Monday, February 29, 2016

A Window On The World : Ninelives, EQNext

In the comments on yesterday's post Dahakha mentioned the proposed inclusion of the  Storybricks AI in EQNext. It was one of the many things that got a lot of people very excited around the time of the big EQN reveal. Can you believe that was two and a half years ago?

Since then a lot has changed. Okay, no it hasn't. The Storybricks team has been jettisoned from the project after, supposedly, having contributed as much as needed to allow the work to continue in house. Along with all the other invisible work being carried out by invisible people, invisibly, one assumes.

I'd forgotten about Storybricks. Indeed, the degree to which it had vanished from my memory can be measured by the fact that, even though ex-Storybricks developer Brian "Psychochild" Green was the very person to bring Ninelives to my attention, I still didn't connect the two until Dahakha reminded me.

There's a connection? Well, yes, in a way. Conceptually. Potentially. It has something to do with the discussion on single player RPGs, virtual worlds, immersion and authenticity.

It occurred to me while I was playing and enjoying and feeling part of and yet strangely isolated from the compelling world of Ninelives that we don't seem to have any virtual worlds that aren't games or gamelike simulations. We could.

A very long time ago, most likely in a Philip K Dick novel, I remember coming across the concept of living pictures. Art that hangs on the wall of your house but which shows not the same static picture but a moving image.

At the time something of the kind could have been contrived in the way video installation became a gallery staple in the 1980s. Today the technology is cheap and available enough to make moving pictures on the walls of your home an everyday reality. The most it appears to be used for thus far, however, is as a rather tacky replacement for photo albums and the old home movie projector.

What if, instead of photos of your dog and videos of the grandchildren, a screen on your wall opened onto an ever-changing vista of another world? How would it be if a roving camera panned across fields and plains, followed strange creatures through towering forests, swooped above the bustling streets of cities?

How would it be to watch them carrying on their imaginary lives without intervention or interruption? With the procedural techniques currently being employed to build vast enterprises like No Man's Sky and the artificial intelligence codices promised by Storybricks, could we not have something far closer to virtual worlds than anything we've yet seen?

What's more, freed from the costs and constraints of having to provide either gameplay or narrative, all of the development funding and effort could be directed at world-building. Sitting squarely within the visual arts rather than storytelling or gaming the result could be something designed to give pleasure, provoke thought and stir emotion simply by being observed and experienced, not by being played.

I'd Kickstart a project like that.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Thinking About It...

I'm going to try and keep this short because it's really quite simple: MMORPGs used to require a lot more thought than they do today.

It's a realization that crept up on me only this year. As the conversation over The Trinity rumbled on it eventually dawned on me that the arguments I was making in defense of that gameplay didn't have all that much to do with the roles involved. Neither was it simple nostalgia, rose-tinted or otherwise.

No, what's gone missing from my gaming is all that thinking I used to do. The problem-solving. I liked it. I miss it.

Of course, "problem-solving" could be misleading. It suggests puzzle games and the honorable tradition of Adventure in all its flavors: text, graphic, point-and-click.

In MMORPGs, if someone mentions "problem-solving" you might perhaps think of something like EverQuest's original Epic quests. When they were first introduced some of those took a global community of almost half a million people weeks to brute force using the wisdom of crowds.

That's not what I mean. I never liked that side of MMOs much. I was always happy to let someone else solve those puzzles then put them in a guide for me to follow. These days I wouldn't be without my wikis.

No, what I'm referring to is the quotidian problem-solving that comes from knowing your environment, intimately. The kind you do every day, when someone pulls up beside you in the street, rolls down the window and asks "Excuse me, are you from round here?"

Local knowledge. That's what I'm missing. That sense that you've lived somewhere long enough to learn the byways and the cut-throughs, where the bad neighborhoods are, which house has the barking dog, who'll likely sell you a beer after hours.

I miss that feeling of satisfaction and security that comes when you can tell a harmless bee from a drunken wasp or a helpful fairy-drake from a deadly wyvern. What's been lost from almost every MMO I can think of is any need at all to spend a good, long time learning the nature of things.

A long time ago, when my characters were out gaining "xp" and leveling up, the one really becoming experienced was me. I was learning which creatures I could kill, which could kill me and how just about every one was different from every other in some important way that I needed to keep straight in my head if I wanted to survive and maybe even to prosper.

I was learning which way to run if things went bad. Which guards would help and which would stand by and watch me die. I was learning where it was safer on the paths and where to cut across country. Where nightfall meant the bad things were coming out to play and where it just meant use a torch.

A million things to learn and remember and keep straight. Which creatures ignored everyone except trolls, who they hated with an irrational passion. Where you could go in a glamour or an illusion that you couldn't go as yourself - and which glamour and which illusion. Who sold what for less than the other fellow and in which village on what island.

Just being in the world required you to think not much less than all the time. I liked that a lot.

And then there was the fighting.

Keen has a tale to tell about how things have changed when it comes to combat. He titles it "I haven't seen that in a decade" and come to think of it, neither have I.

I noticed the tank (the ranger with better gear) was rooted, so I ran over to him for him to be able to peel the mobs off me. He did, we lived, and all was well. I then received quite a shock: The tank was praising me for how well the fight went saying he hasn’t seen a healer run to the tank for over 10 years

This is just what I mean. This is what I miss. Having to look around, pay attention, evaluate the situation, review options, compare current circumstances with previous experience. I miss the need to know, in detail, what tools I have in the box and which ones I need to pull out when. Crucially, I miss having the time to do all that and enjoy it.

Instead of local knowledge, a detailed understanding of our capabilities and the time and opportunity to asses our options, what do we have now? Circles on the ground. Huge text messages splashed across the center of the screen. NPCs yelling orders. A set of triggers signifying "Go Here Now", "Do This Thing", "Don't Stand There", "Do As You're Told".

I always disliked scripting in MMOs. I’ve been complaining about it since Planes of Power. Over time, not only have scripts become completely embedded in all levels of MMO gameplay, not just in raids, where they began, but developers have ceased to trust players even to be able to learn their lines.

Players and developers alike have come to expect overt, clear signals in the form of ground markers, circles, cones, colors and written or spoken instructions. We've gone from improvisational theater to an on-book recital with cue-cards and a prompt. 

At the same time that every effort has been made to remove most of the need to think for ourselves, playing well in a group context has come to require ever more demanding levels of motor skills. Group play in MMOs like GW2 and WildStar these days consists primarily of having very fast reaction times while being highly reactive to abstract on-screen visual signals.

For the very best players, I imagine, MMO combat still requires an agile, thoughtful mind. If you're able to time your reactions to the millisecond, to co-ordinate status effects that last for the blink of an eye, then, yes, the satisfaction of assessing a situation and responding appropriately can be yours. That's beyond me.

It is, you could say, a young player's game. Perhaps I am looking back with nostalgia to those golden days of my youth after all. On the other hand, since I bought EQ for myself as a 40th birthday present, maybe not.

With the average age of gamers now pushing well into the thirties it seems strange that the mechanics of the games themselves should be trending so much younger. It's hardly surprising, though, that because it is, we need all those handrails, floor markers and LARGE PRINT SIGNS. Without them, how many aging gamers would run out of breath, energy and patience? End up slumped on a bench, watching the game instead of playing it?

Oh, look. I've rambled on and gone off the point after all. Must be my age.

Let me end by quoting Keen again:

 " ...people, for the most part, aren’t used to games where people need to think"

I hope that changes. And soon.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Happy Together : GW2, Ninelives

When Psychochild posted about Ninelives he was continuing an ongoing discussion about the point, value and meaning of playing MORPGs on your own. Syl had some strong opinions on the topic:

To play MMOs only ever to see people run around you that aren’t quite as scripted as NPCs sounds like a dreadful reduction of social engagement to mere window dressing. Does this experience really offer so much more than big-world RPGs such as Skyrim or The Witcher 3 would?

It's been so very long since I last played a solo RPG that I'd almost forgotten what it feels like. After five or six hours playing the really excellent Ninelives it began to come back to me. It feels empty. It's not real.

Sometimes you have to make your own friends.

I don't believe I would ever have known that had I not played an MMO. Had I been fortunate enough to be able to play Ninelives twenty years ago, when I didn't even know online gaming existed, I would have been completely and utterly swept away. Much in the way people describe being overwhelmed by Skyrim.

People, that is, by and large, who have never played MMORPGs. When Skyrim was the big new thing I discovered that someone I worked with, who I had no idea was even a gamer, was so concerned about the power the game had over her that she had to ration her hours with it lest she lose herself down that rabbit hole and never find her way out.

For her, a big part of the draw appeared to be the isolation. Being the only focal point in an entire world was addictive. She had, as far as I'm aware, never played an MMO nor shared her gaming experiences with another person as she played. Gaming was a way to get free of other people, to get away into a purely imaginary world, not to share those experiences.

Want to group?

I don't believe that's ever really appealed to me. In the 80s, when I gamed on the Atari, Spectrum and Amiga, I shared the controller and the keyboard with my first wife and with friends. Much of my gaming was done with others in the room, watching, kibitzing, joining in.

When Mrs Bhagpuss and I got together at the beginning of the 90s neither of us was an active gamer. We'd been together for the best part of five years before I got a PC for entirely non-gaming purposes and, inevitably, ended up playing games on it instead of writing my novel or making music. Immediately, we began gaming together. We shared the keyboard, taking turns playing Might and Magic: The Mandate of Heaven or Return To Krondor, watching over each other's shoulders and making "helpful" suggestions.

Moving online to play the same kind of games in a wider social environment was a natural evolution; scary but exhilarating. In a strange way it was familiar. Just another way to share an experience that always felt hollow alone.

Wonder if it speaks Goblin?

Playing Ninelives, which I can't stress too strongly I think is a great game, clarifies for me exactly why I need to play my games with others around. I need this reminder every few years. Last time was the first Dragon Age, which I started out loving and then dropped cold half way through, never to play again. The key to that collapse of interest was not being able to share what was happening as it happened. That's why soloing in an MMO just works emotionally in a way playing a solo RPG doesn't.

That said, soloing in MMOs is only one way, albeit probably the easiest, to gain this sense of communal experience. Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, streaming or just talking to friends the old-fashioned way, they all work to a degree. If I wasn't able to blog about Ninelives and post screenshots I don't know that I'd be bothering to carry on. The isolation would be oppressive.

With that possibility in mind, though, I can at least imagine sharing what I'm seeing and discovering at some future time, even though what I'd really like to be doing is sharing it with someone who was in that virtual space along with me. We might be sitting in front of screens on the opposite side of world; we might never have spoken to each other before and we might never speak to each other again; we might not even need to speak at all. Doesn't matter. Just being there, together, makes it all real.

Some insights just deserve to be shared

And what, anyway, is "soloing"? Does it even exist in an modern MMO? I play mostly GW2 so perhaps my view is colored by that experience but I can't say I'm ever really "soloing". This last weekend, for example, I played maybe sixteen or twenty hours altogether. I've been working on the new Shatterer meta, which I've now completed on two accounts. That put me in mind that I never finished either the Tequatl or Triple Trouble metas so I've been picking away at both.

All three of those are massive-scale events involving anything from twenty to a hundred people. There's organization, conversation, co-ordination, co-operation, carping, recrimination and chaos. During the course of these events I'm in and out of parties and squads, sometimes solo, sometimes not. It's seamless. It's the same experience. There is no "solo" in the sense we used to mean it.

When I wasn't working on metas I was wrecking around World vs World, which is furiously, gloriously alive again. Once more I was everything - solo, duo, group, squad, zerg. No-one asks you to group any more - you just hot join. If you run with a Tag the Commander or one of his lieutenants will spot you and squad you up. When you need to go make a coffee or swap maps you just go. No goodbyes, no concerns.

Then again, there's sharing and there's over-sharing...

All of the freedom of action that soloing used to bring is now incorporated in the larger content by design. The entire world is your group. Only in archaic throwbacks like instanced dungeons and raids can you truly say you are Grouped not Solo.

And it's not all about the fights. In doing so many large, scheduled events over these past few weeks I've realized that I really enjoy just hanging around waiting for stuff to happen. The banter, the bickering, the nonsense. The fireworks and the food and the bonfires.

At Shatterer a while back someone put down a Super Adventure Box o' Fun, a rarity that no longer drops in the game. The effect that had was astonishing. It was a true moment, unpredictable, unexpected, astonishing.

Fireworks aren't much fun on your own.

A new update dropped back in January that added a simple collection quest, the Brew of the Month Club. Map chat was buzzing. When I got to the Eldvin Monastery the place was hopping. I could barely even see Master Brewer Desch for the crowd. Involvement happens in an MMO, like it or don't.

Was I grouped for this stuff? Of course I wasn't. Was I chatting about it with Mrs Bhagpuss, with the guild, with strangers asking questions in map chat? Naturally, I was.

Even when I'm doing just about the most solo thing you can do in GW2, my Personal Story, I'm never really solo. I get the same calls to action when I'm there as I get anywhere. "Commander requesting all willing help YBBL Garri - 20+ JQ w/Omegas". Whether I respond is my choice - there's no comeback if I don't - but even if I shrug and click the next NPC for another cut-scene I'm still included, still part of the big, imaginary world we're sharing.

Sometimes your news is just so exciting you just have to tell someone.

In Ninelives, I'm filled with wonder and curiosity. I'm excited, involved and intrigued. But I'm alone. It's fine for a while but not for long. I managed nearly two hours this morning but after less than an hour I was aware that I was the only one there and it weighed on me.

I will carry on, but like my colleague at work I'll have to ration the time I spend there. Not because I might drift too deep but because, otherwise, I might begin to question whether I can afford to be there at all.

Soloing isn't something you should do alone.

Monday, February 22, 2016

One Of Nine : Ninelives

I have Psychochild to thank for this one. He found it via a news squib on MassivelyOP that I'd seen but paid no mind. Bad error. Thanks for the catch, Brian.

It would really have been a shame to have missed Ninelives even though it's not an MMO (yet) because it ticks just about all my boxes, apart from the one that says "Anyone Else Here"? Except for the phrase "single player", the Statement of Intent that introduces the project could have been drafted specifically to match my personal criteria for the perfect RPG:

Ninelives is an open world single player RPG focused on freely searching and adventuring in a unique world and building characters with items and skills. We aim to create a game where players can enjoy the pleasures of simple RPG, such as discovering, collecting, battling, in their own relaxed pace.

Let's start with what it looks like. It's just gorgeous.

Not in any flash, over-pumped, hyperactive, "look at me I'm gorgeous" kind of way. No, Ninelives reminds me of other worlds that clicked for me at first sight - Vanguard, City of Steam, Rubies of Eventide - places that immediately felt like places.

I don't know exactly what it is but I think dust has a lot to do with it. Dust and grit and the patina of age. These are lands that feel used, lived in, worn down. Much though I'm enjoying Blade and Soul, even though I find its world beautiful and involving and its hamlets and villages convincing, everything there looks so clean and new. This does not.

In two sessions last night, amounting to around an hour and a half, I took nearly seventy screenshots. Some were taken with this post in mind but most were just because I was seeing such wonders.

Ninelives has been handcrafted by a small team, with all the graphic design, world-building and modelling carried out by a single person. That pays huge dividends in consistency but that wouldn't be much of a benefit if the single person wasn't also gifted with a striking visual sense. Fortunately he is.

The SmokeymonkeyS duo describe themselves as "a team consisting of two Japanese guys, one a programmer and the other a graphic designer, formed for the purpose of creating games." With delicious modesty they claim "We are not professional game creators...We are just a team of guys that absolutely love games."

Well, I guess Morrissey and Marr were just a team of guys who absolutely loved music. No-one starts out as a professional. You become professional by producing professional quality work. This is professional quality work and then some.

Psychochild goes into some detail on the gameplay. I won't go over that ground again. Suffice it to say it's tailor-made to please me. I took his advice and went with the Blade class. A goblin because of course a goblin!

Within a minute or two of waking up in a stream I was whacking gnolls with an axe and taking their stuff. Could there be a more perfect opening to a game? No, there could not. À propos yesterday's post, Ninelives scores highly on the "How do you get gear" scale. The gnolls wear armor and use axes and bows.

When you kill them they drop axes and bows and armor, along with a few potions and recipes. I'd score it a perfect ten except that the delivery mechanic is a chest rather than looting straight from the body but I can live with that.

A short trip to the back of a mini-dungeon and a battle with a big boss gnoll netted me some nice items but really all I wanted to was explore. From the now empty gnoll camp I could see the towers of a city with airships passing overhead. I headed up the hill in search of adventure. Mostly, what I found was wonder.

The city is convincing. The scale is spot on. The buildings have function and purpose, the streets are laid out as streets would be. There are strange things to see around every corner - a huge statue of a deer, strange riding beasts stabled next to shaggy horses, emporia of mysteries and the mundane side by side.

There are posters in the streets, pictures on the walls, signs in a script I can't decipher. Everywhere there's something new to stare at and wonder. And just listen.

The two-man team got someone else in to do the music. It really would be too much to expect they could do it all. They chose exceptionally well. The music is excellent as is the ambient soundscape. There's even a torch singer in a bar, whose lonely, elegiac throb fills the room with sadness and longing.

The last thing I did before I logged out was stand in the deserted single street of Mistral, The Timeless Town, a forgotten, abandoned settlement right at the end of the map, listening to the haunting score. I'm not a big fan of soundtracks in general or of video game music in particular but this is something else. Here's a messy edit that doesn't do it anything like justice. Second half has the best.

So, clearly I could ramble on for a while, eulogizing about what is essentially a version of a game that may change to the point of unrecognizeablity over the months and years ahead. Which is what happened to City of Steam, of whose pre-alpha and alpha days this strongly reminds me.

Enjoy it while it lasts, that's my advice. It may turn into something really special one day but on the other hand this might turn out to be its Golden Age. It's free, it's a tiny download. All you need is an email address and you're in. I wish I could say I'll see you there but I won't. It's not an MMORPG.

I hope it will be, one day.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

A Simple Tale, Well Told : Blade and Soul, GW2

Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert! Spoiler Alert!

Okay. That's the warnings out of the way. Let's talk story.

Yesterday was something of a story day. It was almost four years ago that Mrs Bhagpuss first went to Clown School during one of the early GW2 beta weekends.That was one of the things that sold her on the game. It made such an impression back then that when we were playing The Secret World  a couple of months later, as we waited for GW2 to launch, our Cabal's message of the day was "This isn't Clown School!"

Ever since, I've been meaning to get around to going myself but something always got in the way. Race, mainly. To go to Clown School you have to be Human, you see, and that's never been a favorite choice of mine, when I'm rolling up a character in any game. In GW2 Human comes before Norn but behind everything else. It used to come ahead of Sylvari, too, but Scarlet changed all that.

Then there's the branching narrative. In GW2 you have to pick certain traits and characteristics at character creation if you want to get specific paths in the early storyline. Fortunately the Circus plot is heavily signposted, unlike some, but I still managed to miss it on both my previous human characters.

I'll never be able to fill your shoes...
I was paying attention when I made my new thief, though, and yesterday I slogged through the opening narratives that I'd done on a previous character (also a thief as it happens) until I finally got invited to join the Circus. Okay, not so much invited as told. And not so much "join" as "put out of business". Close enough.

The entire plot and all the characters appear to have been "borrowed" from Marvel's "Circus of Crime", an unconvincing bunch of would-be not-very-super villains I remember clearly from my readings of The Hulk, Daredevil and Spiderman back in the '60s. Granted, every traditional circus has a Strongman and a Clown but when you also throw in a Snake Charmer and a Ringmaster who uses a whirling device to hypnotize the audience into attacking the heroes I feel the boundaries of coincidence and cultural congruence have been breached.

For heavens sake, even The Human Cannonball turns up at one point. We were only missing a couple of acrobats for the full set. Let's be generous and call it "homage". It was fun, and I'm glad I finally got to fulfill my character's childhood dream of joining the circus but emotionally involving or well-written it really wasn't.

Unlike the unfolding narrative in Blade and Soul. I really wasn't expecting this but the storyline in B&S is getting quite interesting. The characters are developing a modicum of personality. It's turning into a bit of a page-turner.

Oh, cry me a frickin' river, Namsoyoo.

Oh, it's nothing remotely original. Let's not get carried away. It's the same ropy old genre fantasy nonsense I've tabbed through in a score of MMOs before. What's more, most of the voice acting is so flat it must have been ironed. That's when it isn't labored or hysterical. 

It's a shame the acting is so mediocre and hammy because, while the concepts may creak with age and familiarity, the writing itself is often spry and supple. The incidental side quests are not infrequently amusing and the characters who hand them out manage to convey more personality than the average MMO NPC.

Good luck dodging an arrow, pal.
The plot itself lumbers along as these things do. After almost twenty levels I'd come to expect the "twists", all of which had been telegraphed long in advance. The spies turn out to be exactly who you thought they were. The supposed allies and good guys that raised my hackles the first time we met did indeed turn out to be Bad Hats in the end.

None of which prevents the whole farrago from feeling surprisingly interesting and, yes, satisfying. I'm not a great fan of having a central, through-line narrative structure in MMORPGs. I prefer an accretional back story that builds up imagistically as your character follows his or her own concerns. Given that we're going to have a backbone to this skeleton, though, I've certainly seen flimsier bones.

Trouble follows her. It's not her fault.

In any case, I tend to wander off-piste quite early in MMOs, so following a narrative doesn't come naturally to me. Although I had been paying due diligence to the main story arc for once, it came at the cost of another supposed essential plot element. I'd completely neglected my extended Class Tutorial, which turns out to be a major pillar of the developing story as well. 

At nearly level twenty I'd last checked in with Hajoon, my irrepressible ex-classmate, friend and self-appointed tutor, back when I was about level five. The main story eventually brought me back once again to Bamboo Village, where I'd begun my adventures after being fished out of the sea like a half-drowned kitten. After an intense cut-scene (the cut-scenes in Blade and Soul vary but some of them impress) and a rather less-than-intense fight sequence, I found myself half a level short of the next stage.

This was where I began to be impressed. Hajoon's skin has developed a pallor. There are dark shadows under his eyes. His speech, usually so confident, is hesitant. Bad things are coming. I feel it. You know that old saw about "Show, Don't Tell"? Someone remembered.

Up until then I didn't even realize there were any level requirements. Since there were, I thought I'd kill two Blackram with one stone by walking back to the higher end of the map and completing all the quests I'd picked up and left hanging along the way, dinging Level 20 along the way.. 

That was how I came to do almost the whole of the class tutorial sequence in one go. It's supposed to be spread out over twenty or so levels but I did it in an hour and I'm glad I did. It didn't teach me much that I hadn't already worked out for myself but by the end I felt more bonded to my character than I'd ever expected to be in this game and I'm sensing my character's bond to her world more powerfully, too.

It's happening.

Again, I don't want to make any big claims for this. We aren't talking TSW quest levels of emotional involvement here, let alone anything you'd get from a good movie or novel. Compared to the GW2 personal story, though, which tries to push many of the same emotional buttons, this is on another level. Clown School it ain't.

It does very much help that Hajoon has the best voice acting I've heard in the game so far. It isn't particularly naturalistic but it freights emotion effectively. His character comes through consistently and coherently both in the words on the screen and the sound of his voice, whereas in too many other examples in Blade and Soul the voice acting works against the writing, diminishing its effect.

The Hajoon arc also has considerably more subtlety than the main story. For once the twist took me completely by surprise. The sudden darkening of tone in what had been a bouncy, funny, light-hearted romp worked very well indeed. It was both unexpected and unexpectedly moving. I didn't want it to happen and I didn't like that I couldn't do anything to stop it. But I believed it and I believed that was how it had to be. 

The honor was all mine, Hajoon.

Good writing. Good, simple, genre writing. It looks easy but it's harder to bring off than you'd think, which is why so much of it is so often inept. That and that no-one cares, which all too often seems to be self-evidently the case. Well, someone cared about this little story enough to write it well and everyone else cared enough to animate it and act it and direct it with sufficient attention and craft to allow such potential as it had to be fulfilled.

A small victory for quality, then, but not an insignificant one. Few of these little touches amount to much in themselves but they add up. Even when you didn't come for the story, perhaps didn't even want there to be a story, still, seeing that story well-told has its effect. 

I warm to Blade and Soul more each time I play. I like the setting, the ambiance and the characters. I want to see what's over the next hill and know what happens next in the story. It may not last but it's enough for now.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly. : Blade and Soul

Blade and Soul is weird. It just is. I'm not even talking about the environments, where the giant heads of statues taller than a five-story building can apparently lie scattered around without drawing the slightest comment or explanation. I'm not talking about man-size dogs that carry water pitchers on their heads.

I'm not even questioning why every adult guard in a fifty mile radius believes a small girl recovering from a traumatic injury is better suited to doing their jobs than they could ever be. No, all of that comes with the territory.

What's weird is the gear progression. Counter-intuitive doesn't even begin to cover it.

I suppose I'm old-fashioned. Okay, let's make that plain old. I grew up with a particular trope for gear progression in RPGs that I found really quite straightforward to follow. It went like this:

  • You start out with a rusty sword.
  • With your rusty sword you kill, let's say, a gnoll.
  • The gnoll drops a sword that's not so rusty.
  • You take the not-so-rusty sword from the dead gnoll and with it you kill a bigger gnoll, who drops a sword that's not rusty at all. Perhaps it's made of bronze.
  • You swap again and with the bronze sword you kill an orc.
  • He drops an iron sword.

Now you're getting the hang of how this goes. And it keeps on going like that, all the way
until you're standing over the smoldering corpse of the Holy Dragon Emperor, who just dropped the Flaming Scimitar of the Blazing Dragon and you won the game. Until the next expansion, when you return to Go and start all over again.

I may never have gotten within a hundred miles of that final, fiery sword, but I knew how to make my way in its general direction. Kill baddies, take their stuff. It was simple and I liked it.

Well, MMORPGs haven't really worked that way for a long time. Everything has sockets and gems and auras and augmentations. There are Relics and Epics and weapons and armor that Evolves. I know all that. Don't like it much but no-one's asking me.

Then we come to Blade and Soul. Firstly, there are a lot fewer equipment slots than I'm used to. It's pretty much your weapon, some jewellery and a hat. Secondly, and this is the really weird part, by level twenty you will have filled all the slots that matter with the only item you will ever need to equip there.

I had to google it. I would never have believed it if I hadn't read this guide. I am wondering even now if I've understood it correctly. This is what I think happens:

  • Through questing you acquire a Hongmoon item for each slot.
  • Each of these is the best you will ever get. Yes, you are playing a game where, from the beginning, your character gets BiS gear automatically.
  • This gear evolves. By consuming other gear. You feed it, it grows.
  • As you kill, you get drops. 
  • The drops are sealed. 
  • You can't equip sealed gear. 
  • You don't need to, even though you also get keys that do unseal it. 
  • If you do unseal it, you can equip it, but you would never want to equip it because it is always worse than what you already have.
  • Except when your Hongmoon gear reaches a "Breakthrough" point. 
  • Then you must unseal a specific item that matches the Breakthrough because now that's all your Hongmoon piece has the appetite to eat.

There's another, even more demented, progression path for your Soul Shield but at this point I began to lose the will, and the ability, to take it all in.

I just came out of City of Steam a month or so ago. That game also had an insanely complicated series of nested progression paths for gear. EQ2, which I have been boiled in for so long that I've been soup for years, has gear ladders that appear to have been designed by Escher and Gaudi on a bet. Even those mare's nests still had gear that dropped that you used!

Maybe someone is going to explain in the comments how I've gotten this all wrong. I hope so. At the moment it appears that my future in Blade and Soul consists of looting items that I have to unseal to see what they are so I can look at them and realize they are useless to me and that I should have left them sealed and sacrificed them to the gear I already have.

I'm not saying that doesn't work. I'm already starting to get used to it. I managed to buff my Hongmoon staff so far last night that I need two more levels before I can take it any further. That was quite satisfying.

I am, however, saying it's weird. Why is this better than just having the drops - which are already dropping - be direct upgrades that I equip? Is it something to do with the payment model? Is there some aspect of this that is going to force me to give NCSoft money somewhere down the line if I want to progress?

If so, frankly, it's not necessary. I had a quest last night that required me to open the Cash Shop and have a look at it. Most F2P games have a quest like this for obvious reasons. Usually it's click - click - done. Not this time.

I spent about a quarter of an hour browsing the virtual shelves. Unlike GW2's Gem Store, where there is almost never a single thing I'd use even if it came for free, I could imagine spending money in B&S's store all too easily. I probably won't because I'm mean like that but I could imagine it.

I mean, who wouldn't want to wear a pink fat suit and call themselves Pinky Bear?  Nothing weird about that at all. And if that's not worth getting your credit card out for, what is?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Spotlight On Fashion : Blade and Soul

There are several interesting conversations going on right now that I'd really like to bounce off but work is not playing nicely with the timing so they'll just have to wait.

Instead I thought I'd just throw out a quick report about Blade and Soul and its strange take on fashion.

I'm still enjoying the game a lot. My Summoner's about half way through level 17 now and so far not much has changed. Everything seems slick, the world looks great and nothing I've been tasked with doing has been much of a challenge.

I finally got to see the Pot Dogs. They turned out to be walking mushroom ceramicists. Of course they did. This game reminds me more and more of Zentia every day. *

The main thing that's puzzling me right now is what my character gets to wear. I haven't read up on this so I am probably missing something obvious but in seventeen levels I haven't really had any control at all over what she looks like.

Well, that's not entirely true. I have several costumes stashed  in my bank vault. I could in theory choose to wear any of them. Except that putting them on changes my character's faction, making her an ally of her former enemies and kill-on-sight to her erstwhile friends.

For example, just by slipping into a BlackRam uniform I can be best buds with the same bandits I've been killing since the starting zone but every Bamboo Guard, an organization I've been doing quests for since the get-go, will try to rip my head off. It's a very interesting approach to faction but I can't quite follow the role-play logic.

As for my regular clothes, well they seem to work the same way. Every so often I get rewarded with a new outfit that replaces the previous one and changes my entire ensemble. There are no individual pieces to mix and match and no dyes to change the color scheme. It's a complete makeover, take it or leave it.

As a Lyn Summoner I have to say there is definitely no issue with my costume being too revealing, a noted problem with imported F2P MMOs in general and Blade and Soul in particular. Quite the opposite.

She started out in a blouson and shorts ensemble that looked like something Little Lord Fauntleroy's younger sister might wear. Then she graduated to Tiger Lily's second-best lounging pajamas and now she's wearing an outfit Kate Bush might have considered and rejected for some mid-80s awards ceremony.

All in all it's rather odd. I'm sure there must be more to it than I understand right now but for the time being I'll just have to be content with wearing what I'm given - just so long as changing my colors doesn't mean changing my colors, that is!

* Footnote - I was wrong about Pot Dogs. They really are some kind of dog after all. I just did a bunch of quests around their kennels and finally got a good look at them. They seem to be some kind of bipedal basset hound although it's kind of hard to be sure, what with them all carrying pots on their heads bigger than they are. They share their territory with a slew of strolling fungi which is where the confusion crept in. Glad we got that straightened out. It's very important to know the phylum of the thing you're killing.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Upwards And Onwards: GW2

As a big fan of leveling in MMORPGs I'm not usually in much of a hurry to take advantage of shortcuts to the end game. Oh, I'll often latch on to any opportunity to accelerate the rate of experience gain - rested xp, vitality, double xp weekends, boosters, +xp gear, all the gimmicks - but those only speed up the process a little. That way I still get to enjoy the journey, just at a jog instead of a stroll.

For a long time options to avoid the entire game below the cap weren't part of the deal for the genre but in recent years they have proliferated to the point of becoming a standard fitting. I forget who started it. The first I remember using was the jump to 85 in EverQuest.

For my taste these content bypasses work best in games where I already have a large roster of characters. Even when you really love the leveling game, sometimes you get to the point where the prospect of taking a character through the same zones for the tenth (or twentieth) time loses a little of its appeal.

In most MMOs the great leap forward comes at a price - literally. Whether you're buying a high-level character off the shelf, getting one bundled in with an expansion or bootstrapping one you already started it's usually a cash transaction. Not so in GW2.

You can't play GW2 regularly without receiving a plethora of both Tomes of Knowledge and Writs of Experience. You get them, whether you want them or not, from dailies, as drops, as direct rewards. You even get them just for logging in. Unless you go so far as to delete them, pretty soon you'll have them in stacks.

Each Tome is worth a full level. Each Writ is worth 5% of one. There are also Experience Scrolls that raise a character instantly to Level 20 or Level 30 in one click. As of last week I had enough of all of these banked on my main account to bump at least three brand new characters to the level cap of 80. I also had an unused character slot that I bought in the January sale.

When I was playing two accounts side-by-side I had all the classes covered, many of them doubled. After consolidating to one Heart of Thorns equipped account, though, I found myself shy of one skill set on that team: Thief.

If there's one of GW2's eight classes I've never really taken to it's the Thief. I don't much like thieves in any MMO. Heck, I don't like them in RPGs period. Call them Rogues or Scouts or what you will, I find them fussy, fiddly and annoying.

That said, leveling one up in Tyria was easy enough when I did it a couple of years back on what is now the storage account. As I vaguely recall I mostly spammed Heartseeker and used the Shortbow like a bargain-basement ranger. It was painless enough but not something I'd want to repeat just to round out a full roster for the go team.

With HoT, however, came Elite Specs. They aren't quite the same as brand new classes but they do change the gameplay of certain professions substantially. A Dragonhunter, for example, feels very different to play then the Guardian from which it derives.

Mrs Bhagpuss, who played a monk for years in EverQuest, has been experimenting with the Daredevil elite spec for Thieves, trying to see if she can create something similar. She's been pleased with the result so I thought I might give it a try too.

So, a couple of days ago I rolled a new Thief. Human, because another thing I've meant to do for years and never gotten around to is to go to Clown School. Bizarrely, joining the circus is one of the Personal Story options for human characters. I thought I could kill two clowns with one stone.


I quickly flicked through the perfunctory but mandatory "tutorial" and flipped up to The Mists, where I stood in Citadel reading my way through a level 30 Experience Scroll and fifty Tomes. It's a lot of clicking and an awful lot of inventory management as every one of the 80 levels registers independently and produces separate, discrete rewards and pop-ups.

Then there was the choosing of all the skills and traits. The deciding on a pro-tem build to get started. The selecting and acquiring of a complete set of Exotic gear fit for a Level 80. The upgrading of all that kit with runes and sigils.

Even having been through all this well over a dozen times before as characters dinged 80 the slow way and even with substantial resources available in Gold, Karma, Badges and banked gear, this is not a swift process. It took me most of an afternoon. Very enjoyable it was, too.

Eventually there she was, my fully geared, fully specced level 80 Thief. I've skipped a few levels using Tomes before - jumped from 70 to 80 on my second Guardian, for example - but I've never really considered what it means to begin at 80 as a totally fresh character. There's one major factor I hadn't even considered: travel.

Oh, I knew I would have to go out and grab 250 Hero Points before I could transition from Thief to Daredevil. I knew that would mean hitting 25 Hero Challenges in Magus Falls. That's something I was actively looking forward to doing.


What hadn't occurred to me was that if I wanted to go anywhere to do anything, virtually anything at all, I'd have to walk there first. GW2 has some of the fastest Fast Travel in MMOs. Every map is studded with waypoints and for a fee that once seemed extortionate but now seem utterly trivial all you need to do to get from where you are to anywhere else is open your map and click.

Except there's a catch: before you can use a waypoint from the map you have to have visited it in game. And that data is recorded not against your account but against your character. If you open your map as a brand new jumped-up level 80 all you will see is fog.

This is great stuff. For me it adds a whole new layer of fun. I love opening waypoints. Since I first encountered it in EverQuest I have always felt that the mechanic of having instant travel but only to places your character has run to overland first offers the best of both worlds, exploration and convenience.

I can see how it might annoy some, though. You can't even do something as basic as join a World Boss train when you can't click the links in chat and map-hop to the next pinata. Just getting to Silverwastes to begin my HoT Personal Story so I could set out on the road to becoming a daredevil took me twenty minutes of running.

That's done now. I also took the trouble to trot around Tyria to open most of the World Boss waypoints, which gives me a schematic for future travels. Given that even after all this time my highest map completion on any character is still under 70% filling out the maps is hardly going to be a priority but you do need the basics.

How much play my new thief will get I wouldn't like to predict. Depends on how different Daredevil feels, I guess. Even if I don't like it any better than the base class I still have Clown School to look forward to and nearly 500 waypoints to open. Will the fun never end?

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Every Picture Tells A Story : Blade And Soul

Appearances aren't everything, so people say, but in a visually-oriented medium like video gaming they sure can help. Blade and Soul continues to impress me considerably more than I expected and much of that comes down to what I get to look at while I play.

I'd be hard-put to think of another MMORPG I've played that creates such a powerful feeling of open space. The views in B&S are huge. Every time I come to a new area I have to stop to take it all in. The sky seem vast, the mountains loom, the paths wind away into the distance between towering trees. I find myself pulling the camera back to look up. And up. And up.

There's some very solid set design going on here, too. Every small settlement and village, and there are plenty of them, seems unusually convincing. The buildings are placed in a way that feels natural, organic. So often in MMOs buildings appear to have been plonked down without any regard to how or why they might have been built where they stand. Not so here.

Another common immersion-breaker in MMORPGs comes from misalignment of expectation when it comes to size. Rift was probably the worst I've ever seen in this regard. You could comfortably throw a stone from one side of a "city" there to the other. In Blade and Soul thus far I haven't found a place yet that's been described as anything larger than a village.

It sounds trivial but I find it matters. Being sent from one quest hub to the next is not a mechanic I particularly appreciate, but here it's done as well as I've seen for a while and a good part of that relies on the language: it really helps immersion when the description the NPC gives me matches what I see when I get there.

It also matters that the NPCs who send me are so visually striking. They don't all look the same and neither do they look bland or generic. They may be nowhere even close to the genre-defying excellence of characters in The Secret World but they are at least quirky and strange enough to stand out.

Their animations are atypical, too. As I read the dialog (quickly, so I don't have to listen to the less-than convincing voice-work) I'm frequently distracted by the figure of the person in front of me preening and primping, examining her nails or rocking from side to side. It creates an odd, not entirely comfortable atmosphere. Sometimes I just want to get my quest and get away before things spiral out of control.

One thing it's impossible not to be aware of while playing Blade and Soul is that you're playing a game that has been translated from another language. That's not because of any failings in the translation itself. The writing in English is uniformly good; idiomatically sound, grammatically correct, tonally accurate. Often it's genuinely funny, too. The use of sarcasm is particularly well done.

No, it's not the translation of the original language that lets you know someone else across the world is probably getting more out of this than you are. It's literally the language itself. There it is, in front of you, on the screen in unreadable characters; on letters, signs, posters, writing on the wall.

In a way it's a strength. After all, we get along well enough with mysterious hieroglyphics in other imaginary worlds: Asuran and New Krytan in Tyria, for example. People translate those (or, more accurately, transliterate, since they are effectively ciphers not languages). I could, if I was really that bothered, find translations for these, too. I'm not that bothered. I just let them drip ambience.

If the NPCs have charm and personality then so does my familiar. In spades. I am very happy to have chosen the Summoner as my class (not least because the linear nature of the progression so far suggests Blade and Soul may not be a great game for leveling a lot of characters in quick succession). The cat that started out creepy is close to becoming cute. Familiarity breeds content.

Not to say he couldn't be cuter. In the crafting village, the first major service hub I've happened upon, I came across a Groomer. For a very substantial fee (which I don't see myself having for a long time - money is tight in this game at low levels it seems) my familiar can be morphed and molded quite literally out of all recognition. I don't know, though. I'm kinda used to him how he is.

I especially like the way he looks so tentative, nervous and confused every time we stop for a minute. I have so many screenshots of my character, standing, looking overwhelmed or amazed at some new vista that's just opened up ahead of her, while the cat faces the wrong way, looking nervous. Or, better yet, both of them with their backs to the camera managing to express awestruck wonder through pure body language.

The interiors are as tastefully dressed and effectively understated as the exteriors. Nothing I've seen so far has been overdone. It's not minimalist but it shows good judgment and restraint. Dungeons are uncluttered yet interesting, convincing enough as lairs or mines or caves or tombs. Houses are appropriately furnished, functional. If there's a fault it's that everything is very, very tidy, neat and clean. There are worse faults to have.

Lens flare, for example. Actually I love me some lens flare. It's a lapse of taste, I know, but I'm easily impressed that way. When i came over the hill into this after-the-bomb evening glare I actually said "Wow!". Out loud.

Foliage is another weakness of mine. I do like to see undergrowth in a forest, flowers in a field. Blade and Soul serves me very well in that regard. Sometimes I can scarcely see my cat for the long grass. I think he likes it that way. He seems quite shy for a magical martial arts moggy.

There's much more along these lines. The swimming animation is good enough that I've been swimming back and forth across lakes just to watch  it. I particularly like the way the lower half of my character fractures and scatters when she stands waist deep in water. The cat's not so happy about that. Waist deep for her is up to the chin for him and cats and water don't play well together to begin with...

Perhaps the most impressive thing of all about Blade and Soul's graphics is how smoothly and effortlessly they display on my aging, low-spec system. I let the game choose the settings and it appears to have turned them all up to maximum. Everything looks great and there's been no hint of hitching, stuttering or any other issue so far.

All in all I'm enjoying the game a great deal more than I expected and that is in large part due to what I'm seeing as I play. The gameplay is nothing to get excited about and neither is the storyline but so long as I can find new scenery to admire I think this one will run.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide