Thursday, November 27, 2014

Rallics Of The Past : EQ2

As far as content goes, EQ2's Altar of Malice expansion seems to have been well-received, by and large. Still, there have been a lot of grumblings and mutterings among the faithful concerning two aspects: the supposedly inferior perks and/or excessive cost of the Collector's Edition and the approach the dev team has taken over xp gain for the added five levels.

On the CE I have nothing to add beyond that I've yet to see one for any MMO that I'd have given more than a few dollars above base price for. On the latter, well, Feldon at EQ2 Wire felt strongly enough about it to write an editorial on the subject that just about covers everything.

It seems the feathers of a proportion of the playerbase have been ruffled particularly brutally by two separate decisions: to reduce xp in "contested dungeons" outside of the expansion and also in Dungeon Maker instances. The details of exactly what was included, who the changes affected and precisely how the xp was altered are arcane beyond the patience or interest of anyone but the most dedicated EQ2 archivist and opinions vary over whether and to what degree these changes were either necessary or appropriate. What no-one argues, however, is that some degree of choice on how to approach leveling was removed from the players. Taking away peoples' options rarely goes down well.

A question that I fear will soon become all too familiar...
On top of that, as I mentioned earlier, the tradeskill questline tops out with three more craft levels yet to go. Feldon has a sobering analysis in the article already linked of what that means to the average crafter. It's not pretty.

The situation is compounded by the mature (irony unintended) state of EQ2's playerbase. Many, possibly most, players have several max-level adventure characters; plenty of players maintain a stable of max-level crafters. Even those who are comfortable taking their first character from 95 to100 largely by questing in the current expansion will balk at going through those same quests (let alone those writs!) over and over just to bring all their team into contention for the new end-game content. 

I have a lot of sympathy with those who feel the whole "we made great new stuff and we want you all to appreciate it" approach has gone too far. You'd like to think that if the content is that great (and what I have seen so far really is pretty darn good) it should be able to stand on its own without needing to be propped up by nerfs to potential competition from the game's past glories. 

I can at least look at this with some equanimity. My own enjoyment is largely unaffected. save as the furore sours the mood of the players around me, which it observably is doing. I'm happy enough questing away and I'm in no hurry. Playing EQ2 as my secondary MMO, it's unlikely I'll have time to level more than one adventuring class to 100 before changes have been made or new content added anyway. Tweaks to the xp rate are already happening. Moreover, the nerfs don't seem to have affected mentored xp at all. That remains a very viable option for nipping ahead of the questing curve, should I need to apply a boost.

As for crafting I plan on sticking to just the one class for the time being. Having completed the questline I am now leveling my Weaponsmith purely by doing the crafting daily in Twilight Sea. I tend to play GW2 for most of the evening then spend an hour or so in Norrath before bedtime, of which Skrit's crafting daily takes 5-10 minutes and gives about 8% or so of a craft level. At that rate it will take me a couple of months and I'm comfortable with that.

As of a couple of nights ago, though, I have a new motivation to get to 100 sooner rather than later. Skrit tasked me with catching the grimling runner to find out what he was delivering. I vaguely remembered a "grimling runner" from old Luclin but I couldn't immediately place the name. It seemed an odd "crafting" quest but who can say for sure what goes on in a ratonga's mind? So off I went to catch me a grimling.
Snaring him was simple enough. When I moved in to search his fallen body, as well as the quest item, something else flashed up in the loot window. At first I did genuinely think I'd imagined it but no, the grimling runner had indeed dropped the pattern for a Rallic Pack. What's more, to my great surprise and delight, it remained in my packs after I returned to Skrit for the hand-in.

Luclin has been whole (sort of) for months now but I felt the moon had truly risen again when I examined the recipe and received a scribable version for my recipe book. The Rallic Pack was a low-level signature quest of the Luclin era in EQ1, a quest I did several times and of which I have fond, if somewhat vague, memories even now.

I wanted my Rallic Pack then and I want my Rallic Pack now. I'm not yet sure what making one will require nor how useful it will be if I succeed in making it (85% weight reduction doesn't have quite the same draw these days), but I want it.

Things I really want in MMOs are rare. I savor them when I find them. To get my Rallic Pack I need an Artisan level of 100, which, I think, means having any tradeskill at that level. It's a tasty carrot to take away some of the bitterness in the grind.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ratflation and Ratblocks : EQ2

Time was they only asked you to kill ten rats. Those days are over. Now it's a dozen of these, fifteen of those, twenty of the other.

Not complaining. Always liked a kill quest, me. These odd worlds we spend so much time in? They run on murder. Solution to every problem it is. Rats in the cellar? Kill 'em. Goblins in the barn? Kill 'em. Bandits stole your hat with the feather in it? Kill 'em.

Never kill 'em all, mind. You'd think that'd be a better way to solve the problem for good but no. It's always 'go and kill ten so the rest get the message'. Specially where revenge comes into it. Lizardmen killed your brother? Bribe some passing stranger to kill a dozen of them so they'll...

Ogres. What can you expect?

So they'll what, exactly? Feel your pain? Empathize? Desist from fratricide in the future? Maybe it's just so you feel you're doing something. Revenge - one of the stages of grief. Actually, the only stage.

Paid murder's not just for farmers or the recently bereaved. It's the tried and tested methodology of the research scientist too. Suspect the food supply's been poisoned? Toss a few chunks to the nearest Joe with a bow, tell him to go feed some wild animals then come back and tell you which ones died. Strange green glow around those weird little guys who turned up in the night? Send some adventurer off to kill a bunch, hack off a few chunks of flesh and bring it back for tests.

There's almost no problem that can't be sorted out quick and clean by murder. Just gotta kill enough people. If the first twenty didn't do the job send your amateur assassin back to take out twenty more. This is how we live now.

It's not so bad. Yes, there are more to kill. Always more to kill. But look how much faster they die nowadays. Really, when you think of it, a Kill Twenty is a lot less than a Kill Ten in the old money. More like a Kill Five. Not that anyone ever asked for just five. Well, not often.

Whatever way you slice it, having twenty to kill when there are forty or fifty milling about right there, in the camp or the field or the temple, that's a lot better than a kill list of five and you can't find 'em. Come to that, if only it was five.

I am. It's all on Zam.

This guide was handing out quests in Cardin Ward, Sunday afternoon. Why she was in Cardin Ward? Beats me. Oh, I know. She was doing something for some ghosts and Cardin Ward's in Obol Plains which is in The Ethernere which is where you go when you die. One of the places anyway.  So, ghosts.

Never would have known about it at all but someone was talking. Never would have gone all the way over there but he showed what she was handing out. Sixty-six slot backpack. Sixty-six slots. Say that again. That's like the biggest backpack you can imagine and a half. Worth some traveling, for sure.

A thousand plat says we never set foot in Kael
With guide quests you can't hang around. These guides, they pop up, do their thing, pop off. Never know when or if they'll come back. Sometimes you have to finish the whole thing before they go, which is a stresser. This one, no. Got it in the book, you can finish it whenever.

If you can find it. First problem right there. For some reason it's under Kael Drakkel although what it has to do with giants appears to be precisely nothing. Don't believe you even go to Kael. Asked her about that she had some excuse. Didn't really listen to be honest. Or much care. Sixty-six slots.

Plan was to knock the whole thing off this afternoon then do a little write-up here, go into the whole "Guide" thing, how we used to have GMs and Guides doing little turns all over, all the while, whether that was good or bad, like that. Not happening.

Ran into a problem early on. Found the little island in Phantom Sea with the Newsie (don't ask - nicer not to know), got her to explain what she wanted (hard going), found the first thing easily enough. Vellum. Undead rangers have it. Why? No idea. Apparently you can't wander morbidly around the ruins of the old ranger guild hut in what's left of Kithicor Forest without you have some vellum in your... on your... bones.

Old place has seen better days. Although, come to think of it, no it hasn't.
So, that part zipped by. Needed a dozen, killed a dozen, still a dozen wandering about. Good start on the vellum. Shame about the ink. Naturally, you want vellum, it's to write on; you want to write, you need ink. (Pen? Nope. Going to use her finger for a pen - again, best not to question these people - just go along with whatever they want. Saves killing a dozen Rotted Treants for twigs at least).

Ink comes from squid. We don't have squid. We have octopuses. Near enough. Off to kill a dozen. Must be a long message. Except - no octopuses. No Savage Entanglers to give them their Sunday best name.

Quick! Get the camera!
Okay, some. Four found in just over an hour. Flew all over, low above the waves, looking. Used up a bunch of otter totems searching below the water. Thick like fog down there. Miserable.

