Friday, July 31, 2015

Open Door Policy : Everquest, EQ2

With the success of Ragefire, Lockjaw, Stormhold and Deathtoll and the prospect of  yet-another-Everquest-special-ruleset-server to come, Daybreak Games appear to have twigged at long, long last, something I could have told them a decade ago - players go ga-ga for new servers and special rulesets. They always have and probably they always will. Anyone remember Discord, Everquest's short-lived permadeath (aka Hardcore PvP) server? Even something as demented as that was rammed - for about a week.

There's the gleam of a sustainable and potentially lucrative idea in what DBG are doing. It could offer a solution to that awkward bloating problem suffered by all long-running MMORPGs, the one that comes when the sheer weight of content accrued over years of updates and expansions, most of it towards the top end, threatens to topple the entire ship.

Once that sets in, to entice anyone new to play your game the whole process - leveling, stats, gear, you name it - has to be slimmed down, speeded up, thinned out and somehow made to look more like a gentle ramp and less like a sheer cliff. That's a road that ends with A Free Level  90 With Every Expansion, 89 levels of content that no-one plays any more and an economy that looks like the Weimar Republic crossed with Uncle Scrooge's Money Pit.

When EQ was the big dog in the park and a new server seemed to open every month I made characters on all of them. Everyone just loves that new server smell. Mostly I'd level up for a week, occasionally a month, then slip back to whence I came. Occasionally one, like Luclin, would stick and I'd have found a new home.

In the long years since those glory days, few MMOs have found a reason to keep opening servers (apart from in that embarrassing first week about which we don't talk anymore). Until recently the usual scenario was a long, slow drift downwards, with larger populations eating smaller and any special cases like RP or PvP lucky to cling on to anything at all. /wave LotRO.

Of late companies have preferred to avoid the bad feeling and worse publicity that comes with consolidation and retrenchment. A whole slew of clever, technological solutions have been employed to shore up the cracks left by diminishing numbers. Cross-server dungeon finders, server clusters, megaservers, anything that makes it look like people are still playing in droves.

These things do work, for a while and to a degree, but in the end they mostly just aggregate the existing, shrinking population into more coherent population centers. That's a good thing but it doesn't address whatever underlying problems led people to leave in the first place. Sometimes those problems are nothing more than an aging, over-familiar game failing to fight off a plethora of newer, shinier competitors. Sometimes, though, as I said earlier, at least some of the blame is down to bloat.

When you've got a great product but so much of it that new players are scared to even try you out, what if, instead of just merging your existing servers as the entrenched population declines, you continued to open new ones periodically? Servers with different rulesets, targeted at particular demographics, or just standard ruleset servers, but always somewhere new, returning and stalled current customers could find an equal footing?

It's something SOE always did, sporadically, and it was, as far as I could tell, usually successful, in the short term at least. And by far the most successful of those servers seemed the ones that offered a genuine, unequivocal fresh start.

Stromm was an EQ server that allowed no transfers for a long period after launch. At least a year as I recall, maybe longer. I moved there and stayed. It was a fantastic experience that revitalized my Everquest addiction for almost two years. The same thing happened again when EQ2 opened the Freeport server, whose radical F2P ruleset forbade any possible crossing of the streams with the rest of the game's ultra-conservative playerbase, thereby guaranteeing, ironically,  that any previously-accrued in-game wealth and status meant nothing.

It's all very well attracting new players but you have to monetize them effectively if you want to stay in business long enough to have any chance of opening even more new servers some day. DBG seem to have worked this out at last. Even before Smed left to spend more time with his anger management counselor (or possibly his EVE Online Corp, which probably amounts to the same thing) you could feel the winds of change blowing. For DBG, unlike the latter years of SOE, the motto is clearly no longer Free To Play All The Way. There's a return to a very evident emphasis on regular payments, at least when it comes to having fun in Norrath.

All these new, popular, special servers with their cool names and their fashionably retro rulesets, they all require All Access membership, or, in plain English, what we used to call A Subscription. Yes, you can still play for free, but now you kind of feel as though you're standing out in the car park looking over the velvet rope at the door of that new club everyone's talking about, the one where all the exciting sounds are coming from.

Crowfall plans on premiering a new style of permanent impermanence for MMOs, with a non-combat world that persists and campaign worlds that don't. That still sounds like a recipe for bloat to me. GW2 takes enormous pains to keep all things relevant and bring down barriers to entry yet still somehow ends up with some of the highest, hardest-to-climb progression walls of any MMO ever. Coming up with ways to include everyone is hard and half the ideas that we're asked to accept break a lot of what made the games and the genre attractive to begin with.

If we could get a rotation rolling, where lower population servers merged and consolidated as new servers opened up, perhaps it might just be possible to manage the expectations and desires of both established players who are happy with what they have and don't want to give it up and new starters, prodigals and self-defined have-nots, who'd relish a clear run without all that Old Money and Old Boy's Network clogging up the field.

It's got to be worth a go, hasn't it?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The View From The Long Grass : EQ2

When the EQ2 team announced their intention to follow up the surprise success of Everquest's third batch of Progression Servers with some nostalgia-based fun of their own I wasn't all that interested. The original 1999 version of Everquest thoroughly deserves the "Classic" tag but the only classic thing about the 2004 release of EQ2 was the classic misjudgment SOE made by releasing it at the same time Blizzard released WoW.

Over the long, hard decade since that brief fight was fought and lost an enormous amount of work has been done to retool and reshape EQ2 into a very different offering from its much more successful competitor. For my money, and I've been a subscriber since launch, the huge majority of those changes and innovations have been all to the good. I play the current game and I'm very happy with what's on offer there.

As a subscriber, when the subscription-required Time Limited Expansion (TLE) servers launched I was planning on popping in, running around for a while, enjoying the fresh New Server smell then logging off, never to return. At character creation I even had a wild fantasy of rolling on the open PvP server, Deathtoll. That lasted about five seconds before I settled on yet another good old PvE plod.

I spy with my little eye something beginning with L. Yes there is. Look up.
I know there shouldn't be. But there  it is.

The surprise return of The Far Journey and The Isle of Refuge carried me through a couple of sessions but I was still expecting to quit soon after my SK landed in Freeport. Only that didn't happen. Somehow, there I was, renting a room at The Jade Tiger, putting down my free table and bulletin board, then running out toThe Graveyard for a seemingly endless questline given by one of The Overlord's many impossibly verbose henchmen.

After that I found myself killing Brokenskull Pawns in the Ruins and ghostly pirates in Sunken City...on and on it went. Another session, in The Commonlands now, fetching ingredients for Mooshga's dubious dishes, killing more orcs from a different clan, culling armadillos, wild dogs and wisps. I've been all through Thieve's Way and down into The Decrepit Crypt. I've soloed thirty ghostly orcs at the start of Wailing Caves and picked up my Doom Stick from Cog Burn.

12 SK LFG. Oh, wait..SK..belay that, I'll just solo it.

I've gathered and mined and fished because, and I can scarcely believe I'm saying this, I'm crafting again. Yes, crafting. Let me tell you about the crafting. I ran all the way from Freeport to Qeynos just to use the World Bell on the Antonica Dock to get to Halas just to do the Tier 2 crafting questline.

It's a long run but it was worth it. After most of Tuesday spent in EQ2 my Shadowknight sits at level 15 with a Scholar level to match. He's going to be an Alchemist when he turns 20 so he can at least keep his spells and combat arts up to scratch. And he's going to get to 20, too.

Why? Why is this server getting traction with me that none of the three iterations of EQ nostalgia ever did? That's very easy to explain. Stormhold, the PvE server, isn't really about nostalgia at all.

That rhino is definitely not "vanilla".

Leave aside the ancient boat ride and the revived Isle (both of which, I'm pretty sure, will soon become starting options on the regular servers) Stormhold really isn't much different from a Live server. The main changes are in pace and population.

Because of the hype and because of the chance for a new start there are a lot of people playing. The world feels vibrant and busy and bustling. That would - does  happen with any new server but because of the specific TLE ruleset here it's especially effective. With only the base game available the options to spread out and get away from each other are limited. Without access to public teleports and flying or hyper-fast mounts the world is filled with people traveling.

You missed a memo, Kurdek.

When I wanted to go to Halas I had a choice: find a Druid or a Wizard to take me (and there are a few advertizing their services) or run it myself. I chose to run and it was fun and easy. I died just once, trying to bull my way past a pack of Level 24 wolves milling around the path in Nektulos Forest. I was level 13 and they made very short work of me but I revived a hundred meters away with nothing worse than a little xp debt that took just a couple of Discoveries to clear as I ran on again.

In 2004-5 the trip from Freeport to Qeynos via Nektulos Forest was notorious, especially at low level. Fish flew above the river, firebats nuked you from the sky, everything was aggressive and it all chased you forever. When you died (and it was always when, not if) you picked up huge xp debt that took an age to clear. It was a trial, a rite of passage, in so many ways. On Stormhold it takes a while but it's a pleasant jaunt.

I took the scenic route. Hey, my time's my own...

What the TLE ruleset has achieved doesn't have as much to do with nostalgia as it does with returning the game to a pace that feels natural, somewhere that rests very happily between the attrition of the first year after launch and the Benny Hill chase of leveling on Live in 2015.

Live, of course, has to be where it is. Over the years, as the level cap recedes beyond the horizon of a new player, XP gain in the Live game has been tuned up and up in everything but "current" content so that fresh starters and alts can catch up. Heroic characters allow you to begin at level 90 and Mercenaries replace the other players who no longer exist to fill out groups in the 20s and thirties (or indeed the 70s and 80s).

On Stormhold, for the while, it's not like that and it doesn't need to be. Everyone is moving and progressing at a relatively stately pace but don't kid yourself it's anything like it was Back In The Day. Compared to 2004-5 this is still EQ2 on speed and your character is on steroids. In 2005 I would not have been pulling four or five yellow-con mobs at once and coming out last rat standing. I wouldn't have been soloing my way through The Decrepit Crypt at Level 12. I wouldn't be 15/15 after less than a full day's play. I think that took me the best part of a month first time round.

How much can it hurt, right?

No, the TLE dev team have tweaked some specific stuff here and there and made some well-judged modifications to things that were glaringly overpowered but in most respects this is modern EQ2 slowed down. And that is exactly what I've been asking for for years!

It still doesn't mean I'll be sticking with it long term. The timing isn't great. I was just about to get back into WoW, there's F2P Wildstar coming down the pike and I have so many other MMO projects on the go. Added to that, Mrs Bhagpuss isn't interested in coming back for yet another run. We came to the game together in beta and played alongside each other on Steamfont, Oasis, Test and Freeport. There are plenty of MMOs I'll happily play on my own but playing EQ2 without her feels a bit odd.

And anyway, to some extent I've done this all before, when Freeport launched with the original, restricted F2P ruleset. I've leveled so many characters in EQ2. I've started over from scratch and gone to the then-cap on several different servers. Do I really want to go through it all over again?

Smart Loot? I thought it was my lucky rabbit's foot.

I'm not sure. For now, though, I'm having a great time. My plan is to level up at least far enough to have a vote when the thirty days are up, which means I have to get at least to Level 30. If I make it I'll be voting against the unlock but my sense from within the game is that the majority will want to move on. Desert of Flames is a big expansion, though, with a lot of high-end content. I'd be surprised if a majority is done with that in a month. Subsequent unlocks may not come so easily.

It's an odd time for EQ2 right now. Stormhold is a clear success and I think it will remain a busy, well-populated server. On the other hand, those extra servers they had put by in case demand matched what was seen when Ragefire launched haven't been needed yet and server merges are coming for the Live game. How many of the players on the TLE servers are new or returning and how many have just moved next door from another Live server is hard to guess.

What do you expect for 5 silver a week?

What is clear, though, is that Daybreak is quietly managing a return to a form of Subscription-based gameplay as the default for the Everquest franchise. With the Arch-Priest of Free-to-Play now free to devote more time to his EVE online corp, that's a trend I expect to see expand and grow in the months and years ahead.

I'm happy with that. I'm getting my money's worth and, if the Progression/TLE servers are any kind of indication, this is a team that, finally, seems to be learning who and where its audience is.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Once More To The Well: Project:Gorgon

Just a quick heads-up to say that Project:Gorgon is up to bat at Kickstarter yet again. This will be developer Eric Heimburg's third attempt to gain some funding traction for his excellent old-new-school hybrid sandpark-themebox MMORPG.

The last two Kickstarters failed to fund. This time around Eric is asking for a very modest $20k, which is less than he got in pledges last time round so I'm hoping along with Wilhelm that third time's the charm.

I've written about Project:Gorgon a few times before. Unlike almost all other would-be MMORPGs trying to get you to open your wallet, this one is already fully playable. Eric describes the version currently up and running as "an early alpha" but that undersells it. Underselling is one of Eric's things I think.

Did you hear something howl?

I first tried P:G back in December 2013 and it was already enjoyably playable even then. I've dipped in and out ever since, building my one character up slowly but steadily. Every time I take another look there are patch notes and updates galore. The game grows and changes and progresses and develops constantly, becoming larger and more intricate by the month.

I logged in this morning to take some screenshots for this post and, as usual, ended up playing for a lot longer than I intended. This time it occurred to me that I'd never explored further than the starting zone so I set out to explore.

My timing could have been better.  Last update saw the first iteration of the Day/Night cycle and when I arrived it was 3am. Boy, was it dark, but the moon looked beautiful through the trees. I saw explosions of light bloom in the distance, briefly lighting up the night, and I had a momentary flashback to my very earliest days in East Commonlands, when I stood in awe as the distant spell effects of other players bloomed in the near-pitch blackness of the Norrathian night.

It's getting lighter. I can see my hand in front of my face. Oh, wait, that's not my hand...come to think of it, that's not my face either...

P:G really does have those old-school feels. There are a lot of individuals and teams beavering away on various projects, claiming they're going to Bring Back The Magic that was supposedly lost somewhere along the way. It's something Brad McQuaid just made a very good case for, explaining rather movingly why it would be a good thing to do. If anyone's actually going to make it happen, though, I don't think it will be Brad but I do think it could be Eric Heimburg, his wife Sandra Powers and their team.

I base that faith on the very simple fact that they're already doing it. I saw the evidence again this morning and it's convincing.

After a lot of wandering around, surviving a revenge attack by Old Snouty while I was fiddling with settings, almost taking a boat trip to Sun Vale, which I'm pretty sure would have turned out badly, eventually I found the portal to the next zone. Eltibule.

I have a bad feeling about this.

I'd expected to be shredded by wildlife on arrival and the forest of player-tombstones that greeted me as I portaled in did nothing to calm my apprehensions. As it turned out, though, my time bumbling about in the newbie zone and one of its several dungeons hadn't been wasted. My gear, skills and level allowed me to travel safely to the first Keep I saw, speak to several of the citizens there, acquire a bunch of "favors", which is, I think, the preferred P:G term for quests.

What's more I was tough enough, or "sturdy" as the guy who refused to sell me new armor until I proved I could kill five panthers put it, to...well, to kill five panthers. And some feral cows. And even a feral bull, although the second bull did for me, as did the three tigers who came to help their panther pal on a spectacularly bad pull.

Why, yes I am. Thank-you for asking!

In other words, I was playing an MMORPG. A proper, working game that functions well in a lot more than just the basic respects. A game you could quite feasibly take up right now as your main MMO and expect to get stuck into for quite a while. Rough around the edges, sure. Unfinished, obviously. But fun already and only going to become more so.

I've backed it again and I very much hope Eric gets my money this time. If it funds, backers get to keep playing for free, until launch. Not sure if that means he'll be closing the door to non-backers but just in case he does I recommend taking a look sooner rather than later if you haven't already.

Don't be put off by the annoying cave beginning. Get past that and there's a big world out there. One well worth exploring. And backing, too.

Monday, July 27, 2015

MMO Breakfast Club

Keen had another post up a while ago, in which he bemoaned the state of the MMO nation, as he often does. It generated an interesting comment thread that demonstrated something we probably all realize but don't acknowledge often enough: not everyone thinks the same way we do.

Wikipedia defines the Echo Chamber Effect as "a situation in which information, ideas, or beliefs are amplified or reinforced by transmission and repetition inside an "enclosed" system, where different or competing views are censored, disallowed or otherwise underrepresented". MMORPGs, in common with most hobbies, are rife with echo chambers: your guild, your friends list, your choice of game, your RSS feed, they all tend to put up a wall of reflection, bouncing your own perceptions back at you.

Sometimes they return distorted, warped, off-kilter but almost always recognizable, cousins to the original thoughts or feelings. When truly alien opinions and attitudes attempt to insinuate themselves the tools are ready to hand - /block, /ignore, guild kick or disband, remove from feed. It's so easy to hear only what you expect to hear, what you want to hear.

We refine our Filter Bubbles until the world conforms to the way we think it should and when we can't do that we retreat into silos. The exact definition of last year's most infuriating business meme, Silo Mentality, may not be an exact fit but something very similar is going on when we huddle together in our separate cliques - raiders, pvpers, crafters, casuals, carebears, each at best ignoring, sometimes opposing or resenting, the others.

"Comfort Zone" is a another glib turn of phrase guaranteed to spark static with me. As soon as I see it employed to further an argument my fur bristles. My instinctive reaction is to counter or close down any discussion that sees being comfortable as a negative. I love being comfortable. If I didn't then I wouldn't be comfortable, would I? It's a recursive, self-defeating argument.

Then there's "Challenge": that's a buzzword that grates. I read it as "Threat" and who wants to be threatened? And yet, get away from the false language and maybe there's something underneath that has substance.

It was reading horror stories of ganking in Ultima Online that decided me on Everquest as my first MMORPG. I never thought then that I'd end up spending a significant portion of my play time cackling gleefully as I pounced on some other player's hapless character with determined intent to send him back to his spawn point cursing me. I did, though. I do. And when it happens to me, as it very often does, I shrug, brush off the dust and carry on. There's no fear in it any more. Sometimes it's even fun.

For years I disliked crafting in MMORPGs so intently I thought it should be banned. My AD&D group never wasted a session knitting chainmail vests. If we wanted armor we killed someone who was wearing it or looted some ancient crypt or temple and bought what we needed with the treasure we hauled away in our portable hole. Crafting? That was something NPCs did. These days if an MMORPG doesn't have a rewarding and/or interesting crafting system I wonder how it dares call itself an MMORPG at all.

Even dungeons, that great staple of the genre, once seemed to me to be something for other people, not anything I'd ever experience. There was that whole "indoor/outdoor" thing, now long-forgotten, going on in Everquest back when I first started. Only hardcore players dared to travel the depths of Guk or Solusek's Eye. The rest of us, lightweights that we were, scratched our living on the surface, where you could run to a zoneline at need. The barrier to entry between the regular leveling game and Dungeoneering wasn't much lower than the wall that sprang up to separate raiding from the rest of the game a year or two later. You knew your place back then.

As the months and years rolled on my interest in the hobby grew in both breadth and depth. I wanted to play all the games. I wanted to try all the things. Some stuck, some didn't. Dungeons opened up for me and although I probably never gave raiding a fair chance I did at least get to see enough to decide it wasn't for me. I'm never going to have the patience or dedication to be more than a dilettante decorator but it turns out that I actually quite like jumping puzzles and I'm not terrible at them either. And on it goes.

In the end I do like my comfort and I don't particularly want to be "challenged" but there's a vast hinterland between dozing in an armchair by the fireplace and poling a dugout canoe up the Orinoco. It's not entirely true that you never know what you'll like unless you try it because we can all extrapolate from our experiences but it's surprising what catches your eye when you raise your head and look over the walls.

To some extent I'm in my own filter bubble, of course, surrounding myself with positive bloggers who still love MMOs, but that's why I also value the burnouts, the cynics, the bitter vets, or at least those who still care enough to make their cases for why the hobby's gone all to hell these days. It's tempting to close out some of those uncomfortable voices but often they're saying something that casts a shadow that brings out a detail the rainbow-hued light of positivity failed to reveal.

Just let's not expect any miraculous makeovers or sudden conversions. They're kind of creepy, anyway.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Set Adrift : EQ2

Returning to The Isle of Refuge has given me a timely reminder of one of my personal touchstones for life: the unreliability of memory.  These days it's reasonably widely known and even grudgingly accepted by the set of people who browse the "Smart Thinking" section in bookshops and watch TED lectures on their iPads that memory is in great part a fictionalized, narrative construct. Knowing that you don't know what you know doesn't always help you to know what you do know, though.

Trying to remember the past with any accuracy at all, even the past you experienced personally, directly and physically, is already next-to-impossible. When it comes to the return of the Isle, add another layer of diffusion for virtual experiences. And another for the post-hoc recreation of the intangible environment in which they took place. Oh, and another for an admittedly inaccurate and approximate recreation, at that. It's a wonder anybody can recognize the place at all.

I used to remember things clearly. Then I took an arrow in the head.

Many of the players stepping down from The Far Journey onto the dock at The Overlord's Outpost or The Queen's Colony haven't seen those wooden planks for a decade or so. In a way you might think I have the advantage of them there, in that I saw the EQ2 starting experience through a number of iterations, probably all of them, from beta in September 2004 to earlier this year.

It turns out that having a deeper, more nuanced relationship with the Isle of Refuge is far from an advantage when it comes to trying to remember what happened when. I can't even recall the basic structure of the starting experience with any accuracy. For example, as Wilhelm reminded me, there was always a shared bank on the island. I could have sworn it was added later but no, it was there from the start. In the very month the game launched people were even complaining it was an exploit.

Wait, do I know you?
As my ratonga SK slashed and clubbed his way to level eight last night I was repeatedly surprised. Sometimes it was wonderment at things that appeared to me to be completely new, like the named ranger and his two named hawks I couldn't recall ever seeing before (although the more I think about it the more I seem to remember camping him in a group once upon a time...) More often it was nagging memories, things turning out to be different from how I remembered them, or going missing altogether.

In the way these things do, recollections began to reassemble, pieces began to fall into place. A picture began to appear of how things might have been. But how closely does that picture represent reality? To establish that I'd have to do some research. Do I really have time for that?

Now That's What I Call An Upgrade Vol 1.
I didn't think so. For the while I believed I was content enough to let a fuzzy image of the past coalesce. It would be interesting, to me at least, to compare it one day to the recorded history, available from many sources but probably most coherently and comprehensively here at the EQ2 Wiki but do I want to do that when I could be playing?

Well, apparently so, because here I am on a Saturday morning, doing it.

My first thought was that my personal version of the Isle of Refuge, the one I've been carrying around in my head, must be a later version. I'd forgotten there were ever two islands, one for Good characters and one for Evil. The one I remember was a single island where two Ambassadors, one representing Freeport, one Qeynos, competed for your character's attention.

There was a sequence of quests to perform for each of them that gave you an idea of the philosophy and culture of the two competing city-states. When you had made your decision and wished to leave you would give your decision to one of the Ambassadors and he would authorize your passage.

Here's a Ring Event I'd forgotten all about.

According to a comment from 2008 on this EQ2Wire thread, however, that version was the original: "There is no more Isle of Refuge. Today there are two islands, the Queen's Colony (13 quests) and the Outpost of the Overlord (13 quests)" The two islands we have back on the TLE servers would seem to be a later refinement after all.

I'm so confused. I probably need to make a Good character and run through the Queen's Colony questline to see how much of what appears to be missing is in fact over there. Perhaps the original content was largely split into two and parceled out accordingly? There's one quest I was never able to complete that I'd like to finish some day. Oh, hang on...didn't I finally complete that one with Milo?

And with that it occurred to me to log Milo in and check the Completed Quest list in his journal. He's the King of the Isle, after all. He even bought his own Isle and set up home there, although he still hasn't decorated. But looking at his Journal really doesn't help much at all.

Milo was born on February 11 2005. I wanted some peace and quiet from the guild I was in at the time so I made a new character on a different server and played him for one session on a Sunday. In that session he completed several quests, most of which appear in the Isle Of Refuge category when the Journal is sorted by zone (the rest, including the start of the old Archetype Selection series, are recorded under Hallmark Quests).

He was woken up again March, then again almost a year later in February 2006, by which time the quests appear under a different zone, Outpost of the Overlord. Milo then took a very long nap, not re-appearing until 2012, when he completed the sequence and retired until his unexpected resurrection at the gates of Freeport in 2013. (This, by the by, is a very representative example of how I play many of my characters -  I may not log them in often but they are always "in play").

All of which would seem like conclusive evidence that the original IoR disappeared sometime between 2005-2006, if it wasn't for the fact that Milo's journal shows one quest in the Outpost zone record on the same day as it shows another in the Isle of Refuge! In the end I just gave up trying to make sense of it and looked at the wiki, where it's all explained neatly and succinctly thus:

"Originally, all new players started on the same island, Isle of Refuge, but depending on which city you chose to start in the Isle would appear differently. Later they made two distinct islands...The original starting quests remain in the completed section of the journal for players who completed them. Those quests which were moved to Queen's Colony or Outpost of the Overlord also moved journal sections, and are listed on those pages".

I swear this used to be a longer sequence, not just the one quest.
So I could have saved myself the bother all along and just googled it, but then what would I have learned? Just the bare facts. Nothing about how memory and perception of memory warps and flows, adapting itself to new information without reference to any objective verification, creating a whole skein of inaccurate, misleading supposed personal experiences that are as subjectively real as, well, anything we can know.

The version of The Isle of Refuge that remains most firmly embedded in my mind seems to be the true original, the one where all the refugees arrived together and were sent on varying quests according to their alignment. Although I must have played through the later, discrete versions more often and certainly more recently it's the original that pertains.

What that means, if it means anything, I couldn't say. Other than never trust your memory even if your absolutely certain it's right. It won't be. But I knew that already.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

I'm On A Boat! : EQ2

In a surprise move, expected by absolutely no-one, the new EQ2 Timelocked Expansion servers, Deathtoll (PvP) and Stormhold (PvE) launched smoothly, slightly ahead of schedule and without issue today.

Oh, wait, no...that wasn't the surprise...well, yes it was, but...

THIS was the surprise :

Having spent years telling us it was impossible, it turns out the devs have been playing a game of Chinese whispers all along, telling each other the code for the Isle of Refuge had been knitted into socks and could never be unravelled. Finally one of them decided to go and have a look down the back of the sofa and lo and behold, what did he find? A fully working Isle of Refuge complete with all the original quests!

Actually I'm far from sure which "original" version this is. I know it was changed several times but beyond that it's gone all fuzzy. It was a long time ago. I do remember this version, where the wyvern drifts past, sets the ship on fire and incidentally frees the caged goblin but I could swear there was a version with a much longer fight.

One thing that definitely was there right from the start is the execrable voice acting. It really is some of the worst I have ever heard. What those accents are supposed to be Mel Gibson only knows. Whoever's playing Captain Varlos even gets a line reading totally wrong - the seafaring term "swinging the lead" is clearly new to him and presumably to the director. He pronounces "lead" as if it rhymes with "deed" not "dead".  Some sea captain he is. And why does the dwarf refer to himself as "me" all the time, like Superbaby in a 1960s Bob Haney script?

Never mind, they might be the least convincing jolly jack tars on Norrath but somehow they muddle through. My little ratonga shadowknight  is safely ashore, literally and metaphorically wet behind the ears, ready to be indoctrinated in the ways of Lord Lucan D'Lere and introduced to the "culture" of Freeport.

I wonder what the weather's like this time of year?

Monday, July 20, 2015

Gone With The Winds : GW2

By chance, this month my desktop gallery has been serving up a selection from the hundred and more screenshots I took during the first appearance of The Bazaar of The Four Winds. That was almost exactly two years ago.

This year we got Golem Rush. And some people say there no such thing as progress.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Best Defense Is a Good Defense: GW2

Here's something I didn't expect to see this week: our Garrison with a waypoint. What's more we have another at Lowlands on Eternal Battlegrounds. There's even a chance we might have a third at Dreadfall Bay later this afternoon.

What's unusual about that? Golem Week, that's what.

The special event kicked off, unexpectedly early for those of us on North American servers, at EU reset on Friday. It threw the last few hours of the NA league matches into total chaos and I missed the start because I was in the middle of writing a blog post. As people realized what was happening the borderlands began to fill up with golems large and small. Within minutes virtually every Keep and Tower had changed hands. They kept doing that. They're still doing it.

Inside an hour or two even those, like myself, who'd been looking forward to the event, were beginning to have second thoughts. The majority of WvW regulars were talking about taking the week off and finding something more amusing to do like household chores or yard work. Mrs Bhagpuss, an inveterate defender, scout and strategist, was highly disgruntled. It seemed none of those qualities would be required while the event lasted.

The underlying concept - doubling the run speed and damage of the asuran power suits while making them free and instantaneous to create - was always a risky proposition. It was always likely to favor attackers, very heavily, over defenders. Coupled with a slew of bugs that, among other things, permitted golems to use summoned weapons and be duped at no cost whatsoever, the whole thing looked set to become a total disaster.

Someone has too much time on his hands.

Certainly that was and largely remains the opinion of most posters on the merged Golem Rush Feedback Mega-Thread, where,  at a rough estimate, more than 90% of all posts are highly critical of either the concept or the execution or both. WvW players are almost unanimous in their contempt and derision for the event. The few positive opinions come from the occasional PvE player that happens to stumble on the thread.

If more PvE players visited the WvW forums the story would be very different. For PvE players with a casual interest in WvW it's rather a fine event. There's a phenomenon in GW2 known as Karma Training (KTraining for short) in which gangs of players from each team run around maps avoiding each other while battering down gates to capture undefended structures. Each capture gives large spoonfuls of regular xp, wvw xp, karma, loot and who knows what other goodies.

It's the very definition of reward without risk and like all such opportunities it's wildly popular with a certain demographic. The home of the KTrain has long been the Edge of the Mists map, which ANet added a long time ago as a kind of waiting-room with magazines for people queuing to get into the real wvw maps but which almost immediately became the domain of PvE players looking to level alts at a breakneck pace.

The current event not only comes with its own xp bonus but it takes place in some nice, flat maps (you can easily fall off the narrow walkways in EOTM) and the objectives are much closer together (there's a lot of running in EOTM), making it a more attractive alternative for trailing around and around in a circle sucking up xp for an hour or six. That's exactly what happened from the moment the rules changed and it's very likely what's happening on most servers and in most matches right now.

Let's be honest. On Yak's Bend every week is Golem Week.

It's happening in our match too but thankfully it's not all that's happening. Yes, there are KTrains running almost non-stop. I took advantage of one this morning, along with the good old World Boss Train, to finish the last ten levels on my Asura Warrior. He dinged 80 taking a tower in EBG with his bags too full to collect his loot. Inbetween stations, though, he hopped off to answer several map calls, defending the two Keeps we've so far, somehow, managed to hold long enough to fortify and waypoint.

We are, after all, Yaks Bend. Roundly criticized from all directions for siege-humping, known as the Home of The Superior Arrow Cart and, ironically, infamous for our golem rushes, it's sometimes forgotten that there's a reason we love our siege: we're defense obsessives, the lot of us. Somehow, even in the face of a set of rule-changes seemingly designed to render defense completely pointless, we have managed to develop strategies to Hang On To Our Stuff.

It's led to some amazing fights. The successful defense of Lowlands a few hours ago, when FA arrived with what looked to be at least two dozen Omega golems and as many ground troops, was one of the most exciting I've experienced for months. I answered a map call and arrived, in the guise of one of my two elementalists, to find the Lord down and the ring two-thirds complete.

I made the mistake of running in to contest and was insta-killed by a wall of spinning FA Omegas spitting double-damage fire like erupting volcanoes. Like every other Yak's Bender on the map I immediately ran back to throw myself into the fray again only this time I danced around out of range of the golem apocalypse and rained my own fire down on them instead.

The Golem "Dance"

The battle lasted what seemed like an age but was probably less than ten minutes. I was downed repeatedly but always rallied, or was revived, before I fully died. The ring remained stubbornly at 70% while we slowly whittled away at the FA Omegas, our own golems standing and spinning among them while the rest of us picked off the downed and chipped chunks off the metal men.

At some point Mrs Bhagpuss arrived, also on one of her elementalists, but the fight was so manic I didn't spot her until all the FA golems were destroyed, the ground troops killed or chased out and the Keep Lord revived and back in control. This was the kind of battle I'd hoped for when this event was announced.

How many similar fights are happening around the NA and EU leagues I have no idea. I'd guess not many. Was the golem event a good idea just because we've managed to make it into something a little more than a KTrain festival? No, it wasn't.

It was, as so many are complaining, both ill-conceived and ill-executed and if, as some suspect, it points to a future direction for WvW that ANet wants to pursue then that's a very ominous prospect indeed. I count myself very lucky that not only am I on a server that cares about defense but also that the event arrived when our server happens to be particularly strong and is able to enforce its will to some degree even against stiff opposition. On most servers and in most Tiers I would guess normal WvW is effectively on hold for a week while PvE has its head.

There was quite a lot of talk earlier this year about how Heart of Thorns would make defensive play and holding territory more important in World vs World. I hope that remains the vision and this week is no more than an aberration. As with almost everything about HoT, we won't know until it's here. And we still have no idea when that might be. This event does not instill confidence and that's putting it mildly.

If nothing else, though, at least I learned that Golems can dance.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Horse Is Both Alive And Dead: WoW

Well, that was a surprise.

I'd long ago written-off my old WoW account as lost for good. By co-incidence, I cancelled my sub just as Blizzard mandated a BattleNet account to play and, although as far as I remembered I'd done the necessary to convert or combine or register or whatever the instruction was, whenever I tried to take advantage of one of the "Come back, we really miss your money you!" offers none of the log-in details and passwords I had written down were recognized.

At one point I went so far as to open a support ticket about it. After an exchange of emails in which I quoted not only my account details but even the registration codes from the original box I was told categorically that there was no record of my account ever having existed. At that point I gave up any hope of ever seeing any of my old characters again and made a new account instead to take advantage of WoW's excellent F2P until Level 20 scheme.

That was where things would have rested had I not been flipping through some old papers earlier this week, looking for something else entirely, and happened on Mrs Bhagpuss's old BattleNet login information. Once I'd blown the dust off I thought I'd just give it a try and see if it worked. Yes, EULA violation and all that. All in the name of science so it doesn't count.

Well, the experiment kind of worked and kind of didn't. The log-in information was accepted but another registration window popped up. Odd. At that point I thought I'd better at least ask Mrs Bhagpuss if she wanted her Battlenet account re-registered before carrying on so I logged back out. The more I thought about it, though, the more I couldn't remember ever getting a window like that when I tried entering my own details.

I dug around some more and found my old WoW login and password and tried those instead. Stap me if the same "what ridiculous pseudonym would you like to be embarrassed by in years to come?" window didn't appear. So I made up a name, clicked the button and there it was in front of me - my old account.

At first I didn't realize it what had happened. I thought I'd made yet another new account because the character select screen was blank. I made a dwarf hunter and then, as I was about to log him in, I noticed he was on some RP server I'd never heard of. Miraculously, instead of shrugging and carrying on, I thought to go to server select and scroll down the list and there against my old server was the number 9.

Which is how I come to be playing WoW again. All my old characters are there, every one with a bunch of random letters stuck on the end of their name from some Blizzard name-purge, one with a nose-ring I definitely don't remember choosing at character creation, but otherwise as good as new. I recognized about half of them, mostly the ones that were too high level to log in, naturally.

Along with the scatter of throwaways in single figures, below the threshold I found a level 11 warrior and a level 13 druid. The druid is a night-elf (what was I thinking?) so she was out. I logged the warrior (human) in to find she was in Ironforge. Why, I have no idea.

After jogging most of a full circuit of the oddly featureless Dwarven capital trying to re-orient myself, I passed the gateway to the underground tram, one of the things that most impressed me about WoW back when I first played and which has always stuck with me. Couldn't resist another trip. One jolting, exhilarating tram-ride later and there I was in Stormwind again.

I trotted through the cobbled streets, soaking in the nostalgia. Jogged past the long-suffering schoolteacher and her bored and fractious pupils on their educational trip to the big city until I came to the gates. For a moment I stood looking out at Goldshire. It's just amazing how it all comes flooding back.

For an hour or so I pottered around among the trees questing and complaining to myself about the lack of bag space. Some things really do never change. It all seemed just as I remembered until I crossed the bridge into Westfall only to walk right into a homicide investigation. Not just Old Blanchy lay dead, crushed beneath the wheels of his own cart.

I remember Old Blanchy. I should - I've been using his feed-pouch as a rucksack for five years.

At level 16 now, my warrior is deep in the investigation. Horse-murder is the least of it. We're on the trail of a mysterious Shadowy Figure who seems to be working to bring back the Defias bandit clan. I didn't even know they'd gone. I still can't get used to all the homeless beggars sleeping by the roadside. This is what happens when you have a Cataclysm. Everything goes all to rack and rooney.

Another four levels and the warrior will lock, which, since levels seem to come at the rate of one or two an hour, is going to be a problem if I'm to get to the bottom of this whole mystery. A problem that may have to be solved by the judicious application of money. Yes, it's more than possible I may re-subscribe, not to get a Garrison but just to see how the new old world has changed. And bring Old Blanchey's killer to justice, of course.

Or I may be distracted by some other new shiny and wander off, leaving my characters to idle away their time in loading screen limbo for another few months or even years. It feels good, though, to know that I have that choice again.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide