Thursday, March 31, 2016

Super Adventure Festival Is Go! : GW2

On the first of April 2013, I posted this. Three years on it remains the third most viewed post ever on Inventory Full.

I was never a huge fan of The Super Adventure Box, myself. About the most positive thing I could find to say about it in that post was this: "The best part? I can skip the whole thing and still not miss out on the goodies!"

In the end I did spend maybe a couple of hours in there in total. I still have quite a few of the baubles and coins stashed in various banks, awaiting the day SAB might make a comeback, because I hadn't saved enough to buy those "goodies" I apparently wanted before it vanished, seemingly for good. I have absolutely no idea what those goodies might have been, by the way...

I didn't really care much whether SAB ever returned but others were a lot more invested. Indeed, it's fair to say the long absence of the supposed joke "game within a game" had turned into a festering sore for some. It wasn't quite on the scale of the NGE but it was getting there.

The sudden and totally unexpected re-appearance of the 8-bit emulation seems like a lot more than a co-incidence, coming as it does with Mike "Two Hats" O'Brien very plainly operating in full damage control mode. He appears to be on a mission to save the company and the game that you might well argue that, as President, he's been sleepwalking towards disaster for the best part of four years. I have this mental picture of him waking up from a Rip van Winklesque slumber, staring around him wild-eyed and croaking "My Game! What have you bastards done to my GAME?!"

Anyway, all fantasy aside, bringing back S.A.B. is a masterstroke. It's like literally buying goodwill. Okay, it's like metaphorically buying goodwill. Literally metaphorically.

The Box will be with us for almost three weeks, until April 19th. Chances are it will be leaving just as the Big Spring Quarterly Update arrives, allowing for at least an illusion of continual development. I suspect we may be about to see a lot of that kind of thing. At least an illusion of progress beats stasis, I guess.

It's unlikely I'll find much time for box jumping, although I imagine I'll give it the odd, desultory scramble, here and there. Even though it's not my thing it's good to see it return. It was always a relatively harmless amuse-bouche for the general population and a wildly popular cause celebre (not sure why I've gone all gallic all of a sudden) with a particular demographic. It seemed churlish to withhold it.

What's most telling, though, is that Super Adventure Box is officially confirmed as a recurring, annual event from now on.

SAB has a great, regular home in Guild Wars 2. As a yearly festival, SAB will now be a dependable fixture in Tyria

Now can we please do the same for The Festival of The Four Winds?

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

If You Build It : Landmark

Landmark launches this Spring. That means Daybreak Games has, at most, just under three months to straighten the rugs and put out the peanuts before opening the doors to anyone who can scrape up the ten dollar admission fee.

Of course, there might be more of a sense of urgency if the game hadn't been in Early Access for two years already. And never forget, if you can't wait, those Trailblazer Packs giving Instant Beta Access and a 48 hour headstart at launch are still on sale for $99.99!

Okay, let's not get into the la-la land of modern MMO pricing. No good can come of it. Let's look at the game.

For a start, is there one? There's a question people have been asking for while. I lose count of the posts I've written describing Landmark's latest change of direction, while wondering if anyone, least of all the developers, have a clue where it might be heading.

Reports of the removal of the Starter Tower turn out to be exaggerated. You do have to build it yourself now, though. It takes 56k stone, which I estimate at around 45 minutes mining.

Well, here we are, heading off down yet another road. Only this time it's different. For once it's not a road to nowhere. As of last week's wipe all roads lead to launch. Come "Spring" this thing has to be "a game". Is it?

No. Not yet. Not nearly. But it could be. If you make it one.

Yes, you. The player. The customer. The Luminary. That's what DBG has decided to call you and I have to say that, daft though it is, it's at least more euphonious than "Landmarkian".

Names for descriptive purposes only.
May not reflect actual environments.
Terms and conditions apply.
Take off all those hats and put on some of these: builder, designer, scripter, writer, director, gamesmaster, entertainment officer, master of ceremonies, unpaid laborer. You're going to need a lot of heads. And DBG is going to need a lot of goodwill, something that was in very short supply indeed on the official forum during the two days downtime prior to the launch but which seems to be slowly returning now people are able to get in and mess around with the new tools.

But before we get to that, let's look at what you do get that you don't have to make for yourself, or, more likely, hope another "Luminary" is going to make for you. I don't propose to go into a huge amount of detail - the changes are very substantial and I haven't had either the time or the patience to explore them all in depth - if you want chapter and verse on the update Domino has you covered here.

Here's the basic deal: for $9.99 DBG will provide all the infrastructure you'd expect - the servers, the UI, the landscape. You get access to a wide range of "props", a catch-all term that includes every pre-made, placeable object from furniture to monsters. Recipes (to make weapons, armor, potions and the like), creatures to place on your Claim Build, and various resources are offered as drops from gathering and adventuring.

Both those activities, never robust, have been thoroughly gutted but Landmark's "adventuring" is perhaps now the most unambitious such activity ever seen in an MMO. Instead of exploring to find caves that were sometimes frighteningly extensive and confusing you simply click a UI button to appear instantly in a randomly-selected bijou cavelet (known collectively and euphemistically as the "Chaos Caverns"), where a handful of extremely uninteresting basic mobs wait mindlessly for you to come slaughter them.

And that, I think, is about your lot. Oh no, wait, there are Achievements as well. Of course there are.

If you were expecting quests, narrative, a storyline, cut-scenes, lore, or indeed any written content whatsoever then you came to the wrong game. Perhaps you were thinking of EQNext?

Landmark exists in an existential void. It is because it is. It has no past. If it has a future it's a future you'll be making for yourselves. That's the collective "you" - the Luminaries.

Could that work? It just might. It's hard to tell right now because although the Wipe and Final Restart (pending one more possible pre-launch wipe but let's not get picky) has brought curiosity-seekers back in numbers, as yet few are back up to speed. The islands Landscapes are almost all bought up but most of the Builds are empty lots as yet.

Almost the last free Build on this Landscape. (Does that really sound better than "Almost the last free Claim on this Island?" Really, DBG?)

I did manage to find a build that was showing off the most basic capabilities of the new scripting system; a compound where a cadre of guards was holding off an incursion by a Toxic Giant. It looked surprisingly authentic. I joined in on the side of the guards and the giant took notice of my amazing DPS skills (press and hold LMB), broke off his engagement with the forces of authority and chased me off the claim. It felt almost like I was playing an MMORPG.

Landmark runs like a drunken pig in stilettos on my elderly PC and looks about as pretty but if you have a machine that can handle it the world, such as it is, looks good enough. The biomes may feel generic and everything might look bland but that's really because they're no more than blank canvas and basic clay. Roll your sleeves up and get on with it: an ambitious myth-maker might work miracles.

Red border means I got beaten up. Makes a nice frame, too.

It shouldn't even be that difficult. It looks as though complexity is out of fashion here. You can, of course, only simplify a set of virtual building tools so far, but compared to where we were a year or eighteen months ago this latest version is pared down to the pith.

All those progression paths for gathering and crafting are gone. The endless grind to upgrade your tools is over. Harvestable plants are back to being mere set dressing. There's just a single craft station left - the Replicator.

The multiple layers of underground caverns and their associated tiers of ore and gems have been replaced by a simple binary: everything is either on the Surface or Underground. Combat, never complex, is another binary. You have your Left Mouse Button. You have your Right Mouse Button. Now go kill something.

The Replicator - Craft Station or Super-villain?
You might have to look quite hard. The decision to have no wildlife on the surface, neither to hunt nor to provide ambient color, seems perverse until you discover that the creatures builders place on claims can wander off. Well, not so much "wander" as chase and kill anyone who disturbs them. It could get lively out there, especially when some people can't tell the difference between mobs and players.

After a couple of hours poking around I feel cautiously optimistic. As an MMORPG Landmark is a complete and utter joke. It's a non-starter. As a toolset for creating MMO content, however, it has genuine potential.

We've seen how players need little incentive beyond the approbation of their peers to put in far more work than paid professionals would ever be willing or able to offer. Star Trek Online, the various versions of Neverwinter, EQ2's own sublime housing and less-than-adequate Dungeon Maker, all of these and many more have been seized with both hands by players eager to show their creativity, get their name on a leaderboard or earn a title or a trophy.

DBG has built a toolset. It's still a little shaky and rough around the edges but it works. If that was all you'd be getting then $9.99 wouldn't seem an unreasonable price but your ten dollars down doesn't just give you the opportunity to build a castle of your own. It's also an entry ticket to every pageant and parade and tournament in the land.

And that could turn out to be quite a bargain.

Monday, March 28, 2016

The Drug Fields of Calpheon : Black Desert Online

Black Desert Online comes on in a rush. From the moment you step out of character creation into the small country town of Olvia you're assailed with contradiction, confusion and chaos. Almost all "First Impressions"  pieces begin with some variation of "I had no idea where I was or what the hell I was doing".

If you give the game the reins it immediately hands you over to the Black Spirit, a disembodied entity with a cartoonish appearance and a voice that sounds like the untranslated yipping of some forgotten Saturday morning sidekick. That Black Spirit is both the most unreliable of narrators and, I have long suspected, the falsest of friends.

Oh, you look harmless now...

The first and among the worst of the many bum steers and gobbets of bad advice he, she, or most probably it, throws your way is a swiftly accelerating sequence of quests that seeds from the moment you make the mistake of listening to anything he says. Before you have any chance to get your bearings or orient yourself the animated smokestack sends you spiraling off across the landscape on an increasingly frenzied and purposeless series of murders.

It begins, bizarrely, with wildlife; weasels, foxes and wolves, all of which mill around the fields and meadows of Olvia in an existential funk, predators absent prey, merely awaiting their own pointless predation, by you. From there the Spirit moves you to slaughter various denominations of imp, to desecrate their holy places and generally tear their playhouses down for no more reason than as a test of your mettle for his amusement.

Like that's going save you, Mr Fox.

Before you have even the inkling of an idea of what you're about, your discorporate director of operations has you half way down the road to the bustling seaport of Velia, by which time you are thoroughly lost, both morally and cartographically.

Most accounts of play sessions thereafter move on to fishing, boat-building, trading and the road to Heidel and the South. The Black Spirit has you where he wants you - in thrall to his agenda.

But what if you hadn't listened to that wheedling voice? What if you'd quit after the weasels, said the hell with this, turned back to town and just got on with your life as if it were, indeed, your own? What's so bad about Olvia, anyway, that the first thing you have to do is leave?

Everything's a little blurry around the edges. I wonder why that might be...

Well, maybe Olvia has something to hide. Perhaps the Black Spirit has reasons to move you along, before you begin to look around you too closely and start to notice things.

Olvia on the surface seems as interesting, or as uninteresting, a small town as any other. It has most of the facilities you'd find anywhere: storage, trade, stabling, shops. It has the regular industrial and residential opportunities. It also has access to a fine, sandy beach with abundant fishing. As the locals will tell you if you stop to chat the coastline is underdeveloped industrially because of the fine opportunities it offers for leisure and tourism.

The key thing about Olvia that your Black Spirit won't tell you, however, is that it's on the high road to Calpheon. And I mean "high".

Wait a minute. Why am I the only one doing this?

After all those days pounding the highways to the east in search of the great city it turns out it was barely an afternoon's ride away to the south-west from where you started. The hinterland is studded with farms, most of which seem to be involved with the alchemy trade.

Alchemy. It was never "respectable" but here, there's something hazy, even shady, about the whole enterprise. The piles of herbage literally glow. The workers appear dazed.

Why did I come up here again? I feel sleepy. I'm just going have a little lie down.
Robed men in floppy hats that hide their faces smoke pipes as they eye the childlike Shai tending to the poppies that grow in the thatch of the roofs. Slow-spoken giants mumble to themselves as they haul huge baskets to the wagons. Make no bones: there are indisputable narcotic overtones.

Yeah, and I bet they talk to you too, right? Backing away now...

There's money being made here, too. Big money. The adventurers' addiction to "potions" drives the economy. In Black Desert you'll soon learn to chug with one hand while slicing up imps with the other or you'll not be an adventurer for long. Here, in the fields of Calpheon, is where they bottle those demons.

I just bet they did.

And don't let anyone tell you its "safe". That it's "just a potion". Look around you. Wake up and smell the "herbal medicine".

I mean, just how stoned would you have to be to design and build a production line that has you extracting alchemical ingredients by bouncing up and down on a giant set of bellows? What would you need to be smoking to come up with the idea of harnessing racoons as an energy source? Just how far gone would you have to be before you allowed birds to nest in your beard?

Give them the sweet taste.

The trip from Olvia to Calpheon is Black Desert in a nutshell. On the surface it appears to be the most naturalistic, authentic representation of a fully working environment, architecturally, socially and geographically. Look closely and the realistic veneer peels away to reveal the seething madness beneath.

The drug fields of Calpheon, They explain so much.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Hard Choices : GW2, Daybreak Games

As game director I have to make tough trade-offs. One thing I believe is that we have to focus on the core game first before taking on additional responsibilities. I wrote in the Guild Wars 2 Design Manifesto in 2010 that our vision was to create a living, dynamic world, where there’s always something to do. Let’s ensure we succeed on that front.
Mike O' Brien - President - ANet

With a primary, near-term focus on growing the newest Daybreak franchise, H1Z1, I look forward to pushing the boundaries of emergent gameplay and expanding on the competitive experience.

Larry LaPierre - Senior Vice President of Games - Daybreak Games

Chinese companies will scoop up 1-2 western publishers a month from here on. The lesson to be drawn from Chinese mining company Shandong Hongda in talks to buy RuneScape developer Jagex for $300 million is that it will happen again.

Superdata (via MassivelyOP)

There's something happening here
What it is ain't exactly clear

My outlook on the ever-changing MMORPG landscape tends to be relatively optimistic, some might say Pollyannaish. For all the never-ending wailing and teeth-gnashing that goes on and for all the predictions of the genre's impending crash and burn, nothing much seems to change from one year to the next. Since I've long been happy with what I'm being offered, that's a situation that suits me just fine.

MMOs tend to persist. As Wilhelm observed recently, EverQuest just turned seventeen. RuneScape, currently on the table for $300m, is fifteen. WoW will be twelve this year. For a long while it's been arguable that the biggest problem the MMORPG genre isn't change but stasis.

Behind the scenes, though, something is moving that can. as yet, be only dimly seen. The one thing that is emerging from the mists is this; the days when MMORPGs could simply drift along on a whim and a prayer may be coming to an end.

It's not, necessarily, all about resources. DBG, having been streamlined (some would say gutted) by its new owners, still seems, somehow, to be able to come up with solid, new content at a very reasonable pace. A dip into the current, rather frenzied scrabble toward launch for Landmark does test that proposition somewhat, but even there a decisiveness and determination to get the blasted thing finished and out the door at last seems preferable to an eternity in early access development hell.

If DBG seems able to do more than expected with less than it needs, then by contrast, ArenaNet somehow manages the opposite. There's a very big team working on GW2. Mike O'Brien laid out the numbers in a recent Reddit AMA : "We have about 120 devs working on the live game, 70 devs on Expac2, and 30 devs on core teams that support both." And yet, even with those resources, few would argue the game has been well-served over the past twelve months.

The Heart of Thorns expansion, much though I was pleasantly surprised by its quality and accessibility, enjoyed, at best, a lukewarm reception. It seems sales were under-cooked, much like the expansion itself in the opinion of many, while retention of those who did buy in has been more disappointing yet.

The bulk of development in the last six months has been directed at Raids, which, while they have apparently been better-attended than similar content in other MMOs, surely remain a minority interest for the playerbase as a whole. At least the Raid team has completed its work in a timely and efficient manner, though, unlike the team working on adding the rest of the now "indefinitely postponed" Legendary weapons. Those, of course, much like raids, are also of direct interest only to a minority of players. A hardcore, you might even say.

The Spring Quarterly Update, due some time in April, far from bringing the new content many feel is desperately needed, is mostly focused either on fixing things that the expansion broke (World vs World) or fixing the expansion itself. Heart of Thorns, which has now officially been deemed too difficult, too exclusive and insufficiently casual-friendly, is going to get nerfed.

Whether the players who have wandered off elsewhere in search of the kind of meaningful realm vs realm warfare or entertaining, inclusive, casual gameplay upon which GW2 originally sought to build its brand will return to see if things have been tuned better to their tastes this time remains to be seen. Certainly the decision to abandon development of the Legendary weapons has not been received with universal approval, as the ever-growing threadnaught on the forums demonstrates, but for my money it signifies a long-overdue recognition of reality.

Just as the cancellation of EQNext suggests someone finally popping the hatch on the bunker and blinking at the harsh light of external reality, so Mike O'Brien's open acknowledgement that things have gone badly wrong recognizes a painful but unavoidable truth: things just can't go on like this. Someone needed to say it. Someone needed to do it.

Despite Colin Johanson's upbeat exit it now seems quite clear that the rumors of his taking the opportunity to resign before it was taken out of his hands could have substance. Under his direction the game has felt increasingly rudderless, surging from each new idea to the next with barely any time to reflect on the failures or consolidate the successes.

He failed to hold the line on free, bi-weekly content updates or on not producing paid expansions. Worse, when forced to change direction on these and other key, structural positions, he failed to make a success of the imposed alternatives. It seems the relative failure of Heart of Thorns was the final straw.

It's a bit rich of Mike O'Brien to arrive as some kind of white knight, driving away the darkness, waving the banner of that infamous, thrice-denied "Manifesto". He was, after all, Colin Johanson's boss for the last three and a half years. Still, let's not complain too much about the presentation. Let's just hold him to this:

I will work to make you happy, and I’ll do it by making you happy with what we ship, not with what we promise to ship.
It looks as if quite a few MMO developers may need to make some hard decisions in the coming months. We live in interesting times, as I'm sure they're saying in the boardrooms of the great steel-producing corporations of China, every time someone stands up to make a presentation on why they should buy a bunch of digital orc assets.

I'd kind of prefer those decisions were made by people who at least know the names of the games in question as something more than lines on a spreadsheet.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Climbing Wizard's Altar : Black Desert

I didn't have any plans for a post tonight but there's something about playing Black Desert that just makes me want to share. Not sure why that is.

It's likely I wouldn't have been playing Black Desert tonight at all if Landmark's big pre-launch update had gone better but between the server coming up and my patching the game the server had come down again so that was that plan scuppered.

BDO had a patch too. We're having an Easter event it seems. I didn't pay much attention to that. With just an hour or so in hand I thought I'd go take a look at the Wizard's Altar since it happens to be very close to my new home on Goat Mountain. I can see it from my front door.

There were two quests in my book for the Altar, both level 18 and at least one came from the pesky Black Spirit, which means it's part of what appears to be the main quest line. That makes me nervous.

I was expecting a big fight. I was also expecting to have a tough time of it. At this point anyone who's planning on doing the quest themselves might want to look away because this is something of a spoiler...

Okay...warning over...last chance to leave...

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Number 5, Lynch Ranch, Serendia : Black Desert Online

I played more Black Desert yesterday than usual but I'm not sure I got much more done. The morning began with an attempt to clean up my quest journal. It was groaning at the seams, giving me the old "You can't take any more quests" message, so it was about time.

Questing in Black Desert is underrated, I think. The nested, organic approach, where more and more quests keep popping up in places you thought you were done with, from people you thought you'd never speak to again, feels quite original to me.

Don't make me go meta. You wouldn't like me when I'm meta.

The way different sequences open up, according to which NPCs you play the Conversation Game with or what nodes you invest in, makes the whole process feel unpredictable, even chaotic. That probably drives more organized people than myself to the edge of madness but I love a little semi-organized chaos so it works well for me.

The Conversation Game itself is a real unexpected pleasure. It deserves a whole post of its own. It vaguely resembles Vanguard's much-missed Diplomacy sphere. Diplomacy was designed to be a full character progression path on a par with adventuring and crafting and it very nearly was, too. Conversation in Black Desert doesn't have quite those ambitions but it does share some of the mechanics and a good deal of the fun.

There's a plot in here somewhere. I swear there is.

Dulfy has a fantastically detailed guide that focuses heavily on the underlying mathematics and makes the whole thing sound far more daunting than it actually is. In practice what you do is quite straightforward.

You go around speaking to everyone you meet, clicking on any objects you can, killing all the monsters and wildlife you see and poking your nose into every nook and cranny in town and countryside. That way, you build up a portfolio of "Knowledge" in the hope that someone, somewhere will find some of it interesting enough to want to talk to you about it.

Every NPC is interested in a range of topics. You get to pique that interest for fun and profit. By spending energy to get started and then parlaying your information appropriately you build up "Amity" with that NPC (and only that NPC). As your relationship becomes chummier so the NPC begins to share his knowledge with you, adding to your store of things to pass on elsewhere. It's a gossip mill, let's make no bones. I imagine EverJane will be a lot like this, only with not so many goblins.

Sorry, I didn't think to take any shots of the Conversation Game. Here, have a picture of my horse. He's coming up later on.

As your Amity builds you might also get extra quests and at around 500 points some NPCs decide they like you so much they'll start taking your money. Only selling to people you really like is the dream of many an independent retailer. In Black Desert that dream is real - if you're a non-player character, at least.

As I was out questing to clear my journal, so there'd be room in it for more quests, I found myself climbing more than just a metaphorical mountain. Some guy I met had a fantasy about owning a sheep farm (no, me neither) and I'd foolishly said I'd negotiate the sale, the way you do when satisfying every passing stranger's whim offers an opportunity to grab five small health potions.

That must be the guy. I hope this trip's gonna be worth it.

It turned out the farm was at the top of a mountain. My horse was game for the clamber, which surprised me. I think I was more worried about him breaking a leg than he was.

Oh yes, I didn't mention that, did I? I have a horse now. I looked into the whole "taming" thing, with the sugar lumps and the rope, and thought, you know what, life's too short; so I bought one from the Stables.

The mail must get through!

I've ridden quite a few horses in quite a few MMOs but I have to say this is one of the most enjoyable. The mounting and dismounting is smooth, swift and elegant. The horse handles with just the right degree of inertia and momentum to feel solid but without so much that controlling it becomes a trial of patience.

The speed of this basic breed is possibly a tad slower than running but not so much that you'd notice. Any possible discontent at the slight downgrade in travel time is entirely discounted by the very significant upgrade in visual delight. Watching your character riding is just much, much more entertaining than watching her running. Or plodding.

How can a dozen potatoes weigh this much?

Plus the horse comes with its very own jazz soundtrack! Every time I ride it feels like I'm in the credit sequence of a 1970s cop show. I spent quite long time riding from town to town for no better reason than to watch and listen to myself doing it. That's what I call entertainment. Your mileage may vary.

So, there I and my horse were, at the top of a mountain, talking to a man about selling his farm. I did most of the talking; the horse just listened. It transpired that the farmer had moved up the mountain to get away from the imps who'd burned down his last farm and all he wanted was for everyone to leave him alone. He absolutely did not want to sell his alpine retreat to anyone.

Seriously, I'd live here. Wouldn't you?

When I went back to tell the prospective buyer the bad news I pointedly did not mention that I'd fallen so in love with the place that I'd grabbed it for myself. The farmer might not have been willing to sell but he was more than happy to rent. I already have two residences, one on the coast at Velia and one in the city of Heidel, but just one look at the roaring fire, stripped pine floor and good, natural light in this "shepherd's cottage" and I was sold.

A bear skin rug would go just right

Black Desert has an admirable solution to the perennial "how can you give everyone a house in the world without the world turning into a trailer park?" debate. Every house has an external physical structure but an instanced interior. It works brilliantly.

It also means I've looked around a lot of houses, trying to find somewhere that suits. Most are too dark, too cramped or just too shabby. This one was the best I'd seen by a good margin. Of course, it's at the top of a mountain, ten minutes hard ride form any kind of civilization, but the views are to die for! As are the falls...

You can't really say you own a house if you haven't stood on top of the chimney stack.

With that I took a break and played GW2 until the evening. When I logged back in and appeared in my lovely new home I realized it was a little on the unfurnished side. As in I had no furniture at all.

How are the movers going to get a wagon up that trail?

The basic $30 BDO "box" comes with your choice of three pieces of furniture but I'd already chosen mine and installed them in my Velia residence. I could have moved the bed but instead I decided to buy.

First I looked at the Marketplace to see what players were selling. Not much, it seems, and I suspect a lot of what they are trying to offload are quest rewards that I'll end up getting for free. What real furniture there was seemed to be on the expensive side so I rode down the mountain to Heidel to visit the Furniture Merchant.

The bed! Just sell me the frickin' bed!

He's a picky fellow, that one. There's not much he'll sell you if he doesn't like your face. I wanted at least to get a bed to lie down and recover my energy at night (animation, game mechanic, roleplay - all the functions in one handy piece of furniture) but for that I needed to hit 500 Amity.

It was touch and go but I made it. It really did remind me a lot of playing Diplomacy and although the subtleties of the system still escape me I felt I knew a good deal more about what I was doing after half an hour of wheedling and coaxing. Plus now I had a bed.

They always bite at dawn.

And that was my Sunday in Black Desert. Oh, except I killed about a hundred Altar Imps and died about a dozen times doing it. I really need to spend some of those 45 unallocated skill points. I was trying to see how long I could go with just the basic skills and I think I might have found out the answer: level 18.

The day ended when I found a great fishing spot and caught a crystal that sells for around 200k on the Market. I was so eager to get my hands on the silver that I rode back to Heidel and put it up for sale right away, which meant that, since by then it was heading towards one in the morning and I needed my own bed, my character never got to sleep in hers after all.

Sometimes that's just the way it goes.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Where Does The Time Go? : Black Desert, GW2

If you took this blog at its word you might think all I was playing right now was Black Desert. And before that it seemed as though I was playing an awful lot of Blade and Soul with some Ninelives for spice.

This is not the case. The first quarter of 2016, much like the whole of the three and a half years before it, has been taken up with playing Guild Wars 2. This last weekend, for example, which I had entirely free and clear to do with as I wished, was mostly spent sorting my inventory (five hours on Saturday afternoon just to do a basic pass through my second account to make it playable) and defending the much-maligned honor of The Yak in World vs World.

J3w3l has a post up about how time just vanishes for her when she plays Black Desert. It's almost the opposite for me. Fascinating though I find the mechanics and the unraveling of them and beautiful and entrancing though I find the world, I'm not at all convinced about the gameplay. Oh, I think it's probably fine in and of itself but I don't feel it's a good fit for me. I've never in my life wanted to work on an imaginary farm or run an imaginary trading empire and as for fighting other players, I can barely master the extreme basics of BDO's action combat so that's a non-starter.

At the moment the newness and strangeness of it all is carrying the momentum. Behind that is some great solidity in the excellence of the world-building. I do think it's an MMO I will keep coming back to in the longer term but I am very definitely not getting that "think about it all the time when I'm at work" or "wake up wanting to log in and play" feeling that's the mark of a real new obsession.

When people talk about needing a new MMO I think that's the feeling they're missing and that's why so many people seem so jaded, so disappointed, so out of sorts with the genre, not just now but year after year. It's asking a lot of the industry to keep providing that kind of a hit over and over. Too much.

Looking back at my long history of playing these games I can count the times that's happened on the fingers of one hand: EverQuest, Vanguard, GW2. Maybe you might hope to get one of those games once every five years or so.

Which doesn't really answer the question of why I'm not writing more about the MMO I'm playing for the great majority of the time rather than sending out flurries of posts about the ones I'm merely dabbling in. There are two reasons:
  1. Nothing much is happening in GW2 right now.
  2. No-one much cares about GW2 any more.
Last year the buzz around the upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion kept the pot simmering for the best part of nine months even though nothing much else was going on in the game itself. Then HoT launched to a resounding "is that it?" and everyone wandered off to do something else.

The introduction of a gear-grind Raiding end game to the MMO that famously was never going to have either of those things has tied the development team up in a Gordian knot of self-induced navel-gazing. The commitment to complete both a second expansion (for a game that was dead set on never having a first one) and three "wings" for The Raid appears to have sucked in all the resources available, leaving the supposedly "Living World" dead in the water.

Even the Great WvW Reboot has been scaled back. It's not on the scale of the cancellation of EQNext, but it seems that the full year's work done by the team tasked to bring GW2's large-scale realm vs realm offer up to scratch has largely been set aside as either unworkable or too much work. Mike "Two Hats" O'Brien popped into the lengthy thread on the topic on the forums with this unusually concise and definitive response:

Hi all,
This is a great thread. It’s constructive. We’re all reading it and referring to it in team discussions.
As we said in the AMA, our top internal priorities have been population balance and rewards. From this thread, your top five priorities are, in order:
1. Stability & skill balance
2. Fix or revert DBL
3. Rewards
4. Population balance
5. Scoring

He then went on to confirm that, contrary to expectations, all this wouldn't be happening sometime anytime never but :

I want to reiterate that everything we work on either ships in April or starts beta-testing on Live servers in April. We’re locking down dev work for the April release soon — next up is localization, QA, integration and regression testing — but we’ll extend the deadline for WvW skill balance.
All of which is rather exciting for those of us still playing but of precious little interest to anyone else. Ditto the very exciting, tense matches and sessions we're having in Tier 1 even now, with all of these issues still unadressed.

Let's face it, almost no-one else in my Feedly or blogroll even posts about GW2 on an occasional basis anymore. Ravious hasn't posted at Kill Ten Rats since late last year (Indeed, the once-mighty collective is now a ghost of its former self, with just a few, short, sporadic posts by Zubon keeping the flickering lights on). Jeromai is out of sorts and out of patience with the game but at least he still writes about it. Occasionally.

Even the sudden and unconvincingly-explained departure of Colin Johanson, GW2's public face and one of its founding fathers, barely caused a ripple of interest. I only mentioned it in passing here, whereas other, less significant pronouncements by the man have merited entire posts of close textual analysis.

Frankly, I don't have the energy for it any more and I don't imagine anyone reading this does either. Until something actually happens in GW2, something that might stand a chance of being experienced by more than a relative handful of "End Game" raiders, there's really not much to talk about.

All of which goes some way towards explaining why the MMOs I choose to write about aren't necessarily the ones I'm playing the most, nor even the ones I'm most excited about. I'm a lot more excited about April's upcoming changes to World vs World and the difficulty pass (read: nerf) to Heart of Thorns than I am about anything happening in or likely to happen in Black Desert or Blade and Soul. Even the hint that we might get the Alpine Borderlands back starts my pulse racing. Just think of it - two hour sieges to take Bay, three hour Garri defences...

But no-one wants to read about that. It won't get hits the way a google search on "Black Desert boat" is bringing them in right now, that's for sure. And neither will anything I write about EQ2's big spring update, which looks fantastic and which will almost certainly result in another flurry of posts about that game. Although, let's be fair here, there do seem still to be more people interested in reading and commenting about EQ2 and any of Daybreak's games than there are about ArenaNet's flagship, even though I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the latter has more active players than all of the former's added together.

In the end, though, I guess I'll just write about what I want to write about. More than anything, this blog is the diary I always wanted to keep but never had the discipline to maintain. If it gives a misleading impression of my gaming life then so be it. It can't do a worse job of that than my own memory, that's for sure.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

A Little Knowledge : Black Desert

I'd love to do one of those "10 Things I Wish I'd Known Before I Started" posts about Black Desert. Unfortunately, although I spot plenty of things while I'm playing that would be useful to pass on, if I don't write them down right away, then after I've stopped I can never remember what they were. And I never write anything down.

So, I'm not going to do one of those posts. Instead here are a few random observations, things that have stuck with me, useful or otherwise.

  • There's not a lot of point spending hours and hours in Black Desert's insanely detailed character creation suite, tweaking every last muscle group to perfection. Once you get into the game a lot of that fine detail seems to disappear. Anyway, as with all MMOs, you spend 95% of your time looking at the back of your head...

  • Have I ever steered you wrong? Come on, now, have I?

  • You don't have to do what the Black Spirit tells you. Honestly, that thing is such a nag. If you don't put your foot down it'll have you spending your first hour on a series of pointless Kill Ten Foozle quests that give you an entirely misleading impression of the world and the gameplay you could be enjoying. There's an option in Options to quieten him down.

  • There's also an option to filter your quests so that only the kind you like show up. And an option to filter the confusing morass of symbols that clutter the map. And a whole load of options to tweak your graphics and performance. Yes, all MMOs have options but Black Desert has more options than most and they make a more significant difference. Even though you're desperate to get stuck into some killing or crafting, time spent tuning the game to your (and your PC's) preference first is time very well spent.

  • Be aware that when you make a second character some of the default settings will overwrite some of the changes you made to options first time round. Well, they did for me. Maybe that's a bug. You'd hope so. Watch out for it, whatever, because it's really irritating.

  • That looks uncannily familiar.

  • The world is not as vast nor as overwhelming as you think it is. MMO worlds never are, sadly. The trip from Velia to Heidel, which looked so epic and daunting on your second or third session, will soon feel like a stroll to the corner store. Distances that seem outrageous become manageable and then trivial in disturbingly short order. And that's at regular foot speed.

  • Traveling is safe. Really safe. Very, very safe indeed. So don't be afraid to explore. The roads tend to be free of mobs but even when they aren't it doesn't matter. Most creatures in Black Desert seem to think they're auditioning for a 1960s sitcom. They can't react to anything without doing a five second slow burn first. By the time they've waited for the audience response you'll be well out of aggro range.

  • So long as you don't stop running, that is. When you explore, never stop running. In common with just about every MMORPG since around 2003, nothing runs faster than a player's basic movement speed. If you keep moving nothing can catch you. Black Desert mobs are a little more persistent than the average, though, so they may not give up quite as soon as you think they will. I recommend swinging the camera to look over your shoulder, not stopping and turning round to see if the six orcs you barged into have gone back to camp yet.

  • Do we have falling damage?

  • There are exceptions. Cyclopes (that is the correct plural even though it looks weird), giant boars and all bears have no sense of humor. They don't do double-takes, they just attack. They also hit like a bucketful of bricks. Fortunately they are all big and ugly enough to spot from the next county so just go around them.

  • Storage is nowhere near as limited as you think it is. All that fuss about the cost of storage in the Cash Shop? You can forget that. You get loads of storage for free. Every city and town has separate storage but you can have stuff from one moved to another for an in-game fee. Plenty of quests add slots, both to your character's inventory and your Warehouse. All vehicles have storage built in. The actual problem is how inconvenient it is, not how much there is of it. It is really inconvenient but that appears to be the intended gameplay. If you don't enjoy being inconvenienced as a form of entertainment then Black Desert may not be the game for you.

  • Rafts aren't that hard to make but neither are they all that great. You can't really go anywhere on a raft. They move slowly and they seem to remain tethered to whichever wharf you register them at. You can leave them anywhere and pay to have them fetched back for you but only to the wharf where you registered them. I am not entirely sure if there's a way around this and googling it for half an hour has made me little the wiser but on balance I'd say only make a raft for the amusement of making one, not because you'll get any actual use out of it.

  • Buy the crystal that goes in your boots and makes you jump 25% higher as soon as you get the 30k silver. Then never die. It's great while it lasts but, like all the crystals, it shatters on death and you have to get another. Thirty thousand silver is chump change even at level fifteen though so just replace as required.

  • These stains are never going to come out.

  • Remember all the fuss about EQNext's "parkour" movement? Black Desert has that and they didn't even bother to tell anyone. Climbing is more fun in BDO than any MMO I've ever played. The animations are a joy to watch and working out where you can get to and how to do it is a game in itself. Catching lost cats is just the beginning. Gotta catch those cats though...

  • Speaking of movement modes there are several that aren't immediately apparent. One of the very first quests tells you how to press shift to sprint but if there are tutorials for sidling up to a wall and pressing S to lean against it, or for reversing into a chair and hitting Q to sit down, then I must have missed them. I only discovered that you can go from crouching (Q again, acts as a form of stealth) to crawling by pressing Space while crouched, when I got stuck on geometry in the cave next to Crioville and started hammering all the keys to try and shake myself loose.

  • Facial hair on an otter - it's the new "Lipstick on a pig"

  • Talk to everyone. Everyone. It's not just about quests nor even about the Lore and the little tidbits of conversation. Don't think talking to random NPCs is something only a roleplayer (heavens forfend!) would do. Talking to NPCs (and when I say "talking" obviously I mean "clicking on") gets you Knowledge and Knowledge represents the cards you need to play the Conversation game. That in turn can earn you Amity, which gets you more Knowledge, opens up quests and acts as a form of currency. It's too complicated to explain but trust me - you want to talk to everyone.

  • There's more. A lot more. That'll do for now. Perhaps I'll keep a pen and paper handy and jot things down as they occur to me as I play. Or, more likely, I won't.

    Saturday, March 19, 2016

    Every Picture Tells A Story : Black Desert

    There's a small problem with Black Desert. It's too photogenic. It was bad enough while I had my head down, concentrating on learning the systems, running up and down dirt tracks and country lanes between small villages and family farmsteads, picking potatoes or battling goblins.

    It was worse when I reached the larger settlements, Velia and Heidel, with their architectural authenticity, their realistic street planning, their curious, colorful citizens. Sailing between islands, arriving at fishing ports just as the sun fell below the horizon, climbing the steep hillside to catch the last of the light among stands of rough brush, it was already becoming clear there were more photo opportunities here than a dozen Cannes Weeks.

    Gotta pick a tater or two

    But now I'm on an extended road trip things are really getting out of hand. I could, with ease, put up half a dozen narrative posts like the last, each one heavily illustrated with shots I've taken as I travel.

    Before I began writing this I was flipping through the folder looking at possibilities. In a couple of minutes I'd pulled out enough for three posts and I had at least twice as many more still to consider.

    My float is bigger than the fish

    And that's just picking the most appropriate ones to tell the stories. Stories like the way by chance I at last found the road to Calpheon as I stopped to catch my breath at the safe haven of a riverside wharf, where I'd run to escape a cluster of angry orcs.

    Or the hill-fort besieged by harpies, where I weaved a path through the screeching, flapping creatures, ignoring the shouts of soldiers and the clash of steel, to leap the wall and run on, high into the mountains.

    You got harpies. And you can keep them.

    There, finally, I butted against the invisible walls that mark the end of explorable territory and stood, gazing wistfully into the inaccessible valleys that stretched away to  the South. That adventure taught me how to slither and slide down the steepest mountainsides without breaking bones, leaning into the fall and spraying bronze dust from my soft boots.

    It also led me to watch my footing closely, which was how I found the deep, deep hole that led to the spider cave.

    Cave of the Unfortunately Mistranslated Spiders

    That's an experience I choose not to recall too clearly. One blurred shot, taken at a dead run, is all I have to prove I was there. Oh, that and the photograph of the explorers before me; the ones who didn't climb so well or run so fast.

    You're going to need some better boots.

    A vendor in some village or farm, whose name and location on the map I don't recall and forgot to mark, sold me a pair of shoes that let me jump higher and farther, a bargain at thirty thousand silver. That fortuitous purchase changed the way I moved forever (or at least until they break, which he warned me they very well may should I die while wearing them). Without them I'm not sure I could have escaped the spiders or found a whole new rooftop world in Calpheon.

    I could climb that.

    When I came to Calpheon, great city of the West, it was of course, late in the evening. It's always "late in the evening" when I arrive anywhere. It seems as though I never get to see anything in full daylight. One moment I was gazing up at the rooftops from the road as wagons thundered by: minutes later I looked down on that same road from the tiles. These days I climb like a goat. And after all this running probably smell like one, too.

    Told you!

    Much has been said about Calpheon, mostly by Syl. I was ready to be impressed and I was, although the city is smaller than I expected, somewhere between Caceres and Trujillo, perhaps. Again, leaving aside a population leavened with goblins, giants and talking otters, this is a fair representation of a true, southern European medieval town.

    Where did I put my Rough Guide?

    The churches, markets, parks and public buildings all ring with authority. I spent a good while exploring with the UI switched off and the camera pulled back to first-person view. It felt almost disturbingly real. Once again, as I thought when I took the balloon ride in Ninelives, I could see the possibilities of VR very strongly.

    Now That's What I Call Inappropriately Dressed Vol 1.

    I called Mrs Bhagpuss in to take a look and she compared it to "Divinity's Reach without the confetti". They are very similar, if only in scale and scope and imagination and detail. The main difference, I think, is that Queen Jennah's capital is a pristine fairy-tale confection while Calpheon is a mostly-successful attempt to render a working city of the high-medieval period, with fantasy trappings.

    I always try to get a room with a balcony.

    Calpheon was a wonder but I was still restless. In my next session, which again began just as the sun was going down, I took the road west, past the great hulk of Calpheon Castle, whose barred door I tried to beat down without success and in whose moat I fished for dace and notch jaw for a while.

    In time I came to the great forests where Treants are lumbered for their wood, a peculiarly disturbing concept, although why it should be more so than butchering boar for their meat I can't quite say.

    Um, did I see that plank...twitch?

    I spent a while in the busy lumber camps around Trent. Timber production and processing goes on there at an almost industrial scale, drawing in all kinds of new, strange races for the heavy lifting and the silver to be made. I talked with a troll, a people who here are untypically jolly and cheerful, fond of clapping their ham-like hands and laughing. A massive ogre hefting tree trunks was less willing to chat.

    Chattiest troll I ever knew.

    A catfish-man held a roadside node and a fanged Khuroto another. In the crowds I saw other races I couldn't yet identify. No elves, though, for which small mercy many thanks. Eventually the last of the light left the treetops and full night fell. Not wishing to be lost in the dark forest when the monsters took their strength from darkness I sneaked into a hunting lodge in Behr and settled for the night.

    Around these parts they tell of a catfish that walks like a man.

    There's been little time to "play" Black Desert this week. By the time I get home from work and do my dailies on three accounts in GW2, it's usually pushing nine o'clock. By chance this has also been a very lively week in World vs World, with Jade Quarry hitting back hard against the domination Yak's Bend has shown for the previous month. There have been calls to arms that I've been happy to answer.

    No, but have you got any elf-skin gloves?

    Consequently all the Black Desert I've been able to manage has been an hour or so late in the evening. It's been days since I last quested or crafted or traded or did any of the game-like things that usually progress a character. I have, though, seen a lot of the world and it has made me want to see more.

    I've often heard it said that sandboxes give players stories to tell that theme parks never can but I've always found that an unconvincing argument. Certainly, there are great tales to be told of the human encounters between players and sandbox gameplay is often designed to encourage human to human interaction, but a good storyteller can make a story out of anything. The better the raw material, however, the easier it is to work.

    And so to bed. Never mind whose. Let's just hope he works the night shift.

    Black Desert is often touted as a sandbox, or at least a sandpark, and yet all of the stories I have made for myself so far have nothing whatsoever to do with other players. Neither have I, yet, read anyone else's account of their interactions with another person in the game. Everyone is writing about the world, the scenery, the races and the wonder of exploring it all. And the game mechanics and the cash shop, of course.

    This is a high-quality piece of world-making we have here. Comparisons that come to mind are The Secret World, Guild Wars 2, The Division, not Ultima Online or Darkfall. Everything  Syl and Alysianah and I are gushing over has been made by creative artists and placed to be discovered, not made by us.

    I just bet they leave these flags up all year round.

    Then again, perhaps that's the signature of the sandbox: you take what you're given and make of it what you will, be it scars or silver or stories. Only, when it comes to stories, the telling goes so much easier when you come to the fireside with pictures like these.

    Edited to add more pictures. Oh yes...

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