Thursday, February 26, 2015

It's Good News Day: GW2, Everquest

Operating as Wilhelm observes at the equivalent of the speed of light, Daybreak Games have a poll up for the ruleset of the proposed new Everquest Progression server.

I'd take any of the first three. I'd even try the crazy-race last option. Of course, unlike almost everyone else expressing opinions on this thing I'm very happy indeed with the current 2015 version of EQ, which I still play (okay, not as often as I mean to but I logged in last week!).

If I was going to go back to play EQ even semi-regularly I think I'd probably rather get my Magician to 100 rather than hit 50 in Classic fifteen years late but the first few weeks on a real brand-new, all in it together server are always a blast. I'll take every rare opportunity that comes along to savor that experience, even if I do know that I'll probably still be level 12 when they vote to unlock Velious.

If you vote (and you should if you have the slightest temptation towards reliving a past you may or may not have lived through the first time, which in turn may or may not bear any recognizable resemblance to your memories or your imaginings) then be warned that the voting panel appears to register your vote as soon as you click a button. You get no option to change your mind.

Unless, of course, you have seven accounts. Not that I know anyone like that. And not that such a notional person would indulge in such 18th century practices even if he existed. Or she! Or she!

In other news GW2 is getting a First Person Camera. To which I can only say in chorus with Jeromai


Looks like it also comes with a whole lot of fixes for what are quite possibly the worst camera controls I have ever suffered in any MMO. Ever!

The bit about relative height positioning vis a vis character race brought back memories of lumbering along at Ogre speed in EQ. I use the word "speed" ironically. But not the word "lumbering". So glad I only have one Norn and many, many Asuras.

I wonder if Charr pov will change according to whether they are running upright or on all fours? That could bring on motion sickness. Or hairballs. Who knows? It might even make doing jumping puzzles as a Charr possible enjoyable.

They say good news always comes in threes. Or is that bad news? Maybe it was buses. What's the third thing going to be, I wonder? I don't think it can be this can it? No, we don't like buy-in betas, do we? Although $20... that's cheap...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mission Creep: GW2, WoW et al

Over the past few weeks I've found myself idly pondering one of the eternal questions: what do I want out of an MMO? It's a very different question from "what makes a good MMO?" or even "what makes a successful MMO?"

Those are questions for which you might hope to devise some kind of scale or standard in order to reach some approximation of an objective answer, but the question of what you, yourself, want from the games you play is, by definition, entirely subjective. You might imagine that would make it easier to pin down. Not so, or not, at least, for me.

Mood and whim play such a large part. Circumstances within and outside the games dictate any number of changes of attitude, opinion and reaction. What felt good ten years ago may feel less so today; what feels good on a Sunday morning may grate on Monday night. Getting to a clear understanding of why the form appeals at all and what precisely I want and hope to derive from it is not a simple task.

Up above the roofs and houses...

Still, after more than fifteen years of doing this thing, I am starting to feel I might at last have a handle on what works for me in MMOs and what doesn't. At some point I'd like to set that down in some detail, so that I can consider it in another five, ten, fifteen years, should I be fortunate enough still to be around then to look back and see how well my argument stands up.

This is not that point and this is not that post. Thinking on it this morning, though, something else occurred to me. I've just had a long weekend during which I was free to play whatever I wanted. Before it began, in my mind I had a picture of what I might do. I imagined myself engaged with various this-and-thats in various MMOs - Everquest, EQ2, Istaria, GW2, TESO,  the Valliance demo, TSW...

It was an eclectic, engaging, appealing vision. In the event, though, I played GW2 for three days solid, the only exception being a couple of short visits to Tamriel, where my simple goal of reaching level 10 remains unrealized. Why did I do that?

One does not stop for a photo opportunity in Dragonball. It was this, the entrance hall or me, dead.

Is it because GW2 is the perfect MMO for me as Jeromai has claimed it is for him? Is it because Mrs Bhagpuss is ensconced there? Is it just habit? Or is it because, in common with a number of maturing MMOs, GW2 isn't really an MMORPG in the sense we once understood the term at all but the graphical front end of a suite of discrete games and activities, each of which scratches a different entertainment itch?

Here's a list off the top of my head of what I did in GW2 this weekend with a gloss on how they fit into the tapestry that is Guild Wars 2:

  • Dailies on three accounts. (Character progression with rewards available, in a mix-and-match format, for all three major game modes - PvE, sPvP, WvW)
  • Lunar dailies on three accounts. (Fluff Holiday content with PvE/WvW rewards)
  • Dragonball. (Instanced PvP Holiday Content with possible, very minor, PvE/WvW rewards and gold)
  • Instanced PvP. (Separate game mode with its own character progression but also with PvE/WvW-relevant character progression rewards)
  • The World Boss Train. (PvE Zerg content with large PvE rewards)
  •  Tequatl. (PvE Open Raid content with large PvE rewards)
  • WvW. (Separate game mode with its own character progression but also with PvE-relevant rewards)
  •  The Obsidian Sanctum Jumping Puzzle. (Open World (kind of) Exploration (kind of) Platforming (kind of) content with WvW/PvE rewards).
  • Open World Exploration. (Mainstream PvE character progression. What we would once, naively, have called "the game")
  • The Overgrown Grub. (Competitive PvE zerg/raid content in a WvW environment with PvE/WvW rewards)

Plus an awful lot of standing around in Divinity's Reach, Lion's Arch and the PvP Lobby making smart alec remarks in map chat, having trivial conversations with total strangers while taking screenshots of the Toy Golem Uprising.

Speculation on the forums was frenzied for a while but no, its not a Content Harbinger. It's a bug.

As can easily be seen, ArenaNet have made a concerted effort to tie all those activities and enterprises together by mean of the rewards they offer. Almost anything you do in GW2 gives you some tangible reward that can, theoretically, benefit your character in PvE and in the PvE-based player versus player WvW mode. Structured PvP, designed to keep a permanently even playing field, is the real standalone exception.

The theme seems to be "do whatever you like but remember it's all one game". It's a smoke and mirrors routine that all theme-park MMOs seek to bring off without anyone feeling they've been misled. Increasingly the audience seems ever-willing to play along. Hardly surprising; what we all fear is a content drought so we tend to grab on to anything that passes with both hands without questioning too closely what it has to do with what we came here for in the first place.

Atten-hut! Golems, by the left, kawiiiick march!

I don't play WoW at the moment and I didn't buy Warlords of Draenor but even from my remote vantage I can hear the rumblings of discontent over in Azeroth. Green Armadillo is scratching his head over what he might do with the second 30 days of his 60 day timecard since he's about finished with the expansion after just three weeks. Eliot at Massively OP, discussing the postponement of the much-desired Iron Docks content drop, summarizes things thus: "...the problem here comes down to one of perception, presentation, and the simple fact that there’s plenty to do at level cap in Warlords of Draenor… but also absolutely nothing to do.

It's nonsense of course. There's simply masses to do; in WoW and in all the mature, developed, maintained MMOs. It's just not always what people expected they'd be doing or would have chosen to do. What surprises me most is how many of these things are really other games in disguise, from the Pokemon-inspired Pet Battles to the MOBA-like Arenas as experienced by The Duke of O , who observes "My friends and I don't even play WoW as an MMO - we play it as a MOBA, spending the vast majority of our time in instanced Arena or Rated BG matches, and consider the rest of the game as an added bonus."

It probably shouldn't surprise me. It's been going on for a long time. I guess the first example I can bring to mind was the introduction of instanced Battlegrounds to Dark Age of Camelot. That was the first time I can remember seeing content separate from the game housed within the game in an MMO.

Open-field siege is not considered bad form when you point your ballista at a Grub. We still got trebbed from the keep though.

As Virtual Worlds the game-spaces always gave themselves willingly to self-directed segregation by players. In any public space knots of activity tend to grow around individuals who share a common interest and MMOs were no different for being virtual. Like people in a park, however, all those groups needed to be aware and mindful of the other groups around them. No kicking your ball through the picnic area or throwing your frisbee over the bowling green. Not if you didn't want the Parkie to turn up and tell you off. Or the GM. When we had in-game GMs.

Over the years we seem to have moved to a patchwork, ad hoc arrangement, by which some activities take place in the open but in set locations out of everyone else's way while others are hosted out of sight in the walled gardens of instances. Moreover, there are entirely enough of these discrete and semi-discrete pastimes and pleasures for any one of them to absorb most or even all of a given player's attention.

I only went to Obsidian Sanctum to find the GvG arena. I have no idea how I ended up doing the entire jumping puzzle and missing Tequatl. I don't even like jumping puzzles although it seems these days I don't even know what I don't like.

In GW2 there are plenty of players who only play WvW or only play sPvP. They are at best amusedly tolerant, more often sarcastically dismissive, of much of what constitutes the bulk of the game. In EQ2 there's a whole community of people whose main and sometimes only interest lies in designing and decorating houses. Every mature MMO plays host to special-interest groups largely unknown each to the other. At some stage, without my noticing, it seems MMOs ceased to be single, coherent entities and morphed into portmanteau collections.

I don't have any great conclusion to draw from these observations. I'm just thinking aloud. Maybe it isn't so different from the days when Dungeon players looked down on Outdoor players in EQ or Raiders considered themselves a breed above non-Raiders in...well, every MMO that has raids (except, on Aywren's evidence, FFXIV).

I don't like sPvP either. Except apparently now I do. Especially when I win.

It does feel different though. It's as though the set meal of the first generation MMOs has been replaced by a buffet. The whole concept of playing a specific character in a specific place alongside other people doing exactly the same seems oddly old-fashioned, although no less attractive to me.

And maybe it's why I keep on playing GW2. I don't have time to play several MMOs when the one I'm playing is half a dozen different games already.  And since all the games feed my characters the things they desire it's all too easy to slip into believing I'm still playing one of those old virtual world, character-based MMORPGs after all.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Glass Half Full : Daybreak Games

Pete at Dragonchasers has an excellent post up about the Daybreak situation. GamingSF has a great catch from the Everquest forums confirming the new company's intent to bring up another Progression server, something I'm sure will be music to Wilhelm's ears.

The EQ2 team has been talking about Progression servers as well, although they stress that the younger game's architecture is different, implying that may make it harder to bring one to market. I'd love to see an EQ2 Progression server just so long as no-one tries to recreate the miserable experience of the first six months.

Over at Visionary Realms Inc (were they always called that?) Brad McQuaid and his Pantheon team have a lengthy survey up that seems to be aimed at assessing the desires of the potential audience, presumably with the intention of giving the people what they want. I filled it out. It took me the best part of an hour. It was fun. I recommend it.

The questions make heavy reference to both Vanguard and the EQ franchise. Brad clearly sees himself as a contender for Torch Carrier of The Vision (TM). He's burned more bridges than Tipa has photographed and yet...and yet. Compare what little we know about Pantheon and EQNext. Which sounds more like EQ3? Which feels more like vaporware? Not so clear cut as all that, now, is it?

Meanwhile, Smed and/or his Columbus Nova overlords have given the StoryBricks team their marching orders, sending Tobold off to sulk in the gloomiest corner of the Hundred Acre Wood and spinning SynCaine's snark generator up into overdrive. Unlike Keen and with all respect to Psychochild I was never all that sold either on StoryBricks in particular or advanced AI in general so it's a bit of a non-story for me. Ironically.

Just to cap it all off for the week Massively Overpowered, already off to a storming start and so welcome back in my Feedly feed, fillets the recent Daybreak video Q&A and picks out the choice headline Everquest Next May Not Be F2P. Cat, meet pigeons.

I don't think that means Daybreak are considering a subscription model for EQNext. I imagine it's much more likely they're eying the Buy-to-Play market and so they should be. Why give away the farm?

Everything considered, I feel surprisingly sanguine about the future, at least where EQs and EQalikes are concerned.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Smelling The Flowers: TESO

I'm still playing TESO. It's a slightly strange experience. Similarities with Vanguard continue to abound, mostly in the look and feel, rather than the gameplay or the content. As Lani mentioned in the comments to a previous post the orc island, Betnikh, shares distinct similarities with the orc starting areas on Telon, although not nearly as much as the previous desert areas did with Qalia.

It's all there in the architecture, the textures and, particularly, the color palette. The music and the ambient sounds also throw some weight behind the associations. And the rain. Always the rain.

I logged in the other evening and the first thing I read in zone chat was someone asking plaintively "Do we always have to fight at night?" Weather and light conditions do seem to play a significant role in Tamriel. I'm not sure what the day/night cycle is, exactly, but I believe it was still night-time when I logged out over two hours later.

The next day, when I logged back in, I found myself in the middle of a massive thunderstorm. I spent the best part of half an hour trying to take screenshots. If there's a more effective way to waste fifteen minutes than trying to hit a key at the exact moment a flash of light appears in a video game I don't want to know about it.

Catch the lightning!
In the end I fired up FRAPS, took a couple of minutes of video footage and pulled the frames out of that. And they still looked terrible. I guess you had to be there. It was a darn good storm! I'd give the oscar for Best Weather Effects in an MMO to FFXIV but these run it close.

Other than trying to photograph lightning I've mostly been questing. Ye gods, but there are a lot of quests here! Kaozz at ECTMMO mentions the exceptionally high quest density in Allods but I can't believe they have more than TESO. I can barely walk five paces without acquiring a new goal in life.

Several people have made representations for the quality of the storyline in TESO but so far it all seems rather generic. Most of the quests seem unoriginal. There's a surfeit of events of earth-shattering importance, especially given the single-figure level range. Also the degree of trust shown in and responsibility given to complete strangers is terrifying. No wonder society is on the verge of collapse.

The writing continues to be, on the whole, rather flat. The voice acting remains, by and large, uninspired. There are exceptions.

Wait, let me guess. Under "Profession" in your passport it says "Loveable Rogue", right?
The lengthy sequence with Captain Kaleen and her crew is quite intriguing. It introduces several moderately memorable characters, some of them even voiced by actors who seem to be awake, and I am beginning to experience something of the "moral dilemma" aspect of the gameplay that I've read about.

Without giving too many spoilers, there are decision points where my character can't, as I as his player would like him to do, tack carefully around the fixed positions of various NPCs and stay on the right side of all of them. Choices have to be made and with those choices, perhaps, enemies.

This is all rather well done. By the time I had to make the choices I felt that I knew enough about the individuals making demands on me, and about the situation, to take a meaningful decision. More importantly,  I had a reasonably clear grasp on how my character felt about several of the NPCs, what his emotional reactions would be and where his loyalties might lie. When it came to the moment there really was no decision to make - I knew he could only act one way and would have to deal with whatever consequences arose.

All of that may be good game design but it's a very poor fit for me as a player. I don't enjoy making difficult decisions in games. I play MMOs in part to get away from having to think about such things, to enter into an environment where any choices I make don't really matter all that much. I'm not especially keen on having my moral compass re-calibrated in the guise of entertainment.

Are you sure this is the best way to get bloodstains out of leather?
As a rule, when I play MMOs, I like to play affable characters who get along well with everyone. If I can avoid bad faction I will go out of my way to do so. Even if the game clearly intends me to pick sides, if I can find a fence to sit on, I'll climb up there and get comfortable. I foresee difficulties for my long-term engagement with an entire game designed around moral choices.

I imagine one solution would be just to go out and kill stuff. While questing is ubiquitous I'm not sure that it's essential. I get the feeling I might progress just as easily by gathering mats, crafting my own gear and killing random monsters, bandits, zombies, cultists and animals for gear drops, gold and xp. It might even be faster.

It's certainly as enjoyable. I haven't played an MMO for a while where random slaughter was so satisfying. Loot is decent and sticking to mobs around or just under my level results in a TTK of around 3-5 seconds. It also completely removes any need to learn how to fight using blocks, dodges or most of the keyboard shortcuts. Three or four swings of my fiery greatsword (well, it was fiery until the enchantment got used up. Must do something about that) and the job's done.

Speaking of the control system and the combat; it's not too bad. I prefer it to NWN's version and possibly to DCUO's as well, both of which are similar. Holding down LMB for a big hit is very simple and straightforward and the fights themselves tend towards the slow and stately, which gives me plenty of time to look at my UI, remember which key I need to press for a particular spell, look at my keyboard, locate it, press it and get back to mouse-clicking, all  before very much has happened.

Come to think of it, that looks more like something you'd find in Halgarad than Martok.
So, combat works, the world is inviting, there's lots going on and all in all I'm having a good time in Tamriel. So why don't I play TESO more? I played a lot more ArcheAge, for example, when that was fresh, even if I did come to a sudden and unexpected dead halt there after just a few weeks.

For some reason I can't yet quite put my finger on I find TESO quite tiring. An hour there feels like three or four hours in other MMOs. After a short session I often feel both satisfied and satiated. It can be several days before I feel ready to go again.

I can't quite figure it out. An hour of TESO is less intense than a single five-minute Dragonball match in GW2 and I sometimes do half a dozen of those back to back. It's not difficult to understand or to play. There are no timers running down or scores mounting up. I have no plan, no agenda, my time is my own and mostly I just potter around. It should be relaxing, it is enjoyable, and yet when I log out I metaphorically wipe my forehead as if I'd just had some kind of a virtual work-out.

If I had to give an explanation I think I'd lay it on the questing and particularly on all that having to make up my mind about stuff. It does feel like playing a single-player RPG sometimes, with the sheer quantity of story-driven, directed content being thrown at me. I probably need to get off that train or at least take a few more station stops.

Overall, though, I'm pleased with how things are going, exhaustion aside. I like the pace and I like the place. My loose goal is to hit level 10 this weekend (dinged 9 last night) so as to be eligible for some three-faction PvP. I hear they have moveable siege engines. I want to see those!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

If It Looks Like A Tank And It Taunts Like A Tank... : GW2

Taunt (Status Effect)

“Involuntarily attack foes.”

In this expansion, we wanted to open up gameplay options using taunt. Taunt will be used to both reposition foes and change your foes’ targets.

Source: The stand-out paragraph lurking right near the end of the lengthy and otherwise largely mind-numbing PR squib for GW2's new Revenant class due to be introduced in the "when it's ready" expansion Heart of Thorns.

Predictable first reaction on official forum:

"Really? Taunt? What’s with you dev’s? Its not WoW, not L2, its game with unique experience, where we don’t need tank/healer/damage dealer trinity."

Predictable reaction to predictable reaction:

"It’s not like what you’re thinking."

Probably shouldn't have called it "Taunt" then.

Or opened the bidding with "The revenant is the ninth profession, added into Guild Wars 2 as a unique archetype not seen in other games" (Ibid).

I'll hang fire on any bold statements until, y'know, we actually see this amazing innovation in action in the promised demo at PAX East. Possibly even until I get to try it out for myself in beta. Or when HoT goes live if beta turns out to be a real beta that you have to apply for and be selected or something bizarrely old-school like that.

In the meantime let speculation run wild on the possible addition of some kind of Holy Trinity Lite structured group combat to GW2. Going to be a rough couple of years if we have to wait on the second expansion to get a real healing class. Just sayin'.

Monday, February 16, 2015

You Want Me To Do WHAT? : GW2

Not so very long ago, either here or in someone's comment thread, I mentioned two things I had no plans on doing in GW2. Things, indeed, that I specifically planned on not doing. The first was sPvP. The second was dailies on the third account that I bought in the recent 75% off sale.

So, naturally, I'm now doing both. The second kind of led into the first, although Jeromai had a little bit to do with it, planting a seed back in this post.

The experience of leveling up a first character on a fresh account these days deserves a post or several of its own, which I may or may not get to at some point. For the moment let's focus on just one of the many, many oddnesses: the Dailies Anet clearly doesn't expect anyone to do.

If a complete newbie, on a complete newbie account, wants to complete his or her dailies and receive the "Daily Completionist" achievement and the ten achievement points that accompany it, he or she gets no choice whatsoever. Completion requires three dailies and three is all you get: do them all or go home.

Excuse me but I'm new this Ascalon?

Each day brings a "choice" of precisely one PvE, one WvW and one PvP daily. As soon as you exit the Tutorial you have immediate access to the achievement window in which they are itemized under "Daily". You also get the daily Log-In reward jiggling away in the bottom corner to draw your attention to the mechanic.

You might well imagine these dailies are something you could get started on right away. You'd be wrong. You can do the PvE one, provided you know where to go and have opened the maps, highly unlikely at level two or three, but as for the other two? Forget it.

A new account is hard-blocked from entering either WvW or PvP by using any of the UI buttons that you might spot via a mouse-over tooltip. Those don't become avaialable until level 18 for WvW and level 22 for PvP. These are also the levels at which your Level Rewards will inform you that you are ready for these activities.

What, then, is the point of dangling that daily carrot in front of the player right at the beginning and then making it as plain as can be that you shouldn't try to reach for it? Fast though leveling is in GW2, few ingenues are going to hit 18 on their first character on the first day. Or the first week, quite possibly. Neither is anyone genuinely new to the game going to know, or discover other than by sheer, blind chance, that you can access both  game modes by going to Lion's Arch, finding the relevant Asura gates there and right-clicking them.

The logic behind making the new player's first few sessions easier to enjoy by offering clearly visible tasks while simultaneously locking them behind obscure access methods escapes me, as does much of ANet's logic. Imagine I was one of those players developers frequently cite, and for whose benefit many of the NPE changes were supposedly implemented, the kind of player who gives up at the first hurdle and never logs in again. Well, let's just say that's one heck of a hurdle you just put in my way.

It doesn't end there either. When you do find and use the Asura Gate to the Heart of the Mists you have to complete a mandatory, if perfunctory, tutorial that seems to have little or no relevance to what actually happens when you get into a PvP map. Then there's the barricade of the sPvP interface itself. To call it confusing and unintuitive would be an understatement.

All must win prizes.
I had to go to the wiki several times before I was able to use that interface effectively and I still don't claim to find it straightforward. I can only imagine that the entry into WvW is just as confusing for anyone who hasn't spent countless hours there. Add to this the unfortunate but salient fact that many WvW players are considerably less than welcoming of "uplevels" and that everyone in every competitive game mode is likely to be intolerant of players, new or old, who are only there to "do their dailies" and you really do have to begin to wonder about the clarity of thought of the people who came up with the whole concept.

As a coherent, considered approach to introducing brand-new players to all the game modes - it sucks. Why not just stick to PvE dailies until there's at least one character on the account that reaches the recommended level for the other game modes? Just finding out where to go for those now they're location-specific would be challenge enough, I'd have thought.

Of course it was only my account and my character that was new to GW2, not me, which
makes for a very lopsided assessment. Things that a real new starter would possibly find frustratingly difficult and confusing I, as an experienced player, found positively bracing. It's a very different experience, for example, trying to solo a yak or a sentry-point as an ungeared uplevel than it is as a Level 80 Bronze Major in full Exotics/Ascended. I had to play a lot smarter and use a lot of cunning. It was a lot of fun.

The PvP (about which I was going to write here but which now may to have to get a post of its own) was entirely new and was pretty confusing but I very much enjoyed it. Whether the rest of my team welcomed having a Level 2 Engineer with almost no gear at all, using pistols with no stats , with only two out of five weapon skills and no utility skills other than a heal and, obviously, no traits is hard to say. No-one complained at me or to me, though, and I was able to hold my own and be fairly useful. I killed people, took points, defended them, all the good stuff.

I didn't die much more than anyone else, either ,as far as I could tell. I'm guessing the group-maker matches people of equivalent rank together so none of us had much idea what we were doing. We must all have been Rabbits together. I even had enough fun that I ran a few matches on my level 80s.

I was enjoying the whole thing so much in fact, the low-level, no choice daily experience, that it was disappointing when I hit level 11 and suddenly my daily horizons expanded to a choice of three from nine. Not for the first time I wished GW2 had some potion or toggle that allowed you to lock your level.

All that and I didn't even get around to mentioning Dragonball.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Hope You Like Our New Direction: Daybreak Games

Yesterday I spent a considerable amount of time drafting and re-drafting a post about the ongoing situation at Daybreak. I never finished it because as I wrote more news kept coming in, almost all of it either reported or generated by Feldon of the invaluable EQ2Wire.

David Carey, a former producer and systems designer for Planetside2, himself now out of a job at Daybreak following the layoffs, posted a revealing and intriguing open letter on Reddit in which he explained, in most convincing fashion, why Columbus Nova does not deserve to be treated as the bad guy in all this:

"They are more like white knights than negative forces here. SOE needed a shake up/new direction, and CN provided that. They have done nothing but been gracious in their new ownership, and they went out of their way to make sure that Devs and support teams that got laid off were taken care of."

Before I'd had time to formulate my thoughts on that Feldon put up a no-holds-barred editorial dismantling SOE/Daybreak president John "Smed" Smedley's role in and version of events:

"You would think that Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley would have sought bids from companies that had the best interests in mind for the long-term growth and survival of the company in mind. However you would be wrong. According to an anonymous source at SOE and verified by a source in the gaming industry, SOE turned down three serious offers to buy the company, with one deal falling through literally days before the papers were to be signed".

The editorial makes a number of incendiary claims and it drew an immediate response from Smed. After an exchange of emails Feldon posted a follow-up in which he quoted Smed directly :

"We absolutely made sure that taking care of our employees was the highest priority and this deal was by far and away the one that took care of people the best."

Feldon confirmed that "It is absolutely true that Columbus Nova honored severance packages for those who were laid off and so salaried employees have time to find a new job, most with several months not including unemployment."

That exchange between Feldon and Smed corroborates and confirms the latter part of what  David Carey had to say in the quote above but it doesn't address his opening gambit. A look at the (complete?) list of the individuals who were laid off as posted this morning by Azuriel at In An Age is more illuminating in that regard.

Leaving aside for the moment the degree to which the President of the company is, or should be, responsible for its failings and avoiding metaphors relating to ship's captains and samurai warriors, that list does indeed suggest something more like a new broom sweeping clean than the clearing of deadwood. The lay-offs appear to fall into three broad categories: Communication, Content and Direction.

Communication has long been something SOE found diffcult to manage effectively. There was a long history of aggressive and antagonistic communication going all the way back to  the confrontational styles of community reps Absor and Abashi. At one point things got so bad SOE had to close down their own forums because of the damage the negativity there was doing to recruitment of new customers.

That did get sorted out and the individuals who fronted those communication channels over the last few years were largely popular and well-liked. There is, rightly, a sense of loss within the community they cared for and a concern for their future. The tributes coming in for Ashlanne, Afista, Hats and especially Brasse (about whom even SynCaine felt compelled to say something nice) show that it wasn't any fault in their ability to do the job required of them - to speak to and on behalf of the playing customers - that lost them their positions.

Overall, however, and despite the efforts of willing and able people, communication between the company and its customers remained confused and confusing. SOE employed a lot of people to talk to us on a lot of channels and yet somehow clear messages never seemed to get through. Let's hope there are changes to the structural approach, how communication is handled at Daybreak in the future as a result of this re-organization, and that past problems are avoided.

Then there are the creators; the designers and developers who fill the games with things for players to do and for characters to use. The removal of so many of those people from EQ2 and PS2 suggests a bleak future for the creation of new content for those games. That, of course, does depend on whether their roles have ended or are simply vacant, to be refilled with new talent with fresh ideas. Unlikely, I know.

It also raises an uncomfortable question, which is this: just how much new content does a game like EQ2 actually need? EQ2 is already one of the most content-rich MMOs in existence. If anything it has too much content. Might it not benefit from some streamlining, with the money saved going towards better marketing aimed at bringing in new players who could enjoy what's already there, rather than endlessly building more attractions to amuse the increasingly jaded palates of the existing audience?

As for PS2, I don't claim to know much about it or its audience but isn't it a jump-in, jump-out, massive persistent shooter? Does that game model require regular additions of designer-created content or just a better reason for people to blow each other to atoms?

Finally we get to the real crux of the issue: Direction. The Future.

Supposedly Columbus Nova bought SOE at least in part because of their belief that new properties like EQNext and H1Z1 could become large, popular, commercially successful products. Let's focus on EQN and Landmark.

For eighteen months, in this corner of the blogosphere and elsewhere, people have been asking two questions: "What the heck is Landmark supposed to be?" and "When are we going to see some actual progress on EQN?". Feldon emphasizes just how long and unproductive the road to New Norrath has been:

"EverQuest Next has been a going concern at SOE since at least 2008, more likely 2007...If we are very conservative on our timing, that’s January 2008-December 2011 or four solid years of development thrown in the trash before the team started over with what we see now in Landmark and what we will eventually see in EQNext."

Dave Georgeson was the face of Landmark/EQN. He's a fine communicator and an enthusiastic and lively presence in any Livestream. He writes a good producer's letter and he brought some solid ideas to EQ2 in his tenure there. I'd be very interested to look at any MMO project he goes on to head up after this. Jeff Butler co-created Everquest and understands, if anyone does, what made that game work. He has a great, dry wit and is always good value in a panel discussion. Steve "Moorguard" Danuser was in charge of EQN's story. On his blog, Mobhunter, he's as optimistic as David Carey: "I poured my heart into the story for EQN, just as I did for Amalur before it. Norrath is in good hands, and I can’t wait to see what Daybreak achieves."

They represented the core of the team responsible for what EQN would become. They are all gone. And yet, for all their estimable qualities, after two years of selling the concept of EQN and Landmark to an initially willing and eager audience, what is their legacy? The footprint of a building game that might be playable for the ordinary, casual player sometime this decade but certainly not now and a lot of rather silly Round Table discussions along the lines of "What pelt markings would you prefer to see on the Kerran?".

As David Carey said "SOE needed a shake up/new direction". We all knew it. We've all been saying it. Now it might just be happening.

Everyone with a functioning heart feels for the individuals who've lost not only their jobs but almost certainly in most cases jobs they really loved and did well. Everyone playing the games is apprehensive, even fearful, about what this means for their virtual homes and families, their characters and their guilds. We all remember what happened to Vanguard and Free Realms.

Not everything has changed, of course. Smed still stands on the bridge, hands on the wheel, gazing to the horizon. Is he Richard Phillips or Captain Ahab? (I know. I said no captain metaphors. I lied). Terry Michaels, Steve Klug and Emily "Domino" Taylor are still driving EQN. Will they go on following the same road-map or tear it up to head off on a road trip all their own? Holly "Windstalker" Longdale and a number of familiar names remain at EQ2.  Does that mean business as usual or battened hatches and a bunker mentality?  

Feldon's right: it didn't have to be this way. This, though, is the way it is. Smed says he did what he did for his people but who are his people? His employees or his players? Could he have done better by both or did he have to make his own hard choice? And anyway, would we really have thanked him if he'd sold us to PWE? We sure didn't like it when he sold us to PSS1. Maybe he actually learned something from that.

Still, in the end, something had to give. The drift had to stop. And we are, as they say, where we are. Will this shake things up enough? Will we like the new direction? Will there even be a new direction? What happens next?

Ah, now that's the adventure!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

It's An Ill Wind: EQ2

Read into this what you will.

I draw your attention to Feldon's comment six spots in.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Return To Concordia And Other Stories: GW2

Syp has a post up in which he summarizes the "story" part of GW2's Living Story Season 2 as he understands it. I can shorten it a bit more. Some plants did bad things. A dragon woke up. There was a lot of fighting. Some things got broken. No-one cleared up the mess.

Kessex Hills was a scrubby, unattractive enough place to begin with but after the baddies built a vast, noxious tower and the goodies blew it up, letting the wreckage pollute Viathan Lake, the entire region was left looking like the aftermath of a limited nuclear exchange. You'd think there'd be a refugee crisis (yes, another one) but with centaurs on all sides, clear-cutting the forests and culling the weak (that's anyone with fewer than six limbs) and the nearest major city still failing dismally to come terms with the results of a sustained aerial bombing campaign, where is there to go?

I try to give Kessex as wide a berth as possible but I happened to be passing through on business the other day. Most of the Priory team has moved on from Thunder Ridge but Arcanists Dolja and Kari are still there, doing...something. I chatted with them briefly. Kari passed on the sad news that Katterwik the skritt died when the tower fell but it was what Dolja had to say that really unnerved me.

She says the toxic Krait, a clique within the race of aggressive, amphibious slavers that Scarlet somehow convinced to join one of her nebulous and ill-understood alliances, fled the collapse of their tower through some kind of portals, taking with them their mysterious obelisk shards. Where they went, what the portals were, what they plan to do next, no-one seems to know.

Shouldn't someone be following that up? It seems like kind of a loose end. One of many. How's Cragstead doing these days? Ever wonder that? Braham doesn't seem to worry about it any more so I guess we don't need to either. Still and all, I do, a little.

And what about the refugees that fled the Molten Alliance? I guess they all went home. The ones whose homes weren't burned to the snow that is. At least, they don't seem to be squatting on the hard, hot iron of The Black Citadel and there's certainly no place left for those who fled to Lion's Arch, if any survived. Lion's Arch has its own refugees to care for now. They're still there, some of them, in that shanty town outside Vigil Keep, waiting.

Things are bad all over. I happened to pass through Concordia yesterday. Those vines are still there, the waypoint's still out of service, in pieces on the floor. Didn't Taimi come up with a fix for that? Isn't there some kind of Asuran Repair Krewe that could come out and throw some hazard tape around it at least? It looks so dangerous, sparking and sputtering.

See, this is what happens when you let narrative get loose across your nice, tidy world. These stories leave a residue and it sticks. I like it. It kicks up memories and feelings and it makes me think. But then, I was there when all these stories happened.

What does it all mean to players like Syp or J3w3l, returning from a long vacation, let alone to brand new players, only here because they saw a box on sale, 75% off? Would it serve them better to tuck most of this outdated, non-functional, ex-content tidily away in instances, where only the curious and the willing need ever concern themselves with it? Should open-world events neatly dissipate when their purpose is at an end, melting away more quickly and cleanly than dirty snowmen after the thaw?

Or does the shed carapace of narrative add depth, texture, quality to the world? Is this all just physical graffiti to be scrubbed away or is it the true patina of time passing in a world that wishes to be real? Is it better that some players are confused or irritated by remnants of memories they don't share or is that just the price you pay for coming in late while the movie's still playing?

GW2 players have often called plaintively for the game to have "permanence". What they seem to mean by that is the option to replay content and gain rewards at a time of their convenience. That's how a game works but not a world. A living world doesn't stand and wait for anyone. Should a Living Story?

I won't, I think, revisit and replay the storylets and missions, captured forever as they are in the amber of my achievement panel. Once and done for those. That's a permanence I'll choose to let fade.

I'll keep returning to the blasted heaths and sumps of Kessex, though, and to the vine-choked, blood-soaked confines of Concordia and Fort Selma. When I pass a shattered probe I'll sometimes, often, come close and listen for the hum. These things are real, for a given value of reality. This is permanence.

I started this post whimsically; sarcastically. As I wrote I logged in to check some facts and take some shots. Subtly my mood changed. It's easy to poke a little good-natured fun at the lack of rigor in the storytelling, the bag and sag and hanging threads. Harder, though, to gainsay the feelings and the memories, when you're standing in the ruins.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Another Green World: GW2

Information continues to trickle in about the upcoming GW2 expansion, Heart of Thorns. Little of it sounds encouraging at least to my ears. After more than a year of hoping for something new to buy in a box it's quite a surprise to find myself considering whether I'd be better advised to keep my credit card firmly in my wallet.

The broad-brush strokes of the original reveal at PAX South left a lot of unanswered questions and the answers, as they begin to fill in, are creating just as many doubts. The prospect of a jungle setting didn't set my pulse racing to begin with but the idea of a jungle filled with the unrelenting , largely uninteresting, uncommunicative, cognitively inert Mordrem is stimulating a desire to be somewhere, anywhere else.

Caledon Forest is already more jungle than I care to deal with.

If only there was somewhere else... As far as the expansion is concerned the options of where to go would seem to be limited. It's now confirmed there will be few maps and they will all relentlessly follow the War With The Plants theme. Those few maps we do get threaten to be exaggeratedly three-dimensional, requiring a new device, the Hang Glider, designed to be difficult to manage, in order to navigate. These maps will be densely packed with nested events and feature timed, map-wide objectives along the lines of the never-ending cycles of Dry Top and Silverwastes. All of this will be cranked up to "challenging". It begins to sound like a fair version of a jungle hell.

A few voices have already piped up on the forums to protest that it was the variety and heterogeneity of content in popular maps like Queensdale and Wayfarer Foothills that made them popular in the first place. Those voices will certainly be lost in the general approbation and approval of what is set fair to be the consolidation of a change in ethos and gameplay both long in the making and much desired, if not by me. It's clear that GW2's design team sees a through-line, from the stumbling start of the Lost Shores event, via the equally stumbling but ultimately successful iterative development of the Living World, to some kind of design epiphany in Dry Top and Silverwastes, finally arriving at last at what they confidently claim to be a high point in GW2 design - Heart of Thorns.

In fact - swamp, forest, jungle - I'm not entirely sure I can tell the difference...

While there are dissenting voices still to be found among the playerbase it's probably likely that, on this long journey of learning by trial and error, ANet have tacked more towards giving their core audience what it wants than they have kept to their original course. So, what is it that the audience does want?

Permanence or the illusion thereof has been a clear and present demand from the start. The concept of huge, one-off, world-changing events died in the karka-infested water around Lion's Arch over one chaotic weekend back in 2012. Clear character progression that doesn't rely on a gear ladder is another. The Ascended tier that was introduced shockingly soon after launch to howls of anguish remains sufficiently controversial, even now, that pledges never to step that way again need to be repeated periodically and unequivocally by senior management.

You've got karka on your face - rock dog edition.

Then there's the perceived lack of both "difficulty" and "challenge" that has formed a recurring theme in endless forum discussions over the life of the game. Gameplay that could readily be celebrated as the defining trope of GW2 - content designed to allow players of all skill and interest levels not only to co-exist but to co-operate and enjoy synergy - has consistently been denigrated as EZMode or zergfest. The developers response, rather than to stick to their original, inclusive, open-hearted ethos, has, equally consistently, been to increase complexity and require higher levels of skill, commitment and dedication from anyone wishing to participate. Latterly they've simply fallen back on the traditional and unequivocal flat level-based barrier, locking out any player currently unwilling or unable, for whatever reason, to complete the journey to 80.

Unsurprisingly I find little of this is to my taste but then it's becoming very apparent that GW2 is no longer an MMO made with players like me in me mind. Players who like to potter around performing small services for imaginary powerless individuals for which we receive minimal recognition or recompense. The kind of players who enjoy helping a young child to impress his father with the severed head of a moderately oversized domestic animal. Players who don't mind spending ten minutes keeping harpies away from the cattle while a crazed charr calculates the correct trajectory for flinging cows with his self-built siege
If they'd announced a tundra-themed expansion this post would have gone in entirely another direction

Ironically, given that, unusually among major MMOs, it has no formal raiding structure, not even a UI panel, Guild Wars 2 is gearing up to become a fully raid-focused game. I have never raided with anything like serious intent and I don't have any desire to start. I was not one who welcomed either the changes to the Tequatl event that required a raid-like level of organization or the player-created solution of huge cross-server guilds to meet that challenge.

I do find the refinement of that process, the near-self-generating, rolling critical mass of players acquired in Dry Top and Silverwastes through the addition of numerous incentives and goads, to be preferable but I still don't like it. It's artificial to an obvious and uncomfortable degree, one of those buildings with the pipework on the outside, only without the aesthetic justification. I might feel differently if any of the incentives actually incentivized me or if any of the goads did in fact sting. They don't.

Dredge. They're so much more interesting than dragons.

What all this has done, however, as may or possibly may not be apparent from the above, is make me think. Think about why I play these games; pursue this hobby. Think about what I do, what I enjoy doing and what I do without really considering whether I enjoy doing it or  not. About what I want and how likely I am to get it. About how I could be spending my time in future.

Even if I don't get much value from playing HoT, and I suspect that I won't, I'm already getting plenty of value from thinking about it. For that I thank the developers. I'll tell you if you also get my money when I've seen the beta.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Find Your Neutral Space

Tomorrow is my last day of work for nearly two weeks. It's that time of the year when accrued holiday has to be used up so I get to take a series of extended breaks with nothing particular planned. There's another chunk coming in March and again in April. Since we don't generally take an actual going-away holiday until May or June that means I should have plenty of time to both to play MMOs and write about them in between desultory attempts to tidy up the garden and paint the odd window-frame or two.

It's just as well it's next week, not this week, that I have free. I dread to think what I might have written here over the last two or three days if I'd had the time to give vent to my immediate reactions to the first and second of ArenaNet's promotional pieces on the upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion. Poor old Jeromai got a burst of what might have been in his comments section last night, entirely unprovoked I should add.

I was so annoyed by the first piece, "Hearts of Thorns Gameplay", that I actually woke up thinking about it this morning, which didn't get the day off to the greatest of starts. Things certainly didn't improve when I got back from work and settled down after my tea to read the next installment, "Reimagining Progression". 

Fortunately I don't have time right now to examine either of these unwholesome packages in detail, nor to tie their unwelcome themes and assumptions in with some apposite postings from around the local blogosphere; Syl's assertion, for example, that "Good is good enough", a sentiment which I feel doesn't go nearly far enough, or Tobold's thought experiment relating to what we mean when we say a game is "difficult".

Difficulty is a big part of "What's wrong with this picture?" as Funcom seem, better late than never, to have noticed. I very much share the feelings of  Ocho and Syp that a decrease in difficulty can only be in The Secret World's best interest.

Entitlement is another. I won't link to the same people a second time but there's a storm building up over who deserves to get what out of an MMO. It's a debate that's been going around and around for about as long as this hobby has existed and very definitely for the entire fifteen years I've been part of it. Anyone who thinks this started with a change in payment models simply hasn't been paying attention.

So, all this is brewing away in the back of my mind at the moment, a bilious stew of irritation, annoyance and disgruntlement that occasionally boils up into something not dissimilar to anger. It really is just as well I'm not sitting around this week with a whole lot of free time on my hands. Who knows what kind of intemperate, ill-considered rants I might have spewed out, later to regret?

By next week perhaps all the bitter ingredients of this melange will have come together to form a smooth, neutral base for something tempered and considered.

Or perhaps not. Especially if Anet keep riling me up the way they seem determined to do.

Monday, February 2, 2015

You Won't Have SOE To Kick Around Anymore

This is a public service announcement in case anyone's not predisposed to follow John Smedley on Reddit or Twitter. I know I don't.

In news I don't believe anyone was expecting Sony Online Entertainment has been sold to investment management company Columbus Nova. No, me neither. We are assured this is a good thing and all the games are going to continue.

 Massively has the main story although whether this link will work tomorrow remains to be seen. EQ2Wire has background and, no doubt, ongoing coverage in detail.

I am not getting happy feelings about this.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

You Talking To Me? Questing In The Elder Scrolls Online

With the tutorial out of the way things began to look up for my soul-shriven Kajiit Darknight but before he was finally free to go his own way there was one more twist to come. When it arrived it did begin to occur to me that the developers might be playing some kind of post-modernist prank; either that or someone had a bet going that they could fit every single MMO cliche into a single incomprehensible and convoluted origin story.

Just about the only box left unchecked by the tutorial itself was the old "pulled unconscious/half-drowned from the sea by a fisherman/sea captain" routine, so naturally that turned out to be exactly what happened when The Prophet and I catapulted ourselves back into Tyria Telon Tamriel. At least, that's what happened to me. The Prophet turned up somewhere else altogether - AkAnon or Mekalia from the description he gave. Could have been The Black Citadel. Somewhere with a lot of clanking machinery and a steampunk vibe anyway.

His astral projection left me with the final thought that if I had nothing better to do I might wander down to the docks and offer my thanks to the ship's captain who'd pulled me out of the drink. I had my own ideas, which mostly consisted of wandering around Daggerfall like a gawping tourist, taking screenshots.

Okay, so that's not actually Daggerfall. The principle holds.

As MMO cities go Daggerfall is quite convincing. There's a bit of an issue of scale, with everything built on heroic proportions, but that, like the townsfolk who seem to have nothing better to do than stand around day and night waiting to start up conversations with strangers, comes with the territory. At least they move about in a purposeful fashion giving the place a pleasantly lived-in feel.

And they really do start conversations. That was the thing that struck me most after a couple of hours play. In TESO you don't find quests - quests find you. I found it quite immersive; almost naturalistic, if only on the Littlest Hobo or A-Team scale of naturalism.

There's clearly some kind of proximity trigger that causes NPCs to react to your character's presence. Guards move you on if you get too close; gardeners comment on the weather and so on. That's a nice touch but where the mechanism really shines is when you pass within range of a potential questgiver.

It was soon after this that I was certified. Not before time some may well think.
Rather than someone running up to you, yelling and waving their arms and demanding you Do Something! as frequently happens around dynamic events in GW2, in TESO you tend to overhear things that might be to your advantage. Or not.

I'd already decided I wasn't going to run straight down to the docks to thank my rescuer. Instead I'd been ambling around getting my bearings. I found a noticeboard that informed me about crafting writs, again in quite an immersive and unobtrusive fashion, and I was pondering on that when I heard someone behind me saying something about the docks.

Before I'd really had time to think about it I'd turned and replied and next thing I knew I had a quest to go speak to the captain who'd saved me from the waves. It all flowed so well I abandoned my crafting aspirations for the while and went down to the harbor to pay my respects.

I never did find a good angle.
That seemed to set a pattern. I played for around three hours last night and most of what I did arose directly and serendipitously out of seemingly chance encounters. At one point a dog ran near me and barked; looking down I noticed I could interact with her so I did. She led me, Lassie-like, to her fallen master and his dropped shopping list and thence began a nefarious plot concerning dark magic, or possibly just very poor cooking skills, that I'm still unraveling.

These beetles only dropped iron armor. Its ludicrous but at least its consistently ludicrous.

While I was exploring along the coast and through the dunes, killing scorpions for fishing bait and beetles for armor upgrades and having a thoroughly fine time, I spotted a statue. Always on the alert for a photo opportunity I headed over and hopped up on the plinth. I was swiveling around trying to get an angle that would include me, the statue and a large lizard, when I heard someone talking to himself.

I hadn't noticed anyone around but the voice seemed to come from below me. I stood up and looked over the small ridge on which the statue stood to find an orc. He turned out to be having a little problem with maternal expectations that I was able to help him resolve. The initial encounter and subsequent quest sequence felt unusually solid, authentic even, which I put down largely to the naturalistic way in which the orc and my character met.

In this respect my early impressions are that TESO has managed a small but significant improvement in the quest acquisition process. Whether the approach will continue beyond the starting areas and cities remains to be seen. It's certainly often the case in MMOs that polish and innovation of this kind tend to fade away as the levels wear on. I hope not. I like it.

The quest text itself is nothing like as innovative. It tends towards the plain and workmanlike, which is no bad thing. The examples I've seen so far don't have the wealth of detail of EQ2 or the delightful archness of FFXIV but neither do they have the odd, slightly off-register tone of WoW.

The voice acting, too, seems understated and restrained. Every quest is voiced in full (indeed all NPCs with or without quests seem to have a spoken line or two in them). The main problem I've encountered questing so far comes with the actors' speed of delivery.

Give a cat a fish...

With the one striking exception of Nicolette, who gabbles out her lines almost too fast for the sense, every single NPC speaks in somnolent tones, as though giving dictation. By the time I'm at the end of the text they are rarely halfway through their oration. Fortunately they don't insist on completing each speech before allowing me to move the dialog on to the next stage.

TESO does follow the longstanding convention of putting icons over the heads of questgivers but these are, once again, rather understated. I'm not quite sure whether they even appear over characters to whom your character hasn't yet spoken or, possibly, who your character hasn't yet heard. Either way, there are no forests of glowing neon question marks and exclamation points, only a sprinkling of dull grey lozenges here and there.

I don't have much to say about the quest journal because as yet I've rarely had cause to refer to it. The quests seem to toddle along quite nicely with no more than the odd nudge from the handy Add-On mini map. There's a huge compass bar that hangs across the high center of the screen that I've only latterly realized acts as a directional marker for all kinds of things, quests included, but I haven't yet fathomed its complexities so I tend to ignore it.

I'm pretty sure this isn't just here to add local color...

All things considered, then, I'm rather enamored of the questing in TESO thus far. It's ever-present yet unobtrusive, interesting, entertaining and easy to follow without being insulting to my or my character's intelligence. I do get a slightly disconcerting feeling that there's a lot going on around me that I'm not being allowed to know about because I haven't hit the correct quest triggers yet but I can live with that.

This morning I ordered a copy of TESO for Mrs Bhagpuss. Our Sundays-only GW2 guildmate, on hearing that the subscription is dropping in March, expressed an interest in joining us, so it looks as though this one might stick, at least for a little while.

Next up: what's with this Vanguard vibe?

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