Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Terrible Twos : GW2

GW2 is two years old. My, how the time does fly. It's not the new hotness it once was, that's for sure. Since it arrived we've ridden the hype train for WildStar and TESO and Landmark to name but three. The ArcheAge train is building up steam for its turn around the track even as I type.

To those who tried GW2 back at launch and didn't like it - at all or all that much - it probably remains at best a half-forgotten disappointment. For many of the three and a half million who bought the box or downloaded the download and who drop in and out as the mood takes them it's just another amusement, a bit of fun now and again, nothing of any great significance.

For a few of us, though, GW2 is an ongoing relationship, something we live with day to day, and like all relationships it's had its ups and downs. Aywren took the trouble to compile a detailed list of the highs and lows so far. It's a reasonably impressive tally, for sure, but how does it stack up against other MMOs at a similar stage of development?

Here are the patch notes for a single LotRO patch, the first big one after that game's Spring 2007 launch. Back then the highlights included

 " entire new region to the game: Evendim! Roughly the size of the Shire"

"...LOTRO's first 24 person raid"

"Additional new instances" (nine of them!)

"Over 100 new quests ... and over 20 new Deeds"

"7 sets of Epic Armour"

All that plus an insanely long list of quality of life tweaks and bug fixes that would take half an hour just to read.  

Not sure what it was about LotRO's housing but somehow it never quite hooked me.
Geddit? Geddit? Oh never mind, please yourselves.

Two months later Turbine did it again, adding six instances, two public dungeons, a new explorable area, well over 100 new quests, two new game systems (Barter and Reputation)  and another gigantic round of QOL adjustments that included substantial changes like UI Scaling, expanded vault space and a dedicated chat channel for roleplayers.

Come October Middle Earth got four more explorable areas and a freakin' housing system! All this in the first half-a-year. On it went like that every few months until, right on the second anniversary of the game, the lucky cusses received a full-blown expansion in Volume Two: Mines of Moria.

Envious much? Well, yes and no. Yes on the expansion. Although not so much that expansion. And the housing. Although not so much that housing.

Lord of the Rings Online isn't one of my favorite MMOs. Some would say that, although it's still running seven years later, the F2P conversion and supposed current development malaise suggest it's not a particularly successful one either. How much I like it or how successful it is compared to other MMOs isn't the point.

The point is that you could probably trawl back through the patch notes of the first couple of years of any AAA MMO of the last decade and a half and come up with a similar bundle of new content, additions and (intended) improvements. That's just how a good MMO rolls. After two years, compared to most of them, the GW2 pile o' post-launch goodies looks a little thin.

Oi! You with the balalaika! Play "Never on a Sunday" !

And yet. And yet... While the amount of New Stuff ArenaNet have added since launch may be objectively quantifiable, its quality is necessarily subjective. And anyway, it is quality that matters, right? Or at least personal taste. It's certainly a fact that, for me, LotRO could add a new zone every week and two on weekends and I'd still be playing GW2. Come to that, if ArenaNet had never added anything at all to GW2 since August 2012 I'd still be more likely to be playing it now than LotRO.

Despite the fact that GW2 has disappointed me quite severely in the quantity of new content on offer during the first two years and looks set on continuing to do so, and even though I'm not even sold on the quality of much of what we have been given, it remains the case that GW2 is the MMO I play most of the time. That does seem to trump everything. So; why?

As Ravious observes GW2 is a very comfortable place to spend time. You can hang out there and it just feels easy. That's easy like Sunday morning not easy like falling off a log although come to think of it... And I'm a Sunday kind of guy. I wrote a song once about falling in love - okay I wrote about a hundred of those but this particular one was called "Everything's Sunday". The guitarist in the band took objection to the title because he shared Morrissey's view but for me there could be little better than an eternity of Sundays and that's what GW2 feels like much of the time.

The long-term attraction of GW2 in a nutshell.

I'm not, therefore, feeling particularly up in arms about the changes, the lurches, in direction as GW2 staggers this way and that, trying to please everyone at once. I'm playing it. I'm enjoying it. So what if it's a radically different experience from the one that was promised all through that seemingly endless run-up to launch? So, the paradigm didn't get changed. Big deal.

Even the supposed dumbing-down that Golden Paths, Quest Arrows and Level-Up Packs (none of which are the terms ANet chose to use in their PR) might inflict upon the game leaves me unruffled. These things often look a lot worse coming than they are when they arrive. The widely-despised changes to the Trait system a few months back, for example, turned out to be a non-event as as far as I was concerned, although the still-thundering threadnought on the official forums suggests that might be an extreme minority opinion. In the end, though, as Jeromai comments on the upcoming changes to the New Player Experience "If feeding info in more controlled drips helps player retention, then that’s what’s best for the game".

Ah yes, what's best for the game. It's not always the same as what's best for the players, now, is it? Or not all the players anyway. There's a longstanding argument over whether MMOs are services or products. From the players' point of view they're definitely services but two years after launch it's about as clear as it possibly could be that GW2 is a product first and a service only when convenient.

As a business model it seems to work. Any successful business would want to expand the market for its existing products while retaining its existing customers but in the end you go where the money is, which seems, right now at least, to be China.

Someone's dream, someone's nightmare, someone's cash register ringing.
The upcoming "Feature Pack", currently being fluffed up to fill the gaping hole between Living Story packages, along with a hastily-contrived four-week WvW "Season" and, no doubt, the usual Halloween return of the Mad King, appears to be a straight port of refinements made to fit the game to the tastes of the Chinese market. Whether the rest of the world needs those changes isn't clear but, providing they can avoid an NGE moment, ANet can re-tool their game any way they want. If most people accept it they can even call it a success.

That's the thing about MMOs. They change. Sometimes it takes players a while to adjust. Sometimes developers get it badly wrong. In the end we pays our money and we takes our choice and, in this best of all possible worlds, the age of everything for nothing, sometimes we can skip the paying part altogether. If we want to go on playing, though, we need to realize that every business has to make money somehow. Even so, there are ways and there are ways.

Feldon, sage of all things EQ2, recently gave it as his opinion that "... it’s a good time to be an EQ2 player". I agree. There's a game that really knows who its customers are and what they want - and it only took the Devs a decade and the departure of who knows how many thousands before they worked it out. Feldon made that statement in the face of a massive price-hike in cash shop prices. In the end, if you offer your customers something they want they will pay. It might be willingly, it might be grudgingly, but either way, if there's nowhere else to get the stuff, they have to come to you and they have to give you what you ask.

Two years on, for many GW2 remains the only place to get the stuff. There may be grumbling and mumbling but that's a much better sound than the chirping of crickets. It may not be the game we were promised, it may not be the game we expected, it may not even be precisely the game we want but it's the game we've got and it's pretty spiffy.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Project Gorgon Kickstarter : Take 2

I just wanted to put in a quick plug for the new Project Gorgon Kickstarter campaign. It's the second run they've taken at crowdfunding. The first didn't end well but luckily the team behind PG didn't let that stop them.

The game has been in pre-alpha for quite some time. I wrote about it back before Christmas but, as Wilhelm reminded me in the comments, he'd written about it over a year before that.

In the last nine months I've played a number of sessions and I've really enjoyed myself. The world is gorgeous to look at and the game itself runs pretty smoothly and satisfyingly for something in such an early stage of development.

There's already a lot of content and more is being added all the time. Just reading the patch notes gives a very clear idea of the kind of game this is setting out to become. There have been a slew of nostalgic, old-school projects on Kickstarter over the last couple of years but this is the pick of them for my money.

Yes, I have backed it. Unlike many Kickstarter pipe-dreams and big-company pre-releases, you can get your hands on a working build right now, for free, and you can play as long as you need to make up your mind.

 It's rough, as you'd expect at this stage, but it's dripping with promise. Whether it will make its target this time round I can't predict. I hope so. If it doesn't, I hope development will continue anyway as it did last time. They say it will.

Anyway, don't take my word for it. Go and try it. As Lead Developer Eric Heimburg says in his Kickstarter pitch, when he goes amusingly off-piste on the perils of backing indie MMOs:

"...never back any indie MMO project unless you can see actual gameplay firsthand. It's just too risky!"

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

21 Questions

It would be a bit silly to write about the Gaming Questionnaire without bothering to fill it out, so here goes...

    When did you start playing video games?

In the very late 1970s.

     What is the first game you remember playing?

Space Invaders. I'd either read or heard about the existence of the game in the news but I'd never seen a machine up close. Then one night I went to meet some friends in a pub in town and heard a weird bleeping noise. The rest is history.

Looking it up on Wikipedia I see that Space Invaders was only put on the market in 1978, which would have been the same year I first saw one. They must have spread incredibly fast because by the time I was at university, between the autumn of 1978 and the summer of 1981, they were everywhere, along with Asteroids, Missile Command (the one with the tracker ball) and, my favorite by far, Galaxians.

    PC or Console? 

PC for the last fifteen years. In the 1980s, though, it would have been ZX Spectrum and in the early 1990s the Amiga.

    XBox, PlayStation, or Wii?

None of the above. The only consoles I ever owned were some long-forgotten thing that played Pong and my beloved Atari 2600. If I was going to buy one, and, if MMOs continue their seemingly inexorable slide towards console-style controls and gameplay, I just might have to, it would be a PlayStation. Can't play SOE games on an XBox, can you?

    What’s the best game you’ve ever played?

Everquest. No question. Outside of MMOs it would be Baldur's Gate and Broken Sword 1&2, which are, not uncoincidentally, the only video games I have played all the way through more than once.

    What’s the worst game you’ve ever played?

For MMOs it's Tera.  Played for half an hour and logged out feeling like I needed a bath. Offline it would be Pools of Radiance, which flat out doesn't work.

    Name a game that was popular/critically adored that you just didn’t like.

Lords of Midnight and Elite.  Neither looked anything like as good as people claimed and the gameplay seemed to consist of wandering about aimlessly for what seemed like forever.

    Name a game that was poorly received that you really like.

Vanguard. Obviously.

    What are your favourite game genres?

MMORPGs. RPGs. Adventure Games. 

    Who is your favourite game protagonist?

My Raki Disciple in Vanguard. My Ratonga Berserker in EQ2. My Vah Shir Beastlord in Everquest. My Charr Ranger in GW2. My Templar in The Secret World. get the point.

Among characters whose dialog I didn't write myself it would have to be George Stobbard from the Broken Sword series, even though I frequently want to throttle him.

    Describe your perfect video game.

We don't have time for that. The design document would run several hundred thousand words. In one word, though, it'd be SLOW.

Right now I'd settle for an MMO that looks like GW2 and plays like Everquest circa 2004. I really, really want to have to break camps and set up pull strategies again and I want to do it in minutes not in seconds. And I want the original Holy Trinity back, please - Aggro Control, Healing, Crowd Control. DPS can take care of itself.

    What video game character do have you have a crush on?

Hmm. None, really. Comics characters, I could write a book, but video games? Can't think of any.

    What game has the best music?

Video game music is not designed to be listened to out of context and why should it be? I always leave the original game music on and always have it up loud enough to hear. To do otherwise would be as crazy as muting the music in a movie - who would do that?

Conversely, without the associated visuals and gameplay, the only reason I can imagine to listen to video game music would be nostalgia. Certain pieces from Vanguard and Everquest work for me on that level, particularly the West Karana river music and the music from Telon's high elven capital, Leth Nurae. Without the memories, though, they just sound like bad Enya covers, as does most game music.

To answer the question directly - The Secret World - because it has actual songs.

    Most memorable moment in a game:

We'd be here all day. And all night.

The three hour corpse recovery in The Tower of Frozen Shadows that went on until after 4 a.m when I had to be in work by eight in the morning.

Losing my ranger's corpse down the hollow tree in Blackburrow and logging out swearing never to play again. I lasted nearly three days.

Helping a player who'd just started as an Erudite Necro get off Odus and through Qeynos at level five.

My troll's journey from Grobb to Qeynos Hills at around the same level, carrying everythng he owned on his back, swimming across Lake Rathetear with my heart in my mouth, or his heart, or someone's...I'd lost track of which of us was which by then.

Seeing the explosion of lights from some huge battle far in the distance as I stood on a hill in West Commonlands. Magic. Real Magic. It was probably some level 9 wizard killing a beetle but I didn't know that then.

The Dark Elven invasion of Firiona Vie.

Oh look, these all seem to be from Everquest...

    Scariest moment in a game:

And so do these...

Tanking Trakanon for a guildmate's epic comes to mind.

Or cowering in the corner deep in the tunnels beneath Dulak's Harbor when our tank had to leave suddenly and went to get her dad to play her Warrior while she was gone. Followed pretty swiftly by the next half hour after he got his hands on the controls...

Or skulking in the pitch black Norrathian night just across the zone line out of West Freeport, my back against something solid that I couldn't see (it was a hut), waiting for dawn. Then being attacked and fighting and killing whatever it was without seeing it. (It was a bear. A really small one).

Or any trip through Kithicor. Although that wasn't half as scary as the halfling oompah music that greeted me when I made it to Rivervale

    Most heart-wrenching moment in a game:

The dialog with the girl in the Morninglight safehouse in Carpathian Mountains, I think it is, that's pretty upsetting.

It has to be when I fell down that damn hollow tree, though.

    What are your favourite websites/blogs about games?

Ask me choose between my friends, why don't you? Like I'm going to go there.

    What’s the last game you finished?

Baldur's Gate 2 I think. 

    What future releases are you most excited about?

EQNext. And...erm...can I come back to you on that?

    Do you identify as a gamer?

It's complicated.

    Why do you play video games?

 Partly because they're comfortable and relaxing. Partly because they give me things to think, talk and write about. Partly because doing so feels less passive and more creative than other forms of entertainment. (It isn't, of course. It just feels like it is because your hands are moving).

Monday, August 25, 2014

Picture This

Someone who didn't leave a name asked a question in the comments to the previous post asking what was the relevance of the pictures I'd chosen to use to illustrate it. That's one of those questions you always hope someone will ask but no-one ever does so, rather than bury the reply in a comment thread, it deserves a short post of its own.

Choosing the pictures for these blog posts is the part that takes the most time. I can bang out five hundred words straight off the top off my head in an hour or so pretty much any day of the week but getting the visuals right can take much longer.

Long before I took to blogging about MMOs I always took hundreds, thousands, of screenshots but once I found a practical use for them I began to take even more. I snap umpteen shots every time I do any content I think I might write about - fresh episodes of GW2's Living Story, say - or whenever I play a new MMO or find a new area in an old one. In MMOs that have the comics-style speech bubble option for open or group chat I've also fallen into the habit of screen-shotting anything I say if it strikes me as amusing and/or potentially useable on the blog.

I call this my Goth Moth look.

That gives me a substantial archive to draw from but I still often can't find exactly what I need so I also take shots specifically to use in particular posts. Some days I'll log in to a game in the middle of writing a post just to grab the precise images I need. At the other extreme, if I'm short of inspiration for something to write about, I'll sometimes riffle through my recent screenshots until an image sparks an idea for a post.

Wherever possible I like to use pictures I've taken myself. Occasionally, when I'm writing about a game I haven't played or something I played long ago, I might resort to grabbing a shot from the web but I try to avoid that wherever possible. As a rule, though, I have vastly more screenshots than I'll ever be able to use on the blog, especially since I very rarely do the kind of pure picture posts that, just to give one example, Kaozz does with her Eye Candy series.

Normally the illustrations match the content of a post in a relatively straightforward fashion. If I can manage it, I even try to get the individual pictures to sit next to the individual paragraphs or sections within the post to which they relate, often with captions to emphasize the connection. Before I discovered MMOs I spent nearly twenty years searching magazines for pictures and using scissors and a can of SprayMount to lay out the pages of fanzines and apazines. Blogging feels like a faster, less messy version of the same process.

Insert Amusing Caption Here

The problems tend to come when I'm writing a piece about the MMO genre in general rather than any game in particular, or, more difficult still, about gaming concepts like payment models or accessibility. That's when the connections between the images and the text become more abstruse, which is what was going on in yesterday's post.

To get to the point, and to answer the question, the post was, at least in part, about being cool and being uncool, about whether or not you have the courage to own your obsessions, even when doing so can cause others to see you differently from the way you'd like them to see you or even the way you prefer to see yourself. Illustrating abstracts is a challenge but the immediate connection that came to mind when linking the concept of "cool" and the MMO genre was The Secret World.

The gaucho look is so in this year.
In all the years I've played MMOs and in all the MMOs I've played it's very, very rare that I've ever looked at a character and thought "she looks really cool". I have a deep and abiding connection with and affection for many of my characters but I'd hardly call most of them "cool". For a start, many of them are under three feet tall, have fur, tails, bald heads or vast, foresty beards (and sometimes all of those at once). For a finish, they mostly wear clothes that make them look either like  Second Spear Carrier in a high school production of Henry V or the junior clown in a down-at-heel Eastern European non-animal touring circus.

There are several reasons I don't like to play human or close human analog characters, like elves, in MMOs but foremost amongst them is my feeling that they just look ridiculous. Laughable, even. Playing animals or monsters is partly a way to avoid the kind of disconnect I feel when I see the carnival of excess that surrounds me as I play - huge, hulking wrestlers with their shoulders on fire, porn starlets prepping for their latest low-budget gig, wish-fulfillment fantasies of perfect elven skin and bone structure. Trying too hard is very, very uncool.

There are exceptions. It's possible to make some good-looking and, yes, cool, human characters in GW2 for example. The only MMO I've ever played where looking good is the norm, though, is The Secret World, so it was the natural go-to choice for illustrations for a post about self-image and personal obsession and the way they conflict and conspire with cultural and social norms.

That could be me in 1985. If I'd been a girl. If I'd had a gun.

In the previous post the first picture is my main TSW character, who is, I think, the coolest-looking character I've ever played in an MMO. She looks like the bookish sidekick to the lead in an indie coming-of-age movie, the best friend who's been there since forever and has all the best ironic lines. I have plenty of shots of her looking extremely badass with a machine gun but I chose that particular pose - tense, uncertain, tentative, enigmatic - to emphasize the mixture of desire and discomfort I feel over owning the Gamer label.

The second illustration emblematizes obsession. The intention is to contrast socially acceptable postures - listening to music and being up to speed on new trends and bands - with socially inhibiting behavior - haunting musty record fairs and knowing the serial numbers of colored vinyl releases of 12-inch singles from the early 1980s off by heart. There's a point at which people stop leaning in to listen and start to back away. It looks like it might happen a dozen times a day in that record store.

The final shot is Saïd, a suave, sophisticated mummy, who doesn't let a little thing like having been dead for a few thousand years get in the way of his being the coolest guy in the room - even when there isn't a room. He seemed to me to symbolize perfectly the understanding that being cool isn't something you grow out of - it's something you grow into. Also, the older you get, the cooler you look in a linen suit and a good hat.

So there you have it. The answer to the question "whats the relevance of the pictures in the post?". Now I just have to go and find a bunch of suitable illustrations for this one. Bang goes the afternoon.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Owning Your Obsessions

As Wilhelm noted yesterday, there's a correlation between two blog topics going the rounds right now; the twenty-one question survey started by Jaysla at Cannot Be Tamed and the scrap over who gets to call themselves "real gamers", nicely summarized by Rowan at I Have Touched The Sky.

You might think that only someone who'd take a pace forward when the Real Gamers were called would either care or be able to complete a questionnaire that asks things like "What video-game character do you have a crush on?". Even some real gamers might think about taking a step backward when someone asks them that.

Whether or not I would call myself a "Gamer" (let alone a "Real Gamer") is something I do think about now and again. It's not a label I usually apply to myself, even though I've played video games for thirty-five years almost without a break. I would, and do, unhesitatingly identify myself as a "comics fan" although I haven't bought or followed new comics regularly for over twenty years. I'd call myself a "movie fan" even though it's been longer still since I went to the cinema every week.

I might not choose to self-identify as a Gamer but it's hard to see how anyone objectively examining the way I choose to spend my time could do otherwise. When I'm not working or sleeping it's odds-on that I'll either be playing video games, reading about video games or writing about video games. It's not all I do but it's certainly the thing I do most.

So why don't I see myself as a Gamer? Is it age-inappropriate?

Syl seemed almost incredulous a while back when a comment thread on one of her posts clogged up with old fogeys claiming MMOs had been the stomping ground of the middle-aged right from the get-go. She stated, late in the thread, that "Mainstream video gaming was born in the early 80ies with Atari/Amiga/Commodore, Intellivsion/NES etc. Anyone born long before that time had to take up gaming in their twenties or thirties which seems to be an exception rather than a rule."

That's not how I remember it at all and I don't think it's factually accurate. When they first appeared in the mid-to-late 1970s, video-games were played mostly in arcades or, in the United Kingdom, in pubs. I saw my first Space Invaders machine in a pub the year before I went to University. I would have been eighteen.

All through my college years video-gaming was a feature of student life, something very strongly associated with the experience of being a young adult, not a child. Indeed, I formed a psychological link then between drinking alcohol and playing video games that remains with me to this day.

I can't now remember when I bought my Atari 2600. It was probably while I was at University. Soon after I graduated I bought a ZX Spectrum and after that an Amiga. Quiz machines began to replace video games in pubs and most of my gaming in the 1980s was done at home. Most of my contemporaries back then owned some form of home computer or console capable of playing video games. It was commonplace and yet I can't think of any who would have identified him or herself as a Gamer.

I certainly wouldn't, even though I played video games most days, bought Crash!, MicroAdventurer and C&VGW  magazines regularly. I even reviewed games for MicroAdventurer for a while. Computer gaming was just a relaxation though; a hobby, not a calling. All my energy and ego was directed towards comics fandom, where I was as active then in fanzines and lettercols as I am now on blogs and comment threads, and to music, where I fronted a series of increasingly unlikely and unsuccessful bands.

Syl may be right in believing that her generation, now in their 30s, was the first to grow up with computer games as a cultural option widely available to children. It doesn't follow, however, that they were the first generation to adopt video gaming as a cultural norm. By the time the first MMORPGs appeared in the late 1990s there was no shortage of video-gamers already in their thirties and forties, among them many who'd also played tabletop roleplaying games, and those people had been at it since adolescence.

MMORPGs were a natural fit for the older gamer. To play Everquest you required a PC with a 3D graphics card, which was highly unusual in most homes at that time. You required an internet connection, also unusual, and that connection would almost certainly go through the household telephone line. Almost no-one had mobile phones back then so the land-line was used by the entire family. Not many children or adolescents would have been allowed to tie up the phone line for hours at a time just to play a video game.

And, of course, you had to have a credit card. That was the clincher. Every MMO back then required a subscription. Playing MMOs was expensive, awkward and adult-oriented. In the first few years I played I can only recall meeting one independent player who claimed to be still at school. There were some children of adults I knew in-game, who were allowed to make characters on their parents' accounts, but they played only infrequently and under supervision.

It was far, far more likely that anyone you met in game would be a parent than a dependent child or even a teenager. Most players were of college age or above. Usually above. In my early forties I would have been older than most, but not by all that much, and still younger than many. In the pre-WoW years playing MMORPGs was, for financial, practical and social reasons, a weird, cult, adult hobby.

And that's probably at the root of why I don't identify as a Gamer. It's not an age thing. It's a prestige thing. After university, where having the high score on Galaxians was something to be envied, I rarely encountered any social situation where identifying as a Gamer wouldn't have been socially damaging.

It was bad enough being a comics fan, which had been deeply uncool throughout the 1970s and didn't improve all that much in the 1980s. Fortunately, being in a band was very cool indeed so I was able to convince myself the two things played each other off and came out even. Adding "Gamer" to "Comics Fan" would have tipped the balance. Even comics fans thought gamers were uncool.

Cultures change surprisingly subtly and swiftly. I've seen countless things that were cool fall out of fashion and then revive, often several times, while whole genres and classifications drift inexorably from the periphery of the culture to the core. Right now, gaming is deep in the process of cultural ratification. Comics got there a while back. Affirming as a Gamer is a net cultural positive right now, which is why suspicion can accrue to those who appear to be claiming a right they haven't earned.

The young are, rightly, suspicious and distrustful of their elders. Safe to say that, by the time old people admit to liking something, it's probably not worth liking any more and when it's cool to like gaming then gaming won't be cool any more either. But I could come out as a Gamer now, surely? I'm past all that being cool stuff, aren't I?


[Checks pulse. Not dead yet]

Maybe not.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The Whole Of The Moon : EQ2

I had a whole long, serious post about MMO payment models nearly finished but stuff that!

Someone mended Luclin!

I was flipping through Feedly after work when I saw EQ2Wire had the latest patch notes for EQ2. The first entry was something about Moonlight Enchantments. That might interest Mrs Bhagpuss, I thought. Must remember to tell her when she gets home.

