Monday, June 30, 2014

Test Result Negative: GW2

The Level-A-Guardian Project came to an end some time ago. The original intention as detailed here was to start a new character and take her to the cap under the new conditions imposed by the Feature Pack. Back then there was a lot of concern that the changes to Traits would make leveling slower, harder, less entertaining and I wanted to find out for myself if those concerns were justified.

They aren't. Yep, it's that simple. Having leveled nine characters to 80 under the old system I can honestly say I noticed no difference whatsoever leveling the tenth under the new, or not, at least, in how much fun I had doing it. Leveling in GW2 was straightforward, simple and fun before and it still is. As I observed in an earlier post, The Trait Unlock mechanic remains sadly underdeveloped and peripheral but on the other hand you don't need traits at all to level up. At worst it's a botched opportunity to make Trait-hunting something to look forward to but in no way does it constitute a roadblock to fun or progress.

By the time my Guardian hit the sixties the project was more or less off the rails anyway. The lure of World Bosses and WvW pulled her from the true path of leveling by Hearts and Map Completion. After a brief flurry of excitement in the forties, when she realized she could wear and wield Rares, good housekeeping took over and any that dropped went onto the Trading Post to feed what I presume must be the min-max market. Given that each level in GW2 takes about an hour at the outside and you can change your entire armor set every five levels it can only be obsessive number-crunchers who find it worthwhile spending that kind of money but I'm happy to be the one taking their silver.

So my Guardian dinged 80 decked out in a motley collection of level 55-60 green quality drops and karma-vendor trinkets, in which she'd had not the slightest difficulty progressing smoothly and enjoyably. At this point a genuine first-time character might run into a speed-bump trying to scrabble up Exotics. I don't think you'd earn enough Karma for a full set at the Temples just by leveling up the regular way. You might get enough Badges from 80 levels of WvW although the life of an uplevel in the Borderlands can be trying.

To test that I'd either need to buy a third account or run a spreadsheet and enter every single Karma award and Badge earned on the specific character I was leveling up and, while I'm not saying that doesn't tempt me, unless I can find an institution willing to accept it as the basis for a Master's thesis I don't think I'll bother right now. It was thoroughly enjoyable instead to take her up to the vendors in the Yak's Bend Citadel and kit her out with a full set of Berserker armor and some more tanky accessories courtesy of the thousands of badges already earned by the rest of her team. Or I could have gone the Temple route and used some of my five million karma...

As for the Traits, I'd drifted so far from the original plan I'd forgotten about them to the extent that I'd only eve gotten around to spending the first couple of points, a situation which wasn't corrected until this weekend, by which time she'd been eighty for a couple of weeks or more. I finally got around to visiting the Trainer, buying the three or four Traits I needed and putting her into some kind of "build" that I got off the forums. It cost me about three gold and thirty or so Skill Points.

You can easily make three gold in a couple of hours doing World Bosses and I had over 80 skill points banked from leveling up alone, so again the barrier presented by the Trait Revamp is trivial. Yes, if you wanted to open all your Traits by adventuring it would take you weeks and to buy them all would cost scores of gold and heaps of skill points, but why would you need to do that? Even if you're the sort of person who likes to swap builds you'll probably never use the huge majority of traits. Just buy the ones you need when you need them.

My curiosity is satisfied. Neither the Trait Revamp nor the Megaserver turned out to be as disruptive or deleterious to a good, casual romp as had been bruited. Of the two the Megaserver remains the more problematic but that, too, has settled down into a background hum, easy to ignore. I see people I recognize often now so the sorting seems to have become more consistent at least. They still aren't the same people I saw regularly before the change but I can live with that. At least we can get Teq done on a regular basis in pick-up maps now, which is nice.

One thing the Project has made certain: there will be more characters. Leveling up is the most fun GW2 has to offer. I was in Wayfarer Foothills yesterday and one of the many new players (a half price sale will do that) asked if it got boring leveling up new characters after the first. Map chat resounded with a volley of variations on the theme "Like hell it does!". As one veteran player put it "Why do you think we're all here in a starting zone?".

Next up, Charr engineer or Asuran Mesmer for me I think. Mrs Bhagpuss has been leveling a Sylvari Thief because cultural armor. I sold a stack of ectos yesterday when the price was sky high so I can afford another character slot.

Before all that, though, comes Living Story Season Two. After watching the video (those explosions come from inside the ships) and listening to the soundbites all I can say is I told you so and so did Taimi, only unlike her I never trusted those Zephyrites.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

A Cold Wind In Summer or What Did Steam's Summer Sale Ever Do For Us?

It's that time of year again or, rather, it's one of those times. How many sales does Steam run, anyway? I should know - I do have a Steam account. I opened it a long while ago for some specific reason that I no longer recall. I'm not sure I have ever actually used it for anything.

Once in a very blue moon I log into Steam, look around, wonder what the heck I'm doing and log out. Usually I've been prompted to remember Steam exists by a flurry, a blizzard even, of fervid, manic, gleeful blog posts, in which excited bargain-hunters list all the games they've bought together with the prices they paid and how much money they saved.

It reminds me of the aftermath of a World Boss event in GW2, when people link any Rares and Exotics they've looted from the Big Chest. That used to be a thing, back when you could easily go a week or two between Rares and a month between Exotics, even if you ran the circuit every day. Then Anet added the guaranteed daily Rare and tweaked the loot tables so that, now, the chance of a yellow item feels somewhere close to 50-50 and mostly people don't make a song and dance about it every time they get one.

[Pro-tip - The Maw always gives a Rare, often two or three. I do it at least once every day, more often two or three times, and  I've been keeping a close watch on it since about last November. I have never, not once, failed to get at least one yellow item from Fred the Shaman. No other World Boss is as generous or as consistent].

Poor Fred. He gets no respect.

This year a sense of ennui, or maybe it's disenchantment, seems to be dogging the Steam Sale. Some bloggers are so sated they're skipping it altogether or, more realistically, planning to skip then caving in. Some, naturally, remain gleefully willing to throw money at Valve as fast as they can get their wallets open, but the general feeling appears to be one of caution, wariness, even concern.

Ayren is challenging Steam users to, y'know, play the games they buy. There's an idea ahead of its time if ever I saw one. Sales, after all, aren't about getting things you need, or even things you want. They're about getting things for less than they ought to cost. The value of the transaction comes at the moment the money leaves your hand, not when you finally get around to using the thing you bought, if indeed that should ever come to pass.

One of the primary reasons Mrs Bhagpuss and I ended up with MMORPGs as a full-time hobby was almost certainly the superb job Everquest did of replacing our previous pastime, which was spending weekends traveling to every town, village and field in a fifty-mile radius to visit car boot sales, jumble sales, book and record fairs, charity/thrift/junk shops, markets... any place at all where A Bargain might be found.

Life is too short to photograph Gonk Glasses. Even that I thought about doing it is problematic.

The upshot of several years of such behavior was a house filled to bursting with unconsumed entertainment and ironic kitsch. There's a yellow melamine-handled 1950s egg whisk hanging on the wall and a set of 1960s Gonk glasses on a shelf in our kitchen to this very day, while in the seldom-used front room slumber stacks of vinyl albums by bands who turned out to be a lot less interesting than their names might lead you to believe, piles of books that are never going to be opened let alone read (complete set of Starsky and Hutch paperbacks, anyone?) and a lot, no, really, a LOT more.

All of it was "a bargain" or at least it felt like one at the time. If any of it had been for sale at collector's prices in an antique shop we'd never have gone within a mile of it. Then, like a digital intervention, enter Everquest with its seemingly endless array of desirable items that take up no space whatsoever, distributed wide and far across a whole imagined world to travel, alive with towns, villages, castles and keeps, each with its own scatterings, clusters, whole streets and marketplaces filled with vendors willing to trade you the cast-offs of tens of thousands of adventurers. Oh, and I think there might have been some monsters.

I won't re-hash the ineffable joys of vendor diving in EQ. We've been there all too often. I will say that it had its own issues, though. By the time we moved to EQ2 we were about in need of a 12-step program, not for Evercrack itself but for those whole sessions spent trying to cover every vendor in Plane of Knowledge just in case someone might have sold a Foul Smelling Liquid or a Razorfiend Talon by mistake.

Fire a little to the right, Jeeves.

I've been a collector and a pack-rat all my life but Everquest and the MMOs that followed successfully moved my obsession into the virtual. Our house is still as full of stuff as it was fifteen years ago but at least we haven't added that much since. I hardly buy anything any more. There's no need.

As my habits and hobbies have changed, so has the world. The whole Steam Sale phenomenon and the rumblings of discontent it's starting to induce exemplify how. For certain classes of entertainment the physical carrier is becoming obsolete. In the transitional phase movies, games and music continued in a dual format - digital information bought on a hard copy at a store and carried home to be installed, or you could order online and wait a few days for it to land with a clunk on the doormat.

Now all of them, joined by books and comics, newspapers and magazines, exist, flourish, and thrive as purely digital artifacts, downloadable, streamable, permanently available in an instant anywhere on Earth on any device capable of hosting them. Steam capitalized on this change but now even the change is changing.

When I was growing up scarcity ruled. Even information was sparse.There was no WorldWideWeb, no Wikipedia to turn to for the full bibliography of the author whose tattered paperback novel you'd come across in the cut-out bin in Woolworths, where I discovered William Burroughs Jr's Speed. No YouTube to flick to to get your Tallulah Gosh fix.

No, it was grab it if you saw it and bloody well hang on to it. Lend a book to a friend and you were running a major risk. Take your treasured seven-inch of Love Goes To A Building On Fire to a party and it was odds-on you'd never see it again. Not that I'm bitter.

This place is heaving!

So that's what I learned to do. See it, sieze it, stash it. Have I moved on now the digital future's here? Not much. I stack digital files and double-stack them separately just in case. Just in case what, though? In case my house burns down? In case Google goes out of business? In case they close YouTube down? In case someone switches the internet off?

It's not rational, is it? The bag is open and the cat jumped out. If Google vanished overnight taking YouTube with it, would it even matter? All this stuff has been digitized. It's done. None of it is going away, ever. And if the Internet ever falls down and can't get up then I think we'll all have something more pressing to deal with than lack of immediate access to The Monks on German TV in 1966.

So it is that I find myself wondering, more than ever, what is the point of a Steam Sale? Why does anyone even bother? All these games will be there, always. If anyone really wants to play them they can play them, any time. If Steam or GOG go away, won't they just be replaced, one way or another? And most importantly, will generations growing up in a world of surfeit not scarcity, at least when it comes to digitized entertainment, even consider ownership an issue? Or understand what it means?

In just over four weeks Sony Online Entertainment will switch off the machines that keep Vanguard alive. As I alluded a few posts back there's a possible afterlife and as Argo and others have demonstrated MMOs can respawn. Still, of all the digital distractions on offer persistent, online virtual worlds may be the most evanescent. Ironically they're also about the last you can't possess.

Pondering on all this brought me to take two overdue actions: I bought the full version of FRAPS so I can record some of my favorite places in Telon before they vanish, and I logged into City of Steam : Arkadia for the first time in far too long, because word association.

That's what I got out of this year's Steam Summer Sale. Bargain!

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Underground, Overground : Landmark

And so to the MMO no-one mentions any more. I logged into Landmark last night in an effort (and it was an effort) to pay attention to something other than GW2. Rather hard to do when you've got "Woh! I'm going to Maguuma" playing on a loop in your head to the tune of Typically Tropical's Barbados . (As do you, now, if you followed that link. No need to thank me!).

Landmark reminds me of a never-ending game of Grandmother's Footsteps. As long as you're looking right at it nothing happens and goes right on not happening as long as you keep paying attention but turn away for a moment and everything takes a great leap forward. I do try to keep up by reading the patch notes but that only takes a person so far. Sometimes you just have to steel yourself and log in.

Last time I took a look it was because they'd added water. It was water you could walk on, granted, but at least it was there. Now you can swim in it, on it and even under it, or so they say. I have to take that on trust for now, because although I did try to get to the coast to see the miracle for myself, SOE seem to be progressively de-optimizing the client and traveling anywhere feels like pushing through treacle.

Consequently I never made it as far as the shoreline but as I waded through the thickened air of Not-Norrath I happened upon something even more interesting : A Cave.

Caves were added a couple or three weeks ago. I read about the first iteration and followed the feedback on the forums. Even the perpetual Pollyannas who make up the bulk of the presumed-minimal playerbase (every server bar one always shows "Low" population whenever I log in and my own Island now has no more than four or five active Claims) were struggling to sound sunny about the initial iteration.

Undaunted, I did log in back then to take a sounding of my own but I couldn't even find a cave before the client froze, effectively killing what little interest I'd been able to muster. Since then, according to both the Update Notes and commentary on the Forum, things are much improved. All the snipe and snark now seems to center around the quality of the contents of the Chests you can find in the no-longer-quite-so-dark depths, rather than the tedium, frustration and futility of looking for them in the first place.

I can't comment on what's in a Landmark Cave Chest because I didn't find one. What I did find was a much more airy, light and attractive complex of tunnels, drops and caverns than I was expecting. With no lightsource of my own I was able to explore for fifteen minutes or so by the glow of plants, mushrooms and those giant pineapples that serve as organic streetlights.

The cave I found was attractive, labyrinthine and large, generously appointed with veins of ore, gems and harvestable plants. After fifteen minutes I had gotten myself so turned around and lost I wasn't even certain which way was up any more. My grappling hook helped but long before it got me anywhere in sight of the surface I gave up and used the "Visit Someone's Claim" facility in the Showcase to port to another island and daylight. Claustrophobics (of whom I am not one) will not find any of this fun.

All of which makes me go hmmmmmmmm.

The gist of how gathering will work in Landmark appears to be as follows, although This Is Beta! and anything can and probably will change:
  • Basic ores, gems and most wood will be on the surface. Rare ores and gems and other goodies will be underground. 
  • To find specific ores and gems you'll need a Device, which you will have to craft or buy from someone who crafts it for you. Reports are that it doesn't work all that well.
  • There will be falling damage and it will kill you if you fall far enough. In the first five minutes I fell down a dropshaft that would, I'm sure, have been fatal with falling damage. Whether you'll have to find your corpse to get your stuff back has not, as far as I know, been revealed.
  • There will be aggressive monsters in the caves that will want to kill you. You will have to fight them and win if you want to gather materials down there.
Even with all the materials needed for Claimbuilding just lying on the surface as they were in Alpha and Pre-Cave Beta, the sheer grind of gathering them was frequently presented as a potential problem for the game. I'm not entirely convinced that making the more sought-after mats much, much less accessible while at the same time adding severe risk to virtual life and limb is going to give Landmark the immediate mass-market appeal a F2P game centered on building structures would wish to have.

On the other hand, neither am I sure it won't. If the game was properly optimized and/or I had a PC that wasn't getting on five years old and everything was running smooth as butter, I think that perhaps exploring caves, fighting monsters and returning with my packs full of valuable rocks I could sell at great profit to Stay-at-Claim wannabe architects might be pretty darn entertaining.

However that turns out, there's one thing about which I am already convinced. EQNext, using this engine, is going to look glorious. For that, if perhaps not for Landmark, I will buy a new PC.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Blue Dress On : GW2, Everquest

This is the year of comfortably stuck. Good intentions come and go. The mouse pointer wavers and having wavered moves on. To Guild Wars 2. Always there.

What is it about this tar baby? Every time you think you've pulled free, there you are, stuck again. The ever-revolving, wide-open door brings people round and back and round again. Old names, forgotten names, familiar names, every one a guest at the greatest permanent floating zerg party of them all.

It's summer. The sun is high, the day is long, the crowds are thinned. Where the Megaserver packed maps now there's room to move. Maybe not at The Maw. Or Karka Queen. Yesterday I learned the callout for Seigerazer dropped from ten to five a patch or so back. A portent or merely recognition of functional change?

Next week the story machine rolls out once more, shined up, repainted, refitted and repurposed. All aboard for skylarks. Wave goodbye to those good intentions.

I love the smell of Undead in the morning

But meanwhile I've been playing me some Everquest. That leg-up to 85 thing worked. Not exactly as intended. Ditto All Access. Somehow finding time for more than one EQ franchise title never happens. They jostle each other out. EQ2 gave way to Landmark (still so an EQ franchise, play it as they may), Landmark to Everquest. This coming, fatal month should, will, belong to cousin Vanguard.

In the elder game, though, level 85 turned 86 turned 87. Steady progress. Concentration. I'd love to get to 90. I will get to 90. One hundred seems an awful high climb though. Might rest a while, looking up.

I bought the White Wolf Befallen scenario. Then nothing else would do but go there. I may have mentioned this. It's been an instructional experience. Let no-one tell you Everquest is easy now. Easier, yes. Dress age-appropriately for the millennium, though, and no hired cleric is going to heal you through a bad full-room pull. Voice of experience talking.

You're not going in there dressed like that?

Four or five forays into the tainted dark, waking up once more on the floor outside the bank in The Bazaar, my enchanter takes the hint. Raw silk in the bag. Out come the coins. We peruse the stocklists. Simple Defiant never goes out of style, does it? Prices haven't changed much, either. New wardrobe. Gimme.

Gussied up like it was 2007, back we go. Fear me and my deep hit point well. Actually, don't bother. You can't. Check these resists, babe! No more ending a fight flat-lined on mana, ducking to mem ITU, animation clacking at that grey skeleton suddenly spotting an opening. No more sitting on the bonedust flags. Is this Breeze on? Now that blue line barely drops, those casts channel through (oh that good AC...). Clear this room, on to the next.

Boondin Babbinsport conned red. Allakhazam warns he likes to hide behind a chunk of rock. That's how he caught me last time: tashing one of his skeletal pals, agroing the entire room. Didn't even see he was there, then, far less check his color rating.

Bring it, musty! I'll take you all on!

This time we take a good look before the pull. Imagine a lone enchanter sizing up a red con, solo, underground, back in the day. Although, some enchanters I knew... Anyway, I wouldn't have done it, then. I was always a careful, cautious soloist. Not for me the "charm one red and set it on another" white-knuckle ride. Lull, lull, single pull. Lull, single pull. Single pull. Mez any resisters, back off, mem blur, start again. Gate always at the ready. That's my style.