There was a named one, called Plongeur. Fancy Dan. Killed him. He didn't count (didn't drop anything either) but he brought along a pal. He counted. That was the first. Proof of concept you could call it.

Right place then. Set off slaughtering sealife by the score - piranha, sea anglers, eels, turtles, some kind of weird biped thing on the sea floor - trying to make a bit of space for Entanglers to come in. Got a couple, three. Not nearly enough. So too slow.

So there it lies. To be picked away at as and when. There's a lot of flying to and fro between the 'kill fifteen Allu`thoa'  on one island and 'kill eight sulfuric viscids' somewhere else. It'll get done in time. With a sixty-six slot bag at the end of it you just better bet it'll get done.

Proves the point though. Nothing wrong with a bit of ratflation. It's the ratblocks you gotta worry about.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Numbers Game : WoW, EQ2

As I observed not too long ago, it's been obvious for some time that Warlords of Draenor was generating a lot more, and a lot more positive, interest than the previous couple of WoW expansions managed. Even so, the revelation that WoD fever had tipped WoW's subscription pile back over the 10,000,000 mark was a surprise.

The pull of that vortex is now so strong it's moved on from consolidating the faithful to sucking in even the furthest outliers but no, I am not here to announce that I have joined the merry band of pod-people. I'm just here to compare that number, ten million, with the very much smaller number that Feldon of EQ2Wire has been dropping into conversation of late.

The number in question is 50,000. Apparently that's the the current "active" population of EQ2. Here's a quote "Otherwise, a game with some 50,000 active players gets unfairly tagged as a “ghost town”." I have no idea what the provenance of this 50k figure is but it sounds exceedingly low, not just by comparison to WoW's 10m, but even to Everquest's heyday of 500k.

So, what does constitute a viable population for an MMO from a large operator these days? If Feldon's figure is there or thereabouts accurate then it would seem fifty thousand customers gets you regular content additions up to and including an annual expansion (and one of pretty darn high quality at that, as these gorgeous screenshots attest). I believe Mark Jacobs suggested 50k would be sufficient to keep Camelot Unchained in business. Meanwhile Carbine's WildStar is widely perceived to be struggling with "hundreds of thousands of active players" (source).

No-one seems to like giving out detailed population figures any more but companies do seem happy to show vague traffic-lights on their server status page. As I write this late on Friday evening GMT, ten of EQ2's sixteen "Live" servers are showing "medium" and one "high". We are still some hours off of US prime-time. For that matter, a dozen of Everquest's eighteen servers are at "medium" too.

What "Medium" means in the context I have no idea. Could be a couple of hundred players, could be a couple of thousand. About all you can say is it must be better than "Low", which is the status for every one of Landmark's nine servers (and both of Dragon Prophet's but no one really cares about that).

In the end, as a player, I guess not much matters beyond enough people playing and paying to keep the lights on and the updates flowing. Then, too, the numbers playing very much do not seem to convert directly into quantity or quality of content provided. It's probably a fair bet that GW2 has ten times, if not twenty or thirty times, the players EQ2 does but the Altar of Malice expansion feels at least as substantial and satisfying (and considerably more coherent) than the sporadic, stuttering scattershot entertainment doled out this year in The Living Story.

It does rather feel as though one of these MMOs is over-performing while the other slides by on a bare minimum. Of course not everyone has to play by the exact same rules. As J3w3l points out, WoW seems to have special dispensation when it comes to keeping their vast horde of active players from wandering off: "How in the hell after over a year of absolutely no new content can they gain subscribers. Any other mmo doing that would be shutting down its servers about now yet they are thriving."

WoW loyalists, and there seem to be an inordinate number of them, are fortunate. They exist in a safe, certain world alien to almost all other MMO players. There is simply no prospect for them of waking up one morning to learn that their favorite MMO has gone dark. They certainly don't need to subscribe or play to feel secure that their game of choice will be there when and if they need it. Not for current or ex-WoW players the angst and uncertainty that LotRO players most likely feel gnawing at the back of their minds every day these days. No chance of Blizzard doing as NCSoft did with City of Heroes and closing down WoW because it's making money, just not enough.

I'm happy WoW's doing well. Much better that than for it to be slipping slowly into oblivion. A high tide lifts all boats as they say. I just hope some of the leaky vessels the rest of us prefer to sail in can keep bailing long enough to make it to their own safe harbors.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dude! Where's My Content? : GW2

The flash card review of GW2's latest episode:  
Tangled Paths.

It's short. No, really, I know they're all short but this's short.

Mordrem are the new Risen. Remember when no-one liked Orr and you had to change it? Those who do not learn from history blah blah blah...

What is this? High school? Can't hang with you any more Logan 'cos I got a new crew and things to do but yeah, sure, we can totally get together sometime. You still got my number, right?

It's nice you finally noticed I'm a Charr though. Racial dialog varietals are cool.

Speaking of which, did I mention how I never trusted that Anise? Oh, I did?

Interactions with Anise? You want to hear about my "interactions" with Anise? How long you got?

"Boss" fights fit into in story content like hamsters fit into tuxedos. Fish. Bicycle. Something. The people that like fights complain the fights are dumbed down, the people that like story complain the fights are too hard. No-one's happy.

Also, while we're on the subject, strung-out, tedious fights that you know you simply cannot lose take way more suspension of disbelief to make fun than I have in stock. Y'know how we have that "Skip to end" button on cut scenes? Put that on the fights. Just sayin'.

Pet rez FTW!

Basil Exposition! Hi! Glad you could make it! Exactly how dim do you think we are, by the way? When we're all standing around after a major plot point just happened do we really need three separate characters to explain it? And if we do does my character have to be one of them?

Excuse me? Who are you and what have you done with Caithe?
I hate mazes. That is all.

On the bright side, a maze full of aggressive monsters that you can successfully navigate by moving a little pointer around the map rather than bothering to fight anything? If you're going to have a maze at all, which I wish you wouldn't, but if you are, then I guess I'll take one of those, thanks.

NPC pathing sucks. Rox, I'm looking at you.

Going out on a limb here but were you in a rush? Someone's birthday and everyone going downtown for pizza maybe? No-one wanted to stay late and finish the fiddly bits? I only ask because I have this habit of talking to all the NPCs that have a "Talk" option, before and after the big set pieces and it's really quite unusual for none of them to have anything to say. Not even one of those clunky default lines that means "oh, are you still here? Show's over, go home".

By George! I think she's got it! Let's do the show right here!

Taimi and Brun doing their reverse Harold and Maude. Highlight of the episode. Hang around and eavesdrop. Someone had fun with that one and so did I.

I didn't realize you could buy ironic foreshadowing in bulk.

There's a thread on the forum titled "Go back to Season 1's format". It's getting a predictably frosty response but I have to say I have some sympathy. Is that Joni Mitchell I hear singing?

Oookayyy...that was totally not embarrassing, right? Tell me no-one was filming it on their phone...

Jory gets my vote for Most Inconsistently Characterized NPC In A Major MMO. When, exactly, did she and "The Boss" become BFFs? I'm expecting a hand-weaved friendship bracelet for Wintersday.

The Sylvaris-can't-be-trusted sub-plot is humming along so nicely. I never trusted (or liked) them to begin with.

That's enough snark seasoned with credit-where-it's-due. Took longer to type this than it did to play through the whole thing. 

Bring On The Asura : EQ2

A ratonga called Skrit. Okay... coincidences happen.

A species of crab called "Karkata". Now I'm getting suspicious..
A furry creature with fangs and horns who goes by the name of "Charr"?
I'm calling shenanigans!

Monday, November 17, 2014

Sidetracked: EQ2

One thing I've noticed on my return to Norrath is that EQ2 players complain a lot. Listening to the General Chat, Auction or Crafting channels reminds me of overhearing conversations in a tea-room somewhere in the Cotswolds as gentlemen and ladies of a certain age and class bemoan the way the world has changed and how much better things were in their day.

Map chat in GW2 is more like being on a bus full of teenagers. There's an excitable buzz and twitter interspersed with lengthy discussions on the relative merits of various classes or builds. Occasionally interruptions, bursts of cod-roleplaying and attempts at humor, spark a mass outbreak of silliness then someone asks "Which is better? Mesmer or Ele?" and off we go again.

Yesterday in EQ2 a lot of the moaning revolved around the relative speed of leveling tradeskills and adventure professions in the new expansion. Crafters always like to present themselves as the poor cousins of adventurers, unloved and uncared for by devs, who none of them craft or understand tradeskills. That used to be a tenable position once upon a time. It did seem for a while as if the tradeskill hat would get plonked on the head of whichever dev didn't dodge fast enough. The crafting component of an expansion was often lackluster and occasionally it even seemed as though the dev unlucky enough to be lumbered with such a low-status job was taking his or her frustrations out on the crafters.

A ratonga called Skrit? Post-modernism will never go out of fashion.

Then came Domino, whose praises I have sung before. Domino crafts. In game and in real life.  She even blogs about it albeit not very often. Under Domino's thoughtful and intelligent stewardship both Housing and Tradeskills in EQ2 flourished and bloomed. She created a development environment in which crafters learned to expect treatment and respect on a par with what was accorded to adventurers. Not only did every expansion, update and holiday event bring a wealth of new recipes to discover but suddenly crafters had quests too.

And not just the odd quest scattered here and there either. Signature quests and sprawling questlines that spanned the entire level range. Meaty, involving, storyline-driven narrative quests that sometimes felt more like adventuring for pacifists than crafting. It was a golden age and although everyone carried on complaining much the same as they'd always done they were the comfortable, secure complaints of a safe home.

Even after Domino got promoted out of crafting, first to vanish into some nebulous associate producer role then leaving SOE altogether to go to work on Trion's Defiance, the ethos she'd established continued. Tradeskilling had successfully embedded itself as a viable alternative path to run alongside adventuring, not just a dull, if occasionally unavoidable and necessary, backwater.

I have the creepiest feeling I'm being watched...

And now Domino is back. Back at SoE, where she is doing something mysterious on EQNext, but also back drafting the crafting questline for Altar of Malice. My berserker, who  also came into AoM as a max level weaponsmith, stumbled across the start of that questline at the weekend and as a consequence has lost all interest in the work he was doing for Lucan. He might come to regret that.

In the Crafting channel there seemed to be a consensus that the crafter's signature questline was entertaining and enjoyable but far too short. If you start flat on 95, doing the whole thing gets you to just shy of 97. The grognards there were deep in debate over the number of Rush Writs required to bridge the gap to lvel 100, the percentages per writ as modified by the wide variety of experience-boosting buffs, potions and items and so on and so forth.

I wasn't thinking about any of that because I was enjoying it too much. It's nicely written and intriguingly plotted but best of all it's perfectly paced. Each small section takes just as long as you'd like, never outstaying its welcome. What's more the rewards of experience for each stage fill up a satisfying chunk of the pink progress bar.

Hang on! Is that it? I got another three levels to do!

That's probably just as well because, apart from it being too short, the other thing crafters have been muttering about is the lack of material rewards. A few house items or recipes might have been nice. Again, I was so wrapped up in the pleasure of doing the quests and seeing my xp turning over I didn't even think of that at the time but it's true that in other, similar, questlines we have had a few gewgaws along the way. I wouldn't be surprised to see some added at a later stage. That's happened before.

If there's a shortage of practical rewards for the AoM signature crafting line the same can't be said for the other lengthy crafting quest that was added with the update. This one isn't part of AoM at all; rather it's been added to the base game because...erm...I'm not sure. Although I have my suspicions.

Almost all EQ2 crafters will be familiar with Qho Augren the pest of Mara, Norrath's most annoying twelve-year old (a hard-won title given stiff competition from the likes of Nathan Ironforge). He's the instigator of not one but two extremely lengthy, repetitive and time-consuming quests, A Gathering Obsession  and Return of A Gathering Obsession, about which many crafters probably still have nightmares.

Plenty of people loathed both the whiny, demanding Qho and his seemingly endless series of tasks. When SoE (who, as I have remarked before, really do know what their customers will pay money for in a cash shop) added a Qho plushie to the Station store he was burned, tortured and imprisoned in countless instanced homes all over Norrath, including Mrs Bhagpuss's. Nevertheless, people still did his quests because they had rewards people really wanted - loads of money and two pack ponies that go foraging so you don't have to.

Twee? Check. Cute? Check? Polite? Check. Flattery? Check. Yep, that's all my buttons pressed.

Now we have another under-age questgiver with a never-ending sequence of gathering and crafting tasks. Luckily both he and his tasks are very different in tone, time taken and rewards given along the way than the cursed Qho.

It all begins when you receive a letter from the Harbormaster taking you to task over a bottle, found floating in the harbor, that he seems to believe, on very shaky evidence, might be yours. I won't spoil the plot, which I am about a third of the way through so far and am thoroughly enjoying, except to say that Raffik, the orphaned ratonga with a big book of quite amazing recipes, is everything Qho never was - endearing, amusing, funny, cute and generous.

Raffik was stuffed in a barrel by his parents when their ship sank and he is (or at least assumes he is) an orphan. Fortunately he has his parents formidable collection of recipes with which they hoped to make their fortune in Freeport (or possibly Qeynos if you're playing a good guy, I guess). All I can say from the recipes I've seen so far is that if they'd ever managed to get them to market they'd have been millionaires in a month.

C'mon! Would you leave an orphan here to fend for himself?

Globes you can carry in your packs that will teleport you to any major city, balms to increase your chances of foraging rares, buffs to make your mercenaries better fighters...any one would form the core of a major business. Perhaps it's just as well these didn't reach the open market though, because each of these consumable items requires raws literally by the thousand. What effect that might have on brokerage prices should every dwarf and gnome get their hands on them doesn't bear thinking about.

For the time being, then, adventuring is off the agenda. It's all about the crafting. And the gathering. One point on which I have some sympathy with the complainers is writs. I hate doing writs. Luckily I may not have to. I skipped the crafting quests in a couple of earlier expansions and while the xp may be diminished I did a couple in Kunark yesterday and it wasn't bad. It'll be a lot better in Moors of Ykesha and the Tears of Veeshan expansion, I bet.

I seem to be back, living in the world, not just "doing" the expansion. Long may it continue.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

WoD's Up?: WoW

Watched from the outside, the stuttering launch of WoW's Warlords of Draenor expansion has been fascinating. Despite all the truisms about there being no smooth MMO launches, and even with day-one log-in queues being news on a par with 'dog bites man', I don't believe many people really expected things to be quite this shaky.

My Feedly has been lighting up with dispatches from the front, frequently accompanied with screenshots of a log-in screen showing an unfeasibly large number. Yes, there have been reports of DDOS attacks but when aren't there? Although some delays on launch day are only to be expected there can only be two possible explanations for this kind of chaos:

a) Blizzard are incompetent and have no clue how to run an MMO

b) WoD has brought a LOT more ex-WoW players back into the fold than anyone, least of all Blizzard, expected.

I'm going for b). It certainly seems to be an explanation supported by a quick glance at the almost infinitely unrepresentative pool of potential returnees in this corner of the blogosphere. A few months back I was reading very few posts about WoW. Only a handful of bloggers I follow seemed to be playing it and not many of those played it as their main game. As publicity for WoD ramped up and the launch date grew nearer, though, that trickle of posts became a flood and by launch day itself even some of the observers standing well back from the banks seemed to have been caught up and swept away by the rising waters of the zeitgeist.

Obviously I don't have any screenshots of Draenor
Naturally there were a few naysayers, their attitudes of resistance ranging from amused tolerance to stoic self-preservation or cynical dismissal. Nevertheless, a few dissenting voices aside, the buzz around the launch of this, a mere expansion, has equaled or eclipsed that of most of the launches of brand new AAA MMOs over the past couple of years.

As any CEO would no doubt tell you, if you're going to have problems with the launch of a new product, too many people trying to give you money for it at the same time is one of the better ones to have. That said, there is a danger in getting people all excited and then failing to deliver. The rush of returnees really does need to be accommodated, welcomed with open arms and ushered back into the old, familiar home, not left standing outside the closed and barred gates, imagining the homecoming party in full swing without them.

From my privileged position as a non-participant observer it will be interesting to see where all this goes from here. I'm curious to see whether and to what extent Blizzard is able to retain the interest of these returning players over the medium term. It's also interesting to consider how increased log-ins for WoW might affect other MMOs, particularly those I'm playing, many of which have just or are about to launch expansions and major updates of their own.

Still, you'd have thought I might at least have dug up some old picture of an orc. I mean, that's just a pig in a forest. What's that all about?

My feeling is that the impact on EQ2, GW2 or TSW will be relatively minor and quite short-lived. Liore has a post up in response to Brianna Royce's Massively piece on niche products in MMOs that has some resonance here. It's my feeling that many established MMOs, regardless of the depth and breadth of their actual content, already represent their own niches. Their dedicated playerbases pay little attention to competitive offers within the genre, particularly when those offers are in the form of "come back to a game you already decided you didn't want to play".

In the often-busy open chat channels of the MMOs I'm playing almost no-one is discussing Warlords of Draenor. On the rare occasions it does get mentioned the response is predictably curt. The contradictory evidence of some of the bloggers cited above notwithstanding (the commitment to any genre of anyone who has chosen to blog regularly about it renders them highly unrepresentative of the general consumer in my opinion) my feeling is that most of the people giving WoW another try won't have been playing any MMOs at all in the last few years.

At least this one's sort of the right ominous red color. Sorry about the flying. Didn't mean to rub it in...

I'd guess that the swelling numbers are the result of a particular confluence of circumstances, particularly the strong nostalgic impact of the tenth anniversary of the game, the intense focus of the marketing on core characters with a high recognition factor and most especially of all the inclusion of a level 90 character with the box purchase. The combination of a class reunion, a new episode of a familiar show and being able to jump straight in at the deep end as though you'd never been away would seem to pack a much more powerful punch than either "We've got Pandas!" or "Hey, we blew up your old house - wanna come see the rubble?".

How long will these good vibes last? Impossible to predict. One anecdotal piece of evidence I can offer is this: every day when step out into Tyria or Norrath I hear someone ask a question and follow it up with "I just started again - haven't played for a few years". These imaginary worlds can set their hooks deep. Plenty of people want to believe. Get it right and that loyalty could be lifelong, if sporadically expressed.

On which note I'm off to play EQ2. The Altar of Malice expansion may not be making headlines or pulling queues like WoD but it's shaping up to be the best in a good few years. It's a good time to be playing MMOs, I think, but then, really, when is it ever not?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Far Seas Trading Company: Preliminary Findings: EQ2

Several years have passed since The Far Seas Trading Company made a sudden decision to end their contracts with Qeynos and Freeport, stopped ferrying refugees to the great cities and closed the sea-lanes to the Isle of Refuge. We never got much in the way of an explanation. Just a few rumors from some drunken sailors hanging around the East Freeport docks.

The marinated mariners are still swaying there on the corner, retailing their long-stale news, but Lord Lucan D'Lere isn't listening. He's had other things on his mind until now, what with being kidnapped, having to put down an attempted coup and organizing the defense of Freeport against a bunch of dragons, but he's finally managed to clear his diary and he's commissioned a full investigation.

Turns out he's no more convinced by the shaky cover story than the rest of us. He wants to know what's really going on and what do you guess but he knows just the ratonga for the job. When The Overlord sends for you it's best not to dicker, I find. There's an execution every hour in the plaza and those traitors have to come from somewhere.

So it was that I found myself stepping off the dock into an oddly familiar landscape. The old place has looked better, I'll say that. My heart sank a little in the blued gloom. Are we really destined to spent the rest of our adventuring lives under nightclub conditions? Can't we have some natural light for once?

Well, yes we can! Imagine my relief when, early on in my fact-finding investigation, I discover the Etherneresque aethers to be a purely local phenomena. Take a few bloodied steps through the knee-high forest of grimlings and daylight returns.

The blue hue emanates from Malvonicus's tower, which has suffered the inevitable fate of all Mage Towers, namely having been exploded and frozen in space/time like some final year art project for Surrealism 101. Someone Tampered With Things They Wot Not Of and this is the highly predictable result:

 The place is crawling with befuddled and highly aggressive Far Seas Traders plus a horde of the aforementioned freakish midgets, something you really don't want to look at too closely or you'll wake up screaming. My first altercation with one of the twisted traders came altogether too close for comfort so I called for back-up after which I had few problems. A metal suitcase upside the head quietens even the feistiest freak as the saying goes.

From then on it's business as usual. Everyone has something they want doing. Tok and I wander around collecting planks and rubble for barricades, retrieving research papers, rescuing the innocent and subduing the rest. As we do a fascinating story begins to emerge.

It seems a while back the Far Seas Co. discovered a horde of supposed Shissar artifacts, which they naturally decided to exploit examine. With commendable, if surprising, concern for public safety they chose to conduct their experiments in secret, hence the closure of both the refugee operation and the sea lanes. The possible exclusive commercial advantage they might theoretically have obtained by doing so was, I'm sure, no more than a fortunate co-incidence.

No-one pulls the wool over Lord Lucan's eyes for long, though, (or twice for that matter) and that cat is now very much out of its bag. The Far Seas Trading Co.'s cosy little operation in the ironically-named Tranquil Sea is now firmly, and quite literally, on the map.

Getting there was simple but for a while I was worried that getting around might not be. One odd effect of the catastrophe at the tower was the grounding of all flying mounts. A portentous message to this effect was being broadcast as I arrived.

I was concerned at the prospect of being forced to ride everywhere at the dizzying breakneck pace most Norrathian mounts consider a gentle canter but fortunately the embargo proved to be only temporary. A gnome I rescued from the cellar under the tower whipped me up a little something that gave me back my wings around the fallout zone but in any case they worked just fine as soon as I got clear of the miasma.

I was thus able to fly around sightseeing and spotting landmarks from the good old days, when I myself was a refugee, freshly salt-crusted. The old place really hasn't changed all that much apart from being overrun with grimlings.

Most of the old crew are long-gone of course but I did run into one familiar face. Waulon Highpebble gave me a recap of his history and the times our paths have crossed. I just nodded when he told me about Captain Varlos's deception. Came as a complete surprise to me. I think I must have been in a meeting that day.

For a first day I felt the investigation went splendidly. I'm confident The Overlord will be pleased with my report when I finally get back to Freeport to present it to him, although I have the feeling that day might still be quite some way off. It looks as though there's an awful lot of digging to do before the full story comes to light.

And who better to dig for it than a ratonga?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Puppet Patrol: EQ2

"The Play's The Thing", the new EQ2 10th Anniversary world event currently running in several zones of widely differing levels, marks something of a departure for SOE. It appears to be trying to set a new high-water mark for inclusivity.

There are no level requirements other than the de facto "must be this high" bar of being able to travel to the zones in question alive and do at least a few points of damage to the target when you get there. Even then, with the exception of Baelon, who appears deep in the level 92+ zone of Eidolon Jungle, all the fights take place within a few yards of a public transport facility (Bell, Spire, Druid ring, Sokokar post, Dock - EQ2 has a lot of transportation options). Neither do you need to be in a group or a raid to get credit. You don't even have to mentor down for the little ones: grey cons count just fine.

That's not the full extent of the designers' generosity though. Not even half. These "EpicX4" mobs aren't real raid bosses. They're not even mobs at all. They don't fight back. They aren't meant to.

In a delightfully conceived conceit they turn out to be nothing more dangerous than life-size patchwork puppets, constructed and operated by the clever technicians and performers of Roslyn Mischeva's travelling troupe, the Mischeva Play-actors. Convincingly realistic from a distance, up close you can see the weave of the hessian and the folds and bulges of the stuffing.

The "raids" are street theater performances designed with audience participation in mind and like any good actors the Mischeva crew know how to pull their punches. "Trakanon", "Roehn Theer" and the rest take a good beating but they're nothing but big sacks of straw. One of the cast even worries to himself over whether the very convincing mace he's made for Baelon might hurt someone by accident.

It may be the furthest distance I've ever seen between Risk and Reward for an event of this stripe. Not only because the risk, at least from the event itself, is entirely non-existent, but because the rewards are substantial. The special currency, useable at the Heroes' Festival merchants in Freeport and Qeynos, gets you a number of useful and attractive items.

There's a full set of armor and a choice of one- and two-handed weapons for each of the five level ranges covered by the events as well as plushies of three of the puppets. Just completing the five events once each gave my berserker enough tokens for a full set of armor that was slightly better than the Frostfell set he was wearing plus a weapon that was a major upgrade to the level 93 claymore he'd quested in Cobalt Scar.

There were a few teething problems with the event according to EQ2Wire but last night when my Beastlord did Darathor and Trak things seemed to be working as intended and this afternoon my zerker knocked off all five in an hour or two. From what people were saying the actors need a prompt from a GM now and then but the performances I took part in went off flawlessly.

The event is scheduled to run until the official release of the upcoming expansion, Altar of Malice, on November 17th, which should give everyone ample chance to enjoy the fun and get geared up. Of course the first set of quest rewards from AoM will probably make anything I got today obsolete but at least the new gear should help getting to those quest rewards more enjoyable.

I thoroughly approve of these kind of bun-fights. What this one most reminded me of was the open raid style holiday events in The Secret World, where, by and large, just turning up will give you plenty of the kind of currency that makes a genuine difference to how you can gear your character. Holiday events in MMOs should be open, inclusive and err on the side of generosity.

Especially when there's a new expansion with a level cap increase right around the corner.
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