Sunday, January 31, 2016

All Journeys End Here : City of Steam

Then came the last days. The slow groan as the gears wound down. The air dull and heavy, a miasma hanging in the tired air.

The great plazas of Arkadia thrummed with nervous frenzy, tall Aetherlords and Harbingers pacing back and forth, idling as their masters gamed the Transmute terminals, sifted through their storage.

Across the airwaves messages spat and crackled. A Golden Tortoise discovered, another amazing find, another. All worthless now. Futile. Done.

Few ventured further in these darkening hours. The Spire hung high above, unclimbed. The endless incursions of the Trow continued unopposed. Somewhere, Imraphel maintained his deceptions, as yet undiscovered.

The Nexus grinds on, its long creep to Neruvia still a quarter-century away around the Spiral. No-one living now will see its end.

Tiska had her plans. She'd come far and, lately, fast. So many sunken corridors ticking with clockroaches, so many dusted library halls, thick with unread books, unquiet dead. So many killings.

From those desperate days in Denton, where it all began, fleeing the Mythspikes, her hapless family clinging to her coat-tails. Through the great stations of the Railhauler down to Refuge, where the airships hung like iron clouds against a ragged sky, loudspeakers blaring their incessant warnings and commands.

On through the mazes and labyrinths of The Mechanism. Out across the blighted plains of The Ironwaste, The Broken Stair. To Heartland Road then on again, Meluan's Gate, The Vault, Founder's Annex and, at last, The Gardenworks. End of the line.

Each new discovery brought danger, disappointment, deception and despair. Imraphel cajoled, flattered, darkened. Tiska performed miracles, made broken promises whole, met lost legends, long thought dead. Above all, she survived.

No more. It all ends here. Imraphel revealed at last in his shining lie. The Progenitor Fey, Paragon Child, Nexus' doom. This tale is told.

Somewhere, in another world, another Tiska travels on, farther up the Spire, towards an inevitable confrontation with her tainted mentor. That Tiska's story goes untold, unseen.

This Tiska rests. In Refuge once again, with her family, Frella, Frezyl, Fizzgig and Fnort, her travails ended.

There will be fireworks in Arkadia later, a final, futile fist shaken against fate, lighting up the skies one last, one very last time. Tiska won't be watching.

Her journey is over. She did her part. Everything she set out to achieve, she achieved. Nothing lasts forever and nothing ever lasts. We all follow The Spiral.

Farewell, City of Steam. Farewell Tiska. Sweet dreams through the long night.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Other Side Of Steam : Otherland

Well it finally happened. I bought a game on Steam. I blame it on City of Steam and City of Steampuff. The rule of threes and all that.

I've had a Steam account for a long time. Years. I believe I used it to get a second pre-order  for an MMO once, when the provider I was using refused to accept more than a single purchase for the bizarre reason that no-one could possibly use two copies of an MMO.

Other than that the only time I used it was to authorize my physical copy of Broken Sword V, which I was given as a Christmas present last year and still haven't gotten around to playing. Occasionally I browse the Steam store in an idle moment but until now I've never seen anything that I both wanted to buy and couldn't get more easily and conveniently elsewhere (usually from Amazon).

Otherland is an MMO I've always kept an eye on. I read and enjoyed the Tad Williams novels that inspired it and I always meant to give it a try when it launched. Only it never did launch.

I even signed up for a beta at one point. Not sure what happened with that. I know I never played. Then the company making it went bust or gave up on it and that seemed to be that.

Except, of course, MMOs have more lives than a basket of cats. Otherland resurfaced in the hands of  Drago Entertainment, a Polish outfit, who proceeded to sand off the rough edges and polish the rusting hulk up a little until they had something presentable enough to commit to the the ever-open arms of Steam's Early Access section.

I'd been meaning to stump up the very reasonable $20 or so they were asking since I heard the news but it's one of those things you never quite seem to get around to doing. Finally Massively reported that the game was on a 75% off sale and that did it.

It's not that I bought it because it was super-cheap. I am not very price-sensitive. It was more that I knew I was definitely going to buy it at some point so the sale just acted as the final poke I needed to go through the unpleasant chore of filling out the forms. Also, since it was such a bargain, I bought the Deluxe edition, mainly for the extra character slot in case it turns out I like it.

And so far I do like it. Not that you can read much into an hour before bed hastily rushing through the tutorial and the first, post-tutorial but pre-real-game babies map.

It has the annoying center-screen cursor and mouse-button combat of supposed "action" MMOs but it falls solidly on the side of playable, giving me fair control over the mouse cursor when I need it and not demanding I play Finger-Twister every time I want to open my inventory.

The visuals are not bad. Hard to tell in the early stages, where we're supposed to be in areas of a graphical simulation that's breaking down, but I thought it felt promising. The quest text was moderately amusing in spots and at least it was all written in good, clear, grammatical English.

The problem for now is going to be finding time to play. All my bonus playtime after GW2 this week has to go to City of Steam, where I'm racing to get to level 40 and open The Gardenworks zone before the server shuts down. 38.3 as of this writing. Should make it, I hope.

Last night I stayed up later than I should have playing Otherland, though, and I'm keen to get back and see more, so that's an encouraging sign. Don't imagine for a second I'll stick around for any kind of long haul or serious progression but it looks ripe for some exploration and screenshotting at least.

More later. Maybe.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

It's Not The End Of The World Vs World : GW2

Of all the many and substantial changes brought about by Heart of Thorns, those that landed like an airburst on World vs World were arguably the most significant of all. Behind the curtain ANet may well be toiling away on the real WvW revamp but, when it comes, it can hardly be expected to have more of an impact than the arrival of the Desert Borderlands. It all but killed WvW.  

GW2's large-scale, open world, siege-based, three team PvPvE game mode, the wobbly third leg on the game's rickety tripod, had been limping in slow circles through the doldrums of neglect for the best part of year when HoT arrived. Never the success it was hoped, WvW had been intended to act as a kind of end-game for all; instead it had long ago settled, some would say slumped, into a specialist niche.

For a while the incursion of semi-regular "Seasons" into the endless, Valhallan cycle of weekly matches, succeeded in drawing the uncommitted, the curious and, especially, the acquisitive. The lure of Achievements and Titles and Stuff filled the Alpine Borderlands (then known only as The Borderlands) with nervous neophytes slumming it from PvE. Some of them even learned to like it and hung around.

Unravel the ancient mysteries of a lost civilization. Or just get a great tan.

Once Seasons fell into abeyance due to ANet's secret and as-yet unannounced plans, interest beyond the hardcore drained away fast. By the summer of '15 WvW was bumping along the bottom. Or so we imagined.

Only when Heart of Thorns arrived did we realize just how much further there was to fall. By then, Yaks Bend had been a Tier 1 server for a while. Even playing as we do just outside North American prime time, Mrs Bhagpuss and I had become used to seeing lengthy queues on two or three maps every evening. Come the weekend it was sometimes just too busy to bother and we tended to give WvW a miss until things quietened down.

The Desert Borderlands put paid to that little problem. It's been many weeks since I've seen a queue anywhere other than Eternal Battlegrounds. EBG, as it's known, was the only one of the four WvW maps not to be replaced. In one of the most striking examples I've ever seen of customers voting with their feet, almost the entire remaining population of WvW moved from their homelands to the contested but familiar territory of EBG.

What the heck is that thing?

The other three maps, featuring one of ANet's artists' finest ever creations, a stunningly beautiful, intricate, hauntingly mysterious landscape just begging to be explored, lay neglected, unused. Unused, at least, for their intended purpose, conflict. Instead they formed the backdrop for a desultory cavalcade of uncontested keep-takes as small zergs rotated the points.

That was in Tier 1. Several rungs down the ladder, as it bounces between Tiers 4 and 5, Ehmry Bay is home to my third account. Prior to Heart of Thorns, while we never had queues at the times of day I played, there was always a Commander organizing on the home Borderland and operations happening around the maps.

Now I had the place to myself. I could have been playing a single player game. Each day I trotted up to do my dailies - taking a sentry point and killing a dolyak, two of my favorites - secure in the knowledge that no-one from any other team was likely to try to stop me.

It's a desert, Jim, but not as we know it.

The silence and solitude were very useful. I was able to spend a lot of time learning the new layout, studying the mechanics, developing, testing and perfecting tactics for taking camps and smaller objectives on my own. It reminded me strongly of happy days spent scouting and clearing orc camps in the snows of Velious a decade and more ago.

It was, in other words, jolly good solo PvE. World vs World it paramountly was not.

Everyone seemed somewhat taken aback by the changes. Anet had chosen to trial the Desert Borderlands only in small, closed beta tests, before an invited audience. Although there was no NDA, surprisingly little information had filtered out. I tried to follow the discussion but, really, there wasn't one.

When the new maps and their significantly different mechanics finally arrived the reaction was hostile. Voices raised in favor were few and often qualified. The more, the most, common reaction was denial. These aren't the maps we want. We never asked for them. We're not going to use them.

And people left. For once, there was much else to do. A whole new expansion's worth. In retrospect, launching the new version of WvW at the same time as a large tranche of PvE progression, new sPvP content and the long-awaited (or dreaded) introduction of highly competitive raiding was not the cleverest of timing.

Oh, come on! Now you're just trolling.

Absolutely no-one who wasn't already playing WvW paid the changes even the slightest attention. Why would they? They were way down at the end of a long shopping list of far more interesting items, to be gotten to sometime, never.

Among the committed WvW core there was mostly consternation. There are people who only play WvW. They could hardly avoid the changes, although most wished they could and many tried. Some soldiered on but this was the demographic most disturbed by the upheaval.

We had players whose entire game-life revolved around sitting in keeps and towers watching for invaders. Every day. For hours. Overnight their entire purpose was removed. There were no invaders, not any more.

We had players who spent their mornings or afternoons building and maintaining siege, running supply and fortifying structures. Now no siege was needed and structures fortified themselves. Those players, for years among the most committed and appreciated, found themselves out of a job.

Most WvW players, however, also play other game modes. For them it was a very simple choice. They just gave up coming to the Borderlands at all.

Why would they? They didn't like the new maps, which were confusing, difficult to navigate, clearly designed with flight in mind and yet forbidden. The maps were empty so there was no-one to fight. Anyone who wanted fights was in EBG.

You want big fights? This is big fights.

The rest, which was almost everyone, was in Verdant Brink or Auric Basin, complaining about the grind or gosh-wowing about gliding or pushing through the story. Reports began to surface about the amazing final battle in Dragon's Stand, possibly the best large-scale event ANet had ever done and after that came the first Raid and of course there was Halloween and Wintersday, the two biggest holidays of Tyria's year and then the big money sPvP tournament started...

Well, with all that going on, no-one cared about WvW any more. The maps were horrible, no-one understood them, commanders didn't want to run them, and anyway the scoring system was as broken as it had always been so what was the point? WvW was as near to dead as it could be without actually being buried and forgotten.

Cue graphics: a gnarled, grasping hand thrusts up through the fresh-dug earth, clutching at a lowering, storm-filled sky. Three months on and the corpse begins to stir.

This last week or two has seen more activity than any time since before HoT landed. We had commanders with followings on three maps at once over the weekend. There have been big battles over keeps on home BLs. And this isn't just on Yaks Bend. I spent fifty minutes with an EBay commander last week, trying to take a single heavily-defended tower from Maguuma (and how good was it to be fighting Maguuma again? Boy, I've missed them).

I taunt you with my unplayable Tengu!

Gradually, very slowly, as people finish up their initial goals in the new maps and the last of the new car smell fades from the expansion, the WvW softcore is drifting back. Meanwhile the hardcore, particularly the command structure, has acclimatized. Commanders actually know how to lead a zerg from Impassive Rampart to Fire Keep without falling in the lava lake now. Players are beginning to get an inkling of how the Shrine buffs can change tactics, of when it's advisable to complete or counter the Oasis event, of where to place siege so it actually hits something.

It's been a steep learning curve and plenty have fallen off. Finally, though, some have made it to the top and others have picked themselves up and started to climb again. Just in time for today's Winter 2016 Quarterly Update to shake the ladder and send everyone flying in all directions.

Later today we'll get the first big, new content update since Heart of Thorns. It includes a major revamp to The Shatterer event, complete with a full set of achievements, the addition of gliding to all original open-world maps, the Lunar New Year holiday event and a bunch of smaller tweaks and changes.

It also includes some significant changes to the mechanics of WvW, almost all of which have been, perhaps for the first time in the history of the game, very warmly received by the people who actually play that game mode. Structures will still update automatically but only if the dolyaks get in, bringing purpose back to roaming and scouting. Player kills will increment war score, making skirmishing purposeful.

Last one to the Tower buys the drinks!

Most welcomed of all, only one opposing player will rally off the death of an opponent, down from five, and fully dead players will have to wait until combat around them has ended before they can expect to be rezzed. Those changes should significantly impact the ability of large, loose zergs to overpower smaller, more disciplined groups. Weight of numbers will still tell, but not in the overwhelming way it has until now.

Or so it's hoped. As always there may be unforeseen and unintended consequences. At the very least, though, these appear to be changes made in response to genuine concerns expressed by players who play WvW, not whipped up on the back of an envelope and dropped in on a whim to the mystification of all.

How long it will be before the full WvW revamp ANet aren't saying. What the game will look like after it comes, well they're not talking about that either. Rumor has it that Worlds themselves will be going away in favor of some as yet ill-explained Guild-based structure.

I had thought that, if that worst-case scenario did come true, the end of Yaks Bend would probably mean the end of WvW for me but, yet again, HoT threw me a swerve. In preparation for the changes to Guilds I joined a very large WvW focused guild, one that's synonomous with WvW on Yaks Bend and has been since the day the server opened.

It's a guild with absolute server loyalty, a guild that has never transferred servers and will never transfer servers. If ANet cut Yaks Bend away from under us, we will be Yaks Bend. In the meantime, the fight goes on. For The Yak! whatever the rules, whatever the map!

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Synchronicity : City of Steam(puff)

I do like a bit of synchronicity. Not the awful Sting thing, obviously. No-one likes that. No, when similar stuff just seems to happen at the same time for no particular reason.

There's often a ton of it going on in this corner of the blogosphere, mostly because everyone is always feeding off the same news squibs, trying the same new games and generally bouncing off everyone else like toddlers sliding down a coal chute. Sometimes it seems a bit less predictable than that, though, and that's when I really start to enjoy the ride.

Wilhelm linked an excellent Extra Credits piece on Virtual Reality and started a feisty discussion. J3w3l outed herself as a grudging admirer of Eastern MMOs while Bhelgast had some positive things to say about going Pay To Win. Jeromai jumped that train and swung it back around to the never-resolved problem of difficulty, something Sonja had been looking at sidewise to considerable effect not long before.

While all this was rumbling and roiling away I had my head down grinding my way through City of Steam. After four years of laid-back pottering suddenly it's hell-for-leather to the finish line. Telwyn took note and vowed not to make the same mistake with other supposedly stable MMOs.

At least we all know how LotRO's Main Questline finishes. I'm on Chapter 3 Part 3 (I think) of City of Steam's story but I have no idea whether I'm still at the beginning, stuck in the middle or just about to turn over and see the author's picture on the inside the back cover. If it wasn't for City of Steam being all Pay To Win (for a given value of "Win" and not a big enough value either) and if Mechanist Games hadn't decided to throw money at the remaining players (of whom there seem to be one heck of a lot for a game about to go into a tunnel and not come out again) then I'd have no hope whatsoever of cracking through the levels needed to get to the climax.

As it is, it's flipping hard work! In common with many Eastern MMOs (although, of course, City of Steam is a Western MMO funded by an Eastern MMO developer, but let's not confuse matters...) there are gates on how many dungeons you can do per day and how much XP you can get. Even blowing cash shop currency like a beaching whale I still hit the buffers 1% short of Level 34, where the next quest opens up.

Luckily CoS also uses that weird Eastern MMO trope of Calisthenics. I left my Gunner tabbed out in the browser doing leg-bends and knee-stretches, while I played GW2 for a while and, magically, that one per cent ticked over on its own. Now I'm stuck at 24% into level 34, waiting for the daily refresh to let me buy my way to 35 and the next quest that matters.

It occurred to me around this point that there was a very good chance I'd run out of time before I ever found out what was really going on at the top of the Spire, so I did what anyone would do; I turned to Google. Surely someone must have wiki'd it or posted the conclusion on YouTube.

Like hell they have. Even the game's own website has removed all the original lore, although someone has handily re-posted it in the forum and I now have it safely saved away to read later, once those forums themselves vanish into the mist.

While I was googling, however, I came across this. Now that's what I call a coincidence. Well, actually, that's not what I call it. What I do call it I'm not about to say, or at least not in a public place.

Intrigued, I watched the first episode. It was pretty good. Don't take my word for it though. Have a look for yourself:

I'm going to watch the next two on my tablet later tonight, when I go to bed. Unfortunately the similarity to City of Steam doesn't seem likely to end with the name - this is another story that I'll probably never get to finish.

There was a City of Steampuff Kickstarter last July, it seems. It didn't go well. It appears to have had the exact opposite problem to the Kickstarter that Smed's new company, Pixelmage, unleashed for Hero's Song. Smed had a very easy to understand product that looks like a decent purchase at under $20 but his KS pledges added no value whatsoever and made no sense. Steampuff's pledges, on the other hand, look pretty coherent and attractive in and of themselves but they appear to have a lot more content than the project they're supporting.

That project barely seems to exist - just two more short videos to finish up a series of five, three of which are already complete and viewable for free on the KS page. Although, who knows where the whole thing was (or is) going? There's a downloadable demo for some kind of City of Steampuff VR demo linked to the Occulus Rift. Maybe it was going to be a game after all?

I downloaded that demo. I don't have an OR and I don't plan to get one. I am as curious as anyone to see how it feels, though. After the discussion with Wilhelm in which he debunked my mistaken impression that we were getting the Holodeck (I didn't really think we were but I did think we were getting Kinnect with a Helmet) it was a very useful find.

Even on a flat screen it's very easy to imagine what it would be like to explore this imaginary space just by turning your head and looking around. It certainly immersed me for the few minutes I played with it. I can imagine how powerful it would feel as a narrative platform, able to put you right in the middle of the action.

Which is a lot more than you can say of Dark Era, a new "time travel" Eastern MMO I read about on Massively yesterday. I downloaded that, too. I could do a review. I got to level 25. That's enough, isn't it?
Yes, Level 28. I literally made three more levels just logging in to take this screenshot. It took less than a minute.

Well, maybe not when twenty-five levels takes less than twenty minutes and doesn't require you to touch the keyboard once. Okay, I did have to click the mouse to collect my quest rewards and equip my upgrades so it wasn't entirely hands-free gaming. They need to work on that.

Whether Dark Era is Pay To Win or just utterly pointless I can't be sure. I don't plan on finding out either. Sometimes synchronicity just takes you somewhere you didn't want to go after all.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

End Of The Line For City Of Steam

It's no surprise. Not really. For several months it's been in the back of my mind to play some City of Steam before that option got taken away. Well, no putting it off any longer.

Last night I logged in for the first time in maybe six months. For an MMO that's about to close for good in a week's time it seems in unusually robust health. A deal of content's been added since my last visit including airship missions and holiday gifts. Arkadia's central plaza still buzzes with activity.

Endless messages ping across the screen exhorting players to join in this activity or that. The chat box ticks with reports of purple and orange purchases and discoveries. For a game about to die it feels oddly alive.

Supposedly its not economics or lack of players that ran City of Steam into the buffers. The press release blames the shutdown at least in part on the eternal march of technology:

A number of factors went into this decision, the decline of Unity support in the browser is one of them – Google Chrome no longer supports NPAPI plugins like the Unity Webplayer, and Microsoft's next browser, Edge, won't either

That's undeniably so. I have never been able to get the microclient to play nice with Win10 so I've been playing through the browser. It works in Firefox, mostly, but if the platform your game rests on begins to crumble there's not much you can do, short of moving to another. After six years, two changes of ownership, and having already revamped the game several times to keep it limping on through various crises, there comes a time when it must just seem right to jump the tracks and head off in a different direction.

Closing down sale. Everything must go.

I've been with the game since its very earliest days. It remains the poster child for Better in Beta, with each later iteration losing a little something from the one before. The heyday of the game was probably late alpha or early beta but give me an offline, standalone version even of that original "Sneak Peak" and I'd come back to it with pleasure, now and again, for a very long time, just the way I'm playing old favorites from YouTube as I type this.

The version that still lives on for another week is very, very different from that original, dark, filmic vision. The enigmatic complexity of the crumbling city, weeds poking up through the flagstones, martial warnings ringing out across empty streets from hidden tannoys, all trains stationed and guarded against some existential threat; long since compromised, diluted, tossed away.

The endless, sprawling dungeons of early beta, opening on level after level after level seemingly forever were replaced by short, structured, tiered runs with flagged objectives. The fountains of loot that left you in fits of happy frustration as you tried to sort through the options dried up to a flicker of shillings and couple of drops from the boss at the end.
Never trust an elf who shoots his cuffs.

The promise of real housing that shone fitfully in early iteration was extinguished by a player vote in favor of concentrating development resources on combat. The stub that remains, never expanded, rots forgotten in the racially segregated refugee zones of the starting hub, along with the family that once looked as though it would form a backbone to every player's story.

So many great ideas wasted, withered, thrown away in favor of a frenzied cash-shop clickfest. And yet, for all the lost promise, poor decisions and wrong turnings City of Steam remains and will always remain one of my stronger MMO experiences. It would, without doubt, have been one of those worlds to which I always returned, in time.

Well, not any more. Now I have just one week to take screenshots, shoot video, revisit old haunts, say my goodbyes. Except this: I have unfinished business with City of Steam.

The plot curdles.

There is, after all, a story. A straightforward central narrative. I have been pursuing it for four years in dilettante, desultory fashion. Clearly I am never going to hit max level, extended some time back to fifty or sixty, and see all the remaining zones but I believe the main story hits a big reveal somewhere in the 30s.

My one and only character, a Goblin gunner, is 31. I have a week to find out if Imraphel has been playing me for a fool. It will mean some hard fighting. Every quest step seems to require clearing at least three dungeons and I'm at the ragged edge of what I can clear already.

Fortunately, Mechanist Games have chosen to brighten the dark last days with showers of cash shop currency. Last night I came into a vast fortune.

All City of Steam players will receive 30,000 Electrum per day until server shutdown. There's still time to upgrade your characters to their utmost potential, and to try things you've never thought of before, be sure to enjoy!

Thank you. I will. Last night I bought a spiffy new Aeronaut outfit. More practically I filled my bags with enough potions to enable the otherwise impractical, profligate Auto-Combat that allows you to sit back and watch as your character and her supporting team (mercenary, pet) clear dungeons and fulfill objectives with no regard whatsoever to cost or personal safety.
Quaff those pots like there's no tomorrow. Because there's no tomorrow.

In that way, and especially with the funds to take the "Revive Here At Full Health" option that I've always sniffed at before, I was able last night to burn through two full story stages in as many hours. Even then it was very tight on the final bosses. I'd buy my way out of difficulty by overgearing but there's no source I can find for gear in the 30s that's better than what I have. Oh for a true Pay-to-Win button instead of this half-assed "Pay-to-Go-A-Bit-Faster".

I have a week. I also happen to have a fair amount of free time coming up. At the very least I can give it a go. I'd probably settle for just watching the cut-scenes on YouTube but as yet I haven't found where anyone's posted them.

I'm afraid it's going to have to come out.
Some of the soundtrack is up, though. Here's the wonderful main theme for a taster. City of Steam has one of the very best MMO soundscapes I've ever encountered and Daniel Sadowski's music is a big part of that. It's also the part you can buy. So I did.

City of Steam is a game that's been exceptionally hard to capture in screenshots. The UI can't be turned off and as soon as you reach the level where you have mercenaries and pets they jitter and jump around, messing up the composition, photobombing like drunken frat boys. Even without that, the fantastic skylines and cityscapes are ferociously hard to frame.

My plan was to travel around and take some video travelogues before the sun goes down for the final time. Luckily others got there before me so I won't need to give up those hours from my questing. Indeed, there's a surprising amount of footage of the game available online. Rather than record my own I plan to trawl through YouTube and download the pick of it.

The "shuttering" or "sunsetting" of an MMO, sad, even heartbreaking, though it can be, isn't after all so different from the way time moves in the outside world. I can't go back to the Barcelona I knew in the 70s and 80s, before the 1992 Olympics turned Spain's gritty, overlooked second city into Catalonia's capital, a bright and shining global brand. City of Steam as it fades to grey is another world already from the one I first fell in love with four years ago.

In the end all we have are our memories, our photographs, those few fragments we shore against our ruin. It's been a good run but now it's over. Farewell, Nexus. May your rails never rust.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Happy Never After : GW2

Oops! Spoiler Alert!

I guess it's a bit late now...

Thing is, it really doesn't matter. Whatever you do that's the ending you're going to get. Might as well know it up front.

When the link to Drooburt's Last Wintersday popped up in the launcher I thought the name sounded familiar. As I progressed through the storyline and reached Droobert's descent into alcoholism in the tender care of the Lion's Arch skritt an image came back to me.

Wasn't Droobert the quaggan sot we first discovered slumped outside the door of the bar in Dry Top, begging for change to dampen his endless thirst? Why, yes it was, as the ending of the Twine tale revealed or, at least, hinted heavily.

There are a lot of quaggans. I can't say I keep up with them all. Some I remember because they are so very, very annoying, like the one in Frostgorge Sound that yelps and moos about "Icebrood attacking Moshpoipoi" or whatever the infantile name of his ludicrous village is supposed to be.

Others stand out for the sheer effort the writers have expended on them, the prime example of which would have to be that increasingly desperate couple harried from map to map by Scarlet and her invading armies. They reminded me of Unlucky Alf from The Fast Show, harmless, inoffensive, hated by the fates. Always in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Reddit remembers Drooburt but I'm afraid I didn't, though I guess I should have. I was there outside Martinus' unnamed bar, handing the down and out amphibian a few silver during his brief and controversial stint as a gold sink. I can just about recall being taken aback by his horrific death, when Mordrem vines overran Prosperity, Dry Top's oh-so-ironically named mining town. If nothing else, I really should have remembered his celebrated return as a ghost at Halloween - I must have seen him reprise that performance not three months ago.

I was at least able to summon up some vague shreds of familiarity as I worked my way through his retrospective. Mrs Bhagpuss couldn't even remember who he was when reminded. I don't see that as any kind of indictment on the quality of the writing, though.

Rather it suggests to me something I've felt about GW2 since the outset. The real strength of the franchise lies not in the mechanics of the gameplay and even less in the grandiose overarching narratives about Dragons and Demi-Gods. It lies in the breadth and depth of the world-building; all those small lives that vanish in the middle distance.

Syp was eulogizing today about the storytelling brilliance of a wagon ride in WoW. I agree. If we're talking story then this is what I come to MMOs looking for and I welcome it wherever it's found.

Although I have to say, given the choice, I'd prefer to get my slices of life in the game itself.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Love To Hate

Tobold has a couple of posts up right now that have made me think a little more than I usually like to do on a Sunday morning. For the first he puts on his grumpy hat to explain the reason he's not been blogging as much as usual and not writing much about MMORPGs when he does. It's because of all those depressing "Hate Blogs" he's fed up of reading, apparently.

That generated a very interesting discussion, which is, I'm sure, exactly what he intended. I did find it particularly ironic because, possibly unbeknownst to Tobold, in a certain subsector of the blogosphere we all inhabit together, he's regularly cited as one of a Triumvirate of Negative Bloggers, the other two of whom get called out in his thread. I'm pretty sure this rant will just add to that impression among his detractors.

This does raise the issue of perspective, not to mention self-awareness. A number of bloggers that I read get name-checked in that thread, as do I a couple of times. I wonder how many of them recognize themselves from the comments and characterizations?

Bhelgast, writing recently about his daily blogging routine, laid out a set of self-imposed guidelines he uses, the first of which is "Don’t call people out by name (unless they have called me out first)". It's good advice, although, as Wilhelm observes in the comments "I always wonder about the “calling somebody out” thing. On the one hand, I don’t want to be a complete ass and get into a bloggy slap fight. But then I’ve read a couple of bloggers who are clearly calling somebody out for something regularly, but are being coy about it with words like “some gamers” and the like, which always strikes me as ineffective because that could be just their strawman argument."

No-one likes to be called on their shortcomings but everyone likes to be picked out for their strengths. The problem is that one person's negative is another's positive. A sarcastic turn of phrase or a facility for sardonic wit is very likely to draw a wry smile and a nod of appreciation from me as a reader, while someone else may read the same sentence and feel their mood worsen or their blood pressure rise.

Chris K's comment particularly made me think. It's very true that, unlike, say, SynCaine or Keen, I have little desire to imagineer non-existent MMOs or lay down blueprints for how the genre could be better designed. I do like to examine existing structures and point out where I feel the joints are creaking, if that counts as commenting on MMO game design, though. I have to work pretty hard to resist doing a point-counterpoint rebuttal to every public pronouncement Colin Johanson comes up with, just to give one example.

Chris is bang on the money when he observes that Inventory Full is one of a number of blogs "written by somewhat older people ...  that have seemingly learned to ignore things they dislike about their chosen hobby, and focus on the good". I was 40 when I started playing EverQuest, which would make me an older person by gaming standards right out the gate, but for absolute certain, had I been a blogger back then, I'd have been a harsher critic of the genre than I am now, some seventeen years later.

Design concerns I would have railed against back in the day would have included the introduction of Epic Weapons in EQ, the addition of Darkness Falls and its attendant Token Vendors to DAOC, the interdependence of crafting classes in EQ2, the damage done to PvE gameplay by balance changes for PvP in multiple games and, of course, the perpetual, ongoing removal of complex, interesting systems from the entire genre. All of those and many more could and almost certainly would have resulted in lengthy rants and probably pompous suggestions of how it could all be done better.

Fortunately, by the time I eventually got around to blogging I had begun to make my peace with the hobby. What's more, I had started at last to realize that the person ultimately in control of my pleasure and pain in playing was me (well, and Mrs Bhagpuss but that's a whole different topic). Not the developers or designers, not other players or guild-leaders or guildmates. It was entirely up to me to select the activities I enjoyed and focus on those while ignoring the ones that didn't interest me or that I didn't enjoy.

Above all, it was in my power to rise above being outraged and upset by decisions made about the direction of my MMO of choice, decisions I had no means to influence or change. Over some painful years I learned neither to take such decisions personally, as some kind of slight aimed directly at me or my playstyle, nor to see them as indicative of the Decline Of Western Civilization (or Eastern, depending on the MMO). Honestly, that's a learning curve I'm still climbing.

While attempting this transition to a less emotionally fraught perspective, at the the same time I also reserved the prerogative to enjoy myself, on occasion, precisely by allowing my negative side an outing. The very surprising degree by which Heart of Thorns has exceeded my expectations, for example, has led to a series of optimistic and positive posts about GW2 over the last quarter, but a flip through the back pages of 2015 here should act as a reminder why, for some time, Inventory Full was considered by some gamers (there's Wilhelm's weaselly phrase again) to be a mouthpiece for naysaying when it came to the direction GW2 was thought be taking.

All of which brings me to Tobold's second post, in which he praises difficulty settings. I'm with him all the way on this one, except that, unlike him, I'm not even that bothered about being able to experiment with strategies and tactics. That's more of an added extra these days, a welcome bonus if it happens but hardly required.

No, much though my forty-year old self would raise an incredulous eyebrow at the idea, as I spiral ever-closer to retirement age I find I have come to enjoy some of those things long associated with elderly folk. When I was a pogoing punk back in the 70s, if we ever thought about old people at all we assumed they whiled away the hours waiting for God with things like crosswords and knitting and needlepoint and painting-by-numbers.

Times have changed, of course. Sixty's the new forty and all that claptrap. Now we oldies pass the time outside the cemetery gates doing dailies, running instances, decorating houses and leveling up our twenty-third Hunter. It all comes down to what makes us feel comfortable.

MMOs don't come with overt difficulty settings at log-in. There are no buttons to press marked "Easy", "Normal" or "Hard". Once you step into the world, though, all those choices and more open up, from actual difficulty settings at the dungeon door to selective content out in the open world. I can spend an evening knocking The Claw of Jormag off his cliff or dropping mortar shells on Mordremoth's head in between sorting my bags and ticking off another couple of steps in my "quest" for an Ascended weapon or two while someone else tries to climb the tournament ladder or down a raid boss.

It's why I enjoy tabbing out between each fight in an Advanced Solo dungeon in EQ2 to check the wiki and make sure I know what to do next. This color goes in this box and never paint over the lines. It's not all MMORPGs are and certainly not all they can be but it's enjoyable, relaxing and entertaining and after a tiring day at work it's often enough.

Enough for always? Always enough? No, of course not. It's a difficulty setting. I'm choosing it. Like Tobold, if I start to find it isn't scratching the itch any more I'll just dial it up a notch. There's always an up at my innate skill level.

So, you can call it "optimistic" if you like. You could, if you were one of those Hate Bloggers, call it naive or lazy or just plain dumb. I prefer to call it coming to terms with yourself; what you want, what you need, what you can and can't control. And yes, it is something that can come with age, although it doesn't always and it doesn't have to.

Somewhere out there, in the future, there is a better MMORPG than any I've ever played. I know that. It's inevitable. Until it arrives, though, I'll focus on enjoying the ones I can play rather than yearning for something still out of reach. And I'll play the MMOs we are lucky enough to have the way I want to play them, not the way anyone tells me I should, while praising them or complaining about them as it amuses me.

Hey, that almost sounds like some kind of manifesto! Time I got over myself and did some dailies.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Onwards And Upwards : GW2

In much the way a new year finds players making a flurry of resolutions, predictions and goals, so this is the time of year when road maps to the future begin to roll out of MMO developers offices. This week ArenaNet published some general notes towards both their Profession Balance Goals and their wider plans..

The former is easily dismissed. Every MMO I've ever played has trudged joylessly around Escher's eternal spiral of "balance" The more classes there are the wearier the trudge becomes. Developers and elite players find themselves locked in a desperate dance of nerfs and builds, each seeking to obviate the excesses of the other.

Patch notes increasingly resemble medieval disquisitions on the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. Most players tune out entirely, while those who try to decipher the hieroglyphs find their eyes glazing over around the third bullet point.

Whatever the actual changes, once the emergency patches and server restarts required to fix the most egregious errors are done, we all settle back and wait for the grognards to codify the new meta, which we then religiously adopt (with amendments because we all know better). A few weeks later the developers shake the bag and pull out new tiles and the whole miserable process begins over again.

So, forget about that. The broader picture outlined in Colin Johanson's pretentiously titled (yes, I know, I can talk...) State of the Game Update is much more interesting, especially the part where he says

2016 will also be a turning point in the type of development we do for Guild Wars 2

Spin it how you will, this is an admission of defeat. Go back and read the mission statements on cadence and Living Story. Or just read this quote from Colin back in 2013:

Our goal is to make Guild Wars 2 the most frequently updated and best supported game experience you can find, and to that end, every two weeks there will be a release with brand new playable content and a mix of supporting features and updates across the entire game.
How did that work out for you then? Probably about as well as this:

Expansions are definitely something that we’ll potentially look at in the future," he explained. "We don’t have a timetable on it. We’re open to it, but I think our major focus as a studio is making the living world concept as strong as possibly can for the players that we’ve got.
All of which is why any road map that talks about content or changes further ahead than, say, a couple of months needs to be taken with an economy sized bag of salt.

We should at least be able to rely on the frontlisted changes coming in the first of the new Quarterly Updates. It's happening in two weeks, after all. Quarterly also sounds like a much more manageable cadence, doesn't it? Maybe it's one they'll be able to handle this time.

The big ticket announcement for Winter 2016 is Gliding In Central Tyria. We're calling it "Central Tyria" now, then? Not Core Tyria? Not Pact Tyria? Oh, wait, that's not the "big" part of the announcement, is it?

This is quite a surprise. When other MMOs have introduced free flight to older zones it's generally required a deal of background work and preparation. While many GW2 players probably hoped, even expected, this day would come, I imagine most thought they'd have a longer wait than a mere three months on from the launch of the first glider over Magus Falls.

Of course, gliding isn't flight. Gliders can only go downwards, unless there's a handy updraft nearby. Merely by declining to add those mysterious swirls of rising air developers can presumably avoid much of the heavy work required to reshape old zones for flight.

As someone pointed out in a conversation on Dulfy (or was it Reddit?) after Rubi Bayer's initial teaser, most jumping puzzles go up. To preserve the notional integrity of JPs and vistas all that's really needed is an updraft exclusion zone in the immediate area.

Somewhat to my surprise I really, really enjoy gliding in Heart of Thorns. I've spent more time than I like to admit simply gliding around Verdant Brink for the sheer, exhilarating fun of it, trying to see how high I can get. Much like flying in Vanguard, gliding in GW2 doesn't need much of a purpose beyond wheeeeeeeeee!

That's a plus, then. And if they add it to WvW as well, where the new maps seem to have been made specifically with gliding in mind, we could have a whole new game. Imagine dropping shells on keeps or zergs the way we bomb Mordremoth in the final battle for Dragon's Stand.

Next on Colin's tick list is a revamp of The Shatterer. For those not in the know, The Shatterer is the lieutenant of Elder Dragon Kralkatorrik. Shat's main claim to fame, apart from being the instigator of a thousand scatological puns, is his deep and abiding inability to turn his head to the right.

Every three hours or so a huge gang of players gathers on a small hillock just to the lee of his right shoulder. As he stands helplessly, roaring and rearing and breathing his crystalline breath directly ahead, the zerg indulges in fatuous, excrement-based banter as they batter away at his exposed flank. Then he dies and we take his stuff.

Presumably the plan is to re-tool the "fight" into something at least on a par with Jormag, which has two phases, takes about fifteen to twenty minutes, and at a bare minimum requires players to move about occasionally. More likely it will get an upgrade to match Tequaatl, for which a modicum of both organization and attention are required.

While it's been handy to have Shat as a punching bag all these years, even I wouldn't claim the event has ever been fun. I used to enjoy the original Tequaatl battle and even now I'd have it back in preference to the current version but I won't be sorry to see The Shatterer get a makeover.

Colin's batting two for two. Keep it up. What's next? Ah, Fractal of the Mist updates. Pass.

Okay, I do have one thing to say about that, but it comes from much later in the notes, towards the end, when Colin's moved away from the Winter Update to cover plans going through the year. At this point he confirms there will be some new fractals.

Given that fractals were first introduced, what, three years ago, and we've had the same nine ever since, you'd have to say it's about time. Oh, wait, there was that one we voted for at Kiel's election, wasn't there? Did that ever happen? I lost interest when Evon was robbed of his rightful victory.

Hmm. Looking at Colin's post I can see that if I carry on picking over it section by section this is going to overrun. By a lot. Let's skip all the WvW stuff, save to say that almost everyone I've seen or heard comment on it, who actually plays WvW regularly, thinks the upcoming changes are positive. That's a first!

The real changes for WvW, the ones that will effectively relaunch the entire game mode in a format barely recognizable, are still out there in the long grass somewhere. Until then everyone's just marking time.

What else is there? Oh yes, event credit for Healers and Support Builds. This is something that should have been an integral part of the game from launch. How is it even still a thing three and a half years on? File under "Better Late Than Never" and let's hope it actually works.

The remaining odds and ends - tweaks to squads, a new "Mist Champion" for the new sPvP map, some new key binding options - deserve a line or two in a patch note, not a paragraph each in a PR post. There is one intriguing little squib, though: The Eldvin Monastery Brew of the Month Club.

Apparently "Once a month, when visiting a major city, club members will receive a package in the mail containing that month’s finely crafted brew. After collecting all twelve brews, club members will receive a title, a brewer’s backpack skin, and a guild decoration in recognition of their devotion to the craft." So that's a Monthly Log In Reward, then, is it? See you in January 2017 with my backpack and a hangover!

All in all it's encouraging. A lot of it I'll believe when I see it, like Living Story 3 and the WvW re-envisioning but at least, on paper, it looks good. It's very nice to see the first acknowledgment that there will indeed be a second expansion, too, even if it is thrown away in a couple of passing remarks. I wonder where we'll go next?

Until then, let's enjoy the holidays. Next up: Lunar New Year. Dragonball!

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