Was.Those days are over (unless you don't want them to be - see under Raw Silk). We pull the room. We tank the room. We kill the room. Hectic, fun, not without risk even now. That blue line can drop still, it seems, and the red, but evil gnomes drop faster.

At 25, Babbinsport skulks at the top of the Befallen food chain. Close thereabouts, anyway, not counting add-ins and extras that drifted in over the years. My enchanter entered Befallen at eighteen, came out twenty. Very much fun was had, although whether she found it as much fun as I did, who can say. I wasn't the one being hit repeatedly about the head and body with rusty weaponry after all.

I'm not sure it needs to do anything.

Beatings aside, the scenery was wonderful. It takes a few minutes to attune to 20th Century graphics but Norrath was, is and always will be strikingly beautiful. Even down an evil hole in the sand. And those spell effects! Spectacular isn't a big enough word. Superspectaculacular!!! That might get there. Makes you want to level up just to see more of that.

So, on we go. I wonder if one of my druids fancies a little run out? Been a long time since I enjoyed a really good root-DoT.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

If You Build It... : Vanguard

Someone had to do it.

Someone did.

If You Don't Get The Roots... : GW2

In Guild Wars 2, just over a week from now, Season Two of The Living Story will begin. It's been a long old while since the end of Season One and I wouldn't be at all surprised if a lot more people weren't planning on dropping by to see what's new than ever would have seemed likely back in the dark days of 2013.

For a while, back at the start, when the opening dog-and-pony show was stuttering around the low Shiverpeaks and the back end of Ascalon, it all seemed mightily underwhelming. (Oddly, those early skirmishes seem to have been airbrushed out of the revisionist Recap, along with an awful lot else that no-one cares to remember any more). Then, as the achievement mill span up to operating speed and the two-week grinder began to grip, the traffic in complaints began to go the other way as stressed and fractious achievers struggled to keep up with the relentless pace, while non-achievers tutted and shook their heads at the sheer futility of it all.

Somewhere along the way Scarlet Briar introduced herself to near-universal derision and satori was achieved. The perfect meld of content no-one wanted, delivered via mechanics no-one enjoyed, to tell a story no-one cared to hear about a character no-one liked.

And then (was it slowly or was it suddenly?) things began to change. By the time the first story arc thundered to a close in the early months of 2014 the mood had shifted. Naysayers remained but their narrative no longer carried the day. Doubts were being given the benefit. There were mutterings of interest from some corners, grudging anticipation from others. After all, if you put a dragon on the mantlepiece in Act One, surely it has to fly before the final curtain and a dragon pays for a lot.

The long hiatus between seasons (what has it been? Two months? Three?), which seemed such a risk, turns out to have been well-judged. Long enough for exhaustion to slump into ennui, for frustration to fade to boredom. It wasn't so bad after all, was it? Something new to do every couple of weeks, that was alright, wasn't it? Don't you miss that? Even that annoying sylvari with her bottomless bag of tricks and her infuriating giggle, she did have something, didn't she?

The pump's well-primed. Now here comes the first gush of information, sparkling with a rainbow spray of "we hear you". Permanent content. Replayable content. Challenging content. Content at a pace you can control. And, above all, content that comes with an irresistible New Dragon smell.

So far, so sure-footed. And then there was this.

It may look like nothing more than an IGN squib but in fact it's the drop from this official Season Two Trailer on the GW2 website. That link goes nowhere else. So we must assume, must we not, that whatever that link takes us to is sanctioned and authorized, else why puff it up as a promo reveal?

So, if that's canon, what are we to make of the first half of the opening sentence of the final paragraph?

"While Scarlet may be out of the picture for now..."

Never believed she was dead. Not for a moment. Roll on the first of July.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

There's No Place Like Home : SOE, PSS1

It's well over two years since I first posted about SOE's deal with German satellite TV company PSS1. No point rehashing the whole sorry saga. For anyone who hasn't been following this particular slow-motion train wreck, EQ2Wire has a brief outline of the long, twisty trail that today ended, inevitably, right back where it began.

Yes, as many predicted all along, especially those of us who lived through SOE's similarly brief, equally ill-judged (but far less coercive and therefore less controversial) fling with UbiSoft, it just didn't work. As of right now anyone in the PSS1 region who plays or wants to play any SOE game can do so without going through a middleman and as of July all DCUO, EQ2 and Planetside2 accounts made or registered with PSS1 transfer to SOE.

It's always been my strong feeling that this whole deal was pushed onto SOE by whichever division of SonyCorp they report to (is it still the PlayStation division?). Feldon's EQ2Wire article includes one vital piece of the jigsaw that I hadn't previously picked up, which pretty much confirms my suspicions: that being the licensing of the entire Sony Pictures "entertainment library" to PSS1. Collateral damage I think they call it. Or maybe friendly fire.

I always doubted the arrangement would hold long enough for EQNext to feature in any PSS1 package. When Landmark was announced as a standalone project outside the remit of the deal the writing was on the wall. Then, as Player Studio began to move front and center in SOE's five year plan and the extreme complexities of setting up the necessary international legal framework became more widely understood, the likelihood of finding a viable way to include both versions of all the games that would rely on paid-for, taxable player-made content passed out of the realms of wishful-thinking and into the arena of psychotic delusion.

Whatever, it's over now. I'm sure the behind-the-scenes story would be something worth reading. Maybe when Smed retires and writes his autobiography.

It would also be oh so nice to think that lessons had been learned but when you're a small, regional cog in a vast, global machine no-one "important" really cares what you may or may not have learned. You either do what your told or they find someone who will.

So I'm not saying we won't be back here or somewhere strikingly similar in another few years. All I am saying is that, if there's one thing you can generally rely on SOE for it's to bumble through until they get things there-or-thereabouts right. In the end. Eventually.

Sometimes you do have to wait an awfully long time before that end comes around. All too often the road takes an awful lot of wrong turns along the way. Still, better late than never, isn't that what they say?

Now, everyone close your eyes, cross your fingers and toes, click the heels of those little red shoes I know you're all wearing and make a wish for Vanguard.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

WildStar Reaction Round-Up

It took most of yesterday morning and some of the afternoon to plow through the nearly two hundred posts that piled up in my Feedly feed while we were away. I did take both my Android tablet and my iPod Touch with me but hotel WiFi, at least in the kind of hotels we end up staying in, has yet to reach a state of grace where web browsing offers an attractive alternative to sitting on the balcony reading a good book. Or a bad book. Or the label on a sauce bottle.

If there was any apparent trend evident in the wealth of posts it must be that quite a lot of bloggers are playing WildStar even if some of them hadn't exactly planned on it. The most space-happy of all? That would probably be Liore at Herding Cats, who by her own admission doesn't want to write about anything else right now. Also at the front of the pack and bouncing with enthusiasm is Syp, although he's had some of the shine taken off his experience by a series of connectivity issues and bugs, something The Nosy Gamer suspects might be at the root of the swift drop-off that saw WildStar fall almost 25% in XFire log-ins this week.

Channeling Eeyore rather than Tigger, yet still very much committed to giving the new game a good run out, comes Tobold, who announced his intent to get his three months in a while back. His enthusiasm appears only mildly dimmed by the growing controversy over Casual vs Hardcore and what it might mean for the long-term future of the game (a better example of which would be hard to find than Jaedia's account of her first low-level dungeon run). He's a lot less enthusiastic about keeping up his WildStar Journal, which limped to eight entries and then closed up shop, although that hasn't stopped him making some pointed observations on the current state of crafting in the game.

Rolling in somewhere in the middle, unconvinced but still willing to give WildStar the benefit of the doubt for the sake of seeing something if not new then at least newly painted, come Rowan and Saylah. Go in with your expectations low and you're less likely to be disappointed, especially if you arrive in good company. Syl, meanwhile, admits to being confused why she's playing WS instead of the other MMOs she knows she ought to prefer. She's having a fine old time despite all that, so much so that she's thinking about putting down roots.

Finally, bringing up the rear, indeed possibly leaving an inch-deep heel-trail in the ground, there's J3w3l, who couches her announcement that she's caved and bought WildStar in a pithy and revealing explanation of why ESO turned out to be a lot less than sum of its parts. Come to think about it, though, she might have some competition as the least-enthusiastic purchaser of the New Shiny, even so. Keen has posted just once about his experiences, exactly two weeks ago, at which point the thought uppermost in his mind was already the problem of falling behind the rest of the guild he's supposed to be leading.

Of those not writing about the game, Stargrace, at least, is in fact playing. Only her position with Carbine mitigates against blogging about it. Most everyone else is stalwartly ignoring the new upstart altogether or waving it past with a vague promise to maybe go look at it someday, when there's nothing better going on and/or the price is right. Perhaps the most curious blogosphere non-show when it comes to WildStar is the KTR team, specifically Zubon and Ravious, who flew out to Carbine's Arkship press junket the Spring before last, put up a short series of pieces about it and then never mentioned the game again.

Me, I'm somewhat torn. WildStar does look and sound like a lot of fun and I definitely didn't not enjoy the beta. It's still mostly that I don't have time to play another MMO, at least not enough to make the box+sub cost worthwhile. It's a shame to miss the new MMO experience, though. As Murf says in his first full-blown non-blog MMO article "If you want to have your finger on the pulse of any MMORPG, it is best to start fast and early."

Maybe I'll get a second bite at that cherry with the F2P conversion.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Don't Look Down

After an immensely enjoyable week spent touring the Pyrenees, much of which involved driving down single-track roads beneath chasms of rock hundreds of meters high or up single-track roads along sheer drops hundreds of meters deep, it feels more than a tad ironic to log into GW2 and find myself immediately overwhelmed by the depth and complexity of a faux-3D image on a screen. Nevertheless, that's what just happened and it's what happens every time I return to MMOs from a complete break of more than a few days.

It's not just that the forced perspective gives me mild vertigo and a flurry of motion sickness. It's the incredible wealth of detail that seems almost like a sensual assault. The spell effects! The explosions! All the strange creatures scurrying and gesticulating. Even the motes in the air and the beams of sunlight through the trees.

It takes a brief while for my protective mental limiters to power up, before my brain begins to filter out the "noise", before things return to everyday normal. Just for an hour or so it's like it was way back in the day, when MMOs were new and everything was wild, fresh and magical.

I guess if I only played a couple of hours a week things might always seem that way. But then how would I ever get my dailies done?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

First Cut Is The Deepest

I'm not stalking Syp. Honest. Nor have I run out of ideas of my own and found myself reduced to mining Massively for inspiration. I just happened to read his insightful piece on Lord of the Rings Online as I was tabbed out from Everquest while I was logging in my enchanter.

One of my enchanters, I should say. I have three. At least three. It's hard to remember. The one I've played the most is a dark elf, I think my only dark elf. He's somewhere in the fifties as I recall. Then there's my favorite, a gnome, inevitably, somewhere in the thirties. The one that I'm currently, repeatedly, getting killed (enchanter is hard, yo! Especially when you're wearing full raw silk and wielding a mithril quill like it's 1999) is a human and she's level 19.

I forget which of them came first. They've all been around for a while. About as long as EQ, give or take a year. This one has a /played of just over 6 days and she was born in August 2000. I created her as an apprentice to what was then my "main" character (a meaningless term given the way I approach MMOs), my first gnome necromancer. Her job was to go places he couldn't and get him stuff.

Naturally that didn't last long. She had other ideas and struck out on her own, although given that it's taken her fourteen years to do nineteen levels that may not have been the wisest career move. Her current awakening results from my recent purchase of the White Wolf EQRPG Scenario Book "Befallen". It made me want to go play through Befallen again. Go figure. (I wonder, given the resurgence of tabletop gaming posts from bloggers I follow, such as Ravious, Tobold, Tipa and Ardwulf, whether there's anyone out there running an EQRPG campaign. I'd be very interested in joining an online version if so...).

Anyhoo, to get to the point, I think Syp really put his finger on it when he says

"We form strong attachments to our first experiences and areas in the game for both that new zone smell and because we've gone through those areas on alts so many times."

No matter how long I play MMOs, and it'll be fifteen years this autumn, it remains an unshakeable fact that what I like to do most of all is play character after character through the same low to mid level zones. It literally never gets old.

For a long time there were practical reasons for that. MMOs got harder as you leveled up. Often a lot harder. Nowadays newer MMOs like GW2 do a brilliant job of evening the playing field so that the transition from low to mid to end game is both seamless and painless and yet it's still the lower zones that hold the strongest appeal.

It's not a simple cut-off. For Syp the grey mist comes down at the end of the original game that shipped when LotRO launched, most probably because that game has a linear progression. No LotRO expansion ever arrived with a brand new starting area, unlike Everquest, EQ2, WoW or many others. Every re-start offers the possibility of a new emotional connection akin to the original, something expansions that increase the level cap only can never match.

So, I have something close to the same affection for Field of Bone as I have for East Commonlands, for Darklight Woods as I have for Antonica. Close but not quite the same. It's still the zones that launched with the very first iteration of any MMO that have the edge. It's not an insuperable advantage, to be sure, but if developers want their new creations to attract the same degree of commitment as their initial offerings they don't just need to reach that bar, they need to vault it in style.

I'm off on holiday next week so it will be quiet here for a while, but when I return all eyes (well, all eyes that aren't on WildStar) will be on ArenaNet's second season of The Living Story. We're all just about as certain as we can be that with it will come with the first new, permanent map we've had since Southsun and the first real expansion of the boundaries of Known Tyria since the game began.

That's a challenge. Here's hoping Anet can meet it. History suggests otherwise.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Letting The Mat Out Of The Bag : GW2

Syp, wearing his work hat and his Sunday best name, was kind enough to link yesterday's Argo post on Massively, which makes for a nice synchronicity since I'm opening today's with a link to his colleague Anatoli Ingram's opinion piece on GW2's reward system. I was planning on writing something on the topic but Anatoli beat me to it and he's covered much of what I was going to say.

One of the most regularly-heard complaints, both from players inside GW2 and from people giving reasons on forums outside the game explaining why they aren't playing, is that the rewards are terrible. In the absence of a standard gear progression ladder it's hard to say what a good reward would look like (although the palpable excitement and envy in map chat every time anyone links a rare Ascended drop gives you a clue), but as Anatoli's analysis implies, if you design your game around aspirational cosmetics and then put the majority of skins, mini-pets and toys behind a cash wall, you're not likely to endear yourself to those who already see the F2P model as a machine for separating fools from their money.

So, I largely agree with the premise that GW2's reward system is broken and I largely agree with the reasons given in the linked piece as to why that is. No need to go over the same ground again. There's one extra twist that doesn't get a mention, though: boxes. Yes, boxes. Boxes and bags, chests and purses, containers of every shape and size, Tyria's stuffed to bursting with them all.

We're all familiar with the Lockbox concept, loathed by many, loved by few, used by every F2P marketing team to eke the odd few thousand extra dollars out of customers with a poor grasp of probability theory and a low threshold on self-control. GW2 has had its own version since launch in the form of Evon Gnashblade's Black Lion Chests, the icon for which got a flashy makeover only this week and for which you can buy keys at the Gem Store for around a dollar a throw or occasionally (very occasionally) find for free in game.

Compared to other MMOs, though, Black Lion Chests are a background detail They don't even drop all that frequently. I doubt I see more than two or three a week. Even when they were a lot more common they were always easy to ignore and since the drop rate was heavily reduced a long time back they barely register as a thing any more. No, it's not the pay-to-unlock boxes that are getting out of hand. It's the unlocked ones we get for free.

Every type of content has its own goodie bags to offer. Simple monsters drop bags and every monster seems to have his own copyrighted design. Even players drop them in WvW. A quick countdown of the varieties available on Trading Post comes to over a hundred.

Then there are the Champions, each of whom also has a special kind of bag to keep his greens in, along with his skill scrolls, crafting mats and all his other odds and ends. Achievements pop up chests in windows and World vs World ranks set little chests jiggling in the lower right corner of the screen. That's the same place you find the daily chest, the World Boss Guaranteed Rare Chest and last week's Tournament Reward Chest (if you were lucky enough to get one. It's still bugged). Not to mention the whacking great chest every World Boss leaves behind him on the ground when he dies.

There's a positive plethora of chests. A bonanza of bags. That has to be good, right? We all love loot. Well, yes, you'd think so. Within reason.

I love goodie bags. I love random loot in principle and I love opening containers that have random loot in them. Yet even I'm beginning to feel this might be too much of a good thing. It's not just the sheer volume, overwhelming though that has become. It's the nature of the contents, particularly the crafting materials, which so many of these bags contain.

It's one thing to feel a thrill of excitement as you open a chest from a slain creature anticipating, perhaps, a magical weapon or ring. It's entirely another to have every single crafting material randomized across scores of mobs. That's not entertaining so much as it is irritating.

And where's the consistency? The parity between crafts? If I want copper I can go mine copper nodes. If I want wood I can go chop down trees. If I want cloth, though, or claws or scales, or one of the hundreds of body-parts that mysteriously make the mundane magical, it's off we go to slaughter hundreds of not-so-innocent creatures and even that's not the end of it. Its a trope of MMOs that metal and wood come from nodes while cloth and leather come from mobs but in other MMOs at least you know for certain sure which mobs. In GW2 its a lottery.

And therein lies the nub of the problem: in GW2 everything's a lottery. Worse, it's a nested set of lotteries. Kill the mob, see if he dropped a bag. Open the bag, see if it has the thing you want. As someone who positively wants to open boxes to see what's inside (it's the credo of this entire blog for Pete's sake!), if I'm starting to feel worn down by the sheer number of bags to be opened, then other people must surely be screaming with frustration by now.

I never thought I'd see the day when I started to see opening goodie bags as a chore but some days, when I have a stack of fifty or more to get through, it begins to feel that way. It's taking the edge off what should be an exciting moment of gameplay and turning it into a humdrum task that needs to be gotten out of the way in a hurry.

It would be nice to see the whole loot delivery process get an overhaul. Fewer bags with better things inside them. Crafting mats as standard body drops tied to specific mobs. More control handed to players to seek out and obtain the things they need and desire. Less reliance on RNG for absolutely everything. Return some agency to the player and some structure to the play.