Then I came to the the second entry...

"With Kerafyrm’s defeat, Freeport and Qeynos have finally broken the Awakened siege, and Luclin – now whole – shines brightly in the skies."

As Antonia Bayle's Bit On The Side (great handle!) says in the first comment - Wait! What?

"Now whole" ?!

I had absolutely no idea this was coming. Unlike many longtime EQ players, I loved the Shadows of Luclin expansion. I was Not Happy (although I was very excited) when Norrath's first moon was destroyed as part of the lead-in to the launch of EQ2.

I've always hoped and halfway expected that, one day, we'd get to visit to the remnants we've watched glower like a livid scar across the skies of Norrath ever since. I never, not for one moment, considered the possibility that Luclin might be restored.

If anyone wants an example of how MMOs can change and grow without making a song and dance about it, this is it. This is how it's done. No big PR push. No cinematics. No hype on social media. No warning at all. Just log in one day and there it is - the moon on a stick.

Of course it won't have come as a shock to everyone. The refurbishment of Luclin represents the culmination of the high-end storyline of the previous expansion, not to mention the underlying narrative of the last decade and more. You don't just drop something like that in as an afterthought.

If you're on the ball you'll have done the two-group raid that was added in the Age's End update earlier this month, where you get to see how it was done. I'll probably have to watch that on YouTube. Oh, wait, what's this in the patch notes...

"YouTube integration has been removed due to incompatibilities with Google’s API updates. Options are being explored to return video functionality". D'oh!

You don't have to be an end-game raider to stumble on a harbinger of things to come though. You just need to watch where you're going once in a while. As I was running through the the undead orc lands above the Commonlands dock, trying to get an angle on the new moon, something caught my eye.

Just a rabbit.

Hang on a minute...this is Norrath not Tyria. We don't have floppy bunnies lolloping across the bleached desert sands outside Freeport. Snow bunnies in Velious, those we have. Or had.

We especially don't have huge, plump rabbits that make eye contact, lock their gaze on you, turn when you turn and sit up on their haunches, drumming their great, fat, furry back feet with an audible thump.

Well, we do now. Whether we've had them since the first bunny mounts appeared for Easter or whether they've arrived in anticipation of the new bunny mounts due after the expansion I'm not sure. It's the first time I've seen one though.

Either way, this is how you get someone's interest. Okay, it's how you get my interest. And my loyalty. And my word of mouth. And my money.

Roll on November!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

I Want What They're Having : GW2, EQ2

The news that Episode Four of Living Story Season Two would be the last for several months came as something of a surprise. No, wait, that's not quite right. It came as a total bolt from the freakin' blue!

ANet have somehow managed to eke out the reveal of a single new explorable map, one that's roughly a quarter of the size of the map next door, over the course of two months, and almost convince us we're getting something amazing. How did they do that? All the lore arguments about the original GW1 Dry Top being a small area aside, it's really not a very impressive achievement, although the way it's been marketed definitely is.

Now we learn that it will be another two months or so before the process starts up again. At this rate it will take more than a year to add the equivalent of one, complete explorable area.

Compare that to recently-announced expansions for other MMOs. The upcoming EQ2 expansion, news of which so impressed me, includes two massive overland zones, fourteen dungeons and a new playable race. WoW's Warlords of Draenor proposes to expand Azeroth by more than half a dozen outdoor zones plus dungeons and another ten levels. FFXIV's as-yet unscheduled first expansion is mooted to be as large as the entire game was when it first launched.

There are plenty more where those came from. Even MMOs that aren't going down the Big Box route can claim to have added major new game systems in expansion-like updates - SW:ToR's Galactic Starfighter and Galactic Strongholds brought PvP space combat and housing to that game, for example.

By contrast, what have we had in the two years since GW2 released? At the start the signs looked promising. In the first four months there was a new, explorable map, Southsun Cove, swiftly followed by no fewer than nine "fractal" dungeons. At that pace, who needs an expansion, right?

Since then, however, world building has slowed from a flood to a trickle. There's been one WvW map, Edge of the Mists, and one explorable map, Dry Top and that's it for permanent new areas. Oh, hang on, no it's not - how could I forget Cragstead and the North Nolan Hatchery from the very beginning of Living Story One? Anyone visited either of those recently?

Along the way we've seen a reasonable amount of temporary real estate appear only to vanish like morning mist when its purpose has been served. Dungeons, like The Molten Facility and, um, was there another one? Oh yes, the Krait Tower in Kessex Hills.

We've had small storyline pop-ups like Canach's Lair and off-the-wall experiments like the Super Adventure Box and naturally we've had the usual flurry of seasonal and holiday content like Tixx's Infinirarium and The Mad King's Realm. We even had the gorgeously detailed and highly popular Bazaar of the Four Winds and look how that turned out.

Right from the start ArenaNet's insistence on a dynamic, living, changing world has been controversial. While most players understand why content related to specific holidays only hangs around for a specific period, the idea that almost all new content should be dangled on a string for a week or two and then snatched away was a difficult sell from the beginning and the current direction of developmental travel seems determined to take us down an altogether different road.

Changes to existing maps that tie in with a particular storyline are a longstanding and widely accepted tradition in MMOs. Sometimes they leave permanent scars on the landscape to puzzle and confuse future generations of players, like the huts of the Rude Individuals that still litter Qeynos Hills a decade and more on, or the shattered remnants of Scarlet's probes that glower banefully across Tyria even now. More often they just vanish when their function is no longer required.

With GW2 in general and the Living Story in particular, AreneNet have attempted to sell the idea that their approach to content addition is something radical and new. For a while that seemed almost plausible. Certainly the pace at which they approached things was unusual. The appearances, completely unexpected and unheralded, of whole-cloth additions like Fractals and the SAB were bold, striking coups. The introduction of the bi-weekly Living Story sent ripples across the genre.

From the perspective two years down the line, however, things look somewhat different. GW2 has not added more, new, permanent content than other MMOs I play, when judged on that timescale. If anything it has added less. Moreover, I would strongly question whether it has even given us more temporary content than we are used to getting elsewhere. After all, every active MMOs runs storylines, holiday events, anniversaries, and a variety of one-off or ad hoc activities as a matter of course.

Just today I noticed that my No Bombing At The Moonfire Fair post from last year had popped back up in the top five weekly posts list for this blog, leading me to surmise, correctly, that Square had switched the event back on for its annual appearance. This is just what MMOs do. In a few weeks Mad King Thorn will, we assume, burst out of what's left of the Lion Statue in LA and start haranguing us all over again. Many MMOs, EQ2, LotRO and WoW among them, even have in-game calendars so players can keep track, so frequently do these time-limited events arrive.

GW2 has already created a number of set pieces that can and will recur. Even the Bazaar of the Four Winds may make a comeback - it's not at all clear how much of the flying fleet came  down over Dry Top, after all. Two years on a solid framework for celebrating high days and holidays has been established.

Outside of that, over the course of its first two years I don't believe GW2 has added much, if any, more regular content than the average MMO. Unlike most other passably successful games of its genre, however, what it has not done is produce anything even remotely comparable to an expansion.

Although the real figures are kept frustratingly obscure from us, I think few gamers would argue that any of SOE's MMOs can be more commercially successful right now than GW2. How is it, then, that both Everquest and EQ2 get substantial expansions every year and regular, substantial content updates throughout the months between? Regardless of anyone's opinion of the relative quality of these additions their quantity isn't up for question.

To stick with the current MMO I know best other than GW2, last year EQ2 received a full-scale expansion with Tears of Veeshan in the autumn of 2013. By the time that arrived players had already enjoyed the free Scars of the Awakened update in spring, which added a large explorable zone and a new, full-size dungeon, and, as if that wasn't enough, they'd also had the Dawn of Darkness update in June, giving them alternate, high-end versions of several existing dungeons.

Well, if EQ2 is so much better, why don't you go and play that instead, then? Oh, wait, this isn't map chat, is it? No, the point isn't to score points, just to note that, for all ANet's high-visibility effort, the progress being made isn't all that impressive. It's not quite treading water but then it's not the Australian Crawl either. More like doggy paddle I'd say.

With spoilers in mind I'll leave it a few more days before I get into what I thought of the actual content of the "mid-season finale". I'll just say that it took me less than three hours to complete and that I haven't felt like repeating it on the second account yet. With everyone else getting expansions between now and Wintersday, though, the second half of the season had better come up with something substantial. Man cannot live by amuse-bouche alone.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Jam Today : SOE Live

Anyone following SOE Live in the hope of hearing something substantive about EQNext might be looking in the wrong place. Azuriel, reporting from a panel at GenCon, quotes EQN lore writer Maxwell Drake as estimating development has another two years to run.

I think we all got overexcited this time last year, what with supposed gameplay footage and "something playable" just around the corner. A 2016 launch would bring things back on track with my own original guesstimate. If that's confirmed at SOE Live then we can all officially forget about Next for the time being until we start getting excited all over again when the alpha packs go on sale sometime in 2015.

We should be getting the hang of this new, hyper-extended, "open" development cycle after Landmark, which looks precious little nearer any form of "launch" than it was six months ago.  Massively has an interview with Terry Michaels and Dave "Smokejumper" Georgeson, in advance of any panels, in which they out August 27th as the day combat comes to the not-yet-a-game game.

It's an instructive read, stating as plainly as I've yet seen it laid out that Landmark is not going to be "just a building game". As Smokejumper says, "The reason Landmark right now revolves around the building tools is because we had to have the building tools or we couldn't build anything." What he doesn't emphasize is that combat systems are another massive chunk of development time. If we're seeing the initial alpha implementation in late August then any kind of official launch of a "finished" game surely can't be expected this year.

Nothing yet on H1Z1 that I've seen. Maybe that'll be the new SOE game that bucks the trend and finds a launch window sometime this year. Sod's law says it is since it's the one that doesn't really interest me.

Much, much better news comes from the Keynotes and follow-ups for the games SOE actually has up and running. The forthcoming EQ2 expansion, Altar of Malice, looks like an absolute corker. Not counting the "Features" expansion, Age of Discord, which I personally loved but about which most EQ2 fans were considerably less enthusiastic, the last time I read a contents list that sounded as exciting must have been Rise of Kunark back in 2007.

Dinosaurs! New playable race! Luclin! (ok, a crash-landed chunk of Luclin but it's still Luclin!) Islands! Storylines that I'm interested in! (we might finally get to find out something about why the Far Seas Trading Company closed the Isle of Refuge and even who the heck they actually are). Not to mention the reportedly amazing new graphics that, to quote Feldon from EQ2Wire, "Holy crap. Doesn't even look like EQ2".

The various quality of life and systems improvements due in the pre and post expansion updates sound excellent too. EQ2 Wire has the full details and the panel transcripts but frankly they had me with the return of the Isle of Refuge, which we get back twice, once as a playable area and again as the 10th Anniversary Veteran Reward. I suppose I 'd better go play through Tears of Veeshan before AOM arrives, so conveniently close to my birthday, in November. Now if I can just pry Mrs Bhagpuss away from GW2 for a bit...

The Everquest expansion, The Darkened Sea, sounds pretty spiffy too but frankly level 100-105 content is notional to me. I may well still buy it because it will come with the previous-expansion-but-one rolled in and that's the one that gives access to the Bazaar and the Barter system from anywhere in the game. I've already nearly bought that expansion several times just for that convenience alone.

I'm very curious that the upcoming expansions for the two games share settings, themes and protagonists. I can't recall that happening before. Both take place in the seas off Antonica, both feature dinosaurs and Lanys T'Vyl has her hands in the plot of each. She's a goddess (or a demi-goddess - I forget) so I imagine a mere 500 year time lapse won't offer much of an impediment.

All in all it's been a great news day for longtime EQ and EQ2 players. Not so good for those who've moved on. It may be a long wait until Landmark and Next are real games but this will do me fine until then.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Old Dogs, New Tricks: Everquest

For quite a while now SOE has been in the habit of re-purposing old zones. I'm not sure just when it began but I first noticed it in the Seeds of Destruction, Everquest's 15th expansion, which arrived in the autumn of 2008.

Of course, Everquest zones have always been fluid. Splitpaw has changed ownership and level range several times over the years. Firiona Vie went from the primary good-aligned elven outpost on Kunark to a dark elf stronghold of evil. Kerra Ridge, Kithicor Forest, Grobb and plenty more besides have suffered their invasions and revolutions over the years. Norrath has always been a living world.

Then there was the long-running series of graphical revamps. Some, like the one that destroyed the ramshackle charm of Freeport to replace it with a bewildering concrete wilderness, ever afterwards shunned by all, were devastatingly ill-judged. Others, Nektulos Forest, for example, weren't terrible, although come to think of it, it did take two passes to get that one right. It's even possible, whisper it softly, I might prefer the new version of Oasis.

In the end, though, few contemporary or former players appreciated the graphical re-envisionings, while many complained about the violation of their misty, blood-soaked memories. Changes that put different, usually higher level, mobs in existing zones tended to be better received but even that risked complaints from those who felt disenfranchised by the new order.

The current orthodoxy is a much safer bet all round. Instead of altering existing zones and risking trampling on tender emotions, how much better to slide an altered copy of the zone in alongside the unaltered old one. Or, more practically, slap down a portal to an alternate version of reality.

EQ2 has The Ethernere, in which, to quote the Wiki, "Every area of Norrath has its own home". Everquest has The Void. You'll pardon me if I'm vague on the lore here. Nearly fifteen years and I have only the fuzziest idea what's going on. I believe there are storylines. I know Zebuxoruk has something to do with one of them. Not being a high-end raider, however, most of the finer details have passed me by.

Whatever the supposed reason, with the aid of a few color filters, usually green, and some very dim lighting, developers are able to re-use existing zone layouts and get away it it handsomely. I'd like to think I do know an old favorite when I see it, even when it's heavily disguised. Eventually. If someone gives me a hint.

Even before I took SOE's shilling for a free level 85 I'd spent a fair while in Oceangreen Hills. It was one of the better places for my level 84 Beastlord to struggle through her daily, thirty-minute, veteran double xp "lesson". At one level higher but, crucially, with a storming pet and a complete set of level-appropriate gear, however, Oceangreen became my magician's private playground.

So, Oceangreen is Qeynos Hills and what would Qeynos Hills be without Blackburrow?  Quiet, peaceful, safe...let's not go there.

The entrance to Old Blackburrow looks very similar to the old Blackburrow entrance but with one major difference. These gnolls know how to lock a door. The high-level version that abuts Oceangreen (not to be confused with the high-level version of the original zone, known as Reinforced Blackburrow, which occasionally appears during various special events as a treat for higher level players and a damned nuisance for everyone else) requires an access quest.

I like access quests provided they're reasonably short and not too complicated. This one fits the bill perfectly. Bracka, a Darkpaw Gnoll in a camp that's carefully hidden, right at the far end of Oceangreen, well out of sight of Old Blackburrow, explains the sorry plight of her clan: bigger gnolls stole their lunch-money came into their home and kicked them out. Funny - that happened to the original Splitpaw gnolls too. And then the Tesch Mal when the Elementals arrived. Must be a gnoll thing.

Despite the fact that I've been roaming round the edge of Bracka's camp for weeks, indiscriminately murdering his kinfolk whenever I'm a few kills short of the next percentage point on my xp bar, he asks me if I'd like to help them out in their eternity of need. Go kill some Blackburrow gnolls he suggests, although he seems a little muddled on just how many. Looking at my journal I think the quest got a difficulty pass in my favor somewhere along the line but whichever dev retuned it on his lunchbreak didn't quite get all the numbers lined up.

Whatever. It's killing gnolls. Who cares how many? Off to the slaughter we go, my merry little band: magician, mercenary and elemental.

With Bracka's quest as a passkey we slip through the door and inside we find...Blackburrow! It's exactly the same only better-looking. The tunnel that proved, so many times, just those few desperate yards too long; the old hollow tree that nearly made me quit for good a few weeks after I began, when I fell down the concealed trap and couldn't get my body back; the long ramp down to the yipping, howling, gnollish depths; the rope bridges, the underground lake... everything's just as it ought to be.

In no time and the classic fashion I've cleared my fifteen ten "any old gnolls" long before I find the five three special, unpronounceably-named "elite" gnolls. It's not quite a jolly romp just yet though. Even at 88 some caution and care is required. Blackburrow has always been famous for adds. And trains. A mistimed pull here can still spell, if not disaster, a fast trip to the supposed safety of the zoneline. If you make it.

Seeing the word "elite" in the quest description makes me jump to conclusions. I head to the old Elite ledge. I remember when I was in awe of the groups that would set up on that terrifying slab, huddling in the corner, medding up to beat the respawns in their search for the elusive Studded Leather Collar and the even more elusive "great xp".

In Old Blackburrow, it seems, there are no Elite guards. Their place has been taken by slavers, four or five of them with just the one slave. Wouldn't you guess it, he wants to be rescued, and wouldn't you guess it, I'm naive enough to agree.

I'm not quite so naive as to jump in to save him, when I see that instead of stopping in the traditional manner to get himself killed by attacking the first gnoll he passes, my escortee is blithely strolling up the ramp, gathering outraged gnolls like a labrador picks up burrs.

Outside in Oceangreen, with the merc giving me dirty looks as she heals us all back to full health, I ruminate on how fortunate it is that no-one else chose to visit Old Blackburrow today. I'm so out of practice I forgot to yell "Train to zone!"

Returning under the umbrella of permanent invisibility (all very well until I run into one of the handful of undead gnolls scattered around the tunnels) I decide to take a voluntary dive down the old tree trap. Some extensive exploration and a few scuffles later I find the "elite" gnolls standing idly around the shores of the underground lake. None of them even has the grace to carry a fishing pole.

Forewarned of their dangerous nature (as opposed to the puppyish exuberance of the couple of dozen of lesser gnolls I've had to polish off to get here, presumably) I approach cautiously. They do have very nice armor and a ferocious demeanor but they aren't that tough, at least not when you chain-stun them and set them on fire. Still, I wouldn't fancy a runner much and they take a bit of knocking down after they turn at 10% health, so after the second one almost makes it to a bunch of his friends I do something I haven't done for a long, long time. I return to the spawn of the first one I killed and camp his replacement.

Boy, that brings back memories. I never did like camping stuff much. I had a two-spawn limit for most drops - if I hadn't got what I came for in three kills I'd move on. Didn't get much I wanted that way but I did get to keep my sanity. After years and years of more modern MMOs, where a slow spawn means having to wait more than a minute, the quarter-hour passes slowly. Not sure that's a piece of golden age gameplay I want to see make a comeback.

Time will pass though and at least I only needed a kill not a psuedo-rng-cursed drop. With all my boxes ticked, a quick trip back to Bracka and there I am, flagged to enter Old Blackburrow any time I like.

I will be going back but only for the fun of roaming the old place again (or the Old old place, should I say). I certainly won't be going there for the experience. Ninety minutes I was in that dungeon and I made 1% of the level, including the xp I got for the quest hand-in! The money wasn't up to much either. Killing gnolls just never gets old though so everything evens out.

When SOE announces the details of the forthcoming expansions for Everquest and EQ2 at SOELive this week I'll be neither surprised nor disappointed if we learn that more re-purposed zones are on the way. I've always had a strong curiosity for remakes of favorite movies. It's fascinating to see familiar things from a different angle and when that curiosity's been satisfied I can settle back and enjoy the original with renewed appreciation.

This way of doing things seems, finally, to offer the best of both worlds, the old and the new, the future and the past, even if we're not quite sure, existentially, which is which. Either way, it certainly beats giving the Karanas a makeover like The Commonlands got, that's for sure.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Always On : GW2, WoW

Later on today the fourth episode of GW2's current Living Story will arrive. Sometimes it comes as early as three in the afternoon, sometimes as late as eight in the evening.

By fortunate happenstance ArenaNet's current update schedule is synched with my working pattern. I get alternate Tuesdays off and, unlike last season, they're the right Tuesdays. By the time the patch is ready I'm usually logged in and playing.

The first and only warning is a yellow text message in the chat line announcing a New Build. Sometimes it's due in ten minutes; sometimes it's an hour. If you choose to carry on playing beyond the time-frame given that's fine. The game won't kick you, unless you're in WvW, which can't accommodate multiple instances.

If you change maps you'll find yourself at the patcher, getting the new files, but if you stay put nothing seems to happen. You'll just, eventually, find yourself alone as everyone else moves to a different build and your map empties out. Maybe if you hang around too long the game will give you a nudge. I can't be certain. I've never waited long enough to find out. I'm always too eager to see what's new.

Moderate Fantasy Violence

The way that GW2 handles patching, updating and maintenance like this is unusual. It might be unique. I certainly can't think of another MMO I've played that handles it in quite the same way.  For one thing, the servers never go down. Never. Apart from a few DDOS attacks and other crises and crashes, the servers have been up and running continually for almost two years.

Combined with the "Buy Once, Play Forever" sales pitch, the automatic up and downlevleling of characters and the mostly-horizontal gameplay, ArenaNet have managed to create what must be the most permanently accessible MMO of all time. If you ever bought the game all you need is a PC and an internet connection and in seconds you can be right back where you were, at the heart of the game, no matter how long it's been since you last logged in.

Other MMOs don't have this advantage. All the recent attention given to WoW's upcoming tenth anniversary has made me mildly nostalgic for my old characters. After a helpful pointer from Gripper in the comments thread at TAGN last night I managed to sort out both my Free Trial account and the long-lost details of the account where my original WoW characters reside.

Contains Mild Peril

If I want to log them in, though, I have to set up new payment details. I did get that far. I was at the payment screen and willing to pay the money. What stopped me wasn't the cost or even the inconvenience - it was the interruption.

I was all ready to hit the button but I got de-railed by the payment process itself, which re-routed my thoughts from nostalgic whimsy to real-life practicalities. It made me think about the value I would be getting for my money and about whether I'd have time to play at all, which made think I'd probably better put it off for now. Thus are opportunities lost both for the company and the player.

I've had similar experiences with SOE's games. Not over payment, because I have All Access or whatever they're calling it now, but because when I went to log in to EQ2 or Everquest on a whim the servers were down. When SOE patch the servers come down and stay down for a few hours. They've been known to be out of action for the whole day.

Even if they don't have anything to patch they bring the servers down weekly for maintenance. It's amazing how often that turns out to be the very time I get the itch to play. If left unscratched that itch tends to fade and it might be weeks before it flares up again.

If I was a resting GW2 player looking to return there would be no such break in continuity, no barrier to entry. I'd have the whim, I'd indulge the whim, thought would become deed and I'd be playing again. ANet would have another chance to hook me in.

Translation: "ANet Unfair To Level 20s"
 It happens every day. I see names I haven't seen for a while, weeks, months, nowadays even a year or more. They roll up and jump in and there they are, absent for months and now giving it some on the borderlands. Doesn't matter that their gear is what they were wearing a year ago - if they could do something then they can still do it now.

That, too, makes a huge difference. WoW, EQ2, Everquest, LotRO, all of them have Expansions or expansion-like updates. The level cap rises, whole tiers of gear become obsolete.

That's why Blizzard have chosen to give away a free level 90 with each pre-order of the forthcoming WoD expansion and why it took EQ's recent introduction of a free leg-up to level 85, complete with all the right gear, to get me going again in Everquest even though I already had a level 84. That character couldn't compete or progress easily because her gear was several expansions adrift whereas the 85 is now 88 and getting run-outs every few days. Even she will stall soon, though, when the new expansion arrives, unless I knuckle down and take her into the 90s.

If GW2 continues to be successful, as it seems that it will, it will be largely because of the skill with which both designers and marketers have removed almost every reason not to log in whenever the mood takes you. That, presumably, is why they have been so keen to develop the Living Story process for content updates rather than come up with the boxed expansion that would so patently make them a lot of money all in one hit.

An auction house will only take you so far.

It's also what makes the decision to require players to have a Level 80 character to participate in LS2 so peculiar. It's a decision that, in a way, is as out of kilter with the whole design ethos of the game as was the introduction of Ascended gear but, whereas adding a whole new tier of vertical progression caused howling and wailing on the forums and much drama in and out of game, the "must be this tall to ride" gate on the current wave of fresh content seems to have passed almost without comment.

That may be because everyone already has a level 80. Or maybe it's because new players know how quick and easy it is to get to the cap. Or it could be that, because the content is permanent, no-one feels locked out. They'll get to it when they're ready.

Still, it's odd. It doesn't fit. It seems exclusionary. The first season was scrupulously level-blind. Scarlet was an equal-opportunity megalomaniac, always careful to dispatch her alliances to maps suitable for all level ranges. If characters needed to be temporarily uplevelled that was done too.

Between last season and this something changed. I can't help but wonder if we aren't being prepared, gently, for bigger things to come.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide