Monday, March 30, 2015

Legendary Hearts : GW2

ArenaNet's most recent Heart of Thorns infodump appears to have passed by largely unremarked. That's a shame because, contrary to all expectations, the treatise on the forthcoming changes to the way Legendary Weapons can be acquired is full of positives for the game as a whole.

"Legendaries", as they are commonly known, have always held little interest for me. They are almost universally ugly; overwrought, gaudy and garish. They have particle effects and other visual tricks that look utterly ridiculous, up to and including the infamous Bow That Fires Unicorns. To see anyone running around wielding these gimcrack fairground prizes inspires something closer to irritation than respect, as though some yahoo had just roared past in his SUV, flinging beer cans out the window.

Sunrise, one of the less-hideous
I felt the same about Epic weapons in Everquest, whose introduction I remember clearly. Those trophy weapons shared with GW2's Legendaries a long, arduous and largely disliked path to acquisition but they did at least have the considerable benefit of providing a very significant upgrade in power when you finally got your hands on one. Legendaries don't even do that. In keeping with GW2's ethos of avoiding power creep at all costs, when it comes to killing things, a Legendary is much the same as an Ascended weapon. It just looks flashier. Oh, and you can swap the stats around.

Given my lack of interest in the outcome, then, it's surprising how excited I was to read about the process. The new process, that is.

Currently, in order to obtain a Legendary you must first get your hands on a "Precursor". There's a separate and specific one of these for each Legendary and to say they are rare as hen's teeth is to do a disservice to galline dentistry.

Popular belief has it that these drop from certain significant encounters such as dragons but it's interesting to note that, as the wiki advises, they "can drop from any enemy, chest, or WvW loot bag". Can, but in my experience don't. In two and half years, on six accounts, over too many thousands of hours of gameplay to own up to, neither Mrs Bhagpuss nor I have seen a single precursor drop.

The more common way of obtaining them is by throwing Rare weapons into the Mystic Forge in bundles of four. The putative genie who serves out some obscure prison sentence therein can, although again usually does not, spit back a precursor. Finally, if all else fails, you can just buy the damn thing from the Trading Post, where they retail for hundreds or even thousands of gold pieces. If I ever get one you can bet that's where it's going.

Of course, just getting the precursor is only the beginning. After that comes one of GW2's
The Dreamer aka My Little Ponybow
increasingly common scavenger hunts. The shopping list of parts is ferocious but although before launch it also seemed like something only an insane person would consider, by now it's just another in-game chore and one among many at that.

From this exceedingly bitter lemon the HoT team appear to have come up with a way to make some rather sweet lemonade. There has been talk for years of "crafting " precursors and it was widely believed that recipes would be added in the expansion. Not so.

Instead, the new Mastery system, about which I have hitherto felt more than a little skeptical, has been pressed into service. What's more, Precursors themselves have been broken up into three distinct stages. Entire tri-partite tracks (what any other game would call Quests) have been created for each individual precursor.

Part one leads to "a nontradable exotic weapon with a distressed version of the existing precursor skin". Part two gets you "a recipe ... resulting in another nontradable exotic weapon with the existing precursor skin". Finally, for completing part three, the reward is "the recipe to craft the polished final iteration of the precursor". At which point you are ready to begin the same, original, demented process of crafting the Legendary itself.

Genius! For the grand addition of no new benefits whatsoever the game gets enough new content to last the average player years! There are twenty of these weapons and many, many players desire several for various characters or even, because in GW2 combat skills derive from weapon type, for the same character. And, of course, HoT adds a new weapon to each class, so even people who play just one character and have all the Legendaries that class can use have something new to keep them busy.

Crabstick, anyone?
Other than my objective admiration for the elegance of the solution, given that I have no interest in Legendaries for myself, why am I excited about this change? Well, it's the side effects; the fallout.

The hoops through which would-be precursor "crafters" will have to jump are spread far and wide across Tyria. Players will find themselves roaming the world "fighting fierce creatures around Tyria and acquiring a trophy to show for it" or traveling to obscure corners of far-flung maps to "barter for knowledge, seek out great minds and convince them to teach you their tricks". That alone should keep no small number of otherwise neglected maps busy with busywork but there's more.

Every map other than the starting areas is getting something called a "Map Bonus". That appears to be another jiggle chest that pops up "periodically" in the lower-right corner of the screen; this time when you're "completing events, jumping puzzles, and mini-dungeons". The little chest will usually contain crafting mats appropriate to the area, but there will be a cycle for these so that the same map might give bones one visit and venom sacs the next.

Yet again this is an absolute marvel of manipulative efficiency. It's not just re-using the older maps for a newer purpose, it's doubling the number of maps without adding any maps! Given the extreme interest a significant proportion of GW2 players express in getting their paws on precursors I anticipate an ongoing, if perhaps increasingly bad-tempered, relationship between the players of level 80 characters and the mid-level maps they thought they'd never have to visit again.

For someone like me, who spends a huge amount of time in those maps by choice and who was concerned that the arrival of HoT, with its gliders and verticality and new shiny newness, would kill them stone dead, it's a godsend. It's also very likely to be a money mine for anyone with no interest in making the end product for themselves.

This one I'd use.
There's more to it even than this. The whole enterprise  does seem, at least on paper, to have been remarkably well thought-through. The 1-15 maps are exempt from Map Bonuses, leaving some of my favorite places unchanged in their increasingly outlandish innocence. The new pre-cursor process also operates by account, meaning that if you want to dual-wield Legendary pistols (and you can bet someone does) you'll be back to the old method of getting the second, so Zamorros and the economy will be kept busy.

Finally, all of the above only applies to the old set of twenty Legendaries. The expansion is going to add a bunch more along with their pre-cursors and those will use a similar but separate system. Unlike the current Legendaries the new ones won't be tradeable so you'll have to just knuckle down and get on with it. No farming gold to buy your way to godhood. As someone who wishes that principle applied to, well, pretty much everything in MMOs, I'm very happy with that decision, especially since I won't be directly affected by it myself. It's always easier to have principles on someone else's behalf.

This was the first big reveal for Heart of Thorns that left me with a warm, positive feeling. I've come around to the idea of the Desert Borderlands following the similarly well-documented and explained  piece that followed the disconcerting and disheartening stage presentation so perhaps I should just wait for the full write-ups in future and ignore all the livestreams. I still can't say I'm actively looking forward to the core content itself, but at least the periphery is starting to show some appeal.

Who knows? Maybe I'll even get a pre-cursor this way. I must say the idea of a "distressed version of the existing precursor skin" sounds right up my street. If those look anything like as good as the corroded, barnacle-encrusted Orrian weapons, some of my favorite skins in the game, then I'm in!

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Pull!: Nevergrind

Tipa alerted me to this odd, and oddly entertaining, browser title. It's heavily influenced by classic Everquest in everything but the actual combat, which is apparently derived from one of the few MMOs I never played, Phantasy Star Online.

Indeed, when you're faced with the character creation screen you might wonder if you haven't logged into EQ via some wormhole through time. The font, frames  and color palette are all eerily reminiscent. The classes and races - well, they're not just reminiscent - they're identical.

Joe Leonard, the one-man dev team behind Nevergrind, began the whole thing as some kind of fan project cum self-education program. From there it grew into a Kickstarter that's already 75% funded with eighteen days still to run.

Partly that must be because Joe really is being highly realistic with his hopes and expectations. He's only asking for $4000, which is the same amount he's already spent commissioning the very attractive and professional artwork (by Jocelyn Sarvida) you can see in the game right now.

It's a huge advantage for the funding process that the game we're being asked to back is already available and fully playable. Indeed it looks more as though the fundraiser is to recoup costs already expended than to get the game finished.

That might be seen as a problem, especially for a title that is going to be free to play anyway, but the business model does include a Cash Shop and the Pledges include cash shop currency and in-game items, meaning that, if it's a game you think you might play, then pledging really amounts to pre-ordering and paying up front for some stuff you'd most likely end up buying anyway.

There's an interesting and informative interview (once again found by Tipa) that gives some fascinating background. The hard details on costs, particularly of having bespoke art and sound assets created, I found very intriguing. Who knew it could be done so economically with such fine results?

All in all this looks like a very solid product with its feet planted firmly on the ground. I'm not entirely sure it's something I'd play very often, being mostly an MMO player, but the Everquest vibe is a strong draw and it plays perfectly on my Windows tablet so who knows? I got my ogre Shadowknight to level five in a few minutes just before I started writing this piece and he gets spells at level 9 (sounds familiar) so I wouldn't want to stop before then.

What's more, if Joe can get to some of the stretch goals, such as in-game chat, mail and player-to-player trading, who's to say it won't end up being an MMO after all? I haven't backed it yet but chances are I will, if only for a modest amount. Either way, it's a good-looking, well-presented Kickstarter for a very playable game and I'm very happy to give it what little extra publicity I can.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Eight More Years! : Everquest

Tonight I saw from the log-in screen news as I came to do my Magician's Lesson of the Devoted that the poll results for Everquest's putative Progression Server are up. They make very interesting reading.

Apparently, three of the four options ran neck-and-neck but the overwhelming winner, with double the votes of any of the others, was "Slower Progression". That's basically the same ruleset as the last pair of Prog servers used but with the brakes on.

How hard to press down on the pedal is still up for debate. We now have three more options - "Half Speed", "Maximum Nostalgia" and "Add 50%" which would take eight years, six-and-a-half years and five-and-a-half years respectively to transition from Classic to Current. Longer, actually, unless the last EQ expansion turns out be The Last EQ Expansion.

That's something of a resounding vote of confidence for optimism. It's nice to think the people in charge are planning on those timescales. If the server came up this year, EQ would be a close to a quarter of a century old by the time the first option runs into the buffers.

We now enter a period of consultation in which you can make your feelings known. Anywhere. The Forums, Twitter, Reddit... You could make a sandwich board and walk up and down outside the Daybreak offices I guess. They'll be watching and taking notes.

Eventually - and there's no date - we'll be offered another poll with the final, finalized options. I voted three times in the last poll. and my preferred option still didn't win. Now that it's getting real I might have to use all my seven votes.

Of course, if I play EQ regularly at all it's more likely I'll be playing in the relatively new content I'm just now beginning to explore. My Magician dinged 89 a couple of days ago and 90 is now a very real possibility. That allows me to move with reasonable safety around the outdoor zones of the fifteenth expansion Seeds of Destruction and make some tentative moves into the 16th and 17th, Underfoot and House of Thule.

If the next gen prog server ever becomes more than a discussion paper, though, I'll be there with the rest of the level 1 hordes, fighting ten to a bat in Misty Thicket - whichever ruleset they choose.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Blogging About Blogging

I try to avoid blogging about blogging, although I'm not sure why, since I generally enjoy reading other people's posts about the mechanics of keeping a blog up and running. Anyway, I was doing a bit of much-needed maintenance and background stuff this morning and several things came together that I thought might be worth either sharing or recording.

  • Half a million page views. 

Later today or possibly tomorrow Inventory Full will rack up it's 500,000th page read according to Blogger's in-house statistics. These vary wildly from the stats on Google Analytics, which, since they both come out of Google, is disconcerting. Google Analytics has lifetime views at 378k but it's the internal Blogger stats that I pay attention to day by day so this is quite a landmark.

Visitors consistently come in at a roughly even split between new and returning readers, the average number of pages read per session is heading towards three, a visit tends to last almost a minute and a half and my bounce rate (those people who leave from the page they arrived on without "interacting" with it at all) is under 1%. I think all that means more real readers than bots, although I certainly get my share of those. I hope it does, anyway.

Month by month the figures vary but over the lifetime of the blog the line on the graph is still on a vaguely upward trajectory. The highest month ever for page views was August 2013, which entirely un-coincidentally coincides with the period where I was posting mainly about FFXIV:ARR as it launched.

The most-viewed post ever came a week after that red-letter month. I titled that post quite cynically and it had exactly the result I expected. If you want page views, put "Review" or "Guide" in the post title and write something, anything really, about whatever game has the zeitgeist at the time.

Looking back, 2013 seems to have been something of a golden year. All five of the top five posts by page views came in that 12 month period. That said, the second-highest month was August 2014 so maybe people just run out of things to do in the dog days of summer and find themselves reduced to reading blogs.

February 2015 was the third-highest month and March should run it close, though, so here's hoping for August 2015 - could be a record-breaker, especially if ANet co-operate and release Heart of Thorns around the anniversary of the launch of GW2. I feel a review coming on...

  • Backing Up Your Blog

It goes without saying that you should do this if you want to be able to re-read your words of wisdom through the long, dark nights of your elder years. Even if you run with Blogger and believe Google will be around forever the example of Google Reader set a huge red warning flag.

You can and should use Google's own Takeout service regularly as well as using Blogger's Export function to keep an atom format file that can be migrated to another blogging platform should Google decide to get out of the blogging business. Also, naturally, use the  Template backup every time you change something.

All that's pretty boring though. Much, much more interesting is the option to turn your entire blog into a book. You can do that, literally, but it's rather expensive if you post as much as I do. Unfeasibly so in fact. 

For the extremely affordable cost of "free", however, the same company will make your entire blog into a PDF file, comments, links and pictures included. I just did it. It only took just a few minutes and I was so pleased with the result that I kicked in a donation of 10 Euros, for which generosity I was rewarded with the option to re-compile it using high-resolution illustrations.

The revised version is compiling as I type. I noticed there's an option to interface with Amazon's self-publishing operation. It's tempting to explore that further but the potential copyright issues over all those in-game screenshots gives me the shivers just thinking about it so maybe not...

  • Comments Awaiting Moderation
I have never had any problem with open commenting here, touch wood, fingers crossed, spit three times. Blogger's spam filter is superb at catching bot comments and everyone who is kind enough to leave a comment acts like a responsible adult even through the veil of anonymity allowed.

One thing I did a long time back was set a time limit on how long comment threads remain open. I set it at seven days and that worked fine but it does seem a little short so I've upped it to three weeks. Any comment made after that goes into Moderation.

 Which would be fine if I remembered to look every few days and see if anything was caught in that net. But I don't.

This morning, because I was rootling around down the back of Blogger, I happened to notice half a dozen lost comments "awaiting moderation". All but one were genuine and should have been authorized immediately.

Apologies to everyone concerned. If you posted a comment in the last few weeks and it never appeared, well it might be there now. If it isn't then the internet ate it because I've nothing left to moderate. Or possibly it got caught in the spam filter. If so, it's gone. I just deleted 300+ comments and there were no genuine ones in the first hundred, after which I lost the will to carry on looking.

I'll do my best to keep on top of late comments in the future but I'm not promising anything.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Widening Gyre: GW2, FFXIV, Everquest

When the weather improves and it's pleasant enough to leave the house for more than just the essentials chances are we'll all still be shut up indoors. FFXIV, very evidently the MMO of choice for an increasing number of MMO bloggers, including but not limited to Isey, Aywren, J3w3l, Syl, GamingSF and even SynCaine, releases its first expansion, Heavensward, in June. The release date for GW2's Heart of Thorns hasn't been announced but the smart money is on a summer release for that one too.

As we saw from the huge spike in WoW subscriptions late last year, a meaty expansion that you can buy, at the store, in a box, really does get the attention of both current and lapsed players, much more so than any drip-feed of regular, free updates. On the other hand, in the weeks and months between announcement and release, just knowing there's an expansion pending can have quite the opposite effect.

For players who feel they've let themselves fall behind the curve or for latecomers who only recently jumped the train, the pre-expansion period can be frenzied. No-one wants to be left behind, lonely and forgotten, trudging through old content no-one cares about any more. Or so the story goes.

I don't believe it myself but there are certainly plenty of people who buy into that myth. They're the ones you see, grinding away, trying to catch up with that ever-receding vanishing point, the End Game. Ironically, it's only when an expansion is in the offing that that mystical, mythical finish line comes into view. In the preceding year, or two or three, it would be very hard to point at a character and say "Look - Done!" but suddenly everyone seems to know just what they need to have completed to be ready for the next phase of their imaginary existence.

Smart developers increasingly strive to minimize the finality of the expansion cycle. Instead of shuffling everyone onto a ferry sailing to the new Promised Land of Opportunity, Gear Upgrades and Ten More Levels, leaving the cheapskates who can't or won't stump up the fare behind to stare despondently at the forbidden horizon, they try to integrate at least part of the new world into the old.

If wishes were horses Asuras would ride. Not glide.

There's an ever-increasing focus on re-using existing assets. The ever-popular addition of a new class, race or job with no concomitant new starting area to level it up in is almost a given. That fills the low and mid-level zones for a few weeks after release. Then there's the clever trick of allowing characters to scale back down to the level of the zones they would in former days simply have outgrown and of course there's the seeding of content needed by characters working towards the new level cap throughout older areas of the game. The mainstreaming of large-scale public events that include and reward all levels appropriately is perhaps the most elegant solution of them all.

Nevertheless, no matter how hard designers try to ensure that all assets stay in use, in a mature or maturing MMO the focus of activity is always on whatever arrived most recently. Short of producing an expansion with no new playable areas at all, as EQ2 did with Age of Discovery), it's all but impossible to keep the bubble from floating to the top.

Expansions with no new territory just don't sit well with customers though. AoD was probably EQ2's least-popular expansion ever. It was finally broken up for parts and sold separately in the Station Cash store, as many players suggested it always should have been.  

Cataclysm, the expansion in which Blizzard chose to remake, remodel and re-purpose a large number of older overland zones rather than add any new ones, while critically well-received and financially successful (it sold 4.7m copies in the first month of release), ended up taking much of the blame for the subsequent subscription slump that saw WoW reduced to a mere 9 million subscribers eighteen months later.

When it comes to reusing old art assets I prefer the way EQ does it. Copy and paste into a new zone and chunk the levels up to the current cap.

With 2015 shaping up to be a year with few major MMO releases to look forward to, expansions for games that the Western gaming media recognize and relate to are bound to receive more attention than usual. No-one wants to release anything that divides or disappoints the playerbase, naturally, but squaring that noble intention with satisfying the players' justifiable demand for substantial new areas to explore and content to consume, while at the same time keeping all the old plates up and spinning, well that's no easier a task than it sounds.

Having all the world constantly in play does sound wonderful. Back playing Everquest as I am, an ancient game some 21 expansions rich, I can attest that the reality of "more than 500 zones to explore" needs to be glossed: "with almost no risk of meeting anyone else". The continuing health of the game is evidenced by the "too many results" response to a /who in Plane of knowledge or the Guild Lobby and the constant churn of chatter in General but out in the wilds of Old Commonlands or Field of Scale, zones now half a dozen expansions adrift, it's just me, my merc and my air elemental.

The flip side of that coin, though, surely has to be smaller worlds. GW2 and FFXIV are only now taking their first steps on the wider journey. They've rolled along for a couple of years with not much more than the land they started with and if they both stick to a bi- or tri-annual expansion schedule they may be able to stave off the bloat and the stretch for a good long while.

At its peak, Everquest was releasing an expansion every six months, most with at least a dozen new zones and often twice that. I don't believe we yet know how many maps HoT will bring but from everything that's been said it won't be many. The buzzword is verticality. Don't spread out, spread up. We'll see how that works out but dense, convoluted three-dimensional spaces wouldn't be my personal choice. In most MMOs my favorite zones are flat, open plains.

Verticality's not so bad if you can cancel it with a quick cast of Levitation.

I haven't been following the announcements on the FFXIV expansion as closely but it seems from the wiki that it will add a modest seven new playable areas. They do look a lot more interesting and varied than the dense jungles of Maguuma but it's certainly a case of quality over quantity.

There's probably no right way to do this. Over timescales that look increasingly as though they may need to be measured in decades the goals of constant expansion and zero redundancy may be irreconcilable. Given my druthers I'd take a new continent every six to twelve months over a new province every two to three years but, like most life experiences, that's probably something I'll never get to relive and I can see good reasons why.

Meanwhile, we wait, and those of us not bitten by the completionist bug find other things to do. I sat down this morning intending to run through the list of MMOs I'm currently playing or planning to play, only to realize that the reason this much-wished-for diversification has finally come to pass is in no small part due to the window of opportunity this pre-expansion hiatus has opened. When HoT arrives I'm sure that, like everyone else who isn't staring fixatedly Heavensward, all these other wonderful MMOs will take a back seat as I winge, whine and complain but above all play the heck out of whatever it is that Anet see fit to give us.

All the more reason, then, to make the most of the time in hand. Here's hoping for a cold, wet spring.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Your Favorite MMOs - Now In Tablet Form! : WoW, Allods, FFXI

One of the oddest items of MMO news this week was the revelation that FFXI is being prepped for mobile. In a way perhaps it shouldn't have come as such a surprise. Of all the established gaming houses Square Enix have probably been the fastest and most assiduous to adapt to the new opportunities mobile platforms afford.

The Final Fantasy series is already available on Android and iOS up to FFV. Square's Dive In streaming service, currently only planned for release in Japan and, as far as I can tell, not yet available even there, is set to extend that through the iconic FFVII and beyond, possibly all the way to current blogosphere darling FFXIV.

Of course you can already play any MMO on a tablet or even a smartphone using the excellent Splashtop app. I bought that one several years ago and can affirm that it works brilliantly. Unfortunately I've almost never used it because if you want to play GW2 on your tablet in your lunch hour at work it requires you leave your desktop PC switched on back at home. I swore off that practice when I got out of the Everquest Bazaar business back in 2006 or so.

Full-fat MMOs that run natively on mobile devices have always been very hard to find. Even now, years into the runaway success of mobile as a platform for gaming and with the mainstreaming of affordable, powerful tablets with screens large enough to display the full, rich detail of virtual worlds to much better effect than we ever enjoyed back in the so-called Golden Age of 14" CRTs, lists of possibles rarely offer anything much more enticing than WoW-clone Order and Chaos or the cheerful cartoons from the Spacetime Games team.

I first wrote about playing MMOs on my iPod Touch almost three years ago. Since then I've kept an eye out for new opportunities. So far I haven't heard many knocks. Lists of current media favorites tend to include a whole raft of entertainments like Ingress, Boom Beach and Clash of Clans that seem to me to be part of a different genre entirely, along with the same handful of titles that filled the same lists last year and the year before that.

So, even though we're talking about a game that's now more than a dozen years old, to hear that Square believe they can bring FFXI to mobile devices is good news indeed. I only dabbled briefly with FFXI. I eventually decided that the famously PC-unfriendly UI and controls were more trouble than they were worth. Also, although even five years ago when I played a lot of work had supposedly been done to make the game more solo-friendly, by around level 20 it was already becoming apparent that work went only so far.

Nevertheless, it was a beautiful world with appealing characters and an interesting story. Optimized for touch screen and gussied up for the casual mobile market I would be very happy to give FFXI another run. It could be a while before that's an option, though, so what could I play when I'm out of the house in the meanwhile?

Well, how about WoW? Or Allods? If the MMOs won't come to the tablet maybe the tablet will just have to come to the games. A month ago I bought a cheap 10" tablet that runs the full version of Windows 8.1. I also got a bluetooth keyboard and mouse. The whole lot cost well under £200 for which what I have is effectively a touchscreen tablet that can double as a netbook.

I've been delighted with its performance as a general-purpose mini-PC and this morning I finally got around to setting it up to play MMOs. Thanks largely to the gorgeous Allods screenshots Kaozz posted, as of yesterday I'm playing Allods again, of which more another day. It's a relatively quick, fast download so I set the tablet to doing that while I also re-downloaded WoW for the desktop yet again (I just bought and installed a third hard drive so space is no longer an issue...for the moment).

I now have Allods installed on the tablet's SD card and WoW copied to a usb drive. I played both of them on the tablet for around half an hour each and the experience was, if not ideal, then certainly very enjoyable. They both look absolutely fantastic - every bit as good as they do on desktop. The colors are rich and the detail is delicious. Quest text is easily large enough to read comfortably. (The screenshots here are from the desktop versions, by the way; I did take some shots on the tablet but I'm too lazy to port them over right now).

Of the two, WoW runs more smoothly but Allods is easier to play, largely because it has that "click to go to quest objective" option so beloved of F2P titles. That really comes into its own on a tablet. On the other hand, to my complete amazement, the WoW UI turns out to be fully touch-enabled. I can cast spells or open bags just by touching the hotbar, something I found out purely by accident.

Clearly there's no way I would play either game on the tablet in preference to the desktop, any more than I would play them on my laptop, which can run both flawlessly; not when I'm at home and could be sitting at my desk instead, anyway. Given that I carry my tablet with me everywhere, though, it does open up a whole new set of possibilities that weren't there before. As windows-based tablets are improving in quality and affordability all the time the future for MMOs on the go is looking a lot brighter.

If nothing else I am looking forward to experimenting, seeing what will and won't run, what feels like fun on the go and what's just too much like hard work. I'm guessing that browser-based MMOs, like Runescape or City of Steam or Eldevin, would work even better than client-based games but who knows? Well I will if I get on and test it out.

As for the bigger beasts, I suspect the poor little tablet would melt if I tried to play ESO or FFXIV. It was getting rather warm just running Allods. I will definitely attempt to get it playing GW2 though. If they'll co-operate I can easily see me popping on for half an hour at work to get a few dailies done. That would be really handy.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Welcome Back My Friends To The Show That Never Ends... Everquest, EQ2

Somehow, what with the flurry of publicity surrounding Everquest's sixteenth anniversary and the nostalgic jolt I got from playing through Tipa's homage to a lost era, I find myself unexpectedly back in Norrath once again. Or, I should say, Norraths. Plural.

Everquest the Elder is running a whole raft of celebrations, including new anniversary quests and the opportunity to re-run all of the previous ones. Everquest quests have a tendency to be long and fiddly so I'm thinking I'll pass on that offer. The sixteen days of 160% bonus xp, however, is too tempting to ignore.

Yesterday I put two levels on my human Druid (birthdate January 24 2000) taking her to 62. My human Warrior, the first real character I ever made after the hapless half-elf fell to his death and deletion in the first session, added a level and a half killing wisps and borer beetles in North Karana. It brought her, very appropriately, to level 16. Sixteen levels in sixteen years. That's what I call a smooth level curve.

The real focus, though, is on the Magician who took SOE's Heroic shilling almost exactly a year ago. She's slowly (so slowly) climbing the endless, ever-extending level ladder, the top of which currently rests on 105. She's standing on rung 88 right now and if she'll just buckle down and do Franklin Teek's tasks each day for the rest of March with her double xp Lesson of the Devoted veteran reward running she might just make 90 before the anniversary celebration ends.

That, however, almost certainly requires more patience and discipline than I can muster. I'll be happy enough if she can get 89.

Much more manageable is the new Chronoportal quest over in EQ2. The Chronoportals were added in 2011, in somewhat of an unseemly rush, to celebrate Everquest's 12th Anniversary. Why the 12th and not the 10th, who knows? Maybe someone at SOE prefers Imperial to Metric. Anyway, they came and they stayed and jolly good fun they are.

Back when they appeared Chronoportals were very much a group affair. As Ark warned at the time and as the really excellent Zam walkthrough still warns today, these were not meant to be soloed. I remember running them in a Guild group that first year and in PUGs the year after. It seems so much longer ago than just three or four years.

Well, if you're a level 99 Berserker (hmm...really must get that last 25%) fully kitted out with Fabled quest gear from the latest expansion you can forget those dire warnings. It took just ninety minutes or so to run through all eight solo and most of that was traveling time.

If you aren't quite so crazily overpowered you can still complete the new quest if you're very, very careful. Hunt the Past, requires that you visit all eight Chronoportal instances but you don't actually need to complete any of them to close out the quest and get the reward. It's a scavenger hunt in which all the mobs you need to kill are either close to the entrance just inside the instances or tucked away in a quiet corner and, unlike everything else roaming around, they are all intended to be soloable. There are no longer any level requirements to enter the instances and the quest mobs scale to level so in theory anyone can do it.

After a short search through the Commonlands, interrupted by the sighting of a hitherto unknown (to me) named armadillo called Thrumplate that necessitated a change of character to get someone low enough to get drops from a level 10 mob to come and kill him, I found the questgiver, the unpronounceably-named Tazstra K'Rzheett, on the clifftop above the Commonlands dock.

From there it was a straightforward and highly-enjoyable jaunt around Norrath via bell, spire and stone circle, meeting and killing familiar faces from the past. It turns out that last year's addition to the event was a Collect, which I was able to complete as I went.

The reward for the new quest is a choice of two house pets, one of which is the very amusing Guk Basilisk, a goofy model I've always liked. He'll make a fine addition to the menagerie.

The Chronoportal event itself runs for another week. It's a lot of fun and if I can find the time I may well run someone else through it. Whether there's anyone on the roster who can breeze it like the Berserker, though, is another matter entirely.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Everybody Kill The Dinosaur: GW2

I've been holding back on commenting on the presentation on the new borderland maps for WvW that ArenaNet gave at last weekend's EGXRezzed convention. Mostly because I haven't bothered to watch it. No-one else much seems to be have been talking about it until today either.

Dulfy, of course, had a full and detailed precis up almost before the ANet devs had toweled down and Ravious was quick off the mark with his reactions. Other than that we had to wait for The Mystical Mesmer to frame the entire thing in detail and tease out the implications.

This morning I flicked through some of the video of the presentation. It would be charitable to suppose the two presenters were still suffering from jet lag or the after-effects of a great con party the night before. Possibly both. On the evidence of the few minutes I watched neither of them seemed interested in what they were showing, much less excited by any of it.

I did catch the moment that The Mystical Mesmer highlights, when one of the presenters describes the way defenders are compelled to stand in a line along the top of the gate of a Keep, something that she apparently believes is common practice in WvW, but which I have rarely if ever seen in all the countless hours I've spent there.

It really is one of those "do you even play the game?" moments and exactly the kind of evidence WvW players love to point to when claiming that ANet have no clue what WvW players want. Almost all of the problems the developers seem determined to "fix" aren't even on the radar of WvW regulars, while the many longstanding, serious, well-documented issues that do concern them go completely unattended.

ANet just doesn't understand Career Soldiers like us.

When considering upcoming changes to MMORPGs you always have to begin with the proviso that things may play very differently in game than they look as though they will from the developers' descriptions and the PR releases. Usually that means you need to dial down your excitement and remember that what you get is usually a lot less impressive than what you were promised.

In this case the proviso stands but for the opposite reason: maybe, just maybe, it won't be completely awful. On the evidence so far, though, things don't look good.

The litany of inappropriate concepts included in the thirty-minute presentation is breathtaking. In essence it's a long string of gimmicks dragged wholesale from other parts of GW2. Moreover, they are largely those gimmicks that were themselves dragged wholesale from other video games and shoehorned uncomfortably and unconvincingly into the MMORPG framework, where they have rankled and irritated genre purists ever since.

And again, and again...

The obsession with turning every aspect of Tyria into one giant jumping puzzle continues unabated. After Heart of Thorns releases we might as well tag GW2 with a new acronym - MMOPG - Massively Multiple Online Platform Game. The "Desert Borderlands" are set to have our battle-hardened veterans of the Mists leaping and hopping into battle like so many leaden-footed ballerinas. It doesn't match any conception I ever had of the grim reality of war, that's for sure.

Then there are the Boss Fights. It seems that in New Tyria, as in all good platform games, everything drives towards the End of Level Boss. WvW, being an environment in which players pitted their skills in both fighting, strategy and social organization against those of other players, hasn't previously needed "Bosses".  The nearest we have are "Drivers", the recognizable and often reviled Commanders who lead their mindless zerg armies against our own noble, always outnumbered but always better-skilled, forces.

Well that's just not good enough, is it? Everyone going for The Charr Legend With The Blue Hair doesn't cut it. That's not a proper Boss.

The solution? Upgrade the NPC Lords to full Boss status so they can Seriously Contribute to Keep Defense. Never mind that all they're really there to do is mark ownership. Never mind that no-one cares about them in the slightest and never has done. Let's make fighting a bunch of NPCs the real focus of this PvP environment and turn the rest of the players, attacking or defending, into faceless grunts.

Could this mean the end of the Golem Rush as we know it?

Not that any of that is by any means the worst of it. How could it be, when there are dinosaurs that need to be burped?. As if there wasn't shark-jumping potential enough merely in the appearance of these previously unsuspected Creatures That Time Forgot, we're asked to accept that they eat "Power Cores", and at such a phenomenal rate that every three hours we must drop everything and punch them until they cough up.

Then we run to The Men From The Priory who take the bile-dripping cores and install them in some revamped, upgraded version of the old Quaggan Weather Machine that lasers down Keep doors from the skies, undoing all the work actual players have put in to restore order since the last time that happened. Talk about a Sisyphean task. And a thankless one.

There's a lot more and all of it is just as dismal. The new environments look fantastic, of course. There is that to say for them. ANet's Art Department remains, as always, the shining beacon of hope in what is otherwise mostly a sinking sea of despair.

And if nothing else at least it'll be something new. There will be a period, quite possibly a lengthy one, where no-one quite knows how anything works. When new tactics and strategies come into fashion overnight and are countered then abandoned just as fast. When players are overwhelmed with new concepts and new content and the established order may crumble.

I'm quite looking forward to it.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Sixteen Candles: Everquest, Neverwinter

Everquest is sixteen years old today. I wish I could say I'd been there from the very beginning but I didn't step out into Norrath until six months later, just after Bloody Kithicor and the opening of the Plane of Hate.

Of course I knew nothing of that. It would be years before any of my characters took a portal to the Planes. For a long while my experience of life on Norrath was very down to earth - literally so in many cases.

There was the first, forgotten half-elf who, just minutes after being born, fell to his death from Kelethin, that health and safety inspector's nightmare the wood elves call a city. Then there was his successor, a dwarven cleric some halfwit with the 1999 equivalent of a blog suggested as an ideal solo class. He fell in the river in Nektulos Forest and was eaten by piranhas before he could even drown. His attempts to recover the meager possessions from his sodden corpse, all dismal failures, introduced me to the concept of the Unrecoverable Corpse and gave me an unforgettable lesson in the Law of Diminishing Returns.

This looks uncannily familiar...

That was about the last we saw of him, at least as an adventurer. He hung around in the background, eventually becoming one of Mrs Bhagpuss's Bazaar traders, following one of the many account swaps that have left our Norrathian dynasties in a state that could only, charitably, be described as confused. Why he was rootling around on the wrong continent near the home of the Dark Elves in the first place I scarcely remember. I think he may have been trying to farm Wisps for Greater Lightstones. He was probably running from a bad pull when he fell in.

Or maybe he just went exploring in Butcherblock mountains, got on the boat, ended up in Freeport and then got lost. Things like that used to happen a lot back then.

He was replaced by another half-elf ranger, who wisely started in Surefall Glade instead of Kelethin, then promptly discarded all that wisdom by falling to another unrecoverable death down the hollow tree-stump in Blackburrow. After that one I rage-quit for almost three whole days.

Falling down things was something of a trope in old EQ. The only player from those far away days we're still in contact with made it something like his signature move, along with /hug and the handing out of muffins. I'm not sure but I think the first time I ever had to go rescue someone from the Well in Befallen, that was him.

It was touch and go which was the more celebrated death-trap: Blackburrow's hollow tree or Befallen's Well. Death at the bottom of the well was certainly faster and more certain. The undead that waited there were plentiful, aggressive, disturbingly powerful and hard to avoid. A fall in Blackburrow, on the other hand, usually left you alive and uneaten with time to contemplate your dire situation.

A caster with the Gate spell, of course, could port out in a hurry with nothing worse than a few bruises and an embarrassing anecdote. A melee character, sans the magic get out of jail free card, would be faced with a very long walk of shame back up to the surface past a few dozen angry gnolls. It was a walk few survived and even fewer survived the train that followed those that did.

In either case a sensible low-level might huddle in a corner out of agro range and hope for rescue. In Befallen that was not an unreasonable hope. Befallen had Nameds, rather a lot of them, and several had drops that were in demand. If you kept your head and didn't agro anything it might not be too long before a Bigger Boy arrived to clear the way. Failing that you could start on a /who trawl for druids or wizards, who might, out of the goodness of their hearts (or, more likely, for a substantial tip) drop down the well, open a portal and whisk you away to safety.

The lower levels of Blackburrow had nothing anyone important was likely to want. The chance of anyone passing by were minimal. A fall down the Well had something of the romantic about it; the headstrong, young explorer testing the limits of his nerve and daring in a tomb of ancient evil. Falling down the hollow tree just inside the entrance of a den of gnolls was generally considered comedy gold by everyone except the hapless victim. In Befallen there was always a fair chance of a rescue, paid or otherwise. In Blackburrow you were generally on your own.

College isn't forever, kid.
These days no-one needs to languish in the depths of either. The teeth of those traps were drawn long ago. From the ease of acquisition, even at the lowest levels, of items that cast Gate, to the "Home" button at Character Select, anyone at any level can rescue themselves. Even if the worst were to happen the days of lost corpses are long gone. Nowadays you respawn with all your possessions and for a small donation a handy NPC in the Guild Lobby will summon your corpse for your Mercenary to rez for the lost xp.

No, to experience the real Befallen today you have to go outside of Norrath altogether.

A number of bloggers I follow remember Everquest vividly and with great affection. Some of those bloggers still play EQ and have high level characters. Others can be tempted back by nostalgia for limited runs. Mostly, though, they stand on the sidelines and kibitz, complaining that things aren't like they were in their day.

Of them all, the only one that I know of, who has actually taken the trouble to create her own version, is Tipa of West Karana. She has lovingly re-created Befallen using the player-made dungeon facility in Neverwinter, The Foundry. Syp plugged it at Massively OP and now it's a Featured Foundry, eligible for the Daily. Last night I patched up Neverwinter and ran Tipa's The Crypt of Befallen v2.

I like Neverwinter although I don't often make time to go there. The setting and the content are attractive and appealing but what keeps me from playing more are the ActionRPG controls and combat, which, like all such systems, make the whole thing feel far more awkward and artificial than I'd prefer. Still, I have a level 13 Devoted Cleric who's had a few adventures and who I have a vague idea how to play. Very vague. I woke her up and after the usual kerfuffle trying to find the Noticeboard off to Befallen she went.

Tipa's introductory blurb suggests the mission can be knocked off in twenty minutes and most of the combat can be avoided. The average play-time posted on the board from almost 800 play-throughs is 37 minutes. It took me about an hour and a half and I died something like six or seven times. I lost count.

It was great! At the end, when you get the chance to review and rate the Foundry you've just completed, I gave it five stars. For an old-time EQ player the nostalgia factor is through the roof. The physical reconstruction of Befallen is exemplary. Everything is in the right place and everything looks just right. From the checkerboard tiled floors to the piles of rubble it feels like you could lift the map from one game and place it down on the other with flawless precision. About the only difference is in the decor, which is lusher and more detailed than the older game was able to allow.

That painting's new.

The original lore is neatly referenced and highlighted: from the succession of powerful megalomaniacs who sought to control Befallen's hidden evil for their own ends, to the grim story of Opalla and her much sought after and fought over Paw, it's all there. In addition there's a strong, original plot that comes to a satisfying conclusion (well, it would have been satisfying if I'd made better choices right at the end).

Best of all there's the detailed and lovingly-crafted metastructure, under which Tipa resurrects the very essence of what it felt like to play Everquest back in its glory days. I've seen the humorous asides and references to camping spawns and kill-stealing done elsewhere (there were some examples in EQ2's dungeon-maker for a start - quite possibly also by Tipa) but I have never seen anything quite like the group of adventurers I met, who invited me to join them and for whom I ended up pulling, in what has to be the most convincing evocation of that lost art I've had the delight of experiencing for many years.

That's me in the middle, standing there, doing nothing. Puller's prerogative.

In the end I never did jump down the Well. Even though I found the potion of Invisibility to Undead I decided to heed the warnings and play it safe. I wonder, though. If I had thrown caution to the wind, would there have been any High Levels passing by to rez me and clear a path back to the top? I may just have to go back and find out.

When I finally re-emerged I found I'd made almost two levels. Unbeknownst to me there was a double-xp weekend running and I reaped the benefit. My cleric hit 15 which means I'm now eligible to make Foundries of my own; having seen the standard Tipa sets I don't think I'm about to start on that any time soon.

Happy sixteenth birthday Everquest and thanks, Tipa, for adding yet another layer to the palimpsest. The lore and the legend live on.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

No Particular Place To Go

These last couple of days have seen me getting back to something a little closer to the playstyle I always tell myself I prefer yet somehow, repeatedly and consistently, fail to follow. Yesterday, things didn't get off to the greatest of starts; I woke up with the firm intention of visiting Norrath, only to find that there was a four-hour patch starting in an hour's time.

Shelving that plan for the moment I considered dropping into TESO. No dice; my free month just expired and there's a week before Tamriel Unlimited throws open the gates to the penniless hordes. I'd have enjoyed a few rounds of Triple Triad over in FFXIV but the Welcome Back mat isn't down in front of that door any more.

Never mind, there are plenty more fish in the MMO sea and quite a few of them are flopping around on my desktop. I wonder how Project: Gorgon's coming along?

Rather well it seems. Several sets of patch notes since I last logged in about a month ago. Server up and stable. Plenty of chatter. People running around doing this and that. Feels like an MMORPG that's going places.

After I picked up some used underwear that someone left lying on the ground and found myself accidentally wearing it (looked like orange harem pants - I was in too much of a hurry to get them off to take a screenshot) I decided to go hunting before I could embarrass myself any further. Old-school, walk across the greensward and kill anything that can't get out of the way fast enough, hunting.

A pig got the better of me. So much for avoiding embarrassment. After that I took a bit more care and wandered around dispatching Brain Bugs and Venom Spiders until I ran across some skeletons, the first of which dropped a good upgrade. And so did the second. Skeleton slaughter ensued.

Thus it was that I ended up in my first ever P:G dungeon. It was busy. Must have been three or four other players farming the halls. Loot was good. Next thing I knew an hour had passed. There's no doubt about it: for the kind of people who like this sort of thing, Project: Gorgon is the kind of thing they are going to like.

All of which made me nostalgic for more. Everquest was still down but Vanguard wasn't. It's still there if you know where to look so I popped over to New Telon, where progress is also ongoing. No combat skills yet but as a Disciple I was able to punch a spider. It didn't seem to notice.

After strolling through the green fields of Kojan in the never-ending rain for a while a random thought came to me, the way thoughts will when you walk alone in the rain. Don't I have a whole load of anniversary presents to open in Guild Wars? And might they not contain minis that would bulk up my Hall of Monuments tally? I could get a kitten!

Well, a fat ginger tabby. That was my original HoM goal three years ago, back when we were all overexcited about those Heritage Rewards we could nail down by doing stuff in the elder game. Heritage Rewards we promptly all forgot about the moment GW2 finally launched.

It's a very long time since I've been to the Hall of Monuments in either game but it's still there, austere and pristine in Guild Wars, flooded and and ruined in GW2. I opened all the presents (once I'd worked out the new hand-in step for the tokens ) and among my many new minis I was lucky enough to find a green quality Bone Dragon (one HOM point).

I already had a gold quality King Adelbern (one HoM point) that I hadn't dedicated. Those two, plus a whole load of commons, took my tally of points all the way to ten, which netted me not only the cat but a fiery sword and a new title, Guild Warrior, that I will never use. The full heritage armor set does look rather spiffy though.

Since I was there I knocked off a set of dailies. Then I had lunch. By the time I got back Daybreak Games were back in business.

I'd been reading the astonishing news on EQ2Wire that after a full decade of treating Provisioners like second-class trades-persons rather than first-class crafters, out of the blue and with no warning or fanfare, someone had decided to add an entire set of Advanced Provisioning books to the game. Not only that but they also added rare harvests to the bushes!

Time was when Provisioners would have been dancing in the streets of Qeynos but over the years the addition of a fair number of special food and drink recipes obtainable via quests, Otters and other sidelines have rendered the situation more tolerable than once it was. Still, it's one hell of a surprise.

My first ever EQ2 character was a Provisioner. It was the only self-contained tradeskill in the original game, which was, of course, why I picked it. He's still there, in his neat and tidy, attractively decorated Qeynos inn room; a Templar in his thirties still but with Provisioning double that level. I was going to get him out and take a look but my pointer dithered and ended up on over the EQ icon instead.

Which is how my level 19 Iksar Shadowknight, born in May 2000, ended up taking the book to Arena, swimming through Lake Rathetear to the gnoll camp, getting out of his depth, literally and then metaphorically, before hightailing it to the South Karana zone line. Some things never change.

He and I and his skeletal pet passed a happy half an hour at the Birdhouse, starting on Darters before dinging 20 and graduating to Rooks. Those birds still have the deep pockets. He had around 57 platinum pieces to his name when he got there and by the time he'd loped the length of the map and sold to Ulan Meadowgreen at the centaur village he had seventy-five.

I settled him down there. He'll get another run. Sometime. It's taken fifteen years to do twenty levels on him but he's still on the active list. He's by no means the oldest one on it, either.

After that it was back to GW2 for the rest of the dailies and some WvW and that was the wrap on a very enjoyable day's pottering. This morning when I woke up I went straight to EQ2 and bought those Provisioner books. Then I did a couple of writs and added a craft level just for the hell of it before I logged over to GW2 and did Teq with Mrs Bhagpuss and a hundred random strangers.

Looking ahead, the TTK patch for The Secret World is due very soon along with Tamriel: Unlimited. I'll be making time to check out both of those. Then I'd really like to revisit Allods and the buzz around Star Trek Online is making me wonder why I never went further with that one. Might be a good time to take another look. Further down the To Do list there's City of Steam with the main storyline still not finished and I really must fire up Neverwinter and give Tipa's take on Befallen the once-over...

There really aren't enough hours in the day once you lift your head and take a look around at what's out there.

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