Wednesday, July 30, 2014

All Work And No Play Makes ArcheAge A Dull Game. Maybe.

It seems that ArcheAge is gathering a certain word-of-mouth momentum, which is odd, considering just how long we've all known about the game. I last mentioned it in the context of the eye-watering Alpha buy-in price but its been going the rounds for, what, three years now in alphas and betas and various live releases.

Back then, Ardwulf was drawing comparisons with Vanguard, which naturally made me feel somewhat favorably toward the possibility of playing it one day. Now Saylah is running a series of detailed "what you can do and how you can do it" type posts that are pushing  me two ways. The Piracy on the High Seas post I linked yesterday was kinda exciting but her most recent entry on the various ways of making money in ArcheAge made the whole enterprise sound anything but.

Here's the problem: just about all the activities Saylah lists - mining, crafting, trading, fishing, farming, playing the market - sound like work to me. Yes, they are, by and large, things you can do in most MMOs but in most MMOs they are sideshows, optional activities you could either go at with vigor, dabble in or opt out of entirely. They don't comprise the core activity of the game.

This, really, is my issue with sandbox gaming in general. I don't especially want to come home from a real job to a pretend one. I want to go exploring and adventuring I want to goof around. I don't want to tend crops or carry packages over long distances just to earn enough imaginary money to buy better crop-raising tools and faster package-carrying transport so I can do it all again only slightly faster. At least I don't want to have to do that.

The core activity of MMORPGs, at least in my understanding of the genre, is killing things to see what they drop then putting the best things you find on your character. Serial Killer Barbies; it's what the genre is. My characters live in the world and understand it but as a player looking in from outside, when it comes to actual gameplay, that's my motivation - kill some wildlife, dress a doll. In ArcheAge, that's right out: mobs don't drop coin, gear or crafting components. I'm not quite sure if that means they don't drop anything other than quest items but it doesn't leave much other than maybe consumables.

Saylah explains that questing is at the heart of leveling and gearing your character. "Gear is provided as quest rewards, looted from dungeons, earned with end game tokens or crafted by players...You receive gear sets at the end of quest chains – 3 pcs to the set from this guy, 2 pcs from that gal and a weapon from another one." That just happens to be a mechanic I strongly dislike. Several of them in fact. 

So, we appear to have an MMO in prospect that heavily focuses on things I would consider "work" not play, while excluding one of the key factors that draws me to play MMOs in the first place. Added to which it uses a series of mechanics I usually try to avoid whenever I can. The PvP and Piracy aspects don't put me off the way they did Syp - it's the underlying premise and basic mechanics.

Then I read SynCaine's rhetorical piece, where he asks himself, in tones positively dripping with ennui, whether he might end up giving it a run. He ponders "I still don’t get what a ‘sandpark’ is, in terms of what you are trying to accomplish...if your core gameplay (combat via questing) isn’t fun or engaging, am I really going to keep playing so I can fly around or sail a boat?" Is there a good answer to that? The only one I can think of is that the scenery really is that good and the gameplay you have to endure is not actively unpleasant. That's hardly a ringing endorsement.

Saylah, at least, is reassuring on both those points: Of the visuals she says " ArcheAge on the water has no equal in my MMO experience. It’s simply breath taking. Mining along the shoreline, fishing or standing by watching players load their ships, is a visual treat."  And on quests "All I can say is that they’re not horrible."

Unlike Syncaine I'm not struggling to find an MMO, any MMO, worth trying. I'll probably take a look at ArcheAge when it launches just because its new, it's free and it looks pretty. I wouldn't expect to stay long but you never know until you try. Perhaps what sounds like work in print will feel like play in practice.

On balance, though, the more I think about the full implications of sandbox gaming, the less attractive they seem. Oh, and since I didn't have any pictures of ArcheAge, I've taken the liberty of using a few snaps from The Hammers End. I finally caved and started the free trial last night. It's definitely not any kind of sandbox, the questing is meh and I don't think I'll be staying there long either but, hey, I'm a rat with a sword bigger than he is exploring dark woods with his undead, dual-cleaver-wielding pet fish! Beat that, ArcheAge!


Tuesday, July 29, 2014

In The Future We'll All Be Pirates

MMO players purely love to speculate on the financial and population figures for MMOs they play; even more so for those they don't. An unhealthy miasma of schadenfreude and fear surrounds the entire genre. My game's not doing very well, goes the logic, it might close down. That would be awful. Maybe if people weren't playing that new game, the one I don't like, more people would play my game. I hope that new game does badly. Then maybe people who were playing it will stop and play mine instead. Then I'll feel safer.

This seething pot of bilious speculation bubbles with ignorance, rumor and misinformation. Because almost no MMO companies routinely issue detailed population data and few make public announcements even couched in generalities, each straw of data is grasped and examined until it frays and falls to dust in our hands. Every so often some professional information seller, like SuperData, pops up with a squib promoting their services and whatever they choose to highlight gets scorned or lauded accordingly depending on whose pre-existing worldview it supports or denies. MMO companies with something to crow about, like half a million subs and ten years of continual subscriber growth or three and a half million boxes sold , send out PR releases that even mainstream media notice but remain grimly silent when things aren't going so well.

 The Nosy Gamer publishes his weekly table of results from X-Fire, which, even qualified with his usual due diligence, currently seems to indicate that MMO gamers have spotted that bright light in the sky outside and stepped out into The Big Room to see what it might be. It's summer. Here come the dog days, the midsummer doldrums, when everything starts to drift. School's out and so are the people. Everyone's at the beach or the mountains or the lake. France is officially closed.

Back when people took newspapers seriously this time of year was known as The Silly Season. It's certainly not the most sensible time to start examining MMO attendance and drawing conclusions. If you're looking to take the temperature and check the health of an indoor hobby like playing MMOs July and August probably shouldn't be your first choice. Yes, school may be out but so's the sun and much though the media love the cliché of gamers as pallid adolescents hiding from daylight in their fetid, curtained rooms, even journalists are finally coming round to the idea that video games are just part of the regular 21st century cultural diet, played by people who occasionally go outdoors.

It's always puzzled me somewhat when game companies choose to launch their new subscription MMOs at the start of the summer. A couple of years back The Secret World took a July launch window. Six months later the subscription was dropped. Funcom blamed a lot of things for the failure to attract sufficient subscribers, among them poor reviews and competition from Diablo III and GW2. You can tell Funcom's not a British company because the one thing they didn't blame was the weather.

Carbine opened the loading bay doors to WildStar at the beginning of June. Perfect timing for the first and second renewal notices to land right in the heart of summer. Isey's still subbed though maybe not for much longer. He reports forums filled with "doom and gloom about empty servers and bugs". In-game, he observes, "The few friends I had on my friends list are long gone and the areas I am still playing in are completely dead". Missy Mojo's already made her decision. She's gone, her parting comment something neither game designer nor marketing department would ever want to receive: "It just ended up feeling like a chore logging on to level".

All anecdotal evidence. We'll know the truth of it when the first server merges are announced no doubt. Will WildStar follow TSW and go Buy-to-Play by Christmas? If so, does it vindicate all those who claimed subscription gaming was a dead end for any game not called WoW or just confirm that no-one thinks about snow-chains in summer? Will the blame be laid on the designers who thought they could buck a decade of dumbing down with a call to the hardcore or on the suits who made them go to market out of season?

And if WildStar and TESO, about which no-one talks much anymore already, fail does that mean the genre is in terminal decline or just that those two games weren't good enough or focused enough to find an audience? Liore's just about done with MMOs. Is she speaking for the WoW generation or just herself when she says "MMOs are a dying breed"? Is it true, as she quotes someone telling her recently, that "WoW created WoW players, not MMO players"?

I tend to think she might be right on both counts. MMOs, as understood by the generation of players that was introduced to them through World of Warcraft, are dying.The zeitgeist that brought millions of adolescents and adults of all ages, all over the world, to spend extended periods of time together in a fantasy land where they were able to "be social, to achieve things with friends, to be part of a community" was indeed predicated on a pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter world that no longer exists and is never going to come back.

Among long-time MMO players, both those who predated WoW and those who arrived with or after it and went native, we see a yearning for the lost, golden age of social cohesion, reliable guilds, friends lists filled with people who actually logged on. That's why Syp got such a strong, negative reaction when he made the apparently reasonable suggestion that ArcheAge would be better if it offered a PvE-only server.

Pleasing the masses, it seems, pleases no-one. Any minority that pipes up does so only to complain, while the masses themselves never say a word so no-one knows what they think, or much cares, it appears. The future for MMOs is niche, apparently, or at least the only one we ever get to hear expressing itself is, and the niche in question usually involves bashing virtual people over their little virtual heads and taking their stuff. The family that slays together stays together as Harlan Ellison once said.

And yet. And yet. I play GW2. A lot of people do. A couple of months after launch, WildStar has fifteen North American servers. Two years after launch, GW2 has twenty-four. Anecdotally, two-thirds of those WildStar servers are flagged "Low Population" in Saturday night prime time. As I write this, in the middle of the afternoon here in the UK, so before breakfast on the US West Coast and mid-morning on a workday in the East, every GW2 NA server is flagged "Very High". Except the three that are "Full".

That jibes entirely with what I see in game. Every starting zone rattles with chatter from people who "just bought the game this week", asking questions that only a real new player would think to ask. I could spend most of each session explaining everything that's changed to the endless series of puzzled returnees coming back for a second, third or fourth run at this, the easiest of all MMOs to rediscover. Buy once, play forever. Clever marketing if you have the game to back it up. They do.

So, maybe all MMOs aren't dying, just the ones that fail to adapt, to evolve, to float on the prevailing cultural winds. We'll see soon enough if the PvP Niche - ArcheAge first then Camelot Unchained and the whole Kickstarted crowd of wannabe DAOCs and UOs - has the traction to recreate those fraying social bonds. We''ll find out whether there really is a hard core to WildStar's PvE Hardcore crew or just a soft center that runs.

In an MMO world where the same company closes Vanguard: Saga of Heroes (one of the best MMOs ever started, if not one of the best ever finished) in the very same week they bring Landmark (a shambles of a quarter-finished game-with-no-game-yet) to a mass audience via Steam, well you wouldn't want to go placing any bets on the future health of the industry. Still and all, I remain violently optimistic.

Oh look! While I've been typing it's clouded over outside. So much for summer. Let's log in.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Listen With Zojja : GW2

For a quite a while I was somewhat down on story in MMOs. I don't think I was alone in that. By the time we arrived at the open beta weekends for GW2, quite a few MMO aficionados had already lost patience with the so-called "Fourth Pillar" after what seemed like years of artless propaganda from the self-appointed saviors of the genre, BioWare.

Just in case anyone's forgotten how messianic the rhetoric had become, even today the SW:ToR FAQ makes the following claim:

"At BioWare and LucasArts, we believe most MMOs ignore an important fourth pillar: story. Our mission is to create the best story-driven games in the world, and we believe that the compelling, interactive storylines in The Old Republic are a significant innovation in the MMO genre."

Two and a half years on it seems that SW:ToR may not have been quite the Tortanic failure some commentators gleefully claimed around the time of the indecorous F2P conversion. If we believe recent figures the hybrid F2P model is bringing in a tidy $165m and even if we take those figures with a pinch (or maybe  bucket) of salt, no-one could reasonably deny that the ship is still in full sail.

That's Zojja on the right. Waaaay on the right. I'm giving her some personal space. Don't want to seem pushy.

SW:ToR's long-term financial viability notwithstanding, when GW2 opened the doors some eight months after the Star Wars MMO launched, that fourth pillar was wobbling badly. By then sentiment was running with a different High Concept approach entirely: Dynamism. We wanted to be out there in a vibrant, living world that changed moment by moment in response to our actions, not locked in a stuffy instance with a bunch of NPCs, answering an endless series of inane questions.

Yes, well, we know how that worked out. Hitch your wagon to a star you should expect to get burned. But that's a cautionary tale for another day. The point is that BioWare's hectoring, lecturing tone meant that I, for one, took dead against top-down, imposed narrative in my MMOs.

I'm not sure it was something I'd ever previously needed a position on - I can't recall any MMOs I'd played prior to the arrival of SW:ToR (which, for accuracy's sake, I should point out I have still never played) that had any significant narrative. FFXI had some semblance, I guess,  but I was only there for a month so it didn't make much of an impact. And anyway, Square...

I think old Gorr might just be on to something...

Between the releases of SW:ToR and GW2, however, I did play The Secret World. That turned out to be an MMO that steeps itself in narrative and does so brilliantly. It was a revelatory experience and one that neither Funcom themselves nor anyone else has been able to replicate reliably since. It simultaneously proved how seamlessly and successfully narrative can permeate an MMO and at the same time how immensely difficult that level of quality is to maintain.

Thus, when it came time to try GW2's own Personal Story, the one-two of BioWare's infuriating bluster and Funcom's effortless sophistication landed a knockout blow. Whatever we got it was not TSW which made me come over all petulant. I didn't want your stupid story mucking up my open world in the first place, ANet, and if I did I'd want a really cool story like this one over here! 

Even if I'd been in a more receptive mood, GW2's Personal Story suffers from a number of well-known issues that made it unpopular with a lot of players right out of the gate. Some people found it too hard solo while others complained the design was unfriendly to duos and parties. The continual prompts from the UI suggested your main goal should be the storyline but if you stuck to it the difficulty quickly outpaced you, forcing you to leave and level up, which many found confusing. When you were in the instances themselves, the puppet-show cut scenes seemed wooden and artificial, compared to the fluidity of the rest of the gameworld.

I'm guessing that's a bad thing?

For those who persisted the problems just kept on coming. The early promise of the story strands that branched out from the choices made at character creation dissipated as we learned that all roads lead to Claw Island. Choices seemed increasingly arbitrary without any noticeable effect on gameplay. And then there was Trahearn. And Arah. And Zhaitan. Even for some of those who persisted it all came to seem like one long series of anti-climaxes and disappointments.

I was not a persister. My first character, my Charr Ranger, made it to Claw Island eventually but by then he'd already been all the way to Arah in support of Mrs Bhagpuss's own, human, ranger, who was well ahead in the plotline. He'd seen Zhaitan "die", he knew how it all turned out and he didn't feel the need to see any of it again.

Of my subsequent ten characters, nine found their way to level 80 without feeling the need to bother much with a "personal story". Only my thief, for some reason that now escapes me, got as far as choosing an Order and she chose the same one as the Ranger - Whispers. Consequently much of the background knowledge that ANet's writers, presumably, rely on longtime players of the game possessing has simply passed me by.

Hmm. I wonder how that dialog reads in the Chinese translation?

All of which has left me, these last couple of years, in very much the same position I'm in when I play Everquest. I'm aware there's a lot more going on than I understand but it all happens in a fog. All that I know comes from fragments, rumors, hearsay. Somewhere in Norrath (or over it or under it or beside it) raid guilds slowly mine narrative from the rockface of high-end content that forms the dense core of each expansion but none of it really affects me. Just knowing there is a storyline is enough. I've never felt the need to know all the details.

Tyria has been like that. There's a huge iceberg of established lore from GW1 looming ominously below the surface but I'm happy prancing around on the little bit that sticks up above the surface. Or I was.

For what, I'm certain, are extremely sound reasons, ANet have declined to expand or continue the Personal Story, which always sat so uncomfortably alongside their "dynamic" world. Instead they decided to combine the two High Concepts of the current MMO Generation - Dynamism and Narrative - into a single Even Higher Concept - The Living Story. It took a while for them to get that working but the engine finally seems to be ticking over nicely.

Developments have been interesting enough for me to make the effort to buy the Destiny's Edge novel so as to get somewhat up to speed, as I mentioned the other day. Still haven't actually opened it yet and there wasn't really all that much effort involved, either, come to think of it. It was more that I noticed we had a copy in the SF section at work so I bought it on a whim. Still, it shows I must be engaged with the plot because spin-off novels from video games are along way out of my comfort zone when it comes to what I choose to read. In fact, this will be the first.

After every mission comes a frank and fearless debriefing session.

It's good timing as much as anything. Long enough has passed that my negative reaction to BioWare's bullying tones has faded into the mildest of irritable memories, allowing me to recall that I do quite like stories, even in my MMOs. Moreover, now that we don't get those stick-puppet playhouse scenes in new content any more they've acquired a curious nostalgic glimmer.

As I read around various forum discussions or listen to lively debates in map chat, as current developments in Tyria are pulled apart from all angles - Scarlet, The Eternal Alchemy, The Pale Tree, The Elder Dragons, Destiny's Edge, the whole rickety paraphernalia of open-ended genre fantasy storytelling - I noticed a lot of references to the Personal Story, particularly those of Asura and Sylvari. For once, instead of shaking my head in disapproval, I thought I might just go take a look for myself.

One more Myth Dock and I'm done.

As it so happens I have a young Asura just starting out in the world. He's made it his mission to Find Out What's Going On. For a Snaff Prize Winner like him (just how many Snaff Prizes do these people give out, anyway? Does every Asura get one?) that should be a snap. Indeed, it's already paid dividends. That lecture, extensively and pictorially quoted above, by the (late) Professor Gorr was a revelation. When we get to Claw Island (again) we might call it a day but before that happens I'm hoping the veil will have been pierced by the bright light of finally getting a clue, at least a little.

It may be coincidence but in one of the other MMOs I'm playing when I can tear myself away from GW2, City of Steam, my main motivation to log in is also the storyline. My Goblin Gunner there has finally reached the point her predecessor was at when they shut down the R2 version of the game last year. The possibility that after more than two years I might find out who the guy sending me the mysterious messages is and what he wants from me is strangely motivating. That and all the free stuff...

So, stories: they're not all bad after all. They can even be quite entertaining. Who'd have thought?

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Sailing Into The Sunset : Vanguard

Just a few days now before the curtain comes down on Vanguard: Saga of Heroes. When the "sundown" was announced I had a whole load of plans - videos to make, places to re-visit, adventures to have - but in the end it all felt too painful and not much fun at all so not much got done.

I already had all the music downloaded and of course I have a wealth of screenshots and video clips, but when I learned that some of the people behind previous successful MMO emulators had a project going that aimed to preserve Telon itself, well, that did take some of the sting out of situation. When it comes down to it, I'm not obsessed over which Telon survives; just so one does. 

Whether they'll ever get something up and running that can be played as a game I have to wonder. The code for Vanguard was famously unravellable and even now it barely works much of the time. Frankly, though, I don't particularly care how "playable" it gets. Had SOE left a server running Vanguard for another decade or two I don't suppose I'd ever have gone back and played any hours you'd call full-time. I'd have gone on doing what I'd been doing for years, dropping in now and again as the mood took me, knocking out a level on my Sorceror here, another on my Necromancer there, mostly just flying around on my toothpaste-blue griffin, taking screenshots.

If the VGOEMU people can just get the world back up so I can wander around the streets of Khal when I'm of a mind to that'll do me. Oh, and Diplomacy please, guys. That'd be neat. As soon as the official server goes down next week they're going to be taking a break for a few months to assess what they've got but they seem very confident they'll get this horse back in the race. And why shouldn't they be? They've done it before. I'll be watching with interest and cheering them on with enthusiasm.

In the meantime, though, I thought it might be appropriate to commemorate the characters that have given me so much pleasure over these last seven-and-a-half years. There's a round dozen of them and here they are:

Rolled on some long-forgotten server one day, when my own server, the much-missed Hilsbury, was down. That was back in the days when Vanguard had more than one server. Explored Mekalia with him a little but never really played him. He came along for the ride when the merges hit because why shouldn't he?

I needed a bank mule and I was determined to have one who wouldn't sneakily worm his way into my affections and end up as a proper character. Hence, halfling. It worked. He never left Tursh.

Goblins are great. Every fantasy MMO should have them as a playable race. Blood Mage, on the other hand, is something of an acquired taste and one I never really managed to acquire, even though I first played one back in beta. This one, like half my people, ended up in New Targonor because when SOE decided Vanguard was a lost cause the first time round, rather than close it down, they began giving away presents by the barrowload and the bottom of the ramp into NT was where the man with the barrow used to stand. No, he didn't really have a barrow...

Another goblin and there's plenty more where he came from. In theory this was a less unusual class than Blood Mage, somewhat resembling an EQ Enchanter, but it still took some getting used to and I never put in the hours for that. The whole Union of Minds thing, where all Psionicists automatically entered a global chat channel for Psionicists only (something no other class had) creeped me out a bit if I'm honest.

Ah, the good old Dwarf. He got played a lot more than his lowly level would suggest because he was my original Diplomat. He spent most of his time mediating in the endless court intrigues of Bordinar's Cleft. Since he was a Paladin he never had much hope of progressing as an adventurer - it's a class I've never enjoyed in any MMO ever. I have no memory of why I chose it when I rolled him although given Vanguard's Class/Race restrictions there probably weren'ta lot of choices for dwarves.

Here come the Rakis. My favorite race in any MMO or RPG ever. This Sorceror was the character I created when the Isle of Dawn was added, which in itself was long after Vanguard had ceased to be my focus game. He finished everything on the island and carried on from there. He got played a lot, mostly in short, late-night sessions. Sorceror turned out to be a really fun class. I don't normally get on with wizards but I got on just fine with him. He'd have made fifty one day - probably sometime around 2025.

Mrs Bhagpuss played a Shaman in the first duo we took to the Level Cap so I had a good idea how they operated. I know they have dogs that bite you all the time even when you're on the same team for one thing, although maybe that was a bug. It was certainly a class that required a lot of choices, anyway, never something that appeals to me. It got simplified some later on but by then it was too late. I already had the best healer ever and I didn't have time for a runner-up.

Like most MMO fantasy worlds, Telon is dominated by humans. They have some great starting areas. The clifftop village that looks down on Khal and the Lomshir horselands are wonderful. Despite that, this is the only one I played and I'm quite surprised he got as far as level twenty. Ranger is one of those classes that always sounds as though it's going to be more interesting than it turns out to be and even Vanguard struggled to buck that trend.

Good old Gnomes. Good old Necros. Can't go far wrong with either. He was a relatively late addition, made long after I'd stopped playing regularly, but he had a good run all the same. I think he had to defer to the Sorceror above as the late-night go-to guy. I remember a lot of messing about with grafts and that's about it. Look at that 'tache though...

Telon has not one but two canine races. Well, to be accurate, it has a Vulpine race, the Raki, and a Lupine one, the Vulmane. This was one of my earliest charaters. I loved the Vulmane starting area and I found the Druid spell-set and gameplay very familiar. Vanguard took an awful lot directly from EQ and one of the things they lifted almost unchanged was the Druid class. He'd probably have made it all the way if Vanguard didn't have some extremely annoying (intentionally I think) issues with tethering and agro. Playing a class that's been given all the tools for kiting but wasn't allowed to use them effectively eventually became just a little too annoying and he took early retirement.

And so we come to the Big Boys. An Orc Dread Knight was my second character to hit the cap back when the cap was fifty. I never went on to 55, which was designed mostly to occupy the time of the small but dedicated hardcore and which therefore took for-frickin'-ever. 

Back when the level cap in Everquest was 60 and subsequently 65 I'd had two characters at cap simultaneously. One was a healer, the other a tank, a pattern I repeated in Vanguard. My EQ tank was a Shadowknight and I thought the Dread Knight would play similarly but I was in for a surprise. Instead of focusing on a single target the way my SK had, the DK's motto is "the more the merrier". This was the class that taught me to love AE, a preference that has stayed with me ever since. There's nothing like being in a massive fight, seeing your health dropping uncomfortably fast and thinking "Crap! I better pull some more mobs, fast!"

I thought about retiring him to the Orclands but he left there so long ago it scarcely feels like home any more. No, he was happiest in the great seaport of Khal and the souks of Ahgram so that's where he's going to stay. I picture him, standing on the dockside, cleaning imaginary specks from the immaculate, enameled inlays of his mace while the colorful cloth awnings overhead flap and crack in the breeze. There he waits, patiently, for the sailors to unload the cargo and the merchants to pack the camel-bags, before he sets out once again, a highly-paid mercenary guard on the Khal-Ahgram run. Bandits beware.

And so we come to the the undisputed champion: best race I've ever played, best class I've ever played, best character I've ever played. Stand up, my Raki Disciple. Oh, you are standing up...

I'd never played anything like him before although I've played a few poor imitations since. A three-foot high whirling bundle of fur and claws with impeccable manners, he was equally at home hurting or healing, but he was at his very best doing both at the same time.

The class went through many changes and refinements. In the early days he seemed as weak as a kitten, later he could comfortably solo mobs intended to challenge a full group. He could Feign Death and, until they changed the way FD affected aggro, his hobby was to run into dungeons, round up everything then fall over and let the monsters fight it out between them as they blamed each other for the trouble he'd started. That never got old.

He wasn't only my favorite character of all time; he was one of the most rounded. He hit the cap as an Adventurer and only stopped a couple of levels short as a Leatherworker because by then there were no more recipes left that he had any use for. He never quite made it to the same levels as a Diplomat but he was making steady progress, working on it until the end.

My memories of him are manifold, his adventures and exploits multifarious, but I like to think of him best sailing his blue sloop Foxglove along the rivers of Qalia, following the shoreline of Abella Cove, where the domed home he built and rebuilt with his own paws stands. He always did like to fish. Now he'll have all the time he needs.

Rest well, old friend. All my old friends. Though the gates are barred to us may your roads roll ever on.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

All Back To Marjory's : GW2

Over at Kill Ten Rats, Ravious has a nice rundown of GW2's second season story so far, which is good because that means I can just link to it here and say "What He Said". I would have been struggling to get my version done before we hit the next Episode and when that arrives no-one is going to give hoot #1 about Entanglement.

The running time of that video teaser for Episode 3: The Dragon's Reach lasts about as long as an Elementalist casting Meteor Shower and the impact hits about as hard. The forum has been on fire since it landed (Reddit, too, for all I know). Map chat buzzes and rings with speculation and, yes, delight. If you haven't seen it, it's worth forty-five seconds of your time.

It's always good to see Rytlock doing his thing, although from the chewing-out she's getting Rox may not agree, but even by his major predator standards that bit with the sword is going some.  "What the hell is he doing?" seems to be the most common response. Suffice it to say that, on the back of this little piece of movie-making alone, today I bought the Destiny's Edge novel just to have at least a glimmer of an idea.

Still, that's the future. In the past and the present we have some aftermath and some questions brewing. Like, is Scarlet really dead? My answer to that is she's as dead as any supervillain, namely she is until some writer decides he or she has a really neat idea on how and why she's not. That's genre writing, folks.

Then there's the whole "are we corrupted yet?" thing. Was that really the Eternal Alchemy and if so didn't you imagine it would be, oh, I dunno, more Werner Herzog, less Roger Dean?

Much more interesting is the whole Jory/Kas/Belinda thing. Here's how I read it: Marjory has serious issues with her family. She has made a number of ambivalent comments about her upbringing and she has gone out of her way to keep information about her bckground from Kas. Kas only meets Belinda by chance.

Maybe it's me. I do tend to see ironic foreshadowing pretty much everywhere...

Belinda's behavior on meeting Kas for the first time is emphatically over-enthusiastic, leading to numerous accusations from players that she sounds like a much younger girl than the character would suggest. This is put down to a poor line reading by the voice actor, even though, as a rule, recent GW2 voice acting and direction has been pretty good and even rather subtle.

Belinda's subsequent appearances show her to be a competent and responsible soldier, not a flighty, breathy ingenue. The voice acting is significantly less hysterical. Either the audio director had words or, my choice, the initial reaction to meeting Kas was actually played as over-reaction, over-compensation.

In each meeting Belinda goes out of her way to be excitedly, enthusiastically accepting of both Kas, herself, and Kas and Marjory's relationship. She want Marjory to know that she, at least, very possibly in strong contrast to other members of their family, has no prejudices either in regard to Kas's rank or to her and her sister's sexual orientation and/or lifestyle choices.

After Belinda's horrific and shocking death, (Oops! *Spoiler*) Marjory chooses to cut Kas out of the entire mourning/grieving/funeral process. The reasons and explanations she gives are unconvincing and Kas is indeed not convinced by them. Marjory insists and Kas, behaving empathically, allows herself to become convinced because it's clear that Jory needs her to go along with the fiction.

Marjory is hiding something. It has been rather deliciously suggested that Jory, being a necromancer, wants Kas out of the way so she can perform some revolting ritual that will bring her sister back to "life". Much though that would make for a fascinating sub-plot I don't think that's going to happen.

Then again, not without good reason.

My reading is that Marjory knows that, even at the best of times, introducing her aristocratic, same-sex lover to her family, and especially her mother was going to be a challenge. This is emphatically not the best of times. I actually can't read which of those factors is in play but there's certainly something there that's not right. I get the distinct feeling that Marjory knows that to arrive home with Kas for the first time, along with the news that Belinda is dead, compounded by the fact that the two lovers were there when she died and failed to save her, would pretty much put the tin lid on any happy ever afters.

I do hope it turns out to be an issue of orientation not class. The introduction of a same-sex couple in this storyline has been welcome and refreshing but so far there's been an almost wish-fulfillment element to the easy, complete and unfettered acceptance the lovers have received, in the game-world at least. Perhaps Tyria really is utterly without gender prejudice (which would be nicely affirmative, it's true) and Kas and Jory's relationship is, quite literally, unremarkable within the parameters of their written, cultural environment.

That would be positive in it's way but also a missed opportunity. It would be a lot more interesting, not to mention powerful, were they to confront and overcome at least some opposition to the choice they have proudly made.

All well and good. Best talk about it now, though. When Rytlock drives that blade into the Ascalonian flagstones no-one's going to be in much of a mood for gender politics or sociological theorizing.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Snow At First, Rain Later With A Chance Of Zombies : H1Z1 et al

Soon-come zombie survival MMO H1Z1 is going to have a "dynamic weather system". The intention is that changes in the climactic conditions will materially affect gameplay.

It's neither a new idea nor an unusual one. Many MMOs have dabbled with it but few, if any, have gone as far as to synchronize weather effects with changes in the broad mechanics of gameplay. FFXI has an arcane system of crafting and synthing that no-one really seems to understand, in which the day of the week and even the direction you face may, or may not, affect the outcome. That's coming from a similar direction but it's still not weather.

For the most part you can ignore the weather conditions in MMOs. If it rains your character won't get wet. The dirt track he's running along won't churn into viscous mud that sticks to his boots reducing his movement speed. Those thick eyebrows you were so proud of at character creation won't soak up rainwater like a sponge, dribbling it down into his eyes and knocking twenty percent off his Precision skill. That gleaming, two-handed spear he loves to carry strapped to his back like a flagpole won't attract a lightning strike that hits for 2k points of electrical damage.

I suppose it's a bit rich to expect environmental causality in a world where a three-foot high gnome can swim ten miles across a lake wearing a full suit of plate armor while carrying six backpacks full of iron ore. There's that oft-cited realism vs fun dynamic to take into account after all. Still, when asked, players generally seem to be in favor of some correlation between what they see on the screen and what's happening to their character and it doesn't seem to be beyond the wit of games developers to incorporate at least a modicum of entertaining cause and effect.

They certainly seem happy enough to include specific, localized environment-related gameplay when it suits them. GW2, for example, currently going gung-ho for sandstorms, has a number of places where crosswinds blow, strong enough to knock your character off a ledge to her death or at the very least the start of a long clamber to get back up for another try. Rift has a "dungeon" where white-out blizzard conditions form a major part of the final challenge. Many MMOs have lava pits and flows that cause burning damage (I seem to remember one that was instant death). Both Vanguard and WildStar have rivers with currents that will move your character against his will in the direction of flow.

All of these, though, are primarily environmental effects, not weather. When it comes to large weather systems that affect large areas or entire maps the only reliable impact on gameplay comes not from changes to the in-game mechanics but from a simple, practical fact: if you make it hard for the player to see what's on the screen the player will perform less well.

The history of blanking out the screen to make things more "challenging" goes back at least to Everquest. Back in 2000, when the rain came down in West Karana I used to have to go and hole up in the Centaur village 'til it stopped because I quite literally couldn't see far enough to know whether I was about to walk into a lion. When the Kunark expansion arrived and I ventured into Firiona Vie on the first day, the combination of thick forest, pounding rain and deadly wildlife meant my druid lost her corpse for good and all as did the couple of people who bravely helped her try and find it.

Rain, snow, mist, fog - they all work to disorient and constrain the player. Add in a proper day/night cycle and you can render many of your outdoor zones nigh-on unplayable more often than not. For some reason players didn't seem too enthusiastic about that so over the years night became twilight and twilight became a tint in the filter while rain, snow and fog ceased to be brutal gamestoppers and developed into delicate, beautiful visual haikus.

In so many ways this is a good thing. For a start, the sheer, breathtaking beauty of the weather in modern MMOs creates a weather-high barely less powerful than being outdoors in actual weather. On these hot, sultry summer days just looking at the Shiverpeaks drops the temperature in the room.
Then there's playability. The first few times I got caught in a rainstorm in EQ it was immensely affecting and immersive and the first time I got lost at night, an old story often re-told that I won't rehash here yet again, it created a deep and lasting memory that endures vividly to this day. Just a few weeks after those seminal experiences, however, impenetrable darkness and rain that reduced visibility to a few yards didn't seem so immersive any more. They just seemed irritating.

The pendulum swings. The roundabout turns.  Perhaps the days of meaningful weather are due for a comeback. On balance I hope so. I wouldn't advocate a wholesale return to the days of "sever weather conditions expected - stay indoors" but I think there must be ways to have our characters recognize the impact of cataracts and hurricanoes without making players rave like Lear on the blasted heath.

If H1Z1 gets it right perhaps that will pave the way for meaningful weather in EQNext or even Landmark but as Renee Machyousky, Community Manager for City State Entertainment, producers of the upcoming Camelot Unchained, observes in reply to a question about the influence of "day/night cycles, weather, seasonal influences on game play", it's a balancing act that all developers have to perform with extreme care:

" ...we need to find that sweet spot where we implement just enough of them to keep people engaged and entertained, without feeling overwhelmed or worse, frustrated".

Agreed, but I think that sweet spot is somewhere a little saltier than where the genre is right now. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

When Can I Hit Something?

Tobold has a post up about the new, 5th Edition of Dungeons and Dragons, a topic that's popped up in a number of my Feedly feeds of late. There's clearly a commonality of interest between the two hobbies, pen and paper/tabletop roleplaying games and MMORPGs, and most people reading this have probably tried both at some time or another.

My own introduction to traditional role playing games was slightly muddy, oddly mirroring the stages by which I later found myself playing MMOs. I came late to AD&D compared to most. I don't believe I'd even heard of it when I was at school. Certainly no-one there played. We did have a wargaming club and indeed my two closest friends belonged to it but I could never see the attraction.

When I went to university one of the first friends I made there shared rooms with an obsessive D&D player, who used to hold all-day sessions that drove my friend to find something, anything to do elsewhere until the madness was over. That was my introduction to the concept of "roleplaying games" and it wasn't one to inspire further curiosity.

It wasn't until about two or three years after I graduated that another friend, one who had never previously shown the slightest interest in either RPGs or the surrounding subculture, told me he was DMing sessions at his house on Sunday afternoons and asked me if I'd like to give it a try. Come to think of it, I have no idea why he started and he's dead now so I can't ask him. Some things we're just never meant to know...

I was, to put it mildly, less than enthusiastic but for various reasons I found myself at a loose end one weekend so I thought I might as well give it a try. After a shaky, self-conscious start, something bit and stuck. I ended up spending most Sundays there, gaming, for something approaching five years. Everyone in that group was in their twenties, all but one of them married. Perhaps it's no co-incidence that when the group eventually broke up every one of us, bar the guy who's house we met at, was divorced.

Tobold opens his piece with an intriguing proposition:

"I have a very simple model of games in general: They usually have one core activity that is frequently repeated, and then some shell around it that gives structure to the sequence of core activities. In role-playing games, both on paper and on the computer, the core activity is usually combat"

I think that's a very useful and illuminating way of looking at gaming in general and RPGs in particular. Because my introduction to the hobby came via a relatively mature (in both senses of the expression) group, my conception of what it was all about probably evolved in an atypical fashion. We gamed once a week in a session usually lasting around twelve hours. I would guess that, on average, about eight or nine of those hours were spent on things other than combat. Nevertheless, combat did indeed represent the undeniable core of the game, around which we wrapped a shell of both in and out of character chatter, banter and storytelling.

There were rare occasions when we went an entire session without any combat at all but when that happened I think we all felt unsatisfied. Mostly we'd go for a couple of hours of amateur dramatics, argument and general chit-chat and then we'd all be ready for a fight that lasted a couple of hours more. Then we'd all stop for tea with MTV or WWF wrestling on in the background (our host had cable, very unusual back then, and he never missed an opportunity to show it off) before repeating the cycle until it was time to call for taxis and slope off home.

By the time I decided to buy Everquest in 1999 I hadn't played a tabletop RPG in over a decade but by then I had played a lot of CRPGs. Indeed, I was drawn to the scary, unfamiliar, expensive world of online gaming largely because Mrs Bhagpuss and I had run out of new offline RPGs to try.

Now with added highlighting. Didn't have that in my day...

It would be neat if I could say it was a direct, linear progression from AD&D to offline CRPGs to Online MMORPGs but it wasn't quite that tidy. Before I ever played D&D, going all the way back to when I was at University, I played a lot of computer games. One of my favorite genres of the time was the Text Adventure.

Text adventures seemed to have almost no correlation to tabletop gaming and precious little with most graphical CRPGs, which soon pushed them into the wilderness of extreme hobbyism. It was a surprise, then, even a  shock, when I stepped out onto Norrath for the first time, (eventually) found myself face to face with my Guildmaster and discovered that he expected me to communicate with him using the exact same, gnomic hint-and-guess routine that had so cardinally failed to lead me to The Golden Apple all those years ago..

In Everquest all these things, along with a host of others I don't have time to mention, seemed to come together as a gestalt. Rather than the Frankenstein's Monster it might have been the whole edifice grew inexorably to become something very much more than the sum of its disparate parts.

The chat channels, the groups and the guilds all emulated and expanded on the socializing of those Sunday afternoon sessions;the deep, rich, mysterious Lore of the game world matched and easily surpassed the narratives of the CRPGs; the seemingly endless arrays of NPCs willing to hold conversations eclipsed the limited, linear options of the classic text adventures. Once I fell down that rabbit hole there was no climbing back out.

And yet, despite all that richness and complexity, despite all the subsequent innovations and improvements that have burned through the MMORPG genre over the succeeding years, the core of the game remains as it ever was: combat. The shell that surrounds that core now is vast, a Dyson Sphere around that dense, central star. The shell contains all the socializing, questing, character growth, narrative, storytelling, exploring, homebuilding, collecting, sorting, codifying and just plain hanging out that make up the majority of the time many, probably most of us spend in these imaginary worlds but without that core glowing steady at the heart all the rest of that frenzied, fervent activity would slowly ebb and die.

When it comes right down to it, even I can only sort my inventory for so many hours before I really, really need to hit an Orc with an axe.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

It's Gonna Be A Long, Hot Summer : GW2

It's horribly hot and humid and I have a head-cold. Not ideal conditions either for playing or posting but I plan on doing both all the same.

It's still too early to begin to disentangle GW2's Entanglement without spoilage and in any case I've only finished it on the one account so far. I'd like to take another pass and maybe fill out some details while I chip away at a few achievements before I get into any full-on textual analysis.

Ravious gives a good account of the type of activities on offer in the ever-expanding Dry Top region. Mrs Bhagpuss wasn't all that interested in the first set of rewards (the ones Jeromai decided must all be his) but this installment several of the skins caught her eye and she's rarely been anywhere else all week.

A Charr can look at a Queen - if it's a T4 Map.
After the initial day-long session she was distinctly under-impressed with the amount of geodes she'd collected and had some choice words to say about ArenaNet's increasingly elitist-without-the-infrastructure-to-support-elitism development ethos. When I came home from work the following day, however, she'd discovered the LFG tool (something I quite literally forgot GW2 had) as a direct result of which she'd been in T4 maps most of the day and, once, even T5. Domestic harmony restored.

Much though I like the new events and the area that contains them I haven't spent all that much time there doing them. After getting multiple Light and Heavy versions I gave up on trying to get the Medium Cleric's Spectacles and Medium Adventurer's Scarf the honest way by opening chests. I just bought them from the Trading Post since prices have dropped. Finally, headgear for a Charr Ranger that doesn't look positively awful.

Snout hankie with attitude
That was the main thing holding me back from playing the new character I started last weekend (that makes eleven). Other than that, when it comes to a choice between repeating new content for currency to buy new stuff I don't especially want and repeating old content to acquire old stuff I don't particularly need, well it's no contest.

That's a very unfair and inaccurate description of what's going on, though. Every time I level a new character, regardless of having played through the maps many times before, I see new events, fresh content, extra detail. Despite having map completion on Metrica Province, for example, and having, as I thought, meticulously combed every corner well beyond the required tick-box map items, my new Asura warrior hadn't been there more than five minutes before he found a whole underwater cave I'd never seen. On top of that, within half an hour he'd done several unfamiliar events, one of which had me squawking with laughter.

I'm not saying Dry Top isn't good. It's really good. Moreover, rather than just appreciating any new content I welcome this particular, visually spectacular, entertaining, highly re-playable new content. It's more that I'm not going to let this much-needed rain, after the long, long drought, trick me into mistaking Dry Top's focused, purposive drive for the kind of deep, nested, organic complexity of the original maps. But, hey, I'll take what I can get, especially when what I already have is still there and still doing such a great job too.

It's only while I'm playing up a new character that GW2 goes back to feeling like an MMO, or what I expect and want from an MMO, at any rate. It's fortunate, then, that it's so remarkably replayable. I've often said that I wouldn't consider that anyone could claim to really know an MMO until they'd played all the race/class combinations available to maximum level but it's always been more of a thought experiment than a blueprint for gameplay. I think even I would lose patience and affection for EQ or EQ2 if I tried to enact that principle there.

Who you calling shorty, fatso?

In GW2, however, it almost feels like a realistic proposition. Leveling's so very fast and easy; each class plays radically differently from every other; there more than enough paths to max level to keep the journey fresh and fun; all of that is true, but there's more. The races genuinely play very differently one from another even when playing the same class, more so than most MMOs I've played at least since Vanguard half a decade ago.

It's not just the size differences and the radical shift in perspective those supply. It's that each race has an entirely different set of animations and voice samples and boy are there a lot of them. I never particularly warmed to the Guardian when I did eighty levels as a Sylvari but going the distance as a Charrdian was a hoot. She's now one of my favorite characters both in personality and gameplay.

 You might say that was predictable given my predilection for the Charr race but I never really got on with my Charr warrior, who has languished after reaching eighty, skulking around the low-level World Boss circuit wearing the same Rare gear she was wearing a year ago,. My new character, an Asuran Warrior, bounces around like a superball, looking like the rough sketch for an Animaniac that got thrown out at the script meeting for being too ridiculous. I can already tell he's not only going all the way, he's not going to stop there, either.

Time is tight. I still haven't used the generously-donated WildStar guest passes, I haven't signed up for the ArcheAge closed beta, I probably won't find time to pop back into FFXIV on the "come back, all is forgiven" weekend offer. I haven't managed to visit The Secret World for the Gaea re-run even though I really like those big events. I still can't find a window for The Hammers End. I barely manage an hour here or there in CoS:Arkadia, Everquest, EQ2 or Landmark. That's not even mentioning the dozen or more other MMOS on my desktop I kinda, sorta want to play.

All of that stuff's not happening and yet I can come home from a long, hot, day at work feeling very under par looking forward to an evening of leveling up yet another Asura mostly just so I can watch him jump about. Either they really nailed the things that matter or I'm easily pleased.

Probably a bit of both.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Blimey, Charlie! : GW2 "Entanglement"

Just finished Living Story 2, Chapter 2. Blimey, Charlie! Really, that's all I can say although stronger words were used, out loud, several times. No, really, spoilers and all that. Suffice it to say things happen. A lot of them.

It took two, two and a half hours, straight through. Storyline, that is, Not touched the open-world content except for a couple of events I had to pass through along the way.

Did it solo, never died once, important to me for immersion reasons. Means everything that happened really happened, in real time, not in some fudged save game hinterland of suspended disbelief. Things got pretty hairy a few times, some close calls. Downed and rallied on kills from earlier AEs as the NPCs chipped in while I lay throwing dirt. My advice, tag everything, never know when you might need the credit.

Loaded a lot of CC and it paid off. Recommend it. Overall, found the fighting easier than chapter one. I think solo is easier in general for this stuff. Only one particularly annoying fight but no worse  (or better) than Aerin. No jumping required anywhere either - good news, that.

ArenaNet art department outdid themselves yet again. New maplet looks amazing, looking forward to exploring it. Going to be jumping there I fear and plenty of it. Instances large and packed with interest. Great to roam around after everything's dead. Some new mob models or new to me unless they turn up elsewhere in content I haven't done (Sylvari personal story, maybe?).

Took over 100 screenshots. Can't use hardly any. Spoilers. For now, here's some scenery. Later, when we've all been through it, we'll talk. Form a support group. We may need counselling.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide