Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Goodbye 2014. Don't Let The Door Hit You On The Way Out

Flappy birds come to Tyria - not 2014's finest moment
Everyone and his truckle-hound is coming out with Look Back At Last Year posts or Look Forward To Next Year posts and I was going to do something along those lines myself only there never seems to be the time. Ironic, huh?

Anyway, we all know what 2014 was like, when it came to MMOs. I could link to all this stuff but let's just take that as read :

A bunch of big-money super-spiffy new ones launched and everyone was like- pffffffft! Is that all you got?

A bunch more unfinished ones (unfinished? Some of them had barely gotten started!) slipped out the door on grab-a-buck licences and everyone was like - wait, you took money for that? Geez, man!

Meanwhile the rest of the geriatric old has-beens kept on doing that thing they do. Some of them even spat out an expansion or an update here and there (one of those did pretty well, too, so I heard) and everyone was like - yeah, cool, you still got it brah (that's how they talk on the World Boss train and I like to blend).

We know how to make our own entertainment in GW2
- which is just as well sometimes
Some MMOs closed down, which companies calling it "sunsetting" made no-one feel any better. Some of them started right back up again, legally or illegally or someplace inbetween.

And that was about it. Apart from all the Kickstarting and crowd-sourcing and "You Are The Developer" and greenlighting (WTG Eric!) and Alpha-for-Beta and "Expansions? We don't need no steenkin' expansions!" it was another MMO year like every other year. Alright. Some of that was new.

Not the greatest year ever, then, but definitely not the worst. I played a lot of GW2 and mostly loved it, even though I moaned about it most of the time. Played some EQ2, Landmark, Vanguard, ArcheAge, Secret World, WoW, Everquest, City of Steam, Project Gorgon, few more here and there. Wrote a bunch of stuff about some of them. Took a lot of screenshots. A lot of screenshots...

Next year I plan on doing much the same plus I have a few new ideas. Syp put up a handy little list at Massively namechecking 60 upcoming MMOs for 2015. Might try some of those. I have a few more in mind he didn't list, too.

MMOs over? Don't think so! Not this year. I mean next year!

Oh you know what I mean... Happy New Year everybody!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Crafting For Fun Not Profit : GW2, EQ2, WoW

Tobold's been scratching his head over crafting in Warlords of Draenor. It's the old conundrum: if crafted items are good enough to adventure with then why would you need to adventure? If dropped items are better than crafters can make, why would anyone want to craft? Well, there are a thousand reasons but only one I want to explore right now: fun.

For plenty of MMO players fun and crafting aren't words that naturally go together. Some  might well question whether crafting can ever be fun, even when what you're making is inarguably worth having. You might be able to stand at the forge in your racial capital and bang out twenty epic battleaxes in the time it takes forty raiders to wrest just one from the rigored claw of Paradox the Black and White Dragon but how long are you going to want to go on doing that before cleaning your oven starts to seem like a more rewarding and entertaining way to spend the evening?

Can crafting be fun in and of itself? That's the real question. Not "is it profitable?" Not "is it worth it?". In MMOs where tradeskills are a reliable way to get rich, or where highly-desirable items can only be crafted, even people who loathe crafting craft. We all understand how that works, but what makes people take up a craft when, even if they get to be really, really good at it, there's nothing they can make that they or anyone else much wants?

GW2 began as a crafting-optional game but swiftly transitioned over to crafting-mandatory mode. Consequently, now, everyone crafts and most of them moan about it. The days when we discussed the discovery method and wondered how it could hope to survive in the Wiki age seem hopelessly romantic. Does anyone still "discover"? Like Ravious I raised my first Chef from to 400 by randomly combining food groups. It was often frustrating but also hella fun.

Would I do it today? I should coco! Now I follow guides like everybody else. Inventing the wheel is fun. Re-inventing it not so much.

That doomed attempt to instil some mystery into what would inevitably become, for most if not all, a rote activity is just one in a long line of experiments hoping to make crafting fun. When I first came across crafting in MMOs with Everquest in 1999, however, I have to say that fun was the last thing on my mind.

My first reaction, in fact, was closer to outrage than amusement. I was under the impression I was entering some kind of 24/7 online robo-DM'd version of the tabletop gaming I'd given up on in the mid-80s. In the five years I'd spent rolling dice and arguing I couldn't remember one single dice roll that related to baking a batwing crunchie. I'd been an adventurer, godammit! I didn't do catering and I certainly didn't sew my own robes.

It took me a little while to get my head around the basic concept but once that mental re-adjustment had been made I ran into another barrier. Crafting in EQ was hard. Oh, not the process. That wasn't hard: click a hotkey, watch a progress bar, bingo. That was the easy bit. The hard part...well, there were a lot of hard parts.

Crafting Daily - No actual crafting required
Getting the materials, that was one. Random drops, finding NPCs hidden out in the wilds, completing long quest chains that sometimes started out solo and ended in a 72-man raid. Lots of ways hard. Then, when you had the materials, there was the skill check. Just knowing the recipe wasn't enough. There was almost always a chance to fail and in failing lose one or more of the pieces. And the subcombines. Don't forget the subcombines. At the high end crafting had the white-knuckle tension of Russian roulette.

WoW went with a much-simplified version and, as with most aspects of the hobby, WoW's take became the genre's dominant trope. Post-WoW the greatest danger wasn't to your mental health but your carpal tunnel. Now, according to Tobold, with the advent of garrisons the crafting process has been automated to the degree that you don't even need to be a crafter to craft some of the best gear in the game. Something to look forward to for the rest of us, then, when that innovation rolls out across the genre.

EQ2, Vanguard, Fallen Earth and a few others went in another direction entirely, turning
crafting into a quasi-self-sufficient game mode all its own, complete with questing, gear progression, faction, titles, currencies - the whole nine yards. It's the approach I've come to prefer although my 1999 self would slap me on the back of the head for saying so.

Crafting this way can be a lot more relaxing and certainly a lot less frenetic than adventuring, especially in these days of never-stand-still. That probably explains why I spend an increasing amount of time crafting not adventuring.

Crafters and adventurers may have mutual dependencies the sheepman and the cowman in the Old West never shared but in one important way their relationship still mirrors that almost forgotten conflict : whatever advantages one tends to disadvantage the other. For all the added value and "balance", under the surface nothing much has changed. Over the years developers have mostly learned to throw a sheet over the problem while players have learned to pretend they don't know it's still there, lurking, waiting to bite.

So, as long as crafters get to make some things adventurers really want and adventurers get to plunder some things crafters could never make, then the two tribes manage to rub along, just about. It's yet another thing for designers to balance, though: PvE vs PvP, solo vs group, casual vs hardcore, F2P vs Subs - there are so many of these contradictory pairings it's a wonder the cogs spin at all.

In the end you have to wonder how much sense it makes to cram all these special interest groups and their necessary support systems into the same box. If we end up clustering in our little corners muttering to our own clan while casting angry looks at the competing clans clustering in corners of their own, muttering and glaring angrily back, is that any kind of surprise?

This year might be the long-promised Year of the Sandbox. Might be. In theory that model better supports and nourishes these disparate desires than the Theme Park Worlds we've lived in for a decade or so. We'll see. Well, I probably won't, actually. Sounds like a lot of busy-work to me.

No, I'll stick with my progress bars and my whack-a-mole mini-games. I'll make weapons no-one wants so that I can level up then break them down for scrap and make some more. I'll do my "make 10 rat trap" quests, hot-swap my crafting macros and generally futz around in safe cities surrounded by the reassuring clank and whirr of the crafting stations.

Why? Because crafting, against all the odds, has become something I do, not to make things I want or need, but because it's fun. Not everything has to be for a reason. Or, at least, not for any reason better than that.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Christmas Day Offensive : GW2

Life in Tier 2 hasn't been at all like I expected. When ArenaNet announced the third World vs World Season back in the summer, Yak's Bend was deep in a lively and unpredictable tussle that saw five or six reasonably evenly-matched servers competing across Tiers 3 and 4. By the time the Season ended we'd won every match and found ourselves promoted to Tier 2.

There was much celebration and the huge majority of active WvWers were looking forward to life one notch nearer the top but, if we're honest, I imagine many were also anticipating a hard-knock lesson and a fairly swift return to our spiritual home in T3. That's not how things turned out.

We won our first match. Then the next. We kept on winning. We won every match from the start of the Season through to the beginning of December, rising to the highest ranking we've achieved since the launch of the game - 4th. As with all rising servers there was something of a bandwagon effect. Our population grew. We picked up some significant guilds.

There was speculation. Could we go further? The modified Glicko ranking system made that look unlikely but who knew? Then two things happened.

At the beginning of December a very influential and important guild decided to leave YB to go to Jade Quarry. The Coasters, who we had long since ceased to refer to as The Hair Bear Bunch, only arrived on YB in the summer but they were instrumental in YB's success  because they are both a highly skilled and organized guild and they play in EU primetime, a timeslot where we have always struggled for coverage.

It's quiet. Too quiet...
FA supposedly have an issue with our defensive style and want shot of us so they can have more "good fights" while SoS are clinging onto their T2 place by their fingernails with a resurgent Dragonbrand breathing down their necks. Motive and opportunity came together. Immediately TC left, our opponents in T2, Fort Aspenwood and Sea of Sorrows, formed an alliance with the intention of knocking the wheels off our bandwagon and sending us back to T3 with the rest of the scrubs. I paraphrase - they were a lot less polite about it than that.

The alliance wasn't watertight but in certain timeslots there was clearly good co-ordination between several guilds and commanders. It's a tedious tradition of WvW that every match people claim the other two servers are ganging up on them, something that is almost never the case, but this time the alliance was real.

And so our rule of terror was broken. In Week 49 we were pushed into second place and in Week 50 we came third. That was that, then. Back to Tier 3. Although, of course, with the Glicko system it would be a slow drift not a sudden fall.

When I went to bed on Christmas Eve, with two days of the match remaining, we were in third place again, trailing by some 10,000 points. On Christmas Day I didn't log in until getting on for eight in the evening. We were in the lead.

What's more, we had most of FA's borderland under our colors. When I ported over to see what was going on we had half a dozen commanders there, fortifying everything and building siege like only YB can. We already had a waypoint in Hills.

For the rest of Christmas evening it was a succession of amazed, astounded, elated comments like mine above. As people around the world woke up or came home or finished Christmas lunch, depending on their timezone and cultural affiliation, they logged in and looked at the score in dumbfounded wonder.

How had this happened? Who had organized a Christmas Day push on this scale and made it work? Not being privy to the secret communications channels I can only have my suspicions. And I do. Whoever it was, they did a magnificent job. Across the rest of the match we held and increased our lead, running out winners at reset on Friday with a 15k advantage over Sea of Sorrows in second.

Sneak Attack? We'll show you a sneak attack!

This week the random factor gave us Dragonbrand instead of SoS. As I write we are in front of them with a 6k lead. FA are third again. Whatever happens by the end of the match, whether we can sustain our efforts into the New Year and stay in T2 or whether we falter and slip back, that Christmas Day Offensive will remain one of my golden MMO memories for as long as I play.

It's been said that GW2's WvW isn't really much more than a glorified battleground with nothing really at stake and nothing to win or lose. I've said it myself. Unlike a battleground, however, it has both persistence and history. For those who hop servers for success or sell their swords to the highest bidder, victories such as this may very well seem hollow. For those of us who keep the faith, however, they feel real and that feeling lasts.

Once a Yak, always a Yak as we say on Yaks Bend.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

To All Our Readers

Best wishes and fond regards from Bhagpuss and Mrs Bhagpuss.

(There! That saved a fortune on postage stamps!)

Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Landmark Development

When we get to those game mastering systems [after the start of the year] that means we are working on EQN full time. Because those are the systems we need for EQN, and that's what we're building when we're building those game mastering tools. So we're so close to transitioning the team almost entirely to EQN, and then we'll take the elements that we build for EQN and port them over into Landmark, but our focus will shift almost entirely to EQN after the new year.

Dave "Smokejumper" Georgeson  as reported on Massively

That quote seems to have garnered surprisingly little attention in this corner of the blogosphere. Maybe it's because no-one is paying any attention to Landmark any more. Even this week's huge patch that brought with it the long (long!) awaited addition of PvE comabt didn't provoke much interest. The only blogger on my radar, who even bothered to log in and take a look was Stargrace, for whom things didn't go so well.

So, in the interests of... well, nosiness mainly, I patched up Landmark and braved the lag to see if I could last a little longer and discover a little more. Here's my fully-illustrated report:

After a 3GB patch (it may have been a  while since I last logged in) I appeared where I'd last logged out, down by the ocean at the edge of the desert. First step - find a mob. As well as bringing PvE combat to the unnamed world of Landmark, this update also added something approaching the full, tiered cave system and that's where most of the monsters are but I'd heard they also roam the surface in smaller numbers so I set off to look for some above ground.

It wasn't much of a search. No more than a few paces uphill I found these likely fellows - a White Wisp and an Abomination. In fact I heard them before I saw them. All the new mobs have a distinct audio signature (I bet anyone who's played Everquest can guess the White Wisp's already). It works very well - atmospheric and practical at the same time.

I was a step ahead of Stargrace in that I'd already made a set of weapons back when PvP was introduced and I had them on me. I only had the bow hot-keyed so I went with that for my first try.

It turned out to be a good choice. The Abomination didn't seem to have worked out how to deal with ranged attacks. It just sat there, rippling a bit, and losing hit points as I filled it full of flaming arrows of which I had an infinite supply. No need to craft or buy ammunition in Landmark. Yet.

The fight seemed to take an awfully long time but eventually the Abomination keeled over and spat out some loot. I put my bow away and strolled over to see what it was. The "box" turned out to be a visual effect only not an item you can pick up. As I got close it did that disconcerting thing logs and ore do in Landmark: it flipped up and whizzed about behind my head, then vanished.

After reading my chat log to find out what had dropped ("Ether Shards") and looking in my main inventory to find nothing, I thought to check the crafting tab. There they were, safely stashed away. What they are for I have no idea. I'm sure they're vitally important for something.

Encouraged by my success I turned for the Wisp but it was nowhere to be seen. I strode onwards and heard a strange sound I can only describe as a "chomping". Aha! A clue! Surely that had to be the infamous Chomper? Well it might have been but although I could hear it I couldn't work out where the sound was coming from. As I tried to triangulate, though, I spotted another Wisp.

Or possibly it was the first one. Do they wander about? Insufficient data. Whatever, it had no better plan for dealing with an attacker from distance than the Abomination. It also seemed to have a lot less hit points and took about a quarter as long to kill.

The wisp also had a much more interesting drop than some bunch of old shards. A recipe! And for something useful at that. Again the drop vanished automagically as I approached and it took me a bit of head-scratching to work out where to find it - automatically scribed to my Recipe Journal. A bit too much hand-holding for my liking. Losing tactility here, I fear.

Still, tactile or not, there's nothing like a good drop to put a hunter in the mood for more killing. And hark! There's that chomping sound again only this time I can see whose making it. Now, I don't know a lot about Landmarkian fauna and flora, but I do know these things are supposed to be nasty. There's that infamous video plus the anecdotal evidence from Stargrace for a start. It seemed like a bad idea to get in close so once again I stuck with the trusty bow and once again my prey had no answer.

Chomper down! Three-nil to me. It was at this point that I became overconfident. I decided that, in the interests of science, I'd try meleeing the next mob I came across - which turned out to be another chomper. Mob density overground is considerably thicker than I was expecting, by the way, and I never had to travel more than a few yards between kills.

Out with my really rather ridiculous sword and in for the kill! He'll never know what hit him!

And the inevitable result ^^^. Hubris thy name is...well never mind what your name is. To be fair I wasn't one-shotted; you can see a sliver chipped off that devil-tree's health bar. It was pretty darn quick all the same. Still, gave me a chance to test the Death mechanic. Yes, that's what I was meaning to do all along; that's my story, let's go with that...

The Graveyard is odd. Firstly, its underground. Having died on the surface I resurrected in the first tier of caves. Secondly there are aggressive mobs roaming right next to where you wake up, which seems a tad unfriendly. Scary ones too. Lastly there doesn't appear to be any obvious exit. I'm guessing you're supposed to dig your own. Always bring a Pulverizer, that's my advice. Wish I'd taken it.

The Slaug intrigued me. He was tearing around at a fair old pace unlike all the above-ground mobs. He hadn't come into agro range so far but he looked as though he might at any moment so I decided on a pre-emptive strike. I readied my trusty bow and put a flaming arrow in his pasty hide. He didn't like it much and he had a better idea what to do about it than the others, too. First he ran around a lot which made him hard to hit, especially when he went behind cover. I had to move away from the graveyard to keep him targeted and after a little more cat and mouse he decided to rush me.

I didn't attempt to swap to my sword. I just kept shooting fiery arrows from point blank range. He knocked me about a bit but he'd left it too late and I finished him off without too much trouble. He dropped something nice for me too.

And that seemed like a good time to call it a day. I found my clickie to portal back to the island hub and that was that. The last fight, where I actually had to move about, had left me feeling slightly motion sick so it was a good time to stop.

All in all I rather enjoyed my little outing but mostly because I was able to stand still and kill the mobs at no personal risk, either of dying in-game or throwing up in real life. As soon as I had to fight in any way "properly" the inherent issues with the entire process became all too apparent. It's something I already spotted from the PvP patch but that's now impossible to ignore - I won't be able to engage with this kind of combat because of the way the camera swings about. Five minutes of this and I'll need to lie down in a darkened room for half an hour until my stomach settles. And I don't even suffer badly from motion sickness.

If they can get that fixed, though, then it has possibilities. Get working on that for EQNext please, Smokejumper.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Happy Wintersday, Skritt-Kickers! : GW2

Wintersday is here again and, with the repairs to Lion's Arch progressing slowly (euphemism for "not happening"), the center of celebrations has shifted to Divinity's Reach. Jennah, Party Queen of Tyria, was never one to miss an opportunity to spend taxpayers' money on having a good time so I doubt Magnus, Kiel or whoever is supposedly in charge of the burned-out wreck that is L.A. needed to ask twice.

All the usual favorites are back for us to ignore enjoy - snowball fights, toys running amok, amateurs who couldn't carry a tune in a blanket giving it plenty on the handbells... Tixx is around somewhere with his airship doing something or other. And like that.

Apparently you can make one of these trees and put it in your Personal Instance
so its Wintersday all year long. I'll get right on that.

There are a few new wrinkles. That "amusing", autonomic, self-aware golem is back with his bucket. This time around he's trading under the name Ho-Ho-Tron which suggests he may be self-aware but he lacks any sense of self-awareness. Also I'm pretty sure he's scamming. As he herds his present-laden cow from one side of the giant hole to the other he makes some comment about doing his community service but didn't he already complete his sentence, at our expense, months ago?

I'd like to be able to claim I was the one posing the moral dilemma rather than making the Katy Perry joke but...
Authenticity aside, he's nothing if not a hard worker. Round and round he goes, surrounded by a jostling pack of players determined to grab for themselves any presents that fall off the cart. Are we any better than the demented skritt who burrow up through the flagstones to steal them? Don't ask me difficult questions when I've got my kicking boots on!

At least they seem to be feeding him well
The oddest addition has to be the new quest. Yes it is a quest. Well what is it then? It's not an event. It's not an achievement. You speak to a Grawl, he tells you to get him something, you go speak to someone who might have it and he wants something else so you go get him that. Then you go back to the Grawl and he comes up with the next thing he wants and so on. That. Is. A. Quest.

It's also ill-considered and incoherent. This Grawl has stolen some Wintersday "ornaments" from a bunch of orphans, ostensibly because he doesn't like the noise they make (I think he means the ornaments but maybe it's the orphans. He's a grawl. Who knows what he means?). All this happens in your personal instance.

Pity you can't say as much for the education.
Just look at that spelling!
Now, if you're a Human, there actually IS an orphanage in your personal instance (just go with it) so there's at least a basis for suspending disbelief. The Quest, however, has to work for all players, so this Grawl and his attendant, ornament-deprived Orphans (actually one orphan, presumably elected by the rest and delegated to speak on their behalf. And his "friend") are lurking in the Personal Instance allocated to each race in lieu of actual housing.

In the case of a Charr player, that means there's a Grawl hiding at the back of a section of The Black Citadel that's positively teeming with heavily-armed Legionaries, many of whom are off-duty and liquored up. With a human child. And a Charr cub, who gets no lines.

Best mob skill ever
How did they get there without being, at best, arrested and, more likely, spit-roasted and eaten or used for target practice? What about that cub? Is he an orphan too? Would it matter even if he was? Wouldn't he just be in a Farhar anyway? Can't ask him - he didn't get a speaking part in this little nativity play. And why in the name of the gods we Charr don't believe in are they hiding in MY house anyway? I don't even have a house! No, don't get me started...

So, things don't get off to the most credible of beginnings and it doesn't improve from there. The Grawl insists on giving clues in some of the most execrable doggerel I have ever read. Yesterday's clue did manage to point to the next part of the quest, handily situated right across the metal gangway from the instance, but today he was rambling on about a place made of flowers.

Hey, Vogons! Better up your game!

The Grove perhaps? No, luckily for me Mrs Bhagpuss already went there and tried that and was able to save me from wasting my time and my silver. In fact you just go to the same place in Black Citadel you went to yesterday. I just gave up trying to make it make sense. It carries on tomorrow (there's a day's wait between stages). Maybe all will become clear in due course. Or it won't. I'm betting on won't.

He followed me home and I'm going to keep him.
As well as new things to do there are lots of new things to get. The familiar wrapping of the presents hides a slew of interesting additions to the usual range of socks and snowflakes. Runes, sigils, tonics and finishers abound. There are already complaints about inventory space being compromised. There was even an inexplicable occurrence where I opened something (I didn't notice what - I was opening so many things just then) and received an item that auto-completed the entire new collection (which I hadn't even started). I got a Skritt mini. Result!. Oh yes - there's a new collection. Did I mention that?

All of this abundance and confusion arrived with the threatened promised revamp of the Daily and Monthly Achievement systems. I was going to do a whole post on that but honestly? I can't be bothered. There's a eleven page thread on the forums about it already, running roughly 50-50 Love It/Hate It. I don't feel either. I just feel meh.

Could you be more specific?
The people who really love it are the ones who were previously doing the dailies just to get the Laurels. Laurels now come automatically through the Monthly, for which you have to do quite literally nothing more than remember to log in. The people who hate it are the ones who enjoyed seeing the daily fill out in the background as they dd whatever they felt like doing. The first lot feel liberated; the second lot feel trapped.

The WvW seem much, much easier than the rest
but maybe that's just me
I'm one of those weirdos who does the dailies because I like doing the dailies. I did prefer the old ones, which offered a lot more choice, but I don't object to the new ones, which are extremely specific. I'll do them as long as I continue to find them amusing and then I'll stop. As for the rewards, I don't spend the sodding Laurels anyway - I have nearly two thousand of them stashed away across the two accounts. The rewards they've attached to each individual achievement are marginally more useful.

As a revamp I'll give it five. Out of ten. It was completely unnecessary from my point of view but I'm sure they have their reasons. Getting everyone to cluster in the same maps so it looks like there are more of us comes to mind...

It might have been better not to have introduced the new system at the exact same time as adding a second set of holiday dailies that do reward a Laurel, though. Not likely that was going to confuse things, was it? Also, the two days of Wintersday dailies we've had so far have been identical. Not sure if that's a co-incidence or whether we'll just get the same half-dozen for the entire season. If so, I think that could get a tad wearing.

I'm begging you, don't make me go to Queensdale any more.

We're asked to perm any five from six but since one's completing the insanely hard Wintersday Jumping Puzzle that's actually five from five as far as this household is concerned. Of the five I can do, the Snowball one is really annoying, albeit simple if Mrs Bhagpuss and I duo it, and the Bell Choir looked to be impossible until I bothered to read a walkthrough and actually pay attention. Now I can do it with my eyes closed although with my ears closed would be preferable.

The remaining three are trivial but I have to wonder along with Mrs Bhagpuss, who, upon being faced with the second, repeated set of tasks, asked "How is this meant to be fun?". I don't really have an answer for that. Fortunately there's still a lot of non-directed content left that is fun, like marching a dozen golems around Fort Aspenwood's borderland and taking all their keeps like we did this afternoon, so I'll just have to make do with that.

And we do have Wintesday in WvW too, you know. We decorate and everything.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Embers Still Glow: Landmark, WildStar, TESO et al

We're not quite at the end of the year yet but several people haven't been able to hold off reviewing their previous prognostications. Wilhelm started it, followed by SynCaine and J3w3l, everyone linking to everyone else as they went. Like I just did.

Well, who am I to buck a trend? I'm not much for predictions but in the very dying embers of last year I did cast the runes for a few of the potential big MMO events of 2014. There were only three possible new partners on my dance card back then: Everquest Landmark, WildStar and The Elder Scrolls Online.

Of Landmark I observed "I think it will confuse and disappoint in equal measure". Pretty much on the money I'd say. I bought the Trailblazer pack for Mrs Bhagpuss as a birthday present and tagged along myself on an Explorer ticket. How appropriate. We had a lot of fun for a couple of months and I don't regret those purchases at all.

For a while Landmark (with the confusing EQ prefix quietly removed) was a hot topic across the MMO blogosphere. Much of the discussion centered around mystification over what the "game" was trying to be, a mystery which, I think it's fair to say, has yet to be resolved to anyone's great satisfaction.

I enjoyed being a part of that. I also really enjoyed building my Thomas Crown Affair 1960s mountain aerie. Unfortunately I have a suspicion that those first two or three months in "alpha" may well be the most fun I ever have in Landmark.

By June we were in "beta", not that anyone could tell the difference, and I was already calling Landmark "the MMO no-one mentions any more". Wilhelm observed that "Despite being called beta, this is still pre-alpha development" and I can't argue with that. Almost a year on SOE are finally getting around to adding mobs this week, so perhaps by Spring of 2015 we might be somewhere close to a beta build, although I wouldn't bet on it.

TESO arrived next. I passed. I never liked any of the previous Elder Scrolls games and didn't imagine this would be any different. It was, perhaps, a little subjective and over-the-top to extrapolate my disinterest and distaste into a prediction that TESO would "disappoint just about everyone". In the event things didn't go that badly.

Some people certainly seemed to be enjoying themselves at the beginning but it wasn't to last. The positive commentary soon dissipated until literally no-one I read was mentioning TESO any more. I don't even see many news stories about it nowadays.

The console launch, already postponed for six months, has been pushed into next year but, while it hardly sounds like a success story, the game is still running on a subscription and there's no sign of that changing any time soon. TESO would appear to have achieved stability at least. The general feeling seems to be that it's a quiet success although on what evidence other than not having gone F2P or merged servers I'm not quite sure.

WildStar was my pick of the three to go on to fame and fortune but I certainly wasn't sticking my neck out even then, suggesting only that "I wouldn't be that surprised to see it making the best showing of these three in 2014, at least until something better comes along". Faint praise that turned out not to be faint enough. WildStar limped out of the gate to an indifferent welcome and drifted downwards from there.

I wasn't planning on playing it at all. I didn't bother with any of the long series of beta weekends until the very end, when I received a beta key I don't recall applying for. I tried it and I quite liked it. So did a lot of people - for a while. Within a very few weeks, however, interest had dropped almost to nothing.

Carbine swiftly went the now-traditional megaserver route, allowing them to consolidate shrinking server populations without having to announce an embarrassing series of server merges just a few months after launch. They followed that with a hefty cut in the rate of new content development and the abandonment of old-school 40-man raiding, both of which had been core concepts for the game in pre-launch publicity. There was much scuttlebutt doing the rounds about the dire emotional and professional state of the studio too.

And yet WildStar carries on, still charging a subscription, still claiming to have hundreds of thousands of players. Everyone who ever expresses an opinion says the game should go F2P and will go F2P...everyone but Carbine and NCSoft. If it does I'll give it a run. Until then it made its niche and it can sit in it.

So, definitely not a vintage year for much-hyped AAA MMOs. There was one more, which almost no-one, including me, thought to mention: ArcheAge. Trion slipped that one in from leftfield, grabbing a huge amount of attention and goodwill, almost all of which they proceeded to squander. By now their second-hand, refurbished import is beginning to look even more downtrodden than their own, largely ignored and forgotten offerings, Trove and Defiance (remember those? No, thought not).

Leaving aside Bungie's Destiny, about which I know almost nothing, the only other really big deal of 2014 was Warlords of Draenor. I didn't mention that one last year, mostly because I don't pay an awful lot of attention to WoW, but its fair to say its been the MMO success story of the year. Will it lead to another round of MMO companies scrabbling to emulate Blizzard, this time by plunging resources into fan-pleasing, lore-heavy expansions for older MMOs?

I bloody well hope so! 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

In Which I Give Myself A Good Talking To : GW2, EQ2

It's one of the fundamental tenets of massively multiple online roleplaying gaming that everything is subject to revision. The imaginary worlds we pretend to inhabit aren't static. They are meant to grow and alter as though they were real.

We understand that each time we slip on our pixel skins and step out under those familiar, unfamiliar skies something may have changed. In this way it mirrors our lives outside. The walk you take each day is never the same walk. Businesses open and close, the traffic shifts, whole communities change character around us without asking our consent.

For the longest while this was a great part of what attracted me to the form. The mutability. The potential for wonder and surprise. The thrill of the new, the unknown. Of late, though, I find I weary of it all. Instead of yearning for the new, the fresh, the unforeseen, I log in hoping to find things much the same.

The nature and purpose of the changes seem themselves to have changed. Casting back, more than a decade, to a time when rude individuals set up their rough huts across Qeynos Hills and the agents of Bertoxxolous worked secretly in the shadows to bring the plague for the Plaguebringer, in that the long, golden age of mystery and suspense, I had no real understanding of what was happening around me.

Over what seems in memory to be a very long time indeed, a slow, obscure narrative played out, bringing great disruption and a clamor of excitement. Places that had been safe became deadly. Great forces contended but for what prizes it was not ours to know. Opportunities arose for those quick enough to grasp them. Change was all around and it felt right and good and natural.

Why we cannot have nice things: Fig. 1.

Today all change comes forewarned. It arrives on schedule. From the rote formality of the Living Story, inching forward a notch every second Tuesday unless holidays intervene, to the sporadic Issues and Updates of The Secret World or EQ2, anticipated, awaited, advertized and analyzed before ever they are played, little reaches us unheralded.

Change you know is coming is very different from change you don't expect. Even should you choose not to visit websites, click on links, watch Twitch streams and YouTube presentations, open emails or engage with social media, on the day of the Update your characters will certainly receive direct notification inside the game. There is no option to arrive unaware at the point of crisis, to walk in innocence into the line of fire, the way I did the day I became suddenly and fatally aware of the Dark Elven invasion of Firiona Vie.

Change is unavoidable but the greatest changes, while vital, used to be contained. Boxed expansions brought whole new continents to explore but largely left the known lands alone. If you wanted to go on as you had always gone on then that option was open for you to take.

In a geographic sense that remains, largely, true but over the years a miasma of minor and major visual polishes and makeovers has settled on the glories of the past, leaving an unattractive patina, not of neglect but of mismanagement. The endless attempts to update appearances - better textures, new character models, improved graphic engines - often sit on the surface of older games like the fashions of youth on an aging narcissist, fooling no-one but disturbing many.

Once reviled, now revered.

Then there are the repurposings. The villages of Freeport and Qeynos, instanced and questlined; all those new New Player Experiences, those zone revamps that follow no logic or lore beyond that of the extended focus group and the metrics report.

We always had upheaval, of course. How many times did Splitpaw change hands; or Grobb? Even ailing worlds like Telon, where one might have expected the tide of change to flow slowly if at all, saw heavy-handed tinkering along its fringes, time and again. If change feels more ponderous, less organic now, perhaps it's merely that the stardust is off our eyes.

Even when the terrain remains unaltered, to revisit often feels false because our characters do not. Beneath their surfaces writhe changes wrought by hands other than their, or our, own: adjustments made by the Gods of Design, who bring endless alteration to the physical laws of the worlds in which our characters and their own frangible, powerless Gods reside.

Through no exercise of theirs our characters strengthen. Unborn imaginary generations outstrip the fantasies of their fancied ancestors. Learning curves flatten, enemies weaken, skills and abilities are handed out as of right. Weapons that would have graced a knight in a former age become fit only for farmhands. Nothing stays the same.

Well, why should it? Time moves on, the world changes, you can never go home again and all the rest of that dismal, defeated claptrap. Only...

To be retained for F2P players as a default 50% xp reduction. Thanks for that.
Recently I read several proofs of novels to be published this winter and next spring. They were all very good and they were all very bleak. I was exhausted both by novelty and despair so I went looking for solace in the familiar. Instead of another new novel I picked out an old favorite and began re-reading. Nothing had changed. Nothing would ever change. Everything was familiar. Everything was in its place. Some things remain immutable. Time runs off them like rain. You can go home there and they have to take you in.

Were I to begin to feel, like Stargrace, weary of MMOs yet still not weary of gaming I could, fathomably, return to an offline favorite and find it exactly as I remembered. Perhaps that might be a little harder to do than picking up an old copy of a book; complex hardware mitigates against reusability, over time. Not impossible, however; just harder. In MMOs, though, there truly is no going back.

Next week the daily achievement system in GW2 gets yet another reset and WvW gains a new ruleset for a month. The two things I most enjoy doing in that game right now will no longer be what they were. Also next week EQ2 implements a radical overhaul of both the Dungeon Maker and AA systems, something that will bring profound change to the game experience of just about everyone playing there.

Like it or not change is on the way; change followed by change followed by change. Yes, I weary of it. Yes, I often wonder if I wouldn't be happier playing an MMO where nothing ever changed. Well, wonder away. That MMO doesn't exist. It never has and it never will.

Our boats drift with the current, borne onward ceaselessly into the future. Tomorrow is always another day. Get used to it.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Level 100 - The Easy Way : EQ2

What a difference a patch makes. Just a short while ago the crafting channels and forums were buzzing with discontent and frustration. Tradeskillers appeared to have lost out to adventurers yet again in the leveling stakes. The crafting questline for the new expansion topped out with the best part of three levels left to go and other than a single daily giving around 8% of a level the only option appeared to be to grind writs and plenty of them.

Adding injury to insult the xp return from writs was dismal. Feldon at EQ2Wire calculated it would take around 180 timed "Rush Order" writs to do the full five levels, reduced to 130 if you first completed the quest sequences. Breaking the numbers down he observed "Each tradeskill writ from level 95-97 awards ~3% XP. This is with vitality and an XP potion. The number drops to ~2.4% for levels 98-100. These numbers have traditionally been 5-7% per writ!"

Players of most MMOs often express the opinion that no-one is listening to their concerns. The more cynical members of the community sometimes suggest that no, they are listening, they just want us to have a hard time. It's true that issues can often be left to fester for months, even years, before anything gets done. It's also true that the solution, when it comes, isn't always the one people asked for, or were expecting, or wanted.

This time no-one had to wait for long and the fix that went in with last week's update did, beyond any doubt, address the perceived problem directly and effectively. So, everyone's happy, right? Well, not exactly. There are a few naysayers:

"So, I just tested out today's change to tradeskill exp. I am now getting a FULL LEVEL of experience doing ONE writ at level 74! This is absurd!"

"SOE, you have made a big error here"

Those quotes are taken from the nine-page thread on the forums. I don't claim to have read it all but from a quick flip-through a more common reaction goes like this:

"THANK YOU for the change to writ xp! Awesome!! Now going to level all my crafters!"

"The change is appreciated."

"Thank-you very much for listening to crafters and increasing the xp for quests and writs. I think it is a good balance, I have to work to get to 100, but not feel like this is an endless grind. I read both of these threads, and it seems you can't satisfy everyone, but I for one am very happy. Thanks again!"

I was largely unaware this was going on. I'd read the patch notes, which say only that "Altar of Malice missions, repeatable quests and all Tradeskill Writs will now multiply experience rewards based on your experience modifiers such as veteran bonus, vitality, or potions. I hadn't even considered the potential effects on lower level crafting. I took the changes to be relevant to the expansion levels only. A close re-reading does make it clear that's not the case but who gives update notes close textural analysis?

I might have noticed, had I chosen, as I occasionally do, to knock out one of the Loyalty dailies with my Sage, currently somewhere in the 60s or 70s. As it happened I didn't. The only post-patch crafting I'd done was the Tranquil Sea daily, where I had noticed a very welcome increase: xp on the hand-in jumped from about 8% to over 20%. Nice.

That was clearly going to cut my time-to-cap from just doing dailies considerably. Indeed, it whisked me along so briskly that by today my weaponsmith was already a quarter of the way into level 99. I had a free afternoon so I thought why not make that up to a round 100?

After doing the daily (pickles again - what is it with pickles?) he had less than half a level to go. Back in Freeport he grabbed a Level 99 Rush Order. He even remembered to buy all the new "Essential" recipe books before setting the timer off, for once. Those are the basic ones the craft guild NPCs sell. The "Advanced" ones with the rare recipes are all dropped or come as quest rewards.

The rush order allowed about eight minutes to finish but it took well under half that, even allowing for running out of Effulgent Coal half way through and having to go to the vendor. The xp was very reasonable at over 5% with vitality (no potion). At that rate it would take less than 45 minutes to hit the cap.

On the down side, however, it would use up a lot of mats that I'd really rather hang on to for something more useful. And I really don't enjoy doing writs. So I abandoned that idea. I did the Adorning daily since the guy that gives it was standing next right there with a feather over his head. That was mostly for skill-ups but it did give a couple of percent. Then I thought I'd see if there was anything going on in Mara, which used to be craft central back in the day.

All the old favorites there were greyed out at my advanced level but stap me if I didn't run into Captain Ethan, who'd written me some letter I'd completely ignored. He starts the crafting questline for the last expansion I think. He sent me on a lengthy trip, first to The Feerrott, then to Stonebrunt Highlands, then Loping Plains and finally all the way to The Ethernere.

That took about as long as it would have taken to do most of the Rush Orders I was avoiding but it was about 10,000 times more entertaining. Unfortunately even a single writ would have given more xp. So I abandoned the idea of racing to 100 and decided to leave it to the dailies. It was only going to take a couple more after all. What's the hurry?

Going back to adventuring, which was lagging behind crafting by a little over a level, my ratonga changed his trade clothes and rolling pin for plate armor (another detail he's been known to overlook occasionally with fatal consequences) and headed over to Highhold Keep on Kithicor Island in the Phantom Sea. After a few tussles with one-legged undead orcs and skeletal gnolls he was doing his hand-in when he spotted a green glowing feather over someone's head way off in a corner.

There's a whole arcane language of feather-colors in EQ2 that I don't pretend to have kept up with over the years but that one looked identical to the one that hangs over Skritt the Crafting Daily ratonga. A quick flit across the lawn, another change of clothes, ten barricades quick-welded at the forge and a hand in later and boom! 100 Weaponsmith.

I was totally not expecting it and the deafening DING! and dazzling lightshow took me so much by surprise I barely managed to snap the screenshot above before the message and the glow faded away. That would normally be that because, much though I enjoy a little crafting now and again in EQ2, the prospect of taking another character all the way up to the top fills me with something quite like horror. Only now there does appear to be a window of opportunity...

I think I'll get my Sage working for an hour or two tonight. Just in case. Apparently there may already be a nerf correction on the Test server. It's not so much that I want to go faster for going faster's sake - its more I'd do just about anything to avoid doing writs ever again.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide