Monday, August 31, 2015

And...Relax : Blaugust

I almost went with Glad It's All Over for a title but, really, it wasn't that bad. Also Blogger doesn't allow hyperlinks in the title so it would have been a waste of an opportunity to link to my favorite band of all time (Dolly Mixture of course, not Captain Sensible, great though he is in his own way).

Ahem...why don't I go out and come in again...

Blaugust is over. It was a month-long party and now as we say our thank-yous to our exhausted host, Belghast, we'll find out who has the worst hangover and who's still feeling chipper. Wilhelm managed to post 42 times out of 31, presumably as some kind of tribute to the late Douglas Adams. He also has a full list of all the participating blogs in case anyone doesn't want to navigate around Anook to find them.

I didn't, which is the primary reason Inventory Full isn't on that list. Last year Blaugust kind of crept up on me and I didn't even think about participating. This year I gave it some serious consideration but it was the imposing formality of the entrance requirements, particularly joining Anook, that put me off.

For some reason I find Anook quite scary. I think it's the name. What does it mean? It reminds me of some ancient Babylonian demon that might be found lurking in the shadows of a small generic New England town on a designated public holiday.

Anyway, for whatever reason I decided not to sign up but instead to shadow the event and find out, largely to satisfy my own curiosity, whether I could post every day and if so whether I'd enjoy it. Well, the answers are "yes" and "not really".

Like Wilhelm, I had absolutely no problem generating ideas for posts. My goals going in, to the extent that I had any, were to post every day for a month and not post anything I wouldn't have posted in a normal month. That turned out to be easy.

There was no need to refer to any of the Blaugust memes or prompts for inspiration. I enjoyed reading other peoples' takes on the various topics but my own problem, far from not knowing what to write about, is always having too many topics and not enough time. On a number of days I'd have liked to have done two or even three posts but I had to force myself to resist temptation or I'd never have gotten to play any games!

Part of my motivation, ironically, was to win back more game time by posting more frequently. I was hoping the daily discipline would teach me to write shorter, snappier pieces, ones that take 30-60 minutes to finish instead of the two-to-four hour essays that are the norm here.

Well, that was a fail! Almost every post this month was somewhat rushed and not as long-winded overwritten well-constructed as I'd have wished. Instead of writing shorter pieces I ended up writing longer pieces faster, which really isn't an improvement.

On balance I think I'd prefer to take four hours over something every couple of days than two hours every day. What I'd certainly prefer is not to be posting on every day when I work. There just isn't time in the evening to do a proper blog post and play games and relax and wind down. If I could post at work or if I was retired or on holiday then sure, every day would be fun. On my current schedule it's not.

That I expected. What surprised me was the effect posting every day had on my traffic. Early in the month I observed that Blaugust appeared to be having a markedly negative impact on my page views. It was the opposite of what most Blaugustians were experiencing and I put that mostly down to my not being part of the official event.

As the month wore on things normalized; to a degree. The picture is slightly warped by the fact that July 2015 was, for reasons I don't pretend to understand, my best month ever for page views. August was always likely to slip back some.

What's absolutely, undeniably obvious, however, is that, as Azuriel observed, posting more often does not guarantee more traffic. I posted almost exactly twice as frequently and racked up twice as many posts as a normal month and the best spin you could possibly put on the results is that it made no difference at all to how many people read them.

Neither did increased activity generate more comments, my own preferred indicator of the health of the blog when it comes to readership. Comments ticked along much as usual. There were some new names which is fantastic - I love having regular commenters and value every one but fresh blood is always exciting. Hmm... that didn't come out quite right...

Anyway, it's done and it was enjoyable enough - for a given value of enjoyment. I'll be very happy to get back to a more natural schedule of posting when I have something to say (constantly and all the time) and when I have time (days when I'm not working).

I'll also be quite relieved if everyone else slows down a bit too because, unlike Murf, I do want to go on reading everything in my Feedly and blog roll on the day it appears. This month, for the first time in a long while, I've had to skim read posts I'd normally read carefully and skip some blogs altogether just because there aren't enough hours in the day.

If Belghast runs Blaugust again next year I'll think very carefully before deciding whether to join in but if I do I'll go the whole hog even if it means signing up to whatever new-fangled social media seven-day wonder is the hotness in Summer 2016. I just hope it doesn't involve neural implants.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Watching Hotbars For Fun And Profit (But Mostly Fun)

Mercury at Light Falls Gracefully has a very interesting post up concerning the qualitative and subjective differences between those games whose combat mechanics demand you focus directly on what you can see your enemies doing and the ones that require you pay close attention to the UI instead. He describes the two approaches, neatly, as first-person and third-person (not to be confused with first and third person perspective, of course).

By and large, using these definitions, the two waves of 3D MMORPGs that followed first Everquest and, later, WoW  fall into the static, UI-focused third-person category. The last few years, beginning  at the point when, arguably, developers gave up trying to build their WoW-killers and instead began to scratch around for other ways to make money for their investors, have seen the genre move towards a much more action-oriented, visually-keyed, first-person approach.

My own original experience of online 3D gaming came with Everquest. It was only fifteen years ago but looking back it seems almost impossible to believe that at the time, like most players, I saw Norrath through the curved screen of a 15" CRT monitor. What's more, the moving image of the gameworld itself only showed up in a rectangle smaller still, set inside a frame that housed the UI that dominated the entire play experience. (That's the image at the top of the post. I don't have any screenshots from that period so I borrowed that one from The Druid's Grove).

It's no wonder we were all trained to treat the UI as paramount. It was pretty much all we could see. Especially if you happened to play a healer. When I first discovered what I still consider to be my true metier, main healing for a group, even that small window onto the world went away.

Killing the easy version of Feydedar for someone's epic.
This is apparently a raid though you'd hardly know it from that UI.
My SK is not in shot. He's the one saying "feared" at the end. I think he fell in the sea. Good thing he wasn't main tank.

Tucked into the corner of a room just inside Back Door at the Sarnak Fort in Lake of Ill Omen with my group relying on me to keep them alive, I'd spend most of the fight sitting down, desperately meditating to regain mana. In front of me all I'd see on my monitor would be my open spellbook and the UI. I'd stare at the health bars of my party and try to scry their fortunes, judging when to stand, cast a heal and sit back down again.

I loved it. It had such purity. It was so calming and yet so exciting all at once. It was zen healing. I was very annoyed when, not all that long after I'd begun my career as a healer, SOE did away with the full-screen spellbook and at last allowed healers the pleasure of seeing what was killing the overnuking wizard rather than having to divine it from his screams.

Of course, I soon got used to having that blindfold taken off and it would be crazy to pretend I'd willingly have put it back on. When I got my first horse, with the arrival of the Shadows of Luclin expansion (we had to go to the moon before we got mounts), I didn't even have to sit down to med any more and I liked that even better. But always, always I had to watch that UI.

As the amusing Little Healer app seeks to remind us, healing in MMOs is all about those bars. I miss that kind of healing a lot, although whether I still have the self-discipline and patience to do it night after night, month after month, I somewhat doubt. I enjoyed a small, brief resurgence in FFXIV a couple of years back but it wasn't enough to pull me away from GW2's "every man for himself" anarchy.

Tanking again. Somewhere in Velious. No idea what's going on but it's very unusual to have the group window on the right. Would never have done that as a cleric. Apparently taking screenshots was also something I never did as a cleric. Off-tanks have all the time in the world to admire the scenery.

It didn't stop at healing though. Playing EQ didn't just show me what adventuring in a virtual world could be like. It showed me what it should be like. I learned to use the cursor keys to move. I learned to click hot keys to cast spells. I learned to stand still and not jump about while I was fighting. I learned to press Num Lock to auto-run, F10 to hide the UI and Numpad Minus to take a screenshot.

It was a language and over the course of five years or so I attained something like fluency. So much so that after about a decade and a half pretty much the only preferences I've changed willingly are using WASD (which I think I probably picked up around 2009, when I first played WoW), moving while casting (got that from Vanguard) and dodge-rolling (GW2 of course). And even in GW2 I dodge roll by clicking the hotbar.

Most of the other attempts by developers to get me to play MMOs as though they were proper video games I have stalwartly resisted. It's not that these mysteries are beyond me. I can do it if I'm motivated. I enjoyed DCUO and Neverwinter and ESO among others. Just not enough to play them for more than a month or two. It gets to be hard work and I don't like hard work all that much. Especially not when it's dressed up as fun.

Sometimes I get to have my own way. In WildStar, where Carbine would love me to watch the action not the UI and have even tried to make it more palatable by turning the action into a UI all of its own, with telegraphs that cover the screen every time anyone does anything at all, the first thing I've done is switch them all off. I even worked out how to put my dodges onto the hotbar so if, heaven forbid, I ever need to dodge anything (hasn't happened yet but I expect it will) I can click on those as nature intended instead of doing that weird double-tap thing.

Classic solo set-up from my magician on Stromm back near launch. Here she's invised watching some hot NPC on NPC action. And given that fire elemental, probably about to take an unexpcted faction hit.

I don't believe a third-person, UI-centered approach is innately superior (alright, maybe I do, just a little...). It's mostly that it's far more comfortable, relaxing, enjoyable and, yes, distant. And I want it to be distant. It's my character having these adventures, not me. He can have the adrenalin rushes. I don't want them. I'm happy floating somewhere overhead and a little behind, pointing and making suggestions. That's what I'm here for.

Having to watch all the tells, read all the signals, react in real time to fragments of the visual storm rather than just letting it burst around me like a fantastic firework display is too intense, too involving, too stressful. Frankly it's more effort than I'm prepared to put in for the sake of entertainment. I'm not so jaded I need that level of stimulation. It's so much easier and just nicer all round to read the UI and take it from there.

So, when Colin Johansen pops up with his mantra of thrills, spills and chills it makes me want to switch off and go do something more boring instead. Like topping up a health bar. That never gets old.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A Fork In The Road : GW2

So now we know. The Future of Guild Wars 2 is ten-man instanced raids that reward Legendary armor with stats no different from Ascended. Beginning with one raid two weeks after the launch of Heart of Thorns and building from there.

The full details are on the new, highly irritating, overwrought Heart of Thorns website. The PAX presentation this time round was a lot sharper than the last one I watched, or at least it was once I managed to get shot of the warm-up stream's hosts, with their unbelievably awful music that sounded like ELP failing to get to grips with early 90s drum'n'bass.

Colin Johanson was fairly clear and concise on the new raid setup. There was one point where he seemed to be wandering off-message and I thought for a moment he was telling us that all the existing world bosses and dynamic events were going to be revamped as raids but I am 99% sure I misheard that part.

Prior to the show, Jeromai felt he needed to consider his own future with the game based on his fear of what raids might do to it. I feel much the same over the whole new direction. The mantra is "harder, more challenging, group content" whereas, given a choice, I'd opt for  "easier, less challenging, solo-friendly". I'm out of sync with the zeitgeist apparently.

That said, adding raiding, in and of itself, means nothing to me. Many MMOs I've played and enjoyed over the years have had a full-on raid-based endgame. i just ignore it. I can very easily ignore GW2's as well.

The problem comes with just how much of the game I'm now planning to ignore once the expansion lands on October 23. I already ignore both dungeons and fractals. I mostly ignore Dry Top and Silverwastes and their associated map-wide, sequential events. I ignore Three-Headed Wurm.

The prospect of four new maps (and yes, it's now confirmed there are just four, which is it at the low end of the speculation curve that followed the earlier "several") that all operate like Silverwastes on steroids means it's pretty likely that, while I definitely won't ignore them, at most I'll explore them once each and then never visit them again unless I'm driven to do so for the new Personal Story and the next Living Story arc. If there is one.

As for Guild Halls, they appear to be entirely out reach. I have a great antipathy for the entire concept of guilds in MMOs other than very, very small family and friends guilds. I don't intend to join a large guild just to rattle around in a ruin in the jungle so that's probably more content from HoT that I can safely ignore.

The new WvW maps do look intriguing but reading the website spiel reminds me just how PvE-oriented they appear to be. I'd forgotten that whole "chase dinosaurs for power cores every three hours" bit. We'll see how that works out. I wouldn't be surprised to see those mechanics getting roundly ignored if one server is dominant. WvW players have a long record of skipping whatever PvE content they're asked to do unless it involves hammering on a keep door.

That leaves the Mastery system, the Specializations and the new Revenant class, all of which fall towards the innoffensive-but-not-particularly-interesting-either end of the spectrum. I've already pre-bought the expansion and, while I'm confident of getting my money's worth just from the initial exploration and the new stuff to see and do, it seems increasingly unlikely there'll be anything there that will hold my attention once the novelty wears off.

Which makes the other half of the Big Reveal, F2P for the base game, feel all the more significant. The real big surprise of the day for me was that the transition to F2P is effective immediately. If you've wanted to play GW2 for three years but were never willing to get your wallet out even for the 75% off sales then now's your chance. Come on, there must be someone...

There's a FAQ that gives the typical F2P/Sub comparison table we're used to from other conversions, although in this case it's actually a F2P/B2P split. There's no Premium Membership. Most of the expected restrictions aimed at preventing goldspam and trolling are in place - chat rules, level-locks on specific content and areas, controlled access to trade et cetera. It was particularly reassuring to see that characters on F2P accounts will need to level all the way to 60 before they can enter WvW.

Given how likely it seems that most of my (probably soon to be heavily reduced) time in GW2 post-expansion will be spent in Pact Tyria, the move to F2P ought to work in my favor. There must have been a danger that the old world maps would have become heavily de-populated as ANet pushed everyone into the jungle and directed all their development time there. At least a steady flow of F2P players should keep the World Boss trains running.

Like Kaozz, my favorite part of GW2, the one thing that really sets it apart from all the other MMOs I've played (apart from early Rift), is the wealth of drop-in, easy access, really huge-scale fights. I just love to be in a huge horde of people with a thousand spells going off at once, all piling on to a single boss with a gazillion hit points. That's far closer to my idea of a "raid" than ten people in a private room learning dance steps. With luck F2P might at least keep that dream going for a while longer.

One odd crumb of information that might have got more attention on another day was the news that there are only two more beta events, including next weekend's. Frankly, that sounds nuts. The content we saw last time was buggy as hell. All the new specializations have been massively revised after each outing. I find it next to impossible to believe the thing is anywhere even close to being ready.

When you think of how much content there is that we have never seen and are now clearly never going to see prior to launch I have no expectation whatsoever of most of it working. It's 55 days til the expansion goes live. It feels like it needs another three months. Or maybe six.

Oh well. It will be what it will be. I am as sure as I can be about anything that hasn't happened yet that I'll be playing GW2 until it stops or I do. I'll be cherry-picking the bits that suit my tastes and playstyle, though, and the chances of that providing the kind of full MMO meal it has for the last three years seem pretty darn slim.

Never mind. As Jeromai said "...that situation isn’t the end of the world. Just the end of me playing one game". Or, in my case, playing one game quite as much.

Friday, August 28, 2015

GW2 Goes F2P...Or Does It?

Right after I finished yesterday's post about the new Daredevil specialization for the Thief this dropped into my Feedly. Not an hour before I'd been at Claw of Jormag, where map chat was busy with arguments over whether GW2 was about to go F2P and, if it was, whether the sky would fall.

With the full authority of ignorance I opined to Mrs Bhagpuss that it would make no sense for ANet to start giving the base game away. What would be the point? Apparently there was some rumor going around but you know how these things are. People will make up anything.

Well apparently it's more than a rumor or so IGN reckon:

That's the tweet that started it all. Now deleted at source, as is the official ANet trailer that appeared briefly and which I haven't seen. Supposedly, that suggested the plan was far more sweeping than just another version of the extremely limited Free Trial that that_shaman datamined last year.

There's a substantial reaction thread on the forums but it's by no means a threadnought...yet. Anet themselves have said nothing although there's hardly anything unusual in that. Their Big Announcement is only a day away in any case and with the cat at least poking its head out of the bag the best way they have to maintain tension is neither to confirm nor deny.

The timing of this announcement is interesting. As of today all new accounts for GW2 will require SMS or similar authentication. The requirement is waived for all accounts made before that date. I would imagine that would be a useful control tool for eliminating or pursuing  botting accounts.

They shall not pass!

The two big fears in the community at present seem to be a vast influx of bots, trolls and hackers and the complete collapse of the economy. Somewhat ironically in my opinion, given that GW2 is a B2P game that has had two extremely cheap box sales already, the feeling seems to be that F2P players are entirely different in attitude, ethics and morals to the people already playing.

That last seems to me to be mostly fear of the other. Having played a multiplicity of MMOs under just about all payment models for years now I would say there's very little to choose between any of them in terms of the communities. If pushed I'd say subscription games tend to have the most difficult and abrasive communities and not only for a new player.

On botting it should be remembered that GW2 had an absolutely appalling problem with bots during the first three months after launch. Mrs Bhagpuss and I went on holiday at the peak of the infestation and talked seriously about whether we would leave GW2 when we came back because the botting issue was making the game unplayable.

You've ruined your own lands...

That was when the game was only available at full price. ANet claimed they were working on a solution and it turned out they were. By the time we returned from holiday most of the bots were gone and within six months they were all gone. I haven't seen a single bot in about two years.

So, I can't see the payment model change bringing in waves of bots. As for the economy the issue there appears to be the daily log-in rewards, which can be used to obtain items, mostly crafting mats, that sell for a lot of money on the Trading Post. The fear is that people will create scores of F2P accounts, nab all the log-in rewards and crash the market.

I'm pretty sure GW2's in-house economist John Smith will already have thought of that one. If the base game does go fully F2P I imagine we have yet another revamp of dailies to look forward to.

For now I feel sanguine about this. I have three accounts and only one of them is going to get Heart of Thorns added to it. I'll have the option of playing with or without F2P players around me but I imagine most of my time will be spent down there in the base game with the unwashed hordes so how they handle the changes will very much affect me.

The devil will, as always, be in the details. I guess we'll find out tomorrow whether the sky really is about to fall.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Speak Of The Daredevil : GW2

The Heart of Thorns specialization for the Thief class was officially announced today, although anyone who cares probably heard about it a couple of days back, when most of the details were data-mined and posted on Reddit. Even those of us who weren't really paying attention could hardly avoid hearing about it, since speculation and scuttlebutt about the new Elite sub-classes is common currency in map chat most days.

At The Frozen Maw last night someone asked what people thought of the new Daredevil, which is what the new spec is called. It does seem an odd choice. The conversation rapidly spiralled into a heated discussion over whether Daredevil uses a staff or nunchucks with the participants clearly at cross-purposes over whether we were talking about the upcoming addition to the game or the guy in the comics.

For me, as a lifelong comics fan, it was Matt Murdock, Marvel's blind superhero that came immediately to mind. He was created in the 1960s by Stan Lee and Bill Everett, which I remembered as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby until I fact-checked. I would have been a demon on the New Yorker back in the day! On second thoughts maybe not... they didn't have Wikipedia back then, did they? The wiki entry does mention "an unspecified amount of input" from Jolly Jack, though, so I wasn't entirely off the money.

Daredevil was always a second-string hero until Frank Miller's (and David Mazzuchelli's) seminal run on the series in the 1980s. The name has been pretty well nailed down ever since because of that, despite the best efforts to the contrary by one of the least successful Marvel movie adaptations a decade ago. That disgrace has since been largely wiped from memory by the current well-received tv show but whether GW2's thiefly version will be able to shake itself free from the baggage attached to the name remains to be seen.

Mrs Bhagpuss probably couldn't pick Daredevil out of a line-up but having read the skill set
she has her own take on where we've seen it all before. When I got into game tonight and grouped up for the Jungle Wurm daily she asked "Did you hear thieves are going to be EQ monks?".

And yes, now that I read the details, the whole thing does have a monkly sheen. This part especially:

"Fist Flurry: Strike your enemy multiple times. If all attacks hit, gain access to Palm Strike.

Palm Strike: Strike your enemy once to deal massive damage and stun your enemy, marking them with a Pulmonary Impact. After a few moments, Pulmonary Impact delivers a second blow. This ability cannot critically hit enemies".

Isn't that D&D's Quivering Palm?

Indeed, the whole staff-wielding warrior-acrobat thing pretty much screams "Shaolin Monastery" (unless it screams "Friar Tuck"... no, he was hardly an acrobat, was he?). I'm not sure it's something I'd have associated with fantasy thieves. There's a crossover when it comes to stealth I guess but then we're going to be obligated to start talking ninjas and no-one wants that.

Whether we're getting Matt Murdock or Shang Chi, it's probably all going to remain hypothetical as far as I'm concerned. I might have a level 80 thief but I haven't got the first clue how to play one. I never got on with the monk class in Everquest either, unlike Mrs Bhagpuss, who had a max level monk back in the PoP era. About all I remember was "You have fallen to the ground" ten thousand times as I tried to train up Feign Death and not being able to loot any copper pieces because of the weight penalty.

So that's thief out. Just the unnamed Engineer specialization to go now and the full details of the long-ago revealed but never codified Druid spec for Rangers, which also uses a staff. That's probably the only one I'm really interested in so sod's law says it's the last to get a full reveal.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Pay To Survive : City of Steam, DinoStorm

A funny thing happened while I was playing WildStar today. It made me log out and play two other MMOs instead.

Not because I wasn't enjoying myself. I was enjoying WildStar very much indeed, wandering around Galeras helping the local farmers deal with a poison gas attack, aiding the local mayor in foiling an attempted Chua plot to undermine his town with giant mole machines. As you do.

No, it was the tunes. The extraordinary potency, as The Master might have put it, had he been born a century later, of cheap videogame music. I kept hearing fragments of melodies that reminded me very strongly indeed of the main themes from two games I haven't played for far too long - City of Steam and DinoStorm.

They're both browser-based games so there was no long patching process even though it's been more than six months since I last logged in to either of them. Okay, that's not strictly true. I did try to play City of Steam on my tablet a couple of months back but it wasn't a particularly successful experiment. Not without connecting a USB mouse and keyboard anyway and by the time you do that you might as well just play on the desktop.

For two MMOs that no-one talks about any more (not that anyone but me has ever talked about DinoStorm, as far as I can remember) they seem to be trundling along quite nicely. CoS has six servers running, three in Europe and three in the USA, although what a "server" means for a browser game I have no idea.

Someone in chat said the game was no longer being developed and there's precious little on the website to suggest it ever will be again as far as actual content is concerned but that doesn't mean there's nothing going on. There have been quite a few changes to the way log-in and playtime rewards work since my last visit and there's currently a large cross-server competetive event in progress. Plenty of people were chatting and chilling in Arkadia although it wasn't as crowded as I've seen it in the past.

My goal remains the same as it has been since ownership and operations reverted to Mechanist Games almost eighteen months ago - level one character far enough to get to the end of the main storyline. I've been stuck on one particular episode for as long as I can remember. It's a long battle through several instances to a boss that I have yet to come close to beating. I realized ages ago that I either needed to get a couple more levels or some better gear to have a good chance of getting past him but leveling is such a grind I haven't had the will to buckle down and get it done.

Then today I had an epiphany. You're not expected to level up by playing at all. That's why it's so dull. You're supposed to stand in the central square, select each activity in turn and let the game autorun you through the boring busywork of fighting. If you really don't want to be bothered even with that there's a button next to every activity that lets you pay to have it marked as "Completed" - you don't need to move!

There's a plethora of daily activities that give Shillings (the in-game currency), Bound Electrum (a version of the cash shop currency earnable in-game), XP, talent points, crafting mats, collectible currencies for buying pets and mounts, appearance gear. Every one of them has a "Finish This For Me - I Can't Be Arsed" button next to it.

You name it, they'll give it to you for doing nothing. Sell it to you, I mean, of course. Oh, you can still go out and get it all the old-fashioned way if you want to but why bother?

All this time I've been ignoring the simple fact that I have a wealth of currency of all kinds accrued from past efforts that could be spent to get me over the hurdles and on to the only thing that interests me - the story. All I need to do is remember to log in every day, cycle through the daily events, do the quick and easy ones, pay the game to do the rest and I'll knock off a level or so a day in about half an hour.

My goblin gunner is level 27. If I remember correctly, although the level cap is fifty, the story only goes to about thirty. It should take a week. Two at the most. I think I'll still have to go and do the story quests in the locations where they actually happen but that's kind of the point. I guess. I might also have to do the access quests for the next zone but that's fine too. I like seeing new places.

Gosh! Finding out I don't actually have to play the game to play the game has really motivated me to play the game! Who knew? All I have to do now is remember to log in. Thanks Carbine! I'd never have done it without your oddly unoriginal choice of background music.

As for DinoStorm I don't think I'm ever going to make any progress there. I doubt they'll miss me. I never gave them any money anyway. Someone must have, though, because the game is still plugging away. What's more, unlike City of Steam, which I think is definitely quietening down, DinoStorm feels busier than ever. There were dino riders all over the place when I was in town collecting my log-in rewards (paltry though they were, compared to City of Steam's).

What's more there were plenty of players out in the badlands. Unlike City of Steam, where almost everything outside the urban hubs happens in instances, DinoStorm is a real MMO with proper zones and everything and they're all set for open PvP. You can quest and level safely for a while in Dinoville but eventually you have to venture out into the badlands if you want to progress.

Despite the warning as you leave town I've never had any trouble. On my little starter dino I probably look too pathetic to kill. Until today. Someone on a hulking great tyrannosaur took exception to me breathing his air and filled me full of lead.

First time I've been killed by another player in DinoStorm. It was a learning experience. Literally.

I learned that you lose some money permanently and drop some more on the ground. I learned you can go back and get the money you dropped (aka corpse recovery) but that you can also buy a Wallet Guard in the store to stop you dropping money next time someone shoots you in the back. Or you can buy a PvP Protection scheme that prevents other players from attacking you altogether - for three hours.

Is this Pay To Win? It's definitely Pay Not To Be Ganked. Does anyone playing these games as their main MMO care? Who are those people anyway? Why are they playing these MMOS and not ones people have heard of? Sometimes I feel we're all living in different worlds and not just virtually either.

You know what? So long as the scenery is worth looking at and the music sounds sweet I don't really care. If I can buy my way to success or safety with imaginary money then I'm already winning. Aren't I?

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Rock Dog Best Dog : GW2

I can't remember exactly when it was that I first began to notice the rock dogs. Not the wild ones that roam the umber plains and valleys of Ascalon, nor yet the snarling guards of the ogre camps. Those I'd known forever. They'd long since ceased to feel bizarre or alien with their spiked and plated coats and their scimitar bone spurs.

No, these were pets, or so it seemed. Suddenly they were everywhere, flinging themselves on the deluded grawl at The Frozen Maw or leaping at the throats of invaders in The Mists. They'd fight ferociously for a while and then, as mysteriously as they appeared, they'd slump to the ground, curl up and fade away.

At first I thought they were being summoned into battle by a mass blowing of Ogre Pet Whistles, as used once to happen often when we battled Tequatl, but although the grateful Gortho, Son of Malik still sells his whistles on occasion, the Great Pet Summoning Items Nerf of '14 put them and their like squarely out of fashion.

If there was one person likely to know what was going on, I reasoned, it would be Evon "I was the favorite" Gnashblade. Arms-dealer, entrepreneur, failed political candidate and erstwhile civil servant, he's a charr with his sharp-clawed fingers in every pie.

And so it proved. There it was, on Gnashblade's Black Lion Trading Post, listed openly. Yours for less than a gold apiece (just barely): the Superior Rune of the Ogre. Scan down the set bonuses and you'll see it: "25% chance when struck to summon a rock dog (cooldown 90 seconds)".

In Tyria almost everyone has pets. Not just the peaceful minis that trail behind us humming and whirring and doing little dances, the princesses and pigs, the queens and the quaggans, but real, fighting creatures, willing, or at least compelled, to fight for us until they either die or vanish into the netherworlds whence we summoned them.

Some are the true pet masters and mistresses, the rangers with their menageries, the necromancers with their minions, perhaps even the mesmers with their clones. The rest make do with their assortment of short-lived assistants. Thieves get to call on their guild, elementalists summon elementals (well, what would you expect?), guardians fight beside ethereal self-wielding weapons. Engineers have turrets but until they invent the wheel those hardly count. they get any help at all? If so I can't recall what it might be.

If there's one thing everyone other than a thief or mesmer about to step into the shadows knows it's that when you're in a tight corner you can never have too many pets. Every biting, scratching, clawing, punching creature counts. For my money rock dogs count double.

Take that "25% chance when struck". It doesn't sound like much but let me tell you it can be a life-saver. Literally. If you're on the losing end of a fight one thing you can guarantee is that you're going to get struck - a lot. Frankly, unless you're one of those float like a butterfly types, you're going to get struck a lot even when you're winning.

Rock dog's procs rock. He's out far more than he's in. With a set of ogre runes you'll never fight alone. What's more he's tough. He can take a hit and dish one out and he hangs around. He's vigilant too. He'll leap to your aid whenever anything attacks you and if there's nothing left to fight he waits a good while before deciding it's time for his eternal sleep.

With a rock dog everyone's a ranger. Out exploring the wilderness alone, far from any chance of a drive-by revive, it's rock dog who stands between you and a trip to the nearest waypoint. There have been times, not a few, when I've lain there, downed, throwing my handfuls of dirt and cheering him on as he clawed something down, rallying me back to my feet.

It doesn't hurt that the rest of the stats on the Ogre rune are decent too. For a self-reliant soul not bound to the meta it's a respectable option even without the dog. With him it's almost too good to miss. At just under six gold for the set it's a far more affordable option than the similar, supposedly superior, Scholar. When a new member of the crew hits 80 and runes are being bought it's sometimes hard to look beyond the dog.

And, as I see rock dogs bounding into battle all around me, I think I can't be the only one who feels this way.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Home At Last! : WildStar

After binaryzero and Angelnorn's comments and clarifications on yesterday's housing items mini-rant, I resorted to google to get the full picture. On the official forums I found this irate response from decorators, going back to when the numbers were first added to the item descriptions.

Tar and feather stocks seemed to be trending sharply upwards until Carbine Social Systems Lead Enki arrived with the ice cream and back-rubs:

That was over a year ago though and the "display bug" is still with us. I imagine everyone playing is so used to it by now that no-one even notices it any more but, what with the re-launching the game to a whole new audience thing, I wonder whether someone might not want to take another look at getting that fix done.

Putting that behind me, this morning I worked through a boatload of Zone Episodes in the Celestion storyline, all of which were pretty entertaining, in the hope and expectation of hitting level fourteen some time today. Combat as a Soldier continues on as before - simple, bludgeoning, successful and satisfying - and so far leveling in WildStar seems remarkably close to how I like it.

Cut scenes are not WildStar's strongest suit and that's being generous. This one was a real anticlimax.

Filling out two full levels from twelve to fourteen took around three hours; a very comfortable pace, fast enough to feel like I was making good progress but still slow enough to appreciate the effort required. Loot drops were unusually well-judged. Random drops from mobs should feel satisfying or even exciting to receive; it's the life-blood of a good leveling game and Carbine seem to understand that. I got several good upgrades that way. With those and some decent quest rewards character advancement seemed just about right.

So, it was fun, but as soon as the ginormous Level Up for fourteen flashed across the screen I abandoned all pretense of following the plot and jumped in a taxi to Thayd. After a whistle-stop tour of the highlights and hot-spots on a hoverbike courtesy of Tour Guide Jakke my next stop was the Protostar Housing of the Future exhibit and thence to my very own house in the sky.

Not so much a house as an island it transpires. Naturally, it was night-time when I teleported in, although that just might have made the whole thing look even more spectacular. It's certainly a very generous parcel of land, even if it does look a bit overgrown and untended right now. I wonder if you can fall off the edge?

Anyone got a ride-on mower for sale?

I have to say, I'm a bit puzzled that the Protostar Corporation are handing these things out for free. They don't seem like the altruistic kind. Still, never look a gift house in the loft, that's my motto. I imagine they'll be making plenty of money off me from that on-site company store anyway.

The housing management and decorating interfaces are reasonably intuitive if a tad busy. I could have done with a warning that FabKits aren't re-locatable once placed. I already had two nice ones from Challenge rewards and I certainly wouldn't have put the meteor crater slap up against the shardspire if I'd known they were going to be there permanently.

You didn't think this through, did you?

Fortunately, I have a suspicious nature, so after I'd made that mistake, instead of just trying to move them I googled to check whether it was safe. It's not. As this thread makes clear, FabKits are classed as consumables. You can't get them back once placed. You can only delete them. Those two will just have to stay where they are, for now, at least until I get duplicates.

I knew there'd be a catch...
The potential for creativity looks to be enormous. The system is a clever meld of hooks for big-ticket items like the FabKits and houses alongside freeform building and decorating using Decor items. Again, it seems quite close to the kind of housing model I'd come up with, given a free hand.

For some reason, possibly lore, there doesn't seem to be a Mordesh racial house. Houses are also faction locked so my choice was one of the other three Exile races - Human, Aurin or Granok. The Aurin bunny house is too twee even for me (I didn't realize that was even possible but apparently I do have some standards) so it came down to either Human or Granok.

I'd have liked the option to tour them both before buying but if it exists I couldn't find it so I plumped for the Human house and it's okay. Reminds me of the wood elf housing in Kelethin. It's really just one room with no windows but it's a nice shape and very tall inside. It should look cosy once I get some lighting installed.

At least they gave me a bed. Are you listening DBG?

A nice bonus to having the towering shardspire looming over my property is that I can use the jumping buff that comes with it to double-jump onto the roof of my house. I might be able to plant a roof-garden up there. Maybe I'll build a fire escape in case I do find another canyon FabKit and move the spire to the other side of the island.

I could make that my next project. Or, more likely, I'll get back to killing and plundering my way across Nexus and only get to visit my pied-à-ciel on brief furloughs back in Thayd. Unless there's some way you can access your house from anywhere as you can in EQ2? That would be most welcome.

Either way I've got somewhere to hang my hat. Now I just need a hat.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Eyes Wide Shut : WildStar

My blindfolded amble through Nexus continues. It's going rather well. So far the lack of telegraph markers doesn't appear to be much of a handicap. Playing as a Warrior, with absolutely no ranged attacks at all, almost every fight consists of Leaping into a bunch of mobs, spamming Relentless Strikes to build kinetic energy then hitting Rampage, Ripsaw and Whirlwind as fast as they come off cooldown. Throw in the odd Kick for a bit of crowd control as required and there you go - job done.

Even the NPC couldn't believe I was dumb enough to say "Yes" to that one.
Just as well I did because spiders mean bags. Apparently.

It's hardly subtle but it seems to work. I've really had no trouble at all completing any of the solo content so far without using much in the way of consumables. When I die it's generally because I haven't noticed the mob I've targeted is some kind of special with five times the hit points. That's very easy to do, since the visual recognition system for mob difficulty is absolutely awful. I believe it's getting an overhaul for the F2P conversion. It bloody well needs one.

As well as playing with blinkers on in combat I'm also playing blind in that I'm doing very little out-of-game research as well as skipping many of the in-game tutorials. It's been a refreshing and immersive experience up to a point but it's sobering to realize just how much there is to come to grips with and just how unintuitive much of it is; all the things even a player with considerable experience in other MMOs is going to misunderstand, or just plain miss, until they're pointed out to him.

It was only after Jacob mentioned in the comments to an earlier post that some of the Challenges give bags as rewards that I realized I'd misunderstood how the inventory system works. Because the default UI shows all your available slots in a single display I'd been seeing the "bags" on sale as expanders not discrete containers.

I hadn't even spotted the tiny button in the corner that opens the window that shows the actual bags in their slots. That was why I couldn't understand the huge pricing differential between two, three and four slot bags; why wouldn't you just buy a whole lot of 2-slots and expand your inventory with those?

A lot of the set-pieces are very WoW, albeit scaled up to impress.

MMORPGs must be incredibly daunting for genuine first-timers and WildStar is far from being the most straightforward example. While it has some very obvious, superficial similarities to WoW in both approach and appearance, it seems to be orders of magnitude more complicated in almost every respect.

Here we go again.
I do wonder if one of the prime reasons WoW became so successful initially might not have been that all the newcomers to the genre were able to work things out together at a their own pace, over a prolonged period. As the population grew exponentially it dragged in a wider and wider audience of complete novices, all of whom were learning the ropes together and that process must have continued for many months if not for years.

These days it's something that only seems to happen for the first two or three weeks after the launch of a new game. After that suddenly everyone's an expert and many of the self-appointed Guardians of the Knowledge are far from shy about shame-calling anyone who doesn't have their amazing intuitive insight into game mechanics. It makes for a very hard shell for newcomers to penetrate.

It begins!
To avoid alienating new customers and to minimize future-shock WildStar uses the method GW2 introduced a while back to almost no-one's satisfaction - level gating. I'm not sure how hard the caps are but each fresh level sees a list of new skills and processes, some of which are entire new game systems. Last night Crafting arrived at level 10 and for no good reason I chose to become a weaponsmith.

I can't explain it but I always seem to end up being either a weaponsmith or a cook. My Berserker in EQ2 is a level 100 weaponsmith. My first 400 skill crafter in GW2 was a Chef. In Rift I was so into making weapons that I even got server first for making a Shady Netherforged Slicer the day they first added new recipes at the cap.

Somehow I don't see that happening here. I haven't even worked out how to locate the ore nodes to use the Mining skill I took to go with weaponsmithing. Shouldn't we get some kind of radar for that sort of thing? Surely I'm not supposed to just run around until I fall over one? This is the future, dammit!

It's a right old journey of adventure that's for sure. One thing I did step out of the game to double-check, though, was when I can get my house. For a game with, arguably, one of the top three housing systems in the genre, WildStar certainly doesn't go out of its way to plug home ownership in the game itself. If it wasn't for the fact that "Decor" items keep appearing as challenge rewards you could easily remain entirely unaware that a home of your own lies waiting for you somewhere round the corner.

It's waiting for you at level 14, to be precise, which seems very late. Did I read somewhere that the bar is being lowered for the slavering F2P hordes? It definitely needs to be. Think of all the potential decorators who won't ever make it to level four let alone fourteen. And everyone knows decorators spend a fortune in cash shops.

Don't make them go to their capital city to get it, either. Give 'em a house in the tutorial! Don't you want money, Carbine? I found my capital a lot sooner than anyone there was willing to give (or sell) me a house but only because I wasn't doing what I was supposed to be doing.

And while we're on the subject of housing, what's with all the level limits on the housing items themselves? Do I really have to wait until level 28 before I can put down a cup of tea or 46 before I can plant some pine trees? That seems harsh.

No doubt its just another misunderstanding. One day we'll laugh about all this. For now, though, it's no laughing matter. Back to work! Onwards and upwards to level 14 and the key of the door. Only another two levels to go!

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Eat That Frog : WildStar

WildStar has always seemed to me to be an MMORPG built on contradictory principles. Right from the opening salvo the game announced itself as some kind of happy-go-lucky, cowboys in space romp, all bright colors, amusing banter and cartoon antics.

Half the discussions I remember, following that breezy first video, seemed to center on whether the game was going to be too fluffy to take seriously, what with the bunny ears and all. The video for housing that followed seemed to push things even further in the direction of light, amusing, harmless fun.

As I mentioned in an enthusiastic response three years ago it all put me in mind of an updated version of EQ2. (In that piece I also wrote "I have WildStar pencilled in as my next "big" MMO after GW2." That prediction could still come true).

Of course, that was so early in the PR process we didn't yet know about Carbine's hardcore pretensions or at least I didn't. As more detail on that gradually trickled into public consciousness the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the project began to come into focus. A lot of questions were asked over whether there was an audience for this kind of thing. Not a few wondered whether, even if there was, it was an audience that wanted a game that looked quite so...silly.

What a delightful collection of shamanic masks. However did you find them all?

A brief year was all it took for the hardcore dream to fade. A lot less than that, really. Now, with the game undergoing a revamp for a different payment model, the direction of travel is all towards congruence. At last Carbine is bringing the gameplay into line with the look and feel, creating a more casual-friendly experience for this charming, quirky, cheerful MMORPG.

Only... just how charming and cheerful is WildStar anyway? Not all that, as it turns out. Really, not all that at all.

WildStar is the Crunchy Frog of MMOs. Sweet as you like on the outside but break the sugared shell and you'll find something deeply unpleasant within. When it comes to genuinely disturbing storylines and NPCs who make your skin crawl WildStar can give even The Secret World a run for its money.

What's in here then? Wild animals?
During my brief time in beta I played a Chua, one of the Dominion races. Some, make that most, of the things he was tasked with doing seemed a tad... off. Back then I took the louche moral tone that often verged on outright sadism to be indicative of The Dominion's status as the game's Bad Guy Collective. Little did I know.

WildStar has two player factions, Exile and Dominion. The temptation, largely encouraged by the background lore information available before you actually get in and play, would lead you to believe these approximate to what might be known as "Good" and "Evil" in other games.

Um, these guys can talk...
Do not be fooled. They're both evil. In WildStar your choice is between one set of psychotics or the other. That's problematic. It's one thing to be given instructions to trick, manipulate, bully and enslave entire indigenous species by one of the supposed villains of the piece but I find it somewhat hard to adjust to getting the same from the "good guys".

In some ways it's even worse from an Exile perspective. At least The Dominion dress up their antics with a sheen of PR that allows you to pretend what you're doing isn't quite as bad as you know it really is. The Exiles just come right out with it: see that creature there, the one that's native to this planet we just landed on, the one that has its own culture and way of life? That's a resource, that is! Go subvert it and control it and subsume it to our will.

It wouldn't be quite so bad if it was just the ends but look at the means! Here, just go grab a bunch of these locals, shove them in an electrified cage, then in you go with these horrific devices I've just handed you - burn, freeze, electrify and cut them for me and let's see how much pain they can stand. It's all in the name of Science!

"Protectors of Celestion". Did I read that right?
It is, I stress, the Exiles doing this, the faction described on the official website as 

"A gutsy group of outcasts and mercenaries who have come to Nexus to find a new home."

A new home alright. Shame it's someone else's but hey, let's not worry our pretty little bunny
ears about that. Not when we've got all this handy concentration camp fencing just lying around unused. "Gutsy"? I'd call them a bunch of solipsistic psychopaths with about as much empathy as a ball of snakes.

Playing MMORPGs pretty much demands you pack your morals in your hold luggage for the duration of the journey. You aren't going to be needing them. They're just going to get in the way of all the gratuitous, mindless killing. Even so, the sheer amorality of WildStar takes some swallowing.

Just as well it comes all wrapped up in a milk chocolate envelope, lovingly frosted with glucose, then. Otherwise we'd never be able to choke it down.

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