Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Workers' Compensation : EQ2

Yesterday I spotted a news item at EQ2Wire that got me all excited. Feldon had received an email suggesting that "everyone" would be getting bumped up to All Access for the run-up to Altar of Malice launch-day on the eleventh of November. Along with the temporary lifting of the velvet rope came some always-desirable long duration double xp potions.

It sounded too good an offer to miss but sadly instead it turned out to be too good to be true. The item was soon amended to confirm that the offer applies not to "everyone" but to "inactive accounts". Still not to be sniffed at and we do have three or four SOE accounts that haven't been logged in for a while so I came home from work eager to see if they qualified.

The first thing was to find EQ2. Hmmm. No icon on the desktop. No folder on either of the hard drives. No results on a windows search. Oh dear. Must have been on the drive that died. Never mind. Could do with a nice, clean install. Let's just download it again.

That went amazingly smoothly. For once SOE seem to have all their goblins in a line. Going from no EQ2 on my system to in game and ready to play took maybe two or three minutes. The streaming download is a real godsend in situations like this. Of course, since I'd also lost all my client-side preference and character files and settings, if I actually wanted to go out and kill anything I'd need another half-hour to set up eight or ten hot bars but at least I'd be in game, in character doing it.

Fortunately I have copies of all those files elsewhere when I can be bothered to copy and paste them. For now I just needed to be able to check my mail and /claim to see if any of the accounts qualified as "inactive".

And not before time!

Which they don't. I don't know how long it takes for an account to drop off SOE's radar but it must be more than a year because it was back in October 2013 that I last logged most of these in, hoping to get a free level 85. There was a lot of confusion over that at the time. Some of the accounts were able to make a Heroic character and some weren't. There was some discussion of it at the time, particularly over at TAGN, but I'm not sure anyone ever figured out exactly what criteria were or weren't being met.

So, no free All Access and no bonus xp potions for me. Sad face. Except wait...what's that clangorous, echoing chime? Why. it's none other than the sound of the three F2P accounts that refused to allow level 85s a year ago deciding that they might have been acting outside their authority. Ding!

On balance I think I came out ahead. Certainly would have taken a lot more than a couple of two-hour xp potions to get those characters to 85. Of course, it's a moot point since I'll almost certainly never play them but hey, free level 85s!

The nudge to log back in to EQ2 was timely because these days you only get your 500SC and your five bonus Legends of Norrath packs that come with All Access if you make the effort to turn up in game and claim them. Since I've been playing either EQ2 or Everquest fairly consistent as my minor MMOs for the past year I'd been managing that pretty seamlessly until ArcheAge and our holiday arrived together and knocked me off my stride. I think I may have missed the September stipend but I got October's with just a day or two to spare. Won't be making that mistake again. I hope.

As for ArcheAge, something odd has happened there. I was trucking along happily on an hour or so a night, knocking off my quests and slowly drifting up the levels. Then I ht the 2000 Labor Point cap for F2P and since then I haven't wanted to log in at all.

I don't want to bother with Labor Points and all the stuff that comes with them yet. I just want to quest and roam around. Unfortunately I find it hard to enjoy doing that when I can feel five LP disappearing into the void as every fifth minute ticks around. I gave myself a little breathing space by salvaging all my old armor but the points-meter soon filled up again. Until I come up with a plan to drain it ArcheAge may be off the menu.

Just as well, really, with the next installment of GW2's Living Story arriving next week and  Altar of Malice the week after that. Probably don't have time for much ArcheAge right now anyway.

Too many MMOs. Too much fun. Nice problem to have.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Cat. Bag. Out Of : GW2

The Mystical Mesmer, in a thought-provoking post ostensibly aimed at discussing the recent layoffs at Carbine and what they presage for the future of WildStar, digresses into the ever-thorny question of whether ArenaNet might, one day, deign to take our money in exchange for an expansion. He lays out a strong case suggesting that such a project is already in progress, not just from circumstantial evidence, such as ArenaNet being entirely exempt from the current NCSoft cutbacks but by reminding of us of the mysteriously under-discussed statement from last February's NCSoft stock summary.

Supporting evidence is linked in the Mesmer's post so I won't re-egg that pudding but I will repeat the quote he highlights: "NCsoft is scheduled to launch an expansion pack for Guild Wars 2 in the US and Europe in 2015". That seems pretty conclusive. Then again, so did this quote from NCsoft's managing director, Nah Seong Chan, back in May 2013:

"...box sales and microtransactions are still very strong, and of course we are preparing an expansion pack but in terms of when we will actually launch it, it's something we are still monitoring... We are looking to the performance of the game and then we will decide what will be the best time to do the launch."

If you pay attention to paymasters NCSoft, the question would seem to be "when" not "whether". If you go by the words of the folks actually tasked with making the game and all its content, however, the official line is entirely different:

"So right now we're not really looking at expansions as an option. It's something that's on the table but it's not something we're focused on, because what we want to do is - our idea here is that with Living World, we can do what expansions would have done but do it on a more regular basis. If we do this right we will probably never do an expansion and everything will be going into this Living World strategy"

Lead content designer Mike Zadorojny

If you dig around the interwebs you can come up with plenty more quotes from ANet supporting that position. It's emblematic of the approach that has turned a rabidly supportive and positive pre-launch fanbase into a surly, cynical bunch of post-launch pessimists, an approach sometimes characterized as  "Say one thing, do another".

There is more going on here than merely a difference of emphasis or a disagreement over terminology. The two statements - "...of course we are preparing an expansion pack" and "...right now we're not really looking at expansions as an option" - are mutually incompatible. Either someone is bending the truth or someone is in the dark about what's going on. Possibly both.

Direct, open, irreconcilably conflicted statements of intent or current activity happen rarely and, as The Mystical Mesmer points out, it's very odd how under-reported and, especially, under-analyzed this particular rift in reality has been. But then, GW2 fans have so many other reality dysfunctions to discuss and I don't mean The Mad King's Realm.

The current contentious hot topic is the change to the way the in-game Gem to Gold to Gem conversion system works. Until last Tuesday you could buy or sell any numbers of gems you wished, starting at one and working up from there. You could also see, in game, both the exact current exchange rate and a chart showing the trends over a period. It was simple and straightforward both to watch for advantageous market conditions before hitting "Buy" and to get exactly what you needed and no more.

In last week's update all of the current and historical monitoring data was removed. The ability to buy in units was removed and replaced by fixed quantities. The predictable result was outrage. The threadnaught on the forums currently runs 40 pages. A period of denial and self-justification gave these reasons for the unwanted, unexpected and unwelcome change:

That, along with comments like the one excerpted below, again from Community Rep Gaile Gray, stoked the feeling, already common on the forums, that not only do ArenaNet not listen to their veteran players but they don't care much about what they think either. They appear to be far more focused on new players, as might well be expected of a company whose commercial model relies heavily on selling new boxes and digital downloads to new customers, who may very well also exhibit a higher average spend on microtransactions than Veterans.

Tune out the the peevish, passive-aggressive tone (it must have been a long day at the office) and you can see that Gaile has a very good point. It's the reason these changes never sit well with established players and it's what makes communicating those changes so very problematic.

Put simply, ArenaNet are changing their game to suit the needs of new players and explaining their reasons for doing so to old players. The first group may both need and welcome the changes but their thoughts and feelings on the matter go unrecorded, at least in public, while the second group, who most probably neither need nor want the changes, most assuredly do have access to all the relevant communication channels and the confidence and motivation to make the fullest use of them.

It must be very difficult, having to address the needs of one group of customers while explain your thinking to another. Especially so when the two groups can often be seen as direct competitors with entirely different outlooks and expectations. It's hardly new ground though. These are the kind of problems that all MMO developers experience and probably always have done. I recall reading interviews over a decade ago where John Smedley complained of the difficulties in meeting the needs and expectations of both new players and veterans at the same time.

SOE certainly never found the sweet spot where necessary changes were both communicated and implemented efficiently. Maybe that sweet spot doesn't exist. Maybe the needs of the beginner and the veteran conflict to such a degree that compromise isn't possible. You'd be forgiven for thinking so if you'd played any of these games for long enough to pass from one state to the other. In the case of the Gem Conversion Crisis, however, reason has finally prevailed:

As we've had cause to observe of SOE, weeks or even months after many a reverted decision in Everquest or EQ2, they got there in the end. As with SOE's many, many foot-in-mouth episodes, however, the inevitable corollary is why didn't they see it coming and do it that way in the first place? I'm a great fan of SOE's MMOs. I'd say any developer working in the field could do a lot worse than to examine and emulate a great deal of their game design, methodology and ethos. With the best will in the world, though, would anyone ever benefit from modelling their communication strategy on SOE? I think not.

At least ArenaNet turned this one round quickly, which is more than can be said of the previous in their long list of self-inflicted wounds, the Great Trait Revamp. The thread on that one, still on the first page of the forums and still flagged "Hot!", runs to 57 pages, the issues it raises largely unanswered and wholly unresolved. If only there was something that could take veteran players' minds off all these niggling little problems...

Well, how about this? ArenaNet could save themselves a lot of grief and buy a whole load of goodwill simply by acknowledging, rather than openly denying, what does seem to be a known fact: they are working on an expansion for GW2 and we will be able to buy it next year. As The Mystical Mesmer points out, "why wouldn't you just tell your players that "Cantha is confirmed" and revel in the explosion of loregasms that would cover the first ten pages of the official and unofficial forums?" And, incidentally, bury all the bad news and whingeing, whining entitlement veteran threads back on page 11?

Bunker mentality? Wounded pride? Jeromai speculates in the Mesmer's comments

 "My guess? It ties in with the culmination of Living Story 2.
Announcing an expansion now would sort of ruin the revving up climax

Or it might revitalize flagging interest. I'd back the latter. Why waste a few months of free publicity and ever-building excitement? Maybe because they're relying on that to fill the long, empty months between the end of Living Story 2 and the launch date of the Expansion That Doesn't Officially Exist Yet?

I don't freaking know but here's an idea you can have for free, ANet. If you don't want cynical, pessimistic grumbling bitter vets clogging up your forums and bringing down the whole vibe then just tell us what you're working on. The whole damage limitation mechanism of never announcing or confirming anything until it's a done deal stopped limiting the damage about a nanosecond after you announced it, even if NCSoft weren't out there denying your reality in their corporate statements.

There is such a thing as too much information but this isn't it.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Don't Eat It All At Once : ArcheAge

Ravious at Kill Ten Rats has a good overview of the Halloween celebrations in GW2 this year. They're the same as last year's only with new rewards and additional Daily Achievements. Since the update dropped on Tuesday Tyrian Trick or Treating has been occupying a couple of hours of my gaming time every evening, a trend likely to continue for a couple of weeks.

I haven't yet logged into EQ2 for the seasonal celebrations but I know that if and when I do  could spend many hours happily chipping away at the candy mountain of quests that have built up over the years. Even little Dino Storm has "numerous quests" to offer - or will have, when they begin on the pedantically accurate thirty-first of October.

ArcheAge's Hallowtide has some very large pumpkins. I sat down in front of one to take a selfie and a dashing chap with a red name photobombed me. I guess I should be grateful that's all he did.

Red names make me so nervous I sat on the wrong side of the Pumpkin.
There's also a quest. Just the one. I did it right before I wrote this. It took me a couple of minutes. I would have gotten it finished in thirty seconds but it was the first time I'd used the auctioneer. He was friendly enough. If a Skritt and a Merloc had a baby (okay, biologically unlikely, I grant you) this is what you'd get.

At this point you could go to your farm or a public farm if you're a dirty F2Per like me, plant some pumpkin seeds, water them, wait a while, harvest your pumpkins and come back (I'm guessing here. I have yet to investigate the agricultural aspect of ArcheAge. I imagine it's something along those lines...). You could do that.

Or you could just buy the Pumpkins from the frogman who just asked you for them, walk five steps to the mailbox, collect the pumpkins, carry them five steps back and give them to the manfrog who just sold them to you. Done and done.

You wouldn't expect much of a reward for that and you wouldn't be disappointed. He gives out sweets, which is traditional, if nothing else.

Whoever wrote the item description seems to have been enjoying himself rather too much.

Oddly, so did I. Sometimes less really is more.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Zing! Went The Strings Of My Explorer's Heart : ArcheAge

Both Guild Wars 2 and WildStar make a particular play for what they appear to perceive, inaccurately, as the Bartle Explorer archetype. ArenaNet sprinkled Points of Interest across Tyria like hundreds and thousands  , raised scores of flags in high places and called them "Vistas". Then they slapped on a few rewards and titles and wrapped the whole mess up in a nested set of tick-boxes they called Achievements. Carbine went the extra mile and created an entire Explorer "Path".

This is all well and good. Following these breadcrumb trails can be fun. I enjoy a little of it myself when I'm in the mood. As has been observed by many before me, however, it has about as much to do with "exploring" as Painting By Numbers has to do with Fine Art. It's Exploring for Achievers, basically, and Achievers are a much easier target. Rewarding  Explorers can be something of an existential challenge.

If that doesn't make you want to go and explore you may have chosen the wrong hobby.
The first time I ran across an actual in-game "Achievement" system was, I believe, in Lord of the Rings Online. As I remember it, you'd be out and about, doing some important task for a puffy-faced Hobbit farmer down in The Shire, and right in the middle of killing some oversized gnats a great message would pop up announcing that henceforth you would be known as "The Crop-saviour". It was quite the novelty at the time.

Looking at the LotRO wiki I see that the Deeds system, as it's called, also breaks down into four quasi-Bartle categories, one of which is called "Explorer". I have no memory of that at all. Mostly I remember killing stuff for titles. They call those "Slayer" Deeds. Why they didn't go with Bartle's "Killer", who can say? Perhaps they thought it didn't sound sufficiently Tolkeinian.

Whether they use his exact nomenclature or not, however, Western MMO developers seem to be big on Bartle. How far East the Professor's influence extends is less clear. Jake Song and XLGames certainly didn't consider it necessary to kit each character out with a Book of Adventure or Tome of Discovery, nor even to add a plain old Achievement Panel to the UI.

Photo opportunities are few and far between in an ArcheAge sewer.

That doesn't mean there's no Achievement system in ArcheAge. There is. Sort of. Or rather there used to be. This Reddit thread explains it in detail. The gist is you used to get rewards for doing various things that might be called "Achievements" in other games. Later those rewards were removed but the triggers weren't.

When Trion localized the game they used the version with the triggers but without the rewards and guess what? That turns out to be the best way to reward Explorers for doing what they do naturally that I've yet seen in any MMO so far.

In all the palaver about overpopulated servers, queues, bots, hacks, PvP, farming, naval warfare, housing shortages and all the rest, one thing that's easy to miss is that ArcheAge offers something that approximates a virtual world. Granted it often feels like you're exploring the half-finished set for a movie, what with all the (NPC) houses no-one bothered to furnish and the (PC) houses no-one bothered to finish building, but, still, there definitely is plenty of "there" there.

Yes, I'm doing the backstroke. I'm in a sewer. So would you.

With no zone boundaries and reasonably unrestricted movement - if you can see something you have a better-than-even chance of being able to get to it - ArcheAge demands to be explored. If you're that way inclined, that is. Which I am.

The world of ArcheAge (I wish they'd give it a name) has reminded many an ex-Vanguard player of Telon for this reason as well as for the textural familiarity and the occasional musical memory. I spent an unconscionable amount of time exploring Thestra, Qalia and Kojan for the sheer fun of it and it's going much the same way in ArcheAge. Cantering from quest to quest I'll spot a cave or a windmill across a field and off I go.

The difference between Vanguard and ArcheAge in this respect is the zing. In Vanguard I felt it in my bones. In ArcheAge I can see it in the air. Literally. And hear it too.

One  part pony, three parts mountain goat.

I'm not having flashbacks. It's not my temporal lobes flaring up. Not this time, anyway. It's those leftover triggers. Occasionally, when I poke my nose into somewhere that looks interesting, there's a shimmering sound from the speakers and a scatter of sparks on the screen. That's where I would have received one of Nui's Tears had that currency not been removed.

It's perfect. Most of the time when I go exploring the reward is just as it should be - satisfied curiosity, occasional adventure, incidental terror. Props to Two Crowns for having a proper sewer system. That was a scary half-hour in the dank dark. Now and again, however, often when I do something a little out of the ordinary, like riding my horse up the side of a carnival marquee, I'll hit one of those disconnected triggers and...Zing!

Its a gift that you can't keep or covet. It happens too fast and unexpectedly even to snap a screenshot. It's a virtual pat on the back, a nod of the head, as if the game is offering you a wink and a wry smile. It feels great.

They may have got there by accident but XL and Trion may have come up with the perfect way to reward Explorers just for exploring.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Trip To The Islands : EQ2

A few weeks ago, in the comments following his post on "EverQuest II Lore in a Minute", Wilhelm drew my attention to the existence of a White Wolf tabletop RPG featuring EQ2. I've been slowly picking up the various White Wolf books for the original Everquest but I had no idea there had ever been an attempt to expand the franchise offline to include the second iteration of Norrath.

The original series must have performed well enough, off the back of the success of what was generally reckoned at the time to be the most successful western MMORPG.  Fifteen titles were published in all. By the time White Wolf got around to EQ2, however, Blizzard had snatched SOE's crown and no-one was interested any more, assuming they ever were.

Given that all this happened little more than a decade ago it's harder than you might imagine to dig up exact details of what was published. White Wolf merged with CCP Games (yes, that CCP) in 2006 and all mention of Everquest has since vanished from the official record. A search at White Wolf's Digital Publishing and Print on Demand partners DriveThruRPG comes up similarly blank. Even the White Wolf Wiki can offer no more than a stub that baldly acknowledges the series' existence and no more. It's left to the Dungeons&Dragons wiki, of all places, to offer a complete and definitive list.

I was vaguely aware of these books when they were new but back then I believed I already had all the EQ I could ever use, right there on my 15" CRT monitor, so I didn't pay much attention. Over the years my complacency began to erode as various MMOs slipped into comas or shuffled willingly or otherwise towards the sunset. It began to occur to me that, while I might be willing to play Everquest on and off for the rest of my life, eventually that might not be an option and not just because I would no longer have the strength to click a mouse.

The path to purchase was crooked. I'd been writing about the desecration of Freeport in Everquest and speculating on the prospect of a similar revamp in EQ2. While researching that piece I was reminded of the time-locked Mac version of Everquest, with its one server, Al`Kabor, where it was forever Planes of Power and never Gates of Discord (like the White Witch in reverse).

It occurred to me that the Mac players must still have the old version of Freeport, which led me to check the price of second-hand Apple Macs (prohibitive) and the feasibility of PC/Mac emulators (too fiddly). By the time I'd found something that looked like it might be manageable SOE announced they were finally closing the door on 2004 and sunsetting EQMac.

It wasn't time wasted, however, because along the way I noticed the White Wolf Sourcebook for Freeport on Amazon. I bought that and it turned out to be very good indeed. I learned more about Freeport, the disparate and disturbing people who lived there and the tangled skein of alliances and enmities that fill their every thought than I had ever suspected existed in all my years actually playing the damn video game.

From there I went on to buy half a dozen more of the White Wolf game books, scenarios and sourcebooks, picking up the odd copies that appear at reasonable prices among the overoptimistic dealers on Amazon Marketplace. In time I hope to complete the set, although my enthusiasm for individual titles varies. An entire book dedicated to examining The Temple of Solusek Ro in nit-picking detail is not an enticing prospect and of all the choices they could have made, Dagnor's Cauldron strikes me as idisosyncratic to say the least. especially when you consider all the places they didn't do.

I don't imagine I'll ever use the books to for their intended purpose. Y'know, to play an actual game. Although, given the tools available for playing on a virtual tabletop online, the bloggers that are already using them, and the endless complaints of ex-EQ players that they'd love nothing better than to play Classic EQ like in the good old days, maybe a session or two sometime's not entirely out of the question. Just so long as I don't have to GM or set up the table.

For now I'm just reading. Its very interesting how effectively that fires up the nostalgia factor. More so than playing the games themselves, which, since I have played them near enough continuously, seem far more like current affairs than history. Now I have the Freeport book I can even face that abomination on the coast of Antonica with something approaching equanimity, knowing I can go to the real town with White Wolf's time machine whenever I fancy.

The EQ2 Player's Guide is, as you might expect, light on lore and heavy on rules on how to Sense Motive (P172) or use a Magnifying Glass (P212). Even so, there are sixty pages on the history and culture of The Shattered Lands, The New Lands and The Isles Of Refuge.

The last of those three chapters is of particular interest because the Isles of Refuge, set in what we now must learn to call The Shabby Sea, feature heavily in the upcoming Altar of Malice expansion. To confuse matters thoroughly, the bizarrely-named Shabby Sea breaks down into two sub-seas, Tranquil and Phantom. The Tranquil islands so far announced are the Isle of Refuge itself, Deathweave Isle, and the Pygmie-and-dinosaur-inhabited Island of Dichen, at least two of which don't sound all that tranquil to me. The sea-next-door, The Phantom Sea, offers Kithicor, the Far Seas Trading Company’s home base Highhold, and Grimshales, an island made from a shard of Luclin.

If we take the White Wolf source as canon then that's just the tip of the iceberg. (Bad analogy). The map at the top of this post shows around thirty islands with almost a dozen of them named. All the named isles are examined in detail in the book. Six of them get entries several pages in length.

I confess to having being largely unaware of the existence of almost of all of these islands. I can't recall if they were mentioned in game back in the first or second iteration of the tutorial, both of which I played through several times. I only remember the later, streamlined version with any great clarity. It's evident, nonetheless, that whether we as players were aware of it or not at the time, the waters and islands we are now so close to discovering and exploring for ourselves were there all along, both in the imaginations of the designers and in the design documents they were using.

I was already invested in the upcoming expansion. For years I've wanted to find out what the Far Seas Traders were up to. I've never trusted them. Now I'm doubly intrigued. When the expansion launches on November 11th for All Access members and November 28th for the masses, I'll be out there with my telescope, scanning the horizon for signs of islands yet unknown.


Monday, October 20, 2014

It's The Little Things : GW2

Looking back across the year GW2 has seen a lot of changes. Living through this stuff month by
month, day by day, it's easy to forget just how often the boundaries shift. From Megaservers and fixed timers to the Wardrobe and a Trading Post that (almost) works, so much has happened that it scarcely feels like the same game we were all playing this time last year, let alone the one we began with way back in 2012.

It's the way of MMOs. Some change fast, some more smoothly, but unless population and popularity drop far enough for the mothballs to come out (and no-one likes to smell of camphor) they all do change.

The Nosy Gamer today posted a transcript and commentary of an address given by CCP Seagull at the EVE event taking place in Las Vegas, the gist of which appears to be "change is coming, like it or not (but don't worry, you'll like it"). Perhaps the most interesting thing about the speech, at least for someone like me who has never played EVE Online and most likely never will, is CCP Seagull's assertion that "we need to make more changes where we can't predict what's going to happen". 

Forgive my cynicism, if that's what it is, but isn't that all changes in every MMO ever? Fifteen years of experience is more than enough to convince me that most Devs can't predict what's going to happen when they bring a server back up from routine maintenance, let alone the day after they release a major update.

Still, letting that ride for a moment, the idea of intentionally changing the game-world in ways whose outcome is  unknowable is rather attractive. It's enticing to imagine logging in to a world where wikis no longer work and veterans feel at sea like newbies.

Then again there's the NGE and Monoclegate to consider. Those, like countless other less-celebrated PR disasters, amply remind us that one person's unpredictable outcome is another's blindingly obvious inevitability. What, you really didn't see that one coming? Oh, apparently you didn't...

All of which lengthy and ponderous pontificating on the interface between possible and probable brings me to my tiny princess. Of all the year's changes I'd be hard-pressed to think of one that's had more impact on my enjoyment of the game than the March of the Minis and I certainly didn't see that one coming.

Prior to the most recent Feature Pack, if you wanted to run around with a Mini in tow you had to have a separate, individual copy of said Mini in the inventory of each character who might want to call on it. You had to open your bags and click the icon to summon the Mini and you had to keep your minis in a "Safe" bag to prevent them being whisked away to the Vault every time you used GW2's handy "Deposit All Materials" button. On top of all that nonsense Minis couldn't leave the map on which you spawned them so you had to go through the whole rigmarole every time you went anywhere.

Eyes without a face. Wait, what eyes?
Unsurprisingly, about the only place you ever saw Minis in numbers was Old Lion's Arch, back in those halcyon days when, as though in some glorious Edwardian summer, now lost, people would stand around for hours on a single map just passing the time of day and admiring each others' frocks. Thanks to Scarlet, those days are over, but to no-one's greater surprise than my own I find I'd willingly trade the chatter and bustle of Old L.A. for our new, go-ahead, go anywhere Minis. (Although, come to think of it, wasn't there supposed to be some kind of reconstruction project? Whatever happened to that?)

It's not as though I even collect minis. The Miniature tab in the Wardrobe tells me there are 270 of them. On my senior account I have just two: Evon Gnashblade and Princess Doll.

The best ones, in other words.

Evon is best because, well, he's Evon. Why didn't they listen to him? He was the favorite! And Princess Doll (Pwincess to me - don't judge!), she's best because she's full-on crazy.

Pwincess has no face. In extreme close-up you can see her blank sackcloth weave. Even so, featureless, she has more personality than any ten storyline NPCs you care to name. She curtseys, she sways, she sings and she screams and somehow she has become the inseparable companion of my gruff, manly (catly?) Charr Ranger.

Her wordless, borderline personality outbursts spur him on through keep sieges and open-field skirmishes. Her piercing voice penetrates The Mists, bringing a fervid, febrile cheer to the endless snows. Her movements are mysterious. He often jumps from a high place only to find her behind him when he lands, yet at times he can turn and watch her skip along a ledge and jump down to join him.

 Last night, in a quiet moment as I was guarding our second Hills (we always try to keep one spare), I spent some little while trying to catch her out, running along the parapets and jumping down, trying to see if I could find some place she wouldn't dare to follow. There is none. She is fearless.

Of course stepping out unpartied as a ranger these days feels more and more like leading a team than going solo. There's the pet, naturally; always a Lynx or a Wolf for the Borderlands. Then there's Pwincess. Finally, when the rune procs (and the rune always procs) there's Rock Dog.

It wasn't the Charr that discovered Rock Dog. That took Asuran genius. When reports filtered back, how that peculiar hound saved the Junior Ranger from certain death, holding off enemies while Pet Number One licked his master back to life, nothing would do but the Charr should have one of his own. Indeed, so impressed was I, it's a wonder I stopped at the Rangers and didn't slap a set of Ogre Runes on everyone. The stats are pretty handy all round after all.

What have you seen, boy? Is it Grawl?

 Where's all this going? Nowhere much. Only to say that, repetitive and predictable as it can so often seem as you grind away at your faction or your dailies or your rep or your status, all of these games, these worlds, are already unpredictable. A small change here, a revision or a tweak there, something you never considered and scarcely noticed, yet next you know your character has altered, his personality too, and your gameplay along with both of them.

So, yes please, all you CCP Seagulls out there. Go ahead, make changes whose outcomes you can't predict. Better yet, make changes whose outcomes you admit you can't predict. We'll roll with them. Unless it's another NGE or Monoclegate of course. But that's a lesson that's been learned.

Hasn't it?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Halfway Up The Stairs : ArcheAge

Last night my one and only ArcheAge character, a Battlerage Novice of the Crescent Throne, dinged 25. Exactly half-way to the level cap. For what that's worth. Which isn't much.

Somewhere back in deep time getting a character to the midpoint of the level range on your first run through an MMORPG was a significant achievement. It took me several months to get there in both Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot. Even in the era of EQ2 and vanilla WoW it was nothing to be sniffed at.

In recent years, though, reaching the Level Cap in some MMOs has seemed not so much like an achievement as getting to the end of an unreasonably extended tutorial. A tutorial, moreover, that sometimes seems to bear little resemblance to, and provide scant preparation for, the de facto "real game", the one that only starts when the number next to your character's name stops going up.

One thing you can generally still rely on, however, is that whatever passes for a main storyline or narrative arc will have been designed to last you roughly the same time as it takes to hit max level. Generally, that is. Not, as it turns out, in ArcheAge.

Oh, the game does have a central storyline, although you could be forgiven for not having heard about it. That's how I came to ding 25 last night, finishing it somewhat by accident when I rolled into Two Crowns at level 24 on the trail of what I thought was an entirely unrelated matter, having been sitting on what turned out to be the final step of the main storyline quest since I was twenty-three. I think it's meant to last you to level 30, the point at which you are expected to leave the protected PvE Kindergarten safety of your homeland for the Big School of  contested territory where bullies can steal your lunch money you get your first taste of PvP.

It's true that, as is my wont, I was running about five levels ahead of where the developers probably expected me to be, but even so to have the main storyline conclude while your character still has forty percent of her levels left to gain is far from regulation for the genre. I had already heard that a premature ending was on the cards but it still took me by surprise. I guess it's fair to say that Story is not one of however many pillars ArcheAge stands on. Can't really have one pillar 40% shorter than the rest if you expect your roof to stay up.

SW:ToR, GW2, LotRO and FFXIV:ARR all put story front and center in much of the pre and post publicity rounds but Trion always seemed to keep rather quiet about their narrative offer.  Now we know why. All the same, neither they nor XL Games were prepared to do without a story altogether. Someone in Korea certainly spent some considerable time and effort on it, creating a wealth of cut scenes to illustrate the gnarly and largely incomprehensible plot, while someone else, presumably Trion, employed an Actor (very much with the capital "A") to provide a lengthy and sonorous English voiceover for the international market, an expense and effort that has yet to be extended to the many untranslated NPC voice samples in the gameworld itself.

Some sources indicate that ArcheAge was based on a pre-existing series of novels by an established Korean fantasy author named Min-Hee Jeon, which would lead one to expect that the storyline, at least in the original Korean release, might have been more important than we in the West have found it to be. Intense investigation (aka googling) reveals, however,  that Min-Hee Jeon actually came on board after the game was already in development to produce the official novelization so perhaps not.

Either way, the central storyline exists and I have finished it. Or, rather, I have finished the Nuian racial storyline. I believe each race gets one of its own. Don't ask me to explain it. There was something about a Princess, I had a Mark on my arm and now it's gone, there was a big fight that I won somehow without really knowing how, Lucius turned up at the end and supposedly cast a whole load of lightning that I never saw... Par for the course, really.

The reward, apart from the satisfaction of a job well-done and a handy final chunk of xp that shoved me from 24th well into level 25, was a Level 30 Cloak I can't wear. That's what you get for pushing ahead.

So, no more main quest line to follow. Now what? Obviously leveling itself won't be a problem. ArcheAge is one of those modern MMOs that hands out xp points for just about anything.  Whatever you fancy doing will likely siphon xp towards you as fast as you can suck it down. Nevertheless, partly from whimsy and partly from a sensible desire to avoid the early-day crowds, I decided right at the start to attempt to level my first character to the cap purely through exploring and questing and I'd like to try and complete that goal. Lucky for me, then, that there seem to be roughly a gazillion non-main-sequence quests to keep me going.

Most commentary on AA has concentrated on what it does differently from other MMOs: competitive open-world housing, farming, trade-routes, vehicle-building, naval combat and so on. Little has been said or written about the questing and those few who have mentioned it have been less than complimentary. Not without good reason. It's very certain that neither the original writer nor whoever did the pedestrian translations is likely to be taking home any industry awards for either originality or quality.

That said, I have seen worse. A lot worse. There are moments of ironic or self-referential humor that are rather well done. Some of the characters have personality. There's plenty of variety. You get a sense of some kind of society in action rather than merely a scattering of unconnected tasks.

At the moment my quest journal is stuffed with unfinished jobs picked up along the roadside. There seems to be an infinity of farmers with infestations of Goblins, Groundlings and recalcitrant wildlife while every quarry, mine or fishing village proves to be a hotbed of intrigue and rivalry, where a passing adventurer or mercenary is seized on by all parties. I don't imagine I'll run out of good works, mercy killings and old-fashioned assassinations for a while yet.

Quest xp doesn't appear to scale, hardly surprising really, since one modern MMO feature AA appears to have eschewed is any form of scaling or mentoring. Consequently if I backtrack it's going to take more and more quests to make less and less progress. Then again, I'm not on the clock so who cares how long it takes?

And then there's the question of whether there are more, and more level-appropriate and therefore rewarding,  PvE quests in the contested areas. I'm guessing there are, given that there's supposedly a progression of quested armor and weapons all the way to fifty. It's going to be an adventure finding out. I'm very much looking forward to it.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Season's End : GW2

A full and speedy return to blogging normality today was somewhat impeded by my having to make a three-hour round trip to another city for some kind of work-related seminar (a previously unheard-of activity for grunts of my lowly level but something which seems to be becoming disturbingly frequent of late). Still, travel fatigue aside, I wanted to say something about the conclusion of the third GW2 World vs World Season before it disappears forever into the mists of time rather then just into The Mists.

Yak's Bend contrived not only to come first overall in Silver League but to win all four matches. They were mostly very good fun, with plenty of good fights and some exhilarating, extended sieges, both defending and attacking, but only in the first week could the outcome have been said to be in much doubt. We all expected Week 3 to be the toughest but in the event it fizzled and everything was wrapped up not long after the weekend.

I thoroughly enjoy the Seasons, more so than the regular competition, but it's clear that both need a lot of thought if they're going to offer genuinely edge-of-the-seat, competitive content for more than the odd match here and there. That said, and for all the complaining on the forums, each Season does see a very significant and sustained upswing in activity on the Borderlands so I can't be the only one having fun. I would guess that so long as ArenaNet keep seeing those numbers in their metrics they'll have scant motivation to make the kind of sweeping changes so often demanded.

The official reward for our sterling performance was, as expected, underwhelming. All of my Tournament Claim Tickets from this Season and last remain unspent, taking up valuable space in my bank vault, and will continue to do so until something worth buying is added to the Battle Historian's stock. I suppose I could get the Mini Dolyak or some Ascended jewellery and the various utilities are always useful but I'm hanging on to the tokens in the vague hope that one day they might come up with something I actually want and that I can't already get elsewhere.

The title for completing the extremely easy achievement is...odd: "Mist Treader". I quite like it.
It reminds me of my favorite of the Narnia books, one of my favorite novels of all time, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader". For that reason alone I might display it... if I could actually see my own title. Which, of course, I can't. Still, titles. I like them. Not complaining. Much.

Then there's the mildly controversial  Dolyak Tournament Statue. Clicking on this supposedly grants a buff to XP and WXP that varies in length according to where your server placed in the tournament. First place gives a five-hour buff. The controversy comes from the one-time nature of the benefit, which can only be used once per account on a single character. I haven't dared to click the statue to test it yet.

The unofficial award, of course, has been the catapulting of eternal T3/T4 stalwart Yak's Bend into the giddy heights of Tier 2. This was always on the cards, what with Maguuma imploding and Glicko ticking away in the background throughout the Season like an unexploded bomb. Even so, I don't think many of us expected such an emphatic promotion. Or wanted one.

T2 has been an unbalanced mess for weeks prior to the Season. Maguuma tried their hardest to get into the upper tiers months ago but when they got there they apparently found the pace too hot. They discovered, as had several servers before them, that it's a lot harder to slide gracefully down a Glicko snake than to climb up a Glicko ladder. A lesson I fear we may yet have to learn. Painfully.

Over the last eighteen months or so Yak's Bend has made an unconscionable number of enemies in WvW, primary among them Stormbluff Isle and Fort Aspenwood. There was some talk that we won some poll recently naming us Most Hated Server or some such. Apparently we ticked Sea of Sorrows off at some point too although I have no memory of how that happened.

Dire threats were made on the Official Unofficial Forums (such discussions having long been banned on the Official Official Forums, naturally) by a few self-appointed community leaders purporting to represent the views of SoS and FA. Apparently we would be double-teamed so hard if we ever dared poke our cow-donkey muzzles out of Tier 3 we wouldn't stop running til we hit T5.

Doesn't seem to have worked out quite like that. We aren't exactly bandwagonning, thank heaven, but we have picked up two or three really quite significant guilds on transfer and there appears to be a general resurgence of interest and attendance on the back of our Season success. Consequently we are outperforming all expectations including our own. For now...

It is, of course, very early days. We haven't even finished the first match yet. I have a queasy feeling this is how Maguuma started. Even if it does turn out that we can hold our own in T2, however, that only opens the prospect of an eternity playing the same two servers week after week. I have to say I was quite content in T3/T4, where we were getting good matches from a revolving pool of 5 or 6 very closely-matched teams. Ah well, time will tell if we can hack it in the big leagues, I guess.

So, there we are. On balance I would say Season Three was A Good Thing but the systems and processes could all clearly stand some further improvement before we get a Season Four. Plenty of time for that - I don't imagine we'll see the next round this side of Spring 2015.

Monday, October 13, 2014

And...We're Back

Breaking radio silence to announce our return from a week of sunshine and showers in Portugal during which fantasy worlds in general and MMOs in particular never seemed far away. Normal service will be resumed as soon as I get my so-called act together. Meanwhile, here are some pictures.

Map Call! DB Zerg at NE Garri.
Curse you, Duke Barradin! Will you never rest?
The Secret World of The Templars at Tomar
Dinosaur footprints! EQ2 expansion this way!
Yeah, right. I walk down the path and three giant spiders swing down on top of me.
I've been to Maguuma. I know how it goes.

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