Tuesday, April 28, 2015

President Smed And The Things He Said : Daybreak Games

Here's an interesting little read:  it's an interview with Daybreak President John "Smed" Smedley and Laura Naviaux, his vice-president of marketing.

The interview is full of revelations. How about that new logo? Wilhelm was almost right. It's not an Owlbear's eye but it is the eye of some kind of owl.

Why? Well, apparently we gamers, we're all night-owls, who stay up hammering the keys until dawn's light seeps in through the tightly-closed shutters. That's why they called the company Daybreak. I'm not making this up. Here's Laura Naviaux:

"The Daybreak logo was designed to reflect that brand, with a nocturnal aspect, (the owl's eye), a technological aspect (the gear within the eye), and a more literal aspect (the "Daybreak" of a rising sun within the gear)". 

That's just an amuse-bouche before the main course. Here comes Smed:

"I firmly believe the days of the WoW-style MMO are over. How many people do you still know that are still raiding in WoW every night, or EverQuest and EverQuest II?"

Way to go to piss off your core audience there...except of course that was SOE's core audience not Daybreak's, wasn't it? Daybreak's core audience are the million-plus people who stumped up $20 for H1Z1. Apparently they're a bunch with very short attention spans:

"...the average life expectancy in H1Z1 might be 45 minutes, and that's what today's gamers want."

Smed's still very much a believer in F2P, which he expects to take off big-time on consoles soon:

 "I think it's in its infancy and you're going to see the doors blow off it...as a consumer, a gamer, when you go to open your new PS4 or Xbox One, the first thing you're going to look for is what free content is there".

I'd be looking for where to plug it in but that's just me...

Naviaux steps in just to make it clear they're not losing sight of the main target:

"We need to run a profitable, sustainable business". 

I think we can all get behind that sentiment. This took me by surprise though: 

"Going forward, it may be that there's an entrance fee to our games, but there will always be a microtransaction element as the industry moves more toward that".

When I first read that I thought for a moment they were proposing a return to the Subscription model but on reflection I think it just means things like selling alpha access and going Buy-to-Play at launch. Even so, it's a retrenchment, isn't it?

And speaking of launches, those seem to be a moveable feast nowadays. Didn't Planetside2 launch a long time ago? I could have sworn I remembered hearing something about it. Don't say it's still in some kind of beta? I only ask because:

"I can tell you [what it will take to get big budget AAA free-to-play games to take off on consoles] as soon as we launch Planetside 2 because that game cost nearly $30 million to make." 

That's not all the fun stuff. There's more on the SOE/Daybreak layoffs, the focus on mobile gaming, how hard it is to get people to take you seriously when you don't have Big Sony standing behind you...

As I said, it's an interesting little read, full of the kind of detail Smed always gives when he's talking to the business press. I first read one of his industry journal interviews way back around the turn of the century, when he was estimating that Everquest should run three years, maybe five with good luck and a following wind. 

He's the man to go to for a prediction on the future of gaming alright.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hands Up! Who'd Kill For A Heart Of Thorns Beta Invite? : GW2

Well now's your chance!

As of tomorrow anything you kill in Dry Top or Silverwastes has a chance to drop a "rare portal" to the Maguma Jungle. Looting one will flag your account for the next closed beta event.

Full details here, although I notice there's no mention either of when the "next closed beta event" is scheduled to arrive, nor how long the event preceding it will last. Or, indeed, exactly what time tomorrow the whole thing begins.

Whenever it is, you can bet your last copper that everyone will be jammed into umpteen instances of those two maps as soon as the flag goes up, laying waste to the Wastes as though the Last Days were upon us.

It's a really clever, genuinely innovative idea. It fires up excitement about the beta and drives player activity in the game at one and the same time. It also acts as a self-selecting filter, ensuring that the next beta is filled with people who a) actually have a character capable of participating and b) also have sufficient interest in the game to play that character.

Added to that it makes participating in the beta feel like both a reward and, at least in some small way, lore-appropriate. No doubt there will be people who'll find the randomness uncomfortable but it happens to fit right in with my preferences, which tend to favor serendipity, fortune and chance. Plus there's nothing fairer than a lucky dip, right?

As it happens I'm not particularly interested in beta-ing HoT. I think my days of getting all fired up about early, temporary access to content I'm going to end up playing for weeks and months in a permanent version are pretty much over. On the other hand - blogging opportunity ahoy!

It's been months since I set foot in either of the maps in question, other than to do a couple of quick vistas for the dailies. I liked them both well enough when they were a novelty but that's very much what they were - novelties. I feel neither has much persistence outside the original Living Story unless it's to grind for the various armor sets and similar gew-gaws. Without this incentive I might never have hunted there again.

As it is, I imagine I'll do a couple of sessions. More, maybe, if this turns out to be a full two-week event as I suspect it might. If a Beta Portal drops, so be it. If not, can't say I'll be very disappointed.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Go On, Treat Yourself !

Here's a question. Which MMO was the first to introduce a Cash Shop? And when?

I only ask because I can't remember. They seem to have been with us always, like the Queen and athlete's foot. Perhaps Syp, The Game Archeologist, knows, or Wilhelm, who likes to keep track of this kind of thing.

It seems curious to think that what has become one of the most controversial aspects of the hobby should have arrived with so little impact, at least on my consciousness. By contrast I can remember with disturbing clarity the first time I opened the trade window on one of the vendors outside Darkness Falls, the new dungeon in Dark Age of Camelot about which we were all so excited, and saw for the first time a selection of items I could buy for tokens.

I detested the Token system at first sight and time has served to do little more than dull that outright hostility to a sullen acceptance of the inevitable. Token systems are practical, dull and the definitive antithesis of adventure.

Cash shops, to the contrary, are fun. Or, rather, they can be. It does depend, of course, on what they sell. A store stocked with things you wouldn't give houseroom to as a gift is at best an irrelevance. One person's trash is another's treasure as they say, so opinions on what makes for a well-stocked Cash Shop are going to differ but there's always been a very strong lobby arguing against allowing anything that anyone might find useful finding its way onto the virtual shelves. It's the old argument against selling power, sometimes known as "Pay-To-Win".

SynCaine, not perhaps the most obvious advocate of Cash Shops, sometimes observes that it's not Pay-to-Win per se that's the problem, it's whether or not the game is designed around selling power or advantage from the outset. This makes a lot of sense to me.

On a personal level, though, I don't even have those reservations. I would have little to no problem with most MMORPGs that I enjoy adding items to their Cash Shops that give direct gameplay advantages to players in non-competetive PvE, whether or not the game had been designed with that in mind all along. Over in EQ2, for example, I've recently purchased both crafting materials and a scroll to allow my Berserker to track like a ranger. Very handy and much appreciated but both items whose acceptability has, in the past, been hotly debated for reasons of "fairness".

My own line in the sand would probably come should a game add clear and inarguable credit-card preference to in-game activities that rely directly on competition between players, be that in PvE or PvP. Others, naturally, draw their own lines much farther from the tide - sometimes before they can even see the beach.

That must be hard. These last few years it's been a rare MMO that's chosen to launch with no Cash Shop of any kind even if the game started out with a subscription. The all-but-inevitable conversion to a more open payment model can be a painful transition for players for whom one of the significant attractions of the game in the first place was its supposed reluctance to dip its paws into players' pockets.

Such is the knee-jerk antagonism among the commenting classes for anything that smacks of selling power that even MMOs taking the Free-to-Play road from the off tend to fight shy of putting anything in the Cash Shop if it might draw negative headlines. Not that there's much evidence that it would hurt them financially if they did. If anything the evidence appears to run the other way.

H1Z1 took considerable flak for its paid-for airdrops earlier this year, pulling Smed away from his behind-the-scenes negotiations over the sale of the company and sending him into full damage-control mode back in his natural environment on Twitter. Didn't stop the "pay-to-win zombie survival game" becoming Steam's best-selling game, according to VentureBeat.

What's more, a couple of months after the supposed debacle and the PR storm that surrounded it, H1Z1 had apparently sold in excess of a million copies - that's a million people paying $20 each to play a poorly-reviewed alpha of a game that will, if it's ever finished, officially be "Free To Play". As for those airdrops, "no one buys the drops any more, I haven't seen a plane fly in and drop one for the longest time." reports Eurogamer's zombie expert.

As with most MMO controversies, Pay-to-Win, selling power and Cash Shops create a lot sound and an awful lot of fury but the substantive effect in-game is usually minimal, especially in the long term. The safe option, of course, is to sell only things to which no-one objects but that has its own dangers. If no-one objects to something you're selling there's a good chance it's because no-one cares and if no-one cares then no-one buys.

This supposed self-control, where game developers seek to fill their insubstantial shelves with equally ephemeral goods, while somehow managing to keep their customers excited and buying, leads to wilder and wackier attempts to draw everyone's attention. It's an ever-escalating cosmetic arms race that sees players mounted on flying unicorns, weilding weapons the size of telegraph poles and wearing armor that throws off particle effects like a poorly-designed experiment in the Large Hadron Collider.

There's a very good argument to be made that the focus on cosmetic product for direct sale has lead to more damage to the immersive integrity of MMORPGs than an honest sale of power could ever have achieved. Given some of the unmitigated visual atrocities available as rewards for completing in-game content, though, I feel that cause was lost already.

Whatever the rights and wrongs we are where we are. Cash Shops are here and they will not be going away. Suits me. I like them. Well, in theory, I like them. In practice I tend to treat them exactly as I do bricks-and-mortar stores or online retailers: I spend hours window-shopping but I only break out my wallet when I see a bargain.

I've been eying both the Sonic Tunneling Tool and the Magic Carpet in GW2's gem shop since they were added long ago. I've admired Mrs Bhagpuss as she drifts past on her carpet and been surprised by her sudden appearance in a cloud of dust beneath my feet often enough to know how much fun these toys can be.
Last week they went on sale. Only 25% off but it was enough. I bought them both. The Sonic digger is a bit of a non-event but the carpet is amazing. It's a mount in a game that famously refuses to consider any possibility of mounts. It looks like a mount, it behaves like a mount. It is a mount.

The irony is it's also the very same mount that, when it was introduced to EQ2 almost a decade ago, became the final straw that led me to abandon Live server Oasis for a full-time move to the sparsely-populated Test Server. I just had to get away from the damn things, which had become the must-have look-at-me item for bank and broker hoggers throughout Norrath.

It all looks very different when you're the one on the magic carpet, I'll tell you that! And that's the thing about Cash Shops: when they're selling something you want to buy they're a fantastic addition to the vibrant culture of the game. When they're not, well they're a threat to all we hold dear. Or just a waste of imaginary real estate.

Glad we got that sorted.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Rearranging The Furniture : GW2

If there's one thing ArenaNet really is good at it's running a sustained promotional campaign. The build-up to GW2 went on for a long, long time and even though I was by no means invested in The Project back then in the way so many were, there are PR pieces and interviews I can still remember quite clearly several years later. The skills that were honed in that campaign are coming into their own as the long run-in to the release of the first expansion, Heart of Thorns, grinds remorselessly onward.

We still don't have a release date for this thing, let's remember. We haven't even got a date for the beta. The content tap has all but been turned off in the live game. There's precious little for fans to focus on other than the carefully-managed flow of information - I would hesitate to call it "news" - that aims to open a window into our collective future.

The latest additions to HoT's "Pending" folder are two posts on the official website, catchily titled Specializations, Part One and Specializations, Part Two.  Between them they go into considerable, if repetitive, detail on the Specialization system that arrives with the expansion, whenever that might be.

So old school...
The gist appears to be some kind of paring-down or simplification of the existing Trait system and the replacement of the cumbersome Skill Point As Currency concept with a more straightforward version. It's a typical MMO mid-life crisis, in other words, the kind most MMORPGs undergo sooner or later. Mechanics and processes that were touted as revolutionary or paradigm-breaking back at the launch of the game are now deemed to be in dire need of an overhaul.

I would say that it puzzles me, why just about every single MMO I've ever played has to go through this constant unpicking of the seams, this endless re-upholstering and refurbishing. I would, only it doesn't. It's exactly what's happened around me in every job I've ever held for more than a few years. People can't leave well alone and no-one ever got on in life by saying the guy before him did a great job that can't be bettered. Not even if the guy before him was him.

It's annoying, all the same, this ineluctable desire to fiddle with things that are working perfectly well already. There's every chance the new Trait system will be fine and I'm sure we'll all get used to it in a few days. There's almost no chance, however, that it will be radically better than the old system. It certainly won't be such an improvement that, a couple or three years down the line, someone won't feel the need to change the whole thing up all over again.

Shooting for a round thousand by HoT. And that's just on one character.
It's tempting to pick away at all of this, worrying over the specifics, spinning conjecture and speculation out of the many gaps and elisions, but is there any point? As the writers take great pains to emphasize, "as with all things currently in development, there may be differences between the updates ... here and the traits that make it to the live game".

In practice most of the changes and additions will, I'm sure, appear in the finished version, in some form very close to what's being described. The lid of the box wouldn't be open otherwise. Whether they are very similar or strikingly different, however, as players we won't be in any position to judge the effect on our enjoyment until we experience these changes in play.

Often it seems MMO players find it all too easy to get worked up into a state of near-hysteria about proposed changes to games they love. Sometimes they seem to be able to reach a rolling boil of outrage about changes to MMOs they've barely even heard of. In the end, most of those changes turn out to be less invasive, less destructive, less interesting than anyone imagined. Barely noticeable in fact.

One of the reasons we still talk about the NGE is because it was an exceptional case, where a change to systems and mechanics really did make a huge difference to many players' ability to enjoy the game, or even go on playing it at all. I can think of half a dozen of those, maybe, in a decade and a half.

For the while all we can do is read, watch, listen and wait. No point crying over milk that's not yet been poured, much less spilled.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The View From Ehmry Bay or What's Wrong With This Picture? : GW2

A while back, when ArenaNet had the first of their 75% Off! sales, we each bought a third GW2 account. Since the coming of the Megaserver it really makes little difference which server you choose at character creation unless you plan on making some kind of serious run in the three-realm World vs World stakes.

Nevertheless it's not something you can opt out of nor is it something over which you have an entirely free hand. Here's a screenshot of the North American server list taken at 2pm UK time today, Tuesday. That's nine in the morning on the U.S. East Coast and six a.m. in the West. On a workday.

There are several Worlds that I have never seen other than full during my European play hours so I can only imagine they are permanently unavailable. As far as I'm aware, you can neither create a new character on a Full server, nor transfer an existing account there.

It seems rare for any server to fall below "Very High" these days.The rather well-handled, ongoing PR push for Heart of Thorns seems to have brought back a lot of lapsed players, while heavy discounting has filled the starting areas with eager ingenues. The ever-open-door policy of "Buy Once, Play Forever" means that no-one can ever really stop playing, only take a sabbatical, and almost every day sees the return of a flurry of names from the past.

Since we already have two accounts on Yaks Bend it seemed superfluous to add a third. I had already decided to concentrate all my efforts there onto a single account anyway as a result of the increasingly common and, to me, increasingly irritating trend of MMORPGs to move to an account-based model.

It's been so refreshing recently to return to playing EQ2, where each character has to stand on his or her own two paws rather then being towed along, willy-nilly, on the coat-tails of others. Even there the creeping specter of unearned perks looms, what with Heirloom items shared across the account, Daily Veteran Rewards being credited to the account not the character and experience bonuses being given for the account based on how many max level adventurers and crafters it has. Still, as yet it's a far cry from the Player-as-Unit model that GW2 suffers.

So, with all that in mind, I rolled my new account on Ehmry Bay, a server I still remember fondly from its brief moment of glory as Yak's Bend's Little Brother in Season One. I took a little tour before deciding, rolling on lower-ranked servers Devona's Rest and Ferguson's Crossing, but life in Tier 7 and Tier 8 looked just a bit too sedate.

EBay, as it has always, inevitably, been known, turned out to be a charming second home. In EU hours we generally have, at most, a single commander running and his "zerg" rarely adds up to more than a dozen even on a weekend. Most times gameplay in the Mists feels more like single-group play than zerging, with all three teams fielding single figure forces. It's all very 2012.

It feels refreshing, re-taking towers with a single, regular ram placed dead-center of the gate or marching to take a Keep with all of two alpha golems and half a dozen ground troops. Everything takes longer, the pace is stately, there are some amazing fights and even as a lowly uplevel I always feel both welcome and useful.

Good for me, but not, presumably for ANet, who can hardly wish for half of their servers to be providing content that appeals only to a fraction of one percent of the population. That, though, is scarcely the full picture.

World vs World is and has always been intensely volatile. Guilds move servers en masse, seeking all kinds of advantage or change, from the elusive "Good Fights" and the perennial, doomed attempts to set up the perfect environment to turn WvW into GvG - Guild Vs Guild - to a straightforward wish to just win a damn match for once or for their guild to be something other than cannon fodder in the pecking order.

Tier 2 has been a roiling cauldron of machinations and Machiavellian plots ever since we beached up there at the end of Season Three. There have been alliances, spies and trolls, concerted efforts to force Yaks Bend back into the outer darkness whence we came and, latterly, a grudging acceptance of the status quo. The hotly-tipped Yaks Bend Implosion never happened. We thrive on pressure. Meanwhile, around us, servers have been bandwagoned only to see the wheels fall off time and time again.

Currently Dragonbrand, who made it to T2 and looked for a while as if they'd push out Sea of Sorrows, are reportedly in freefall back in T3, their expected destination somewhere south of T5. Rumor is their ambitious guilds have gone to Henge of Denravi, something that seems likely given HoD's sudden surge, although for certain some came to The Bend.

This did not end well.
Maguuma, meanwhile, erstwhile home of some fragment of the infamous Goonswarm Federation, one-time worshippers of the Flame Ram and trainers of The Grub, always the least predictable, most volatile of servers, having crashed and burned for the how-many-is-it-againth time, is once again on the rise. They're burning through the tiers like a runaway sun on their way back to their supposed spiritual home in T2. Fear them.

It all makes for rough seas for small boats. Yaks Bend, being made of battleplate steel around a spent uranium core, takes the buffeting with grim determination and something almost like joy. Inside that bubble it's entirely possible my vision is warped. Having seen things from no other perspective in the 30 months I've played until now it's been very interesting to observe the action from EBay.

In the short time I've been there we've weathered HoD and Maguuma, neither of whom were a barrel of laughs, although I admit to always enjoying a match against the Magpies so long as I know they're going to be off fighting someone else the week after. With those forces of nature in effect I hadn't realized how much stronger than us Crystal Desert were, so it came as a shock to be knocked around by them like the inflatable dummy of a salaryman's boss for the last two weeks.

And then. And then this week we drew a wildcard and dropped a peg to face Sanctum of Rall and Anvil Rock in T6. I can't say we're having it entirely our own way, and indeed according to our Glicko score, which has fallen a little, we really should be doing better than we are, but suffice it to say that, when I logged in this afternoon, we owned everything. Everything.

Genius At Work.

This sort of thing happens a lot more often than you would expect. In order to render the whole affair less static and predictable, ANet long ago added a "wild card" system, whereby each Friday, when the new match begins, an algorithm runs to decide who will face whom. There's a very small chance for Worlds to be promoted or demoted not by merit but by luck. I say it's a small chance but it seems to happen surprisingly frequently. There have been suggestions that the "algorithm" is actually Colin pulling slips of paper out of a hat...and then swapping them around until he gets a result that amuses him...

When it does happen, however, the result is very often the same. The team that drops a tier steamrolls the unfortunate pair it meets - especially so if some unlucky world also got a wildcard up. What's more, because of how the Glicko system works, that server needs to steamroller without mercy because if it doesn't win by a wide enough margin it will lose standing in the rankings and begin to slide. 

It all tends to point up the extreme differences in coverage and population between the tiers, a very real problem of which everyone is already all too aware. A weak T2 server destroys the strongest in T3 and so on. Only when a server slumming it on a wildcard in the tier below chances to meet a bandwagon server bullying its way up do sparks fly and that doesn't happen very often.

When the expansion arrives we know we are getting new maps and new mechanics with them. We have been told there will be greater emphasis on and rewards for defense. For a while, as everyone comes to grips with the new environments and rule sets, there will be opportunities. The tectonic plates might even shift enough to crack open a passage into the closed shop of T1.

Aw, Bless!
If the underlying scoring system isn't addressed, from Glicko to Transfers, chances are such changes will be fleeting. For those of us enjoying the fights and feeling server pride perhaps that may not matter all that much but it won't do anything at all to improve the reputation of World vs World for those already jaded with its shortcomings.

That does at least represent some kind of hope for improvement, way off in the future somewhere, beyond the still-unanounced  launch of HoT. While we wait all we can do is make our own entertainment. Hence the plotting and the churn.

This would seem to be the ideal time to keep the masses happy with bread and circuses. A WvW season, derided though they always are, still gets people fired up. Surely one can't be hard to organize? In the absence of root-and-branch reform I'd take a meaningless competition with useless rewards. For now, anyway.

As yet there's no sign. It's now been more than six months since the last Season and several months since the ineffectual experimental rule change that was supposed to be the first of many. Like most aspects of GW2 other than the Gem Store and the failed eSport offerings in sPvP, everything seems to be on hold until HoT arrives. Whenever that might be.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

You Only Lieb Twice : The Liebster Awards

So I got the White Elephant. Or is it the Black Spot? Either which way,  Wilhelm nominated me for this Liebster thing I'd been trying to ignore and he also nominated Mrrx, who then nominated me as well. At least Mrrx opted to re-use Wilhelm's questions so I don't have to do 22 of the darn things.

If anyone else nominated me earlier I apologize and thank you. I didn't read all of the previous nominations. As I said I was trying to pretend it wasn't happening and waiting for it to go away but it is and it won't so here we are. It takes even longer to do than you imagine it would but it's one of those things that, once you get started, is also more enjoyable than you imagined so it comes out about even.

It's also probably the longest post I've ever done and I wouldn't expect many readers to make it all the way to the end, so to avoid avoiders avoiding, the way I was, I've front-loaded my nominations. Needless to say, many (most?) of the people I'd have picked have done it already and heaven knows no-one is going to want to do this twice

The original instructions suggest each participant nominates eleven more bloggers, each with "less than 200 followers".  Whoever designed this thing is purely obsessed with the number 11. Let's all pretend we didn't see that part.

There's a great temptation to try and waken sleeping giants like Gordon from We Fly Spitfires (last post over two years ago) or lure back great bloggers who have moved on from the "long form" to more modern means of communication, like Tipa at West Karana. And of course if either of you see this and feel the urge to join in, well that'll be my service to the community done for this year as well as a special treat for me!

My official nominations, however, are people who are still active and blogging fairly regularly. Please do not feel in any way obliged to respond. Indeed, I hope you just get the "it's nice to be asked" feeling without any of the "now I have to do something I didn't really want to do" part.


Null Signifier


Skip to the end for eleven new questions. I don't think I can get away with reusing Wilhelm's yet again...

And now onto the  main event:

Eleven  Random Things

I wish I had a more flattering photo. I never did look my best in profile... Also from this picture anyone would think we were a mod band but that was what punks really did look like in 1977 once you got ten miles outside London

1. I used to play rhythm guitar in a band that was always changing line-up. Somehow I ended up as the singer, which was a problem because I could never remember the words. Even when I'd written them.

2. As a kid I loved to play pinball. When the table flashed "TILT!" I thought it meant I should grab the side and lift it. I wasn't strong enough so I'd try and persuade an adult to help me. Amazing how many adults don't know what "TILT!" on a pinball table means either.

3. I didn't learn to drive until I was 28. I didn't think I'd like driving but it turns out I do. A lot.

4. Come to think of it I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was 18. Guess I'm just a late starter when it comes to transport. Maybe I'll learn to hang-glide when I'm 78.

5. As far as I know I have no food allergies. I think I was born before they were invented. Or maybe it's because I didn't eat a cooked meal until I was twelve. I understand they can start any time though so there's still hope.

6. There are well over 700 movies on VHS tape downstairs from where I'm sitting as I type this. Most of them I recorded off the TV back when I thought it would be really cool to have a library of a thousand films. I still think that would be cool - only not on VHS cassettes. Why couldn't DVD recorders have arrived a decade sooner?

7. The other day I had to look up Bouncing Boy's real name on Google. I can't believe I couldn't remember it. And then I thought better of using it for what I had in mind. That's the good and the bad of getting older all in one package, right there. It's Chuck Taine in case you were wondering.

It could happen...

8. I've been a bookseller for longer than I've played MMOs but I've never trusted bookshops. I prefer libraries. That said, working in a bookshop is a great way to get free books. Another good way is to email publishers and tell them you want some. They have more proofs than they have people to give them away to most of the time.

9. The knife-crime media scare of several years ago meant I had to stop carrying my Swiss Army knife everywhere I went. When I carried it I used it several times a day and thought it was indispensable but since I stopped carrying it I rarely miss it at all.

10. I ordered new net curtains for the front room via Amazon yesterday and they came today. I put them up this morning and they look great. To quote Lloyd Cole, "very very rock and roll".

11. I found it a lot harder thinking up eleven random facts about myself than you would imagine.

Eleven answers

1. Why blog?  In this age of Facebook and Instagram and Twitch and what not, why do you work in a medium that is still mostly about words as opposed to video or connections
or other things?

I've always been a compulsive writer so the words come naturally. I've felt for a very long time that writing is a kind of compulsion, almost an addiction, not far from being some kind of illness. It just happens to be a socially acceptable kind of sickness that can open the doors to fame, fortune and the respect of your peers. Allegedly.

Pictures may not be as essential to a blog as words but they're of almost equal importance to mine. Most days they take up more of my time than the writing does. Without pictures a blog becomes something like a series of essays or diary entries. With them it becomes a lot more like a magazine. I do like writing essays and I often wish I'd kept a diary but most of all I've always loved the idea of having my own magazine.

I photocopied my first fanzine when I was still at school and I went on to publish and contribute to many more. After that wore out I spent most of the 80s and 90s deep in the APAzine scene. I worked hour after hour with scissors and SprayMount laying those things out.

I really love layout work. I learned how to do it in my first real job post-University, when I somehow ended up producing the in-house magazine for an Insurance Company for a couple of years. The blog format is really the APAzine experience rendered shiny by technology so it felt very comfortable and familiar. If we'd only had these tools back then...

I would also love to work with audio and video. I have dabbled but it takes so long... Right now I just can't seem to make the time. One day.

2. Why MMOs? (Or, why not MMOs?)  What is it about this never ending genre that pulls you in, relative to single player or even multi-player co-op games?

There are probably a million reasons by now but in the beginning it was the Three Cs: Childhood, Collecting and Company.

Right from the beginning, the whole experience of playing MMOs reminded me enormously of the happy estate of being a child; that ineffable feeling so perfectly encapsulated by Bill Waterson in Calvin and Hobbes or Richmal Crompton in Just William. The days really were just packed and there really was treasure everywhere. When I found Everquest it was like being transported back to the 1960s, exploring the woods and fields with a  gang of kids, getting in to all kinds of scrapes, with no responsibility other than try not to get yourself
killed and be back home before bedtime.

Then there's the company. An MMO is all the best parts of going to the pub or having friends round without any of the negatives. No missing the last bus, no falling asleep on the train home and waking up in the wrong town, no looking at the clock and wondering "are they ever going to leave?" It's an always-on social life with an off-switch. I admit I've gone out a lot less since started playing MMOs but I feel all the better for it and so does my wallet.

Finally, collecting. I'm a packrat and proud of it but there are downsides. Before MMOs we used to spend weekends exploring the charity shops, second-hand stores, markets and car boot sales of every town in a fifty-mile radius. The house was filling up with all kinds of finds. MMOs replaced all that with an almost identical experience (particularly in the days of vendor diving in EQ) while removing the travel costs and storage problems. Well, kind of... (points up at blog title...)

3. Science Fiction or Fantasy?  Which way do you lean when it comes to games, literature, movies, or whatever?

I grew up reading Science Fiction. I've read it all my life. I didn't really begin reading fantasy until after I left University. When I think of SF it tends to mean Dick, Ballard, M John Harrison, the New Wave, all of that. Fairly serious stuff. Fantasy struck me mainly as escapism and after three years doing Eng. Lit. escapism what about all I wanted.

Nowadays I don't see so much of a clear divide. I'm pretty much up for any of it. Genres are for publishers and producers, anyway, not for audiences.

4. What of Steam?  Do you feel like you’re missing something by not browsing the shelves looking at boxes when shopping for video games?  Digital distribution is here, on the PC at least (consoles still depend on a lot of physical boxes), do you miss the old way?  Are you old enough to even remember the old way?

I have a Steam account but I've never bought anything with it. I spent an hour going through everything in the store last year and couldn't find a single thing I wanted. As for using it as platform to play games I don't really get the point. Isn't that what my Desktop does? I'm not against it - I just haven't worked out why I need it.

Digital Distribution in general I like a lot but I still buy a box if I can get one. Just like I listen to all my music as MP3s but do it by buying the CDs and converting them. It still seems weird not having a physical copy even if I actually find the digital version hugely more convenient. I expect I'll grow out of that eventually.

5. What gaming relics to you hang on to, if any?  Chat logs? Screen shots? Physical boxes? Just memories?

All of the above and more. Packrat here, remember. I wish I could find my two years of EQ chat logs. I think they're on a HD that died...

6. Name three (or more if you like) video games that shaped the gamer you are today.

Eye of the Beholder - the first computer game I played that really made me feel I was "there". Searching for secret doors has never felt so real.

Might and Magic VI - The Mandate of Heaven - I think that was the first RPG Mrs Bhagpuss and I played together.

Everquest - The one that changed everything. If I had to describe my ideal game this would still be it. It would be great if someone would make something to knock it off its pedestal but so far there's no sign of that happening.

Baldur's Gate and Broken Sword 1&2 should never go unmentioned in a list like this, either.

7. You’re rolling up a new character in yet another fantasy title.  What race and class is always the first set you go with?

There isn't any particular combo although I do have some strong preferences and old reliables. If I suspect I'll find the game difficult to learn or adapt to then I usually pick a Warrior type because they tend to have the most straightforward mechanics at low level. Often those characters get abandoned quite early on as soon as I've got the hang of things.

If there's a short, cute race, particularly an anthropomorphic animal, I'll always be drawn towards playing that. I find it almost impossible to resist a catgirl. Who could and why would you even try? No-one who read The Ballad of Lost C'Mell at an impressionable age, like I did, that's for sure.

Catgirl. I said catgirl!
I have a bad habit of rolling rangers and then finding they're nothing like I imagined they would be. I often start out with one but few make it very far. I'm also partial to classes with a pet that can tank and any class with a lot of AEs.

The one thing I can't abide are classes that rely on positioning, which explains why I don't play many rogues.

8. What video games, if any, did you play before you discovered MMOs?  Did you leave them behind?  Or have you left MMOs behind?

Much though I like to say I'm not a Gamer, I've played video games since my (very) late teens, which is pushing four decades now. I used to favor Adventure games (text or graphic, I'm not a purist) but I've played all kinds.

Most of my gaming back in the '80s was done on the Atari 2600, the ZX Spectrum and the Amiga. I didn't get a PC until the mid 90s. That was when I really got into RPGs, something that was strongly encouraged by Mrs Bhagpuss, as we began to discover and develop a mutual interest in the hobby.

Once we went online we really never went back. I've probably played fewer offline games in the decade and a half since I started playing EQ than I played just in the first 11 months of 1999 alone. Playing offline nowadays feels like reading aloud to myself in an empty room.

9. By whatever definition you choose, what would you consider to be the Video Game Capital of the World?  LA? Austin? London? Elsewhere?  Maybe just the Video Game Capital of your world?

Strange question. I would never have considered anywhere to be "the Video Game Capital of the World". I'm going to say San Diego for obvious reasons.

10. Which MMOs have you really invested yourself in?  There are a lot of them out there, but you can realistically only really get into so many.  Which were they for you?

This is easy. I just instinctively know which ones count: 

Wizard 101
Rubies of Eventide

I can name plenty of other MMOs I played longer than some in that list and quite a few that I think are better or that I enjoyed more, but it has nothing to do with how long I played or how much fun I had. It's all about how committed I felt to what I was doing while I was there.

11. How do you spend most of your MMO time with relation to other players?  Are you solo, in a partial group, in a full group, in a raid, in a coalition-wide fleet operation, or some other formation?  What is your default mode?

Depends on the game. EQ/EQ2 is all solo play at the moment. GW2 is solo and duo and open-group play. Interestingly, zerg activity in WvW is beginning to be referred too quite commonly as "raiding" so I "raid" quite a lot, too, which is a first for me.

I would say my default mode is solo but I am usually open to offers. I do like grouping, a lot, especially old-style "Trinity" groups, where that meant CC/Tank/Heals. I'd do that again if the right game came along. I miss healing and CC a lot and tanking a little.

And no, FFXIV is not the right game.

Bring back healing on horseback.

Okay, since I don't think I can get away with using the same set of questions for a third time I guess I'd better come up with eleven new ones. Going to try to stick to MMO/Gaming related ones.

Eleven Questions

1. Are MMORPGs getting better all the time or going downhill fast?

2.Which cancelled MMO do wish you'd tried when you still had the chance?

3. And which cancelled MMO (including ones that never made launch) do you wish was still up and running?

4. Flying mounts or underwater zones?

My answer to Q5
5. What I.P. from books, movies, comics or T.V. would you most like to see turned into an MMORPG?

6.MMO cash shops: a welcome opportunity to give yourself a treat or a pathetic attempt to wheedle money out of the weak-willed? Or does that depend entirely on whether they sell anything you actually want?

7. Geez! Haven't we seen enough dragons already?

8. Has playing MMOs had any noticeable effect on your physical or mental health, positive or negative?

9. Do you PvP? Did you always? Or ever? If you changed your mind, why?

10. Would you put "playing MMORPGs" on your resumé/C.V.?

11. Do you play "in character"? Sometimes? Always? Never? 


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Progression Server Progress : Everquest

Pardon the typos. I can spell. I just can't type.

Daybreak have just published plans for the upcoming Everquest Progression server. In detail. A lot of detail.

It's a very good read. Fascinating, if you like that sort of thing. Which I do. Plenty of topics for discussion, which I expect we'll be having over at TAGN soon enough. I can retro a link in there later. It even has some jokes. 

We get an Open Beta and more polls. If we don't give clear answers the first time we do it over until we do. And you can win a backpack. Maybe several. Whoopeee!

The server arrives in "Summer", which is a lot better than "Soon". It will be called one of these names:

  • Anashti Sul
  • Gorenaire
  • Lockjaw
  • Meldrath
  • Mrylokar
  • Opal Darkbriar
  • Ragefire
  • Yelinak
I'll probably vote either for Lockjaw or Meldrath.  

There was one line that particularly piqued my curiosity:

"A lot of you suggested Quarm, which we like very much... for another purpose". Mmmmm... secret project...

All in all this seems to bode well. The execution appears speedy but not hasty and the way it's all being handled sets a different tone from the way these things have been done in the past. Shouldn't read too much into this stuff, perhaps, but since the transition to Daybreak I have been pleasantly surprised quite often.

D'oh! Now I've jinxed it.

Playing Hard To Get: Wildstar

So, according to the rumor mill, Wildstar might be going F2P. Or B2P. Dropping the subscription anyway. Maybe.

Apparently Australian game stores are the canary down the coalmine when it comes to payment model conversions. They start pulling boxes and packing for returns and that's the end of your exclusive club. This is based on...well, they did it just before ESO de-subbed so, proof!

Also Omeed Dariani, the gigglesome frontman who jumped ship from SoE to Carbine even before Daybreak was a thing, he said so on someone's Livestream. Sort of. Well, he said they were thinking about it. Bartillo told us so in the comment thread over at Keen and Graev.

Anyway, Wildstar's China launch is due soon, if you call the end of the year "soon". It could be next year. Before EQNext, anyway, I think we can count on that much, at least. They don't do subs in China so it's sure to be free there, which means they must be doing the conversion anyway, so it's inevitable here too, right?

No, I'm the cute one!

Syp thinks the recent re-focus on vanity pets and character customization presages a cash shop. He even plays Wildstar sometimes so he should know. That makes him the expert because for sure no-one else around here is playing it.

Yes. Well. Fine. But as Keen told me "it’s really not the subscription keeping you from playing, it’s the fact that the game isn’t good enough to justify the subscription". And he's right. Although he isn't.

I pay my subs. I'm paying Daybreak for All Access on two accounts. One of them we don't even use. I just logged it in this morning to claim the 500SC and five packs of Legends of Norrath cards and that'll probably be the last time it gets an airing until next month. (What's happening to Legends of Norrath anyway? Wasn't the last new pack Drakkinshard back in 2013?).

Wildstar is a fun game. I was interested in it when it was first announced then I went off it. That's the trouble with MMOs. They take so long to get here that by the time they get to where you are you're not there any more. /wave Black Desert.

So I wasn't even going to try it but then everyone else did and there was open beta or some such so I tried it and, yes, I liked it. The combat was frenetic, the tone was iffy, the colors were garish, the audio was jarring but the important part was...I really liked my little guy. That made up for an awful lot. Enough to get me to pay a sub, possibly. If...if...I also had time to play.

So, was Wildstar good enough for me to sub or wasn't it? I guess it wasn't because I didn't. I didn't even buy it and play the "free" month so obviously I didn't like it as much as FFXIV or TSW. And that's true. I like both of those games quite a lot more than I liked Wildstar.

Willpower. Willpower...

But I didn't sub those games either so, by Keen's logic, they weren't good enough. Maybe they weren't. I'd say FFXIV was and Wildstar probably wasn't but that wasn't why I didn't sub them.

In both cases the primary reason I didn't sub was that I couldn't foresee fitting them into the time I expected to have available. I was - am - already playing MMORPGs I'm committed to, at least to some degree. A day only has so many hours. A new MMO could even be better than the one I'm currently focused on and that still might not be enough to make me move: it would have to be a lot better to replace one I'm still enjoying.

The secondary reason was that Mrs Bhagpuss also didn't like either well enough to keep on playing. It's not like we are joined at the hip when it comes to gaming but it is more fun when we play the same MMO at the same time.  She tends to stick to one and I like to spread out a bit, so I play lots of MMOs that she doesn't, which is very easy now they're all there and thereabouts free, but it does makes a difference to which ones I'll pay to play.

Currently that's EQ and EQ2. I'm playing and she's not and I am willing to pay for the benefits of a subscription, apparently, even though I'm not sure I could tell you what those benefits are. I think I just like giving Smed money, that's probably it. I've been doing it so long it would feel weird to stop now.

Getting back to the point, and I did have one, I imagine, there are more reasons for deciding not to subscribe to a game than that game not being good enough to justify the cost. Once the subscription goes away, though, all those reasons go away with it.

Track now playing: EQ2 Warlock

I "play" a lot of MMOs. From memory, I am currently "playing" all of these:

GW2, Everquest, EQ2, Allods, Istaria, The Secret World, ESO, City of Steam, Project:Gorgon, WoW (free version), Eldevin and Neverwinter.

You have to define "playing". I have, at the very least, logged into all of the above this calendar year. I consider myself to be on hiatus from, but still not not playing, ArcheAge, Landmark and LOTRO. Added to which I have recently downloaded STO and logged into Guild Wars. There will certainly be others I've forgotten that, if you reminded me, I'd also claim to be "playing", even if only metaphorically. Or is that metaphysically? Something meta at any rate...

Conspicuously absent from that list are FFXIV and Wildstar. I would be "playing" both of those if they didn't have subscriptions. I'd be logged in taking screenshots for this post for a start, which is how I "play" quite a few MMOs these days. How much I'd be playing beyond that is hard to guess but I suspect it would be a not insignificant amount.

Would Square or Carbine make any money out of me by going F2P? I doubt it. Well, Square already got the box price and Carbine probably will too, because even if they declare the game is going to go full-on free, chances are I'll grab one from Amazon in advance like I did for ESO (ESO boxes were dirt cheap six weeks before F2P, when I bought ours. I checked yesterday and they are now going for collector's prices with almost none left so best grab a Wildstar box now, I'd say, while they're still selling at way under retail).

Of course you can always just play one MMO to the tune of another.

That will be all they get from me I imagine. I mean, I play GW2 about all the hours god sends and, other than buying three boxes for three accounts, they've never had a penny out of me. What can I say? I'm a cheap date when it comes to gaming.

If an MMO is storming away like FFXIV they can very well do without my custom. Very well. Wildstar, one imagines, can't afford to turn business down. They could seriously do with every warm body they can get.

Oh, there is the argument that an influx of unwashed oiks, shoving and pushing past the fallen payment barrier, fingering the merchandize and sneering at the decor, will spoil it for the last few remaining paying customers. That one comes up every time a game converts.

Having been one of those remaining paying customers I can't say I noticed anything like that. Things got louder and busier for a while. Bustling even. That was generally fun. Then, after the novelty wore off, it all quietened down and went back to much how it was before. Presumably someone made some money out of it. No-one's lands got ruined that I saw. Certainly not mine.

For some MMOs there surely must come a time when there's no point pretending any more. No-one loves you. No-one even remembers you're there. You have to do something or you may as well just shut up shop. We really have no way of knowing if that's where Wildstar is right now but it's where the sentiment is, that's for sure. We're all just waiting for the shoe to drop.

It needs to happen soon if I'm ever going to write another Wildstar post, too. I've used all my screenshots. Most of them twice.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

A Strong Showing For Stronghold : GW2

Last night was my first chance to try some of GW2's hot new content. Or should that be new HoT content? Either way, for 24 hours only, the upcoming sPvP map featuring the new game mode known as "Stronghold" is available for testing, using the "we beta on live" system that so impressed Ravious a short while ago.

I say "available". If you play unranked arenas, as most people doing dailies probably do, you'll be testing The Battle of Champion's Dusk, whether you like it or not. For a day and a night the new map replaces all others in that bracket.

You'll take this one and like it.
Not everyone reads patch notes or visits the news section of the official website so this seemed to come as a surprise to many. There were some lively discussions going on in map chat as I waited in the PvP lobby for my number to come up.

All but one of the PvP maps GW2 has had since launch rely on holding territory for points (the exception being a free-for-all brawl) so there was some confusion over what to do on a map that had no marked points where you stand in a ring to score. I'd taken the trouble to read the long and detailed overview so I had a fair idea of what was expected but it was still very confusing first time round.

Stronghold For Dummies
Confusing but also a lot of fun. I've never played a MOBA but according to what people who had were saying this is roughly how they work. To me it felt very much like a WvW mini-game, with keeps and Lords and siege engines and NPCs to hire.

For most of the lifetime of the game I've studiously ignored GW2's instanced PvP. It was the felicitous synchronicity of a couple of Jeromai's posts and the first 75% off sale that changed all that. Suddenly I had a new character on a new account, who had to do all three of his three (count 'em - three!)  dailies every day (one PvE, one WvW, one PvP) to get the "I've done three dailies" reward.

So I started doing instanced PvP and found I enjoyed it well enough, something that really shouldn't have come as a surprise given the countless hours I've spent doing the much same thing in WoW, Rift, Warhammer and EQ2. And, to pick up a theme, the recently-added extrinsic rewards for doing PvP are now so good they amount to open bribery.

There are two things you certainly can't say about GW2's PvP maps: as already outlined, you can't honestly say they offer much variety in gameplay and neither do they match up to the visual elan we're spoiled with throughout the rest of the game. The new map addresses both of those shortcomings.

A Pirate Captain, I !

Visually it's the only PvP map that looks as though any thought has gone into it at all beyond the necessary design that relates to functionality. Behind you at the spawn point is open sea with several impressive sailing ships moored at a dock. The fighting takes place in a small town that looks and feels like something you might find on an explorable map.

There's even some story going on somewhere. We appear to be working for someone to some end although I have no idea who or what that might be. A portentous voice-over does a little more than yell the usual banalities and statements of the obvious, suggesting some kind of life for our characters before and after the events in train.

Okay, Charlie!

All of that may be fluff when it comes to instanced PvP but it does set a tone and creates an atmosphere that makes this map feel more grounded than any of the others. Of course, for all I know there may actually be some narrative or storyline to sPvP as a whole that I've completely missed. In the end I guess it doesn't matter all that much because we're here for the fights and in the matches I played those were pretty good.

Seems clear enough...
I won't rehash the mechanics here but there's a lot more going on in than in any of the existing maps. You get a good deal of agency as a player above and beyond the usual "shall I go Home, Mid or Far?". There are plenty of options and they all feel like WvW to me: run supply, guard vital NPCs as they move across the map, fight NPC guards, break gates, kill the Lord.

Most of these activities also occur in the older PvPs but only in a nominal way. There it never seems to make much difference whether you do them or not because in the end everything comes down to one of two things: standing in a circle or stopping the other team from standing in one.

In Stronghold the ancillary activities actually matter. For one thing, the gates of the keep are impervious to player damage so if you don't spawn your bomb-carrying Skritt door-breakers then you won't even see the other team's Lord let alone kill him. And you won't have any Skritt unless you buy them with supply so better get running that.

I hope we get shore leave - it looks nice here.

NPC guards are also quite hard for players to kill so you'll need those NPC archers, which means more supply. If your team has two turret engineers (the go-to choice for lazy scrubs like my main PvP character) you can sit the pair of them on the two supply dumps and laugh at the other team because without supply you are stuffed. Or so they said in map chat. Only they didn't say "stuffed".

We didn't do that. We all ran around, swapping lanes and roles in the chaotic manner you'd expect from five people who'd never met before, who disdained the very idea of communication and anyway didn't remember or understand most of the rules. It was great!

Holding out for a Hero

I played two rounds, both of which were much longer than usual PvP matches. In the first my team was ahead on points right up to the end and I was confidently expecting a win on the timer when suddenly our Lord was dead, Game Over, you lose. Next time round it did go to the wire and we won by 285 points to 270 with both teams in the other's Keep, still hammering on the Lord as the timer ran out.

Colin in full spate.

When HoT arrives and this map enters regular play I foresee it being very popular. Certainly the feedback in open conversation in the PvP Lobby was very positive, which must have been sweet music to the three ANet devs, including Colin Johanson, who were hanging out there. I enjoyed it a lot, although like all instanced PvP I can only do two or three rounds in a row before I lose concentration.

Once people have more than a single day to get to grips with the map and the mechanics no doubt behavior will become more mandated, tactics codified and much of the chaos will leech out. You can easily foresee roles being assigned and blame being attached to those who don't stick to them and follow the prescribed path. Even then, I think it should be a fun diversion.

I just hope the Desert Battlegrounds turn out as well.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide