 Fine quality crafted Weapons I'd made, one of every type a Guardian can use. Every piece had appropriate Runes and Sigils that I'd bought from Our Benevolent Benefactor Evon Gnashblade (if only they'd listened to him...) through the Black Lion Trading Post. I'd made food and sharpening stones. I'd spent well over an hour prepping.

First Heart out the gate took me about 2-3 minutes and the grateful vendor  offered me a major upgrade for my entire armor set. It went on like that from there. I literally didn't get more than two or three minutes' wear out of some items before the upgrade arrived. Moreover, within half an hour I was turning down the upgrades on offer for the content I was completing because I couldn't equip it for three or even five levels.

Clearly whoever designed the Heart flagged "Level 23" expected that the players completing it would be...level 23 or higher. That's why you need to be that level to wear the armor it rewards. I was soloing those at level 17 at a pleasantly satisfying challenge level. If other people happened by and joined in, as they often did, the challenge level dropped to somewhere between trivial and gimme now!

It would be tempting to blame this on the difficulty pass ANet gave the whole sub-80 world to compensate for the later arrival of Traits. That may have something to do with it but I wrote this after Beta Weekend Two, in which I observed "I moved to the level 15 - 25 areas when I dinged 13 and roamed around leveling up on mobs between 2 and four levels higher than me for most of Sunday." It might have gotten even easier but it was always easy.

Gotta get all that human blood off this armor somehow

Okay, some of it does come down to elder characters. A first character would be able to open all the Karma vendors, who in Diessa are stuffed to bursting with really good stuff - armor, weapons, jewellery, kits, many, many recipes - but wouldn't necessary have enough Karma to buy everything the way I did with 4.5m karma in the bank. It hardly matters, though, because having all that kit only makes things go extremely fast instead of just very fast.

Is this a bad thing? No, not as such. If this was my first character I very definitely would not have been pushing ahead at such a pace because I'd have been exploring. Yesterday I was doing Map Completion so I didn't explore at all. It sounds contradictory but it's really not.

Exploring is looking around you, paying attention to your surroundings, seeing something interesting or puzzling and going to investigate. It's spotting somewhere you think you just might be able to get to and taking a hour finding out you can't, but not minding because of the half a dozen fascinating things you found, trying.

Map Completion, conversely, is opening your map, checking where the next PoI or vista or waypoint is, running there using speed buffs, dodge rolls, stability or whatever you have that means you don't have to stop or engage with anything along the way, getting the UI flash that tells you you've ticked the box then barreling on to the next. All the time I was doing mine, other people were doing theirs, zipping past me, looping round and running back. No-one stopped for anything. I was about the only one who even bothered to watch the Camera Obscura at the vistas.

Vet's dead, baby...oh, you already heard that one?

Cut to the chase: did I have fun? Hell, yes. Thinking it through I come to the only conclusion I seem able to reach when GW2 comes under analysis: it is what it is. I loved Diessa Plateau in beta, when I was almost literally the only one there and I played it as though I was soloing in early Everquest. I loved it just after launch when there seemed to be hundreds on the map and nearly all of them Charr or Norn. I've loved it ever since, soloing it, duoing it, farming, exploring or just visiting favorite spots (the Cowtapult, the Sniper Rifles, the Meatoberfest fireworks, so many to choose from).

The Megaserver gives yet another face to Diessa, as does racing through it to complete the map. GW2 was built with an infrastructure where fun, and even the more elusive satisfaction, seem riveted on as firmly as the panels on the walkways of Black Citadel itself. It's gameplay that's very hard to break (although God knows sometimes it seems like ANet are doing their best to try) and I'm still not seeing anything in the recent revamp that looks like it could come close to breaking it for a new player. 

So, what comes next? At 25 there's an odd hiatus in the Charr leveling path. There is no Ascalonian map that covers 25-30 and the 30-40 map, Fields of Ruin has no safe entry point from lower levels, as I found out the hard way so I'd have to go via Divinity's Reach, which my Guardian doesn't want to do. I might do Map Completion in Wayfarers, something I'm not sure I've ever done despite having spent an inordinate amount of time there, or I might go to Lornar's Pass to evaluate the megaserver impact some more.

Whatever I choose fun is guaranteed.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Picking Up The Pace : GW2

When GW2 arrived back in late summer of 2012 it sought to bring a number of new concepts to the MMO table. Two in particular attempted to address shortcomings perceived to have dogged the leveling process in earlier MMOs.

First there was the supposed problem of inverse progress. In most MMOs the early levels pass in a blur, things come into focus in the mid-levels and finally everything goes into slow-motion for the final grind to cap. Level five might take ten minutes, level thirty ten hours, level 80 a week. GW2 attempted to solve this inequality with something occasionally referred to, somewhat oxymoronically, as the "flat level curve".

According to Isaiah Cartwright on the ArenaNet Blog back in 2010 (long-vanished from the official website but handily preserved here) the idea was for every level to take roughly the same amount of time. Discounting the tutorial and possibly the very first few levels, the intended time-per-level all the way to 80 was planned to come in around a couple of hours or so, as evidenced, albeit with some interrogative fudging, in this Cartwright quote: " takes about the same time to go through each level. It’s pretty simple; if we expect you to level up every few hours, then why shouldn’t it be that way all through the game?"

Is ectoplasm flammable? I hope not...
The second dragon to be slain by the sword of the new paradigm was wasted sub-cap content. One reason for the years-long development cycle of triple-A MMOs is the immense amount of artist and designer hours it takes to create the topography and activity that makes up the virtual world. Games that attempt to control costs by launching with restricted leveling paths and minimal low and mid level zones risk taking a serious PR hit in terms of predicted re-playability. Rift would be an example.

The Catch-22 has long been this: you need to come out of the gate with a big, sprawling open world or MMO players won't take your game seriously. The established games that make up your competition have had years to build up portfolios of zones numbered in the dozens or even the hundreds. At the same time, you know that a few months after launch almost no-one will be using any of your expensive zones other those at the beginning and the end of the level curve.

MMO fashion has already moved on in just the couple of years since ANet thought they'd found a solution. If they were making GW2 now no doubt we'd be reading all about their marvelous procedural processes and emergent AI. Back then, though, the buzzword everyone was using was "Dynamic" and along with Dynamic Events in a Dynamic world they gave us Dynamic Level Adjustment.

I know Charr are big cats but this is ridiculous

What that meant in practice was that your character would never outgrow a map. A level 70 passing through a level 25 area would be seamlessly re-calibrated to match the level of his surroundings. If an event popped he could jump right in without either spoiling things for the natural lower-level players around or wasting his own time. He'd be challenged as though he was still 25th but he'd gain xp and karma appropriate to his actual level. All maps would therefore remain attractive to all levels forever.

That, at least, was the theory. Very quickly, however, it became apparent that most level 80s weren't interested in doing level 25 content for the fun and the challenge. They hadn't leveled all the way to the top just so they could drop back down to the bottom again and futz around there forever. They didn't need the xp, there were better ways to get the Karma and, with the possible exception of crafting mats, they had no use for the level 25 loot.

ANet attempted to make the idea more attractive by changing things so that loot dropped based on the character's actual rather than dynamic level, but even so it turned out that most players just weren't all that interested in revisiting maps they'd "done" (unless, of course, there was a hefty bribe, a nice, fat loot pinata like The Shatterer, say, or a no-effort, goof-off Champ Train).

Go fer yer guns, Black Jake!

This history was flitting through my mind on and off yesterday as I leveled my new Guardian from five to fifteen, a thoroughly absorbing, entertaining and satisfying experience but one that made me wonder, possibly for the first time, whether the Flat Leveling Curve and Dynamic Level Adjustment may not be such great ideas after all. It's a thought that surprised me because they were two of the pre-launch concepts that most attracted me to GW2 in the first place and which, I would have said until now, had served me well as a player.

In brief, what happened was this: my character developed. In the course of Easter Sunday, from early afternoon until around midnight, she acquired and learned how to use eleven types of weapon, trained in six of the eight tradeskills, made herself food, weapons and full sets of armor at level five and again at level ten, acquired and spent half a dozen skill points and gained, often at considerable risk and with considerable effort, Map Completion for Plains of Ashford.

Or you could go to WvW to bank, respond to a Map Call to Hills and end up level fifteen at 3 a.m.
That works too.
 That done, she stood back to take a look at herself. She saw a well-rounded, well-equipped adventurer; level twelve with plenty of room to improve. While I'd strongly prefer that all her weapon skills weren't finished just because opening them is a lot of fun and getting it done so fast feels a bit like eating all your Easter Egg in one go (something else I may or may not have done yesterday) but that's a minor regret. All the rest of the pleasurable process of developing and improving that character remains before me.

By implication, therefore, at 80 it will lie behind me. It will have been done. Being able to roam the world, a faux-ingenue, her orange exotics temporarily sprayed mastercraft green, her punches perforce pulled, simply cannot be as satisfying. It can be fun, yes, but fun only takes you so far.

The counter to this is to make a stream of characters, which is what I have done. But the trip to cap in GW2, even if you try to slow it down, takes no more than three or four weeks. Even leaving aside the cost of new slots, just how many characters can one person play?

Baby's First Maw

Perhaps after all it would have been preferable to have at least a modified version of the usual, unbalanced upward curve. Perhaps "completing" a map should take a few days, not a few hours, even for ANet's very specific value of "Complete". Perhaps it would be better to take a few months rather than a few weeks to climb the ladder to the roof. Perhaps by then all those maps might look fresher and more inviting to re-visit.

Or perhaps not. Perhaps I'd be complaining of the grind and the tedium and couldn't we just cut to the chase. Well, I probably wouldn't but very many would. Replayability is not an easily-solved problem for MMOs and it turns out that ANet didn't have the magic wand they thought they did, but still, GW2 makes a better go of it than many.

Whether the current fix will make the journey more compelling or more off-putting remains to be seen. At the moment I'm more open-minded about it than I expected. Fifteen levels have flown by even though I've been trying to take things slow and steady. So far I don't see any evidence of gameplay or design decisions likely to make a brand new player log off in frustration or boredom, never to return. The implementation may be iffy but it's possible the conception may yet be sound. And even if it's not I'm very happy I decided to go find out for myself.

Next up, Diessa Plateau and the Megaserver Experience:  Greatest Hits or that Difficult Second Album?

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Now We Are Six : GW2

All last weekend there was a special offer on additional character slots in GW2. I kept casting sideways glances at it. I checked the gold-to-gems conversion rate every hour or three. I uhmmed and ahhhed and slept on it and put off making a decision and then the offer went away.

Usually that's a strategy that works well for me. Gone, forgotten. Not this time. A couple of posts back, Isey asked in the comments whether GW2 would now be better from a new player's perspective and I wondered that as well. Syp stirred the pot by quoting an excellent analysis of the situation by Verene at Under A Pale Tree. Verene has a second, detailed post that really nails just how badly this aspect of the revisions to the leveling game would seem to have been handled.

Still, it's one thing to look at a new pair of shoes but the only way to know how well they fit is to put them on and walk around for a while, so yesterday I got my credit card out and gave ANet the first money they've had from me since I bought my second account a few weeks after launch. If it turns out that, as I expect, I absolutely despise the way they've re-arranged the traits then I guess it'll be the exact opposite of sending a message to that effect by Voting With Your Wallet but leaving that aside, so far I'd say it's money very well spent.

It's been months, months! since I leveled my last GW2 character and I really didn't realize just how very much I've missed it. This is the MMO that makes by far the best fist of holding my attention at max level and I thought I was quite content bimbling around with my gang of 80s, but it turns out I was wrong. The moment I finished knocking Duke Barridin's statue into rubble and stepped out onto the riveted metal plate floor at the entrance to Black Citadel it felt like I'd just bought an amazing, exciting, brand new game. To quote Commander Siegerazer, "This is what I live for!".

My plan to make a Charr Engineer fell through yet again due to operator error: I bought the new slot on the same account where my Asura Engineer lives. I already have two rangers on that account; two engineers would be enough evidence to get any doctor to sign section papers, so I made a Charr Guardian instead, on the grounds that I don't have any heavy armor classes on that account, plus my other Guardian is a Sylvari (that'd make a great bumper sticker).

Character creation remains completely unchanged since launch as far as I remember. I'd forgotten just how ugly you can make a Charr look - shattered horns, broken teeth, wrinkled, sagging, aged skin, patchy fur, milky blinded eyes... Not that I went that route, but it was nice to have the option  I'm betting you can't make a female Human or even a Norn that looks ancient, battered and weary the way you can a female Charr.

As I've often commented, for my tastes GW2 characters rarely improve in appearance from the look you can give them at character creation and the starting armor for a Heavy-wearing Charr, dyed a natural copper color, looks as good as just about anything in the game. Even the very first set of 40 copper vendor armor looks fantastic, as does the lowest crafted and dropped gear. I realize that those of us who prefer it have the option of transmuting the look via the wardrobe, but it makes for a poor motivator if eighty levels later you'd pay money to look like you'd were still level one.

The Tutorial's clearly not been converted to Megaserverdom because I was the only one there. It scales perfectly though and I was through in under five minutes and out onto Plains of Ashford. Before I'd even got my bearings some charr farmer was yelling that his cows had escaped so I grabbed a cattle prod to round them up and that was me off and running.

Plans of Ashford isn't on the Megaserver either but there were half a dozen young Charr roaming Gunbreach Hills and Lake Feritas. After an encounter with the Rampaging Skale which led to my Guardian making a tactical withdrawal ("regenerates health" - oh yes, so he does) I decided to run to the bank in Black Citadel to see if there was anything I might use (don't say the T word...) which brings me to the first major issue with the GW2 approach when it comes to starting a new character.

It is flat-out impossible not to twink a new character on an existing account. The best you can do is exercise will-power by not spending or allocating the resources you've been given automatically. Not taking advantage of all the goodies in the bank was easy enough - I'd long since thrown out everything under 80. I looked askance at the Experience Scrolls and Tomes of Knowledge stacked up in there. There were enough to bump my little Guardian instantly to Level 31, which would have let her get straight to the Traits but would miss the entire point of how long and hard the road might feel, getting there.

Those stayed where they were but when it comes to gold, crafting mats, Karma, World Ability Points, Laurels, Wardrobe Skins or just about anything else it's much harder for a fresh recruit to remain virtuous when she has unfettered access to everything the grizzled vets have earned.

If you were sufficiently determined (or demented) there are work-arounds for a cleanish start. You could put all your cash, items and mats in a personal guild bank and disband the new character from that guild, for example. You could keep count of how many WvW ranks your level-up had personally earned, make a note of how much mana she was granted from each Heart, do all the dailies only on that character and count the Laurels and so on. You'd last about two hours before you cracked, I reckon. Less if you actually wanted to play one of your other characters.

So, the new character experience of a player with an established account is by necessity going to be very unrepresentative of the experience a genuine new purchaser of the game will have, even discounting the inevitable inability of the vet to forget what he or she knows. I did seriously consider buying a third account for this experiment, which, short of deleting every character on an existing one, is the only way I can think of to get a genuine fresh start. It might still come to that - god knows it's tempting... but for now I am going to go the "new character on old account" route, report on that and do my best to imagine what it would feel like for a real new starter. 

On that note, whooooahhhhh! Black Citadel! I can't rationally explain why, but the moment I started up that ramp as a fresh level two recruit the entire city hit me as strongly all over again as it did back in beta. It's not like I haven't been there recently, either. I've passed through plenty of times on various characters just last week. I often bank and craft among the Charr. For some inexplicable reason, though, playing a new character made me see it entirely anew. The city is magnificent, the experience wonderful.

That's how I came to spend almost two hours on Black Citadel map completion, something that I can now attest is possibly the slowest possible way to get from level 2 to level 3. Worth every second though, even if I did have to watch a YouTube video for the final two POIs (and watch it four times before I got the final one). And that's with having completed BC on two previous characters, not to mention having done a guide on the Vistas!

Anyone who hasn't fallen in love with GW2 after Black Citadel map completion is probably too jaded to rise from their chaise-longue to sugar their absinthe. It's my favorite place in Tyria and one of my favorite imaginary places anywhere. I had to force myself not to take more screenshots. Not very successfully. Despite, as I said, having already done the full map twice I saw several areas I swear I have never seen before.

That done, I went to the Guardian Trainer to look at what lies ahead. There you can, in an extremely annoying and unintuitive way, browse every trait, Fine, Masterwork and Rare. These are called Adept, Master and Grandmaster in your character's Trait panel, which would risk confusing a new player if he could actually see it, a problem handily solved by having the Trait panel locked until level 30.

I literally shook my head in despair at this point. Not only are new players now intended to wait thirty levels before they can begin acquiring Traits (most of which, according to Verene's analysis, will be out of their reach in any practical sense for far longer than that) but they aren't even permitted to know what's coming. What in the name of the gods that don't exist do they think they are playing at?

Moreover, how, exactly, is a genuine new player going to have any idea that he even can gain Traits through doing content? The Trainer doesn't explain it. He just has all the traits listed as buyable books. The Trait panel, which does explain it, is locked. Surely a new player will visit his trainer out of curiosity (there are plenty of them, clearly flagged), see that Traits cost ten silver and two skill points at the low end and go thirty levels assuming that's the only way to get them.

Of course new players can go to the wiki or any number of outside sources to find out how it works, see what's in store, even play around with builds on trait builders, but what kind of substitute is that for seeing them in game on your actual character? No kind, that's what kind!

I'll save commenting in detail about the asinine choices ANet have made for the ways and means that the traits can be unlocked when those options are eventually revealed. Verene has already made those points anyway (although that's sure not going to stop me weighing in if changes haven't been made by the time I get that panel opened up). For now I'll just settle for saying that locking that Trait panel is idiotic and inexcusable.

To recover from that unpleasant surprise I headed out to Plains of Ashfield to wash away the bad taste with Flame Legion blood. In moments all thoughts of traits were forgotten. I had a rip-roaring time tearing through events and hearts while filling out my dailies without even trying. In under an hour I'd completed the north-west corner of the map, acquired several new weapons and upgrades, dinged five and had more fun than I've had in GW2 for about a year.

As I write this I'm impatient to get back in and carry on. I had to stop last night to go defend the Honor of the Yak which was being severely tarnished by assaults from FA and HoD but really what I wanted to do was carry on leveling, something I plan on spending as much of today doing as I can. Of course, even before the revamp Traits didn't appear until Level 10 so it's too early to see any practical impact from the change. I can say for certain, though, that no matter how hard devs may try to break it, leveling up remains the most fun you can have in an MMO. Any MMO.

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