Until that happens, like Anatoli says, GW2 will go on being all about the gold.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Used MMO, One Previous Owner, Seeks Players : Argo

Massively, which can usually be relied upon for timely notice of new developments across the MMO genre, failed to register the arrival of the resurrected Argo into open beta. How such a momentous event could pass unnoticed beats me. I mean, it's not as though there was anything going on in the MMO world right now.

It would have been handy to have known the open beta was up since my closed beta application was unsuccessful. Well, I say unsuccessful. Hard to tell, really. I can't remember which of my throwaway email addresses I used to apply for it and it's a racing certainty I never checked that inbox again after the first couple of days. Anyway bridge, water, under it.

Registration was simple enough, just an email address required. The download took about 15 minutes. Unpacked, Argo weighs in at just under 5GB, which is pretty hefty for a F2P translation. The new owners, UserGames (did they really think that name through?), require GameGuard, an annoying extra step that my virus checker strongly disapproves of, so that took a while, but eventually there we were at character creation.

Why are you all staring at me like that?

Argo has a lot of classes. Sixteen, or so it's claimed. That might be stretching a point. There are two factions - the militaristic, technological Noblians (makes me think of knobbly knees every time I read it) and the collective of superannuated flower-children with the unpronounceable name, The Floresslah. The classes appear to duplicate for each faction although not exactly. You can only play one faction and I've only tried the Noblians so its hard to be sure just how closely a Handler matches a Tamer or a Bomber a Wizard.

Plenty of choice when it comes to class but none whatsoever when it comes to gender because Argo is one of those irritating MMOs that gender-locks classes. I started off making a Bomber but Bombers have to be boys and I was already mildly miffed that I had to be human so I swapped to Shooter instead. I do like these elegiac, imaginative class names. So much better than boring old Shadow Knights or Bloodmages.

I've always felt that what most MMOs lack is a good Instep slider

Next up character customization, which is a cut above the average for this stripe of MMO, I think. There are about ten or so faces to choose from, the difference between which mostly seems to be scars and tattooos, although some of the men get wispy little beards or mustaches that make them look even more like adolescents than they already do. Eye and hair color are unusual in that the choices are exactly the same and none of them are brown. Or black. Or indeed any natural shade that human hair has ever been. I went for white hair as the only quasi-authentic option. It also had the welcome side effect of making my character look vaguely like an adult.

There are plenty of sliders to get the body shape you'd prefer. It's possible to flaunt a bit of excess poundage, especially on the hips and waist, but obesity's not an option. Fair enough, I guess. There's a war on and you've been drafted so you'd be expected to keep in reasonable shape. You can have arms like twigs if you want though.

Gosh! A whole training area just for li'l ol' me?

Once all that's out of the way it's on to the real business at hand: another seemingly endless tutorial. I remember this from the last time I played Argo. There's a nice introduction where you arrive at the training camp on a hoverbike the size of a tractor and then it's time to get down to the serious business of running about following blue arrows.

There's a guy who pops up in a window to explain the arcane color-coding system Argo uses for quests and a whole lot more important technical information, such as how to open your inventory and what key opens the mini map (It's "M" in case you were wondering). All of this is fully voiced by someone who sounds like a natural English speaker and probably a professional voice actor at that.

Oh, go on then...
They must have spent most of the tutorial budget on him because they clearly didn't have
enough left to hire a professional translator for the multifarious dialog windows. In common with many MMOs, Argo is verbose in the extreme. No quest-giver or trainer wants to let you in on the secret of which particular set of foozles he'd like you to eliminate until you've been formally introduced and each of you has learned something about the others thoughts, beliefs, feelings and way of life. Since I'm almost pathologically incapable of skipping narrative or background lore this tends to slow things down a tad.

Now that's what I call a Crit!
Eventually I extricated myself from the conversation and set out to cull some Pantheras, panthers that have grown an extra vowel. These supposedly deadly cats, which have been hunting the loggers and making life generally impossible, mill around in clumps not ten yards from the camp. Far from being a danger to Noblians going about their workaday routine they seem to be about as threatening as so many oversized kittens but hey, I'm in the army now. I'm just following orders.

Or I would be if I had my rifle equipped. Take the mickey out of tutorials all you like but if the talking head doesn't remind you to open your inventory and equip your weapon what do you do? You bitter vets, you think you know it all. Well you know nothing, Noob!

Take two, with weapon in hand:  down goes the Panthera. Eventually. Only takes half a dozen shots with an assault rifle at point blank range. This Noblian tech is impressing me already. One Panthera down, four to go. It's at this point that I notice the pop up asking me if I'd prefer to have someone do my hunting for me. Probably saw me trying to kill a Panthera by pointing my finger and going "Bang!" and figured I needed any help I could get.

This is where I need a tutorial
This is a development I don't remember at all from my first go round with Argo. It's not just the old auto-run to target feature, either. No, it's something much more sophisticated than that, a fully-configurable macro for automated hunting. You can set all kinds of parameters - when you need to be healed, which items or consumables or abilities you want to use, the skills and combat abilities to employ, the range at which you consider something should be considered a target. You can even specify what kind of items you want to loot and what you'd rather leave on the ground.

I'm not opposed to these systems in principle. I quite like the idea of leaning back eating a
sandwich and watching my character slaughter wildlife  discriminately. Coming after the very first kill, however, I found it a bit intimidating. All those choices. I let the Automatic Hunting run me through my four remaining Pantheras just to see how it went and then I turned it off. Easier to do it myself until I have several hours free to work out the settings.

Just nod and smile
Thus passed my first hour or so back in Argo. By the time I found myself being stalked by another player (one of those really creepy ones who follows you around but never says anything) and decided to call it a wrap and go back to Tyria I was level four and still deep inside the tutorial. At least all the training is in-world. I could just take a sharp right and hack off into the jungle on my own but no, I'm under military discipline. I'll see my training through to the bitter end.

How much time I'll spend in the world of Argo after that I wouldn't like to say. Not all that much I imagine. It did, however, grab me on this return visit in exactly the same way it grabbed me the first time round. The translations may not be perfect but they're endearing. The graphics may be undercooked but there's a real sense of place. The systems may be ridiculously overcomplicated but they're manageable. The controls are natural and comfortable and there's just an amiable, puppylike feel to the entire enterprise that makes being in that world a warm, pleasant experience. When you're not being stalked, at least.

If UserGames can keep a server up I'll keep popping in, much good may it do them. They aren't going to get any money from me and I find it hard to believe they'll get much from anybody else, although there does now appear to be a Cash Shop, which I don't remember from last time. I wouldn't bet on a long, successful second life for Argo but here's hoping.

Now someone bring back NeoSteam.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Traits And Megaservers Reconsidered : GW2

What with The Tourney, Boss Blitz and Bazaar of the Four Winds, the project to find out what leveling up feels like now we have Megaservers and a new trait system fell somewhat into abeyance these last couple of weeks. Before that, my Charr Guardian cruised through Ascalon in short order, completing Plains of Ashford, Diessa Plateau, Filed of Ruin and Blazeridge Steppes before finally topping out in the upper fifties while finishing one of my favorite maps, Iron Marches.

All of that wouldn't have given nearly enough experience so there were some side trips to The Shiverpeaks, where she completed Wayfarer Foothills, Snowden Peaks and Lornar's Pass. More experience trickled in from a few forays into the Borderlands and the odd jolly to visit a World Boss here and there, now and then. Currently she's level 66 and trudging through Fireheart Rise, which, while it has grown on me a lot over the years, still wouldn't make any list I might compile of Places In Tyria You Must See Before You Die.

The whole project has been very instructive. It certainly hasn't turned out as I imagined it might, let alone how I feared. It's not really possible for an experienced player of an MMO to put himself, emotionally, psychologically or pragmatically, in the position of someone who just installed the game for the first time that day but even taking that into account it seems that the hefty changes brought by The Feature Pack have made leveling in GW2 no harder, slower or more tedious than it ever was.

On my travels I have once or twice, no more than that, heard people express the opinion that they were feeling the lack of Traits at lower levels. It's certainly not a topic of conversation that comes up often among the endless rehashing of builds and torrent of "how do I...?" questions that buzz around the ever-busy open chat channels of the Megaserver Maps. At no point so far have I felt either underpowered or restricted in options because of the paucity of trait points. Indeed, it was only as I was writing this and popped into the game to check how many traits my Guardian had that I realized I haven't even spent the last two she received.

Part of the reasoning for doling out Traits so slowly was supposedly to prevent new players from becoming confused and overwhelmed by choice. Even as someone who has never considered Choice to be a Universal Good I was skeptical about that argument. I very much doubt there would have been many players under the original system who threw up their hands in despair when faced with half a dozen options in half a dozen trait lines. That sort of thing tends to go with the territory when you play any kind of RPG, doesn't it?

Just because the old system probably wasn't broken doesn't mean it couldn't be improved, though, and somewhat to my surprise I think the new version is better, at least in some ways. It certainly makes me think much more carefully about which trait to choose and pay much more attention to what they all do than I used to, that's for sure. When you have to decide whether to spend money or do a specific task to open each individual trait it definitely focuses the mind and I've found the experience a lot more entertaining than I expected, in no way the frustrating time or money sink that people (including me) had speculated it might be.

There may be "nice grawl" but there's no such thing as "nice Flame Legion"

It's not all rainbows and roses, though. There are definitely ways it could be and needs to be tightened up. The main drawback remains the rate that traits are unlocked during normal gameplay. It barely happens at all. ANet seem to be aware of this. A recent patch made a good few changes to the detail, reducing over-reliance on Map Completion as a mechanic and increasing the emphasis on killing specific monsters or completing specific events.

It's a start but it doesn't go nearly far enough. After 66 levels, done almost entirely by completing level-appropriate content in the open world, my Guardian has unlocked precisely six traits out of a possible sixty-five (and she bought one of those at the Trainer). I don't think that a system that results in a character having around 90% of her traits still locked when she hits max level can be considered well-tuned.

This is the one I bought. Essential.

The other goal of the exercise was to see how the world felt under the jackboot of the Megaserver. There was a lot of strong feeling about this change when it happened and I was among those who felt strongly. Like most changes it turned out to be less of everything than expected - less of a boon for those that welcomed it and less of a curse for those that dreaded it.

Maps are consistently busier as was intended but maps that don't have a specific, popular mega-event are only busier by comparison to the wastelands they used to be. You certainly won't be trampled by the horde in Iron Marches or Fireheart Rise. Field of Ruin, remarkably, felt even quieter than I remembered it. My concern that the ambiance of the deep wilderness would be lost seems unfounded.

Whatever algorithm they're using to match players with friends/guilds/worlds has arguably improved slightly but my feeling is that there's still some inconsistency baked in that no one quite understands. There was quite an argument in Map chat over it yesterday with some people claiming it worked well for them while others expressed what has been my own experience, that it's at best hit or miss. I generally still have to right-click Mrs Bhagpuss's portrait to get to the same Megaserver Map about fifty percent of the time even when we are grouped. Given that the algorithm isn't managing reliably or consistently to place us together even though we are in the same Guild, on each other's Friends lists, share the same Home World and Language Group and are in the same frickin' Party...well it's not impressing me much.

The Great Jungle Wurm is under there somewhere. And so's my Guardian.

The effect on community has been interesting. I do still see a good few familiar Yak's Bend names around outside WvW and it has an interesting emotional resonance, rather like spotting someone you know in the crowd at a gig. I wonder how much that relies on me having known those names already from the pre-Megaserver days. Would a new player starting now ever even see anyone, outside their guild or WvW, often enough to build up that "know him by sight" kind of relationship? I suspect they might because there are now players from other servers that I vaguely recognize because they turn up at World Bosses at the same times I do.

Unlike the Trait revamp, about which very little now seems to be said, you can still hear people complaining about the Megaserver every day. There's often someone bemoaning its very existence in map chat, cursing its foibles and flaws or wishing for the return of at least one non-Megaserver Map (the consensus would probably be for Lion's Arch). Voices also speak strongly in defense, praising both the convenience and the liveliness it brings to events big and small. I would have expected people to have gotten used to it by now but it seems that it'll take a while longer before we forget how things used to be when we were all off in our own little worlds.

Overall I'd give the Trait Revamp 7/10 and Megaservers 5/10. Neither is as bad an idea as it first might have appeared but both could do with another pass or several with that famous ArenaNet polishing cloth.
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