Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Keep A-Knockin' And You Might Get In : Rift, ArcheAge

Well, that was unexpected.

Almost five years ago, when this blog began, Rift was my primary MMO. Mrs Bhagpuss and I tried the beta weekends, liked the game a lot, bought it at launch and played for a little over six months before we ran out of enthusiasm. By then I already had my sights set on GW2.

Rift turned out to be one of those MMOs whose luster dimmed with familiarity, something not helped by Trion's increasingly nervous attempts to hold on to a declining audience. There were gameplay and ruleset changes that made the game feel less and less unusual. The USP of huge PvE zergs fighting sky-ripping rifts or massive inter-planar invasions became diluted and diffuse.

Eventually there were server merges and that largely put the tin hat on things. I've found over the years that, when push comes to shove over making the hard decision to move on from an MMO, a server merge is usually enough to tip the balance. I suspect that's one reason developers now seem so determined to find any solution short of outright server merges when trying to manage a declining population.

Knee pads for dogs. It's the latest thing, don't you know?

Even on leaving we anticipated that, as has happened so many times before, we'd return for another run. We both pre-ordered the Storm Legion expansion in that belief but it turned out to be an expensive mistake. Storm Legion was so dull I barely lasted a week. Mrs Bhagpuss returned long enough to spend through the currency gifted her by the conversion to F2P but she spent her entire second run in Rift building houses behind the gates of her private Dimensions. Then she was gone, back to GW2.

For a while afterwards I kept the game on my hard drive and the icon on my desktop. I logged in very occasionally to look at something or other Trion had added. Finally the day came when I needed to make a little room for something new and, as I looked down the list of installed MMOs for the ones I felt I was least likely to play, Rift's name floated to the top.

Nothing, as they say, is forever. In recent weeks I've read some blogs and seen some screenshots that brought Rift back into the realms of possibility. I began to feel that annoying little itch. The final straw was Bhelgast, apologizing in advance because he thought he was going to start posting regularly about the game. If I'm going to keep reading about it I might as well at least have it installed. Or so I thought.

ArcheAge has the best maps.

So, I spent some considerable time yesterday, with no success whatsoever, attempting to re-install Glyph and get it to patch Rift. Glyph is a completely unnecessary, annoying front end that Trion insists its customers use to access any of its games. Games like Rift, ArcheAge and Trove, all of which I used to have installed and immediately accessible via their own desktop icons.

I have used Glyph before and it worked but now it doesn't. Not, at least, for Rift. Every attempt to run Rift brings up the 1012 error, for which extensive googling cannot provide a solution that works. I tried most of the possible fixes without success, including multiple uninstalls and re-installs, changes to processes and the sacrifice of a number of small woodland animals. Nothing worked.

In the end, in the interest of science, I thought I'd try installing one of Trion's other games, to see if the problem was generic to Glyph or specific to Rift. Which is how I found myself back in ArcheAge again for the first time since I stopped playing, suddenly, abruptly and unintentionally, over eighteen months ago.

Now, see, this is how direct action gets started.

The story of how I abandoned ArcheAge is the mirror image of what happened with Rift. There was no long, slow decline of interest; no hand-wringing or fraught, emotional leave-taking. Quite literally, one day I was playing and the next I wasn't.

The only explanation I can give is that I finished a session with my Labor Points pool filled for the first time ever. I had never actually used Labor Points for anything but I had been aware that they were a limited resource and apparently my subconscious mind translated that into a "win" condition. Yes, I know it makes no sense. I never claimed to be a rational decision-maker.

Anyway, it seems Glyph is perfectly happy to let me play ArcheAge, something I had absolutely no plans on doing, or at least not right now. ArcheAge itself seems equally confused by the turn events have taken.

On first log in all the introductory cut scenes played, which is par for the course on a fresh install for any MMO. My stalled level 28 character was safe at character select so I logged in expecting to find her wherever I'd left her, somewhere level appropriate, but no, nothing so obvious.

I don't remember tree houses...I want one.

Instead I found her at the very start of the game, facing the NPC who begins the main questline. Which he proceeded to do. Confused, I completed the first couple of "go see this guy up the road, he has a job for you" quests before deja vu took hold.

A quick check of my quest journal showed that I had indeed completed these quests already. Taking inventory of my...well, of my Inventory...I found all my quest rewards and other gear from the last 28 levels present and correct. I had my horse and my two dogs and a full set of blue armor.

So I hit the road. By the time I logged out I'd ridden as far as Crescent Throne. I didn't pass many player characters along the way. I overtook one wagon and found disturbing evidence the lack of animal health and welfare regulations in the village of Wardton but apart from that I might have been in a single-player game.

Log in to take a screenshot, it's midnight. Is there some kind of law?

I don't imagine I'll be playing ArcheAge much but then I didn't imagine I'd be playing it at all so who knows? It might be interesting to see how it compares with Black Desert, another one I'm not playing. ArcheAge is certainly much more of a traditional tab target, hotbar MMO under the thin sandbox skin, which is probably a better fit for me, but Black Desert is quirkier, weirder and more intriguing. Plus, Black Desert horses handle like ferraris, while AA nags corner like milk floats. That's a factor.

As I type this, though, I am back where I intended to be all along - in Rift. This morning I fired up Steam and installed it that way.

It still didn't go smoothly. I got another error, a different one, and at one point my entire monitor went completely black and I couldn't do anything at all. I thought I'd have to switch the PC off at the wall but first I tried hitting all the keys I could think of and after I pounded on Escape a few times the original cinematic played so I let it run and sat and watched. Apparently that was the logjam because after that everything worked.

Telara here I come!

Monday, June 27, 2016

Too Much, Too Soon : EverQuest, GW2, Pantheon

Something that was mentioned in passing during the Pantheon stream about the tendency of newer MMOs to over-reward struck a chord with me. Casting my mind back to the early days of EverQuest, two of the most motivating aspects of the pacing were the five level gaps between spell upgrades for casters and the relatively sparse, partially random chance of acquiring better armor and weapons.

Given that even the lowest levels seemed to take a very long time, waiting five levels for every new set of spells could be frustrating. The significant upside was that impact those new spells had when you did get them was immense, even game-changing.

The acquisition of a new pet could transform the gameplay of a Magician or a Necromancer out of all recognition. With the arrival of each set of spells, things that had been out of reach would become, if not easy, then entirely possible.

Your character might suddenly be able to breathe underwater or fly (okay, levitate). Leveling up didn't merely mean a percentage increase to DPS and some more hit points - it meant you could do new things, almost as though you were suddenly playing a new class.

Similarly a single, fortuitous drop from a Named mob could raise your character's game substantially. Acquiring a weapon that procced Snare or Fear might allow your character to kite mobs and thereby solo when previously she'd needed a partner or a group to do anything much at all.

A rare sight!

At the time, though, this didn't necessarily seem like such a great trade-off. Oh, it was wonderful when it happened, but for every bonanza level ending in zero or five there were several levels of increasingly arduous diminishing returns, where each session could seem like a struggle and a Ding! could end up leaving you feel weaker not stronger. For every life-changing drop there might be countless disappointments as camps dragged on, Nameds failed to spawn and rare drops eluded the RNG.

When EverQuest moved to giving new spells every level instead of every five I was initially wary. It seemed as though something would be lost. At the lower end of the level range, to some degree at least, that turned out to be true. In general, though, the pace of that particular MMO was so stately that a single level provided plenty of time to come to terms with each set of new abilities before the next appeared.

Also, casters in EQ get a lot of spells. The amount you would get all in one go after five levels could be overwhelming. Even spread out there were always enough to go around, something that never changed even when the level range eventually stretched to three figures.

When my Magician dinged 90 last week she went on a spell-buying spree. The scrolls she needed to buy ran into double figures. Of those almost none were upgrades to existing spells. Most were new abilities entirely. It was an entertaining and satisfying session.

In time I came to prefer the "every level" approach. I definitely wouldn't revert to a five level spread. It's nice to have something to look forward to every level and since levels don't exactly fly by the sense of anticipation is retained. That's not something I can say for GW2, where "Reward Tracks" were recently added to World vs World.

Reward Tracks have existed in Structured PvP for a long time as a means of providing players who don't do PvE with most of what they would get if they did. Whether it's a good idea or not to attach the rewards from one part of the game to the gameplay from another is a question I don't propose to debate right now. That decision having been made, however, I do take issue with the implementation.

Much more typical.
Rather than add any sense of excitement, anticipation or satisfaction, mostly what the coming of Reward Tracks to WvW has brought for me is irritation and inconvenience. GW2 is already infamous for showering players with an endless rain of bags and boxes to be opened, many of which contain yet  further boxes and bags. The Reward Tracks follow that pattern almost to the point of parody.

As I ran with the zerg my limited inventory space was already constantly filling up with loose pieces of white, blue and green quality weapons and armor, the main function of which is to be salvaged and sold on the Trading Post. Along with spikes and similar items intended only to be sold to NPC vendors for a few copper and the mats from the deconstruction of the said items, plus the bags filled with the salt tears of our  foes (not literally, sadly; just more mats) space runs out fast.

Now, to that monsoon of convertible currency, we have to add box after box of "Rewards" from dungeons or PvE maps that, you might imagine, were I to want, I would be doing instead of what I actually am doing. All of those have to be opened and dealt with, either in the odd hiatus as we cata down a recalcitrant fortification or enjoy a rare two-minute drinks break, or else at the end of the session.

Often it takes me fifteen or twenty minutes to clear my bags. More. An activity I used to look forward to as a treat, it long ago lost its allure and now threatens to become a chore I resent.

So, there's a balance to be achieved between a satisfying flow of meaningful rewards and an endless drip-feed of things you don't want but can't bring yourself to destroy. Modern day EverQuest still hits that balance, just about, although I notice even there that I spend more time clearing and re-clearing my bags than I used to do.

Whether contemporary players would ever be content with a "less is more" approach, though, I am not so sure. I imagine my objections to the Reward Tracks in WvW would put me in a very small minority of dissatisfied players. Most would probably want the rewards to come faster even than they do, whereas I'd rather see them removed completely.

Pantheon probably isn't attempting to reach the average contemporary player let alone the average GW2 player, so the benchmarks it will need to hit may be very different. Still, getting to that sweet spot, where satisfaction and frustration balance each other out, won't be easy. The ideal would be to make every reward welcome, even thrilling, yet still have them appear with a periodicity that isn't off-putting.

I'm not sure if that's achievable but it's definitely something worth shooting for.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

A Pair of Phoenixes : Vanguard, Pantheon

On Thursday the Visionary Realms crew ran another lengthy stream showing actual gameplay from their pre-alpha build of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. I haven't had time to watch the whole thing but I've skimmed a good deal of it and against all odds Brad McQuaid's plucky little MMORPG that could continues not only to exist but to impress.

There's a handy "highlights" video for those who don't have two hours to spare. That certainly gives a good feel for the game but the full version comes with a lot of conversation between the developers and the host of the stream. Anyone who thinks they might want to play Pantheon, when and if it ever becomes publicly available, would probably find the details very interesting.

Brad and his team repeatedly emphasize that the game is about open world exploration. Issues of accessibility and entertainment come up a few times. There's a welcome emphasis on maintaining a balance between building a challenging and dangerous world and not making it so dangerous and challenging that players are scared to explore it.

They don't overemphasize the heritage of EverQuest and Vanguard but they really don't have to. As the voiceover on the highlights video points out this is pretty obviously that "EQ with better graphics" so many old-timers have been saying was all they wanted for years.

The "better graphics" in question are, in fact, merely placeholders. A warning note at the top of the YouTube page stresses **The footage seen is taken from an early pre-alpha build of Pantheon: Rise of the Fallen. All art and animations should be considered placeholder.** Well, fine, but they don't look terrible to me. I'd play that as it stands.

One thing that stands out is how very dark the dungeon seems. At one point there's a brief discussion on the use of torches and the ability of the Unity engine to handle multiple light sources. The topic comes up because someone observes that several of the characters in the group have a torch in their off hand, at which point you can almost hear everyone thinking "geez, it's not going to be like that crazy game where some guy gets to do nothing but hold the torch, is it?"

Well, no, it isn't. The more I hear about Pantheon and the more I see of it in action, the less extreme-hard-core-old-school it looks. It's still probably going to pan out to be too group-centric to hit my sweet spot but it has moved a considerable distance from "not interested" to "definitely worth a dabble".

Launch is being touted for "late 2017, early 2018" with a beta before that. Apparently Brad plans on eschewing the current fad for Early Access, which should make Syp happy if not Brad's accountant. I guess that means a traditional access-by-application beta but who knows?

Watching Pantheon put me in mind of Brad's last, lost vision: Vanguard. I hadn't checked how the VGOEmulator team were getting along for a while. I also hadn't gotten around to installing the 38GB behemoth on my new PC and frankly I didn't fancy starting, so I tried running it from the old drive in an enclosure via USB.

It worked perfectly. There wasn't a client-side patch but clearly the magnificent people behind the project have made a lot of changes at their end since I last logged in.

There hadn't been a character wipe but it seems that levels have been reset because I'm certain sure both my Raki Disciple and my Goblin Warrior weren't Level 1 last time I saw them. The Disciple still had the Storm Griffin he bought back when the broker was being tested so the first thing I did was fly around Khal taking screenshots.

Vanguard still looks great to me. The textures are sometimes a little flaky and the visuals undeniably show their age, but the art direction was always strong enough to overcome any technical shortcomings. It's a world that just feels full of possibilities and that hasn't altered a jot.

So much so, in fact, that although I only logged in to take a few screenshots and see what had changed, I ended up playing for a couple of hours, finishing with a level six Disciple and a Level five Warrior. The Warrior continued making his way through the Isle of Dawn and I took the Disciple back up to the starting area on the Cliffs of Ghelgad above Khal, where all the quests were fully functioning, now with their correct rewards attached.

The drops and loot tables have been adjusted. No longer does every mob drop a random selection from the entire 55 levels of the global table. Mostly they now drop the level appropriate gear and cash you'd expect. I got several items of armor and a nice Rare pair of pants - Cloth rather than Leather but still a big upgrade.

I also got a crossbow, which I was able to equip. I don't believe Disciples can use any kind of ranged weapon other than throwing stars so that's probably a bug. Looks good though!

The game seems remarkably bug-free. Apart from the crossbow the only malfunction I came across were some hobgoblins who didn't seem to know when they were beaten. Or dead. They ran out of hit points and fell down but they carried on hitting my Goblin from beyond the grave. He had to run away with them trailing along the ground behind him flat on their backs like a couple of coal sacks until they reached the end of their tethers, dropped aggro and promptly slid all the way back to where they started.

Really, though, it wouldn't be Vanguard without a few bugs. It only happened the once. It hardly even counts.

Reading the forum I see that so far there are fourteen areas with adventure questing partially restored. As of May over 500 quests had been restored along with two and a half thousand supporting scripts. I dread to think how many there are in the entire game.

I took the introductory quests for Diplomacy, Crafting and Harvesting but I don't think those spheres are up and running yet, even at the low end. All in good time. As always I'm just extremely grateful to have Telon back at all but the increasing number of working quests, fully-functioning combat and communicative NPCs has already taken this project well beyond the worthy realms of archival preservation. This is now a game you can play as well.

There's still a huge amount left to do, of course, and who knows when or whether the small band of volunteers will be able to restore Vanguard to its full glory? Pantheon will probably be up and running before that happens. But it does look very much as though both those things will come to pass, given time.

Two of the most unlikely, unexpected comebacks the genre has seen for a while, I think. And two of the most welcome. Here's wishing the best of fortune to them both.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Two Years Wearing The Same Green Dress : EverQuest

It's one thing to come back to an MMORPG after a break. It's another entirely to pass a threshold that takes you into areas you've never reached before.

Today my magician finally dinged 90, which was her initial target back when she took SOE's Heroic shilling just over two years ago. It's been a long, slow climb, grinding up those five levels, most of it  in short sessions using the Veteran AA "Lesson of the Devoted", which doubles all sources of XP for thirty minutes.

Whenever possible I combined the Lesson with some of Franklin Teek's Hot Zone tasks and supplemented those with any simple xp-granting missions or quests the mage managed to pick up along the way. When I hit one of the frequent double XP weekends I sometimes managed as much as ten or even twelve percent of a level in one session.

It was slow going and since the Hot Zones didn't change for the entirety of the time I was playing it made for some very repetitive gameplay. What's more, because EverQuest is so huge and sprawling, getting that 30 minutes of bonus XP often meant an additional thirty minutes just traveling there and back.

Over the course of two years and five levels my magician rarely died but only because I was ultra-cautious. That slowed things down even more but anything faster just wasn't worth the risk. A couple of bad pulls would mean gate and reset and that would be a session, mostly wasted.

So I took a lot of care and few risks. I kept my Mercenary out even when I shouldn't really have been using one, just to be safe. Mercs in EQ take a full player's share of group XP, so that was another drag anchor on progress. It's no wonder I drifted out the habit of playing.

And then I came back last week and found everything changed. The new Hot Zones took me to places I'd never considered. I bound by the zoneline so getting going took seconds. The mobs were easy, both to kill and to pull, so I dispensed with the Mercenary. My XP rate skyrocketed - by EQ standards, at least.

In just a few sessions sessions I made most of a level. A good deal of that wasn't even on Lesson - although I did use a couple of XP potions. I did some new, fun quests, stood on a lot of Portals, talked to a lot of Sphinxes, moved a cadre of co-operative Efreetis around a game board. I went exploring.

I played the game the way I used to play it, to amuse myself, instead of like a chore, the way I'd let it become and my reward came quickly. Level 90 and with it not just new spells - those come every level - but a whole new gear tier.

The Magician hasn't had new gear since the Heroic upgrade granted a free item for every slot two years ago. It's a long time to go adventuring in the same green dress. Within minutes of the ding I was in The Bazaar, grooving to the mellow synth sounds, browsing the market for new duds.

There were none. That didn't seem right. I thought I might find everything out of my price range but I never thought there'd be nothing to buy at any price. Was 90 really such a dead spot that no-one had anything to offer?

I didn't believe it. Something was wrong and it was almost certainly my understanding of the situation. When in doubt, look it up, that's my motto. Off to Google.

One fairly reliable way to tell whether an MMO is still functioning is the quantity, quality and timeliness of the resources you can find for it on a google search. After seventeen years EverQuest still scores highly on that measure.

Even now, (Allakha)Zam remains the primary source. Unlike the EQ2 version, Zam for EQ still seems to be getting regular updates. The front page has news of the beta for the Quarm server and the recent closure of LoN. This is where you come first and often it's the only resource you need.

It's not the only option, though. Some of the class sites are still up and running. EQMagicians seems to have stopped updating its news, the latest entry being the closure of EQ Next, but the detailed information for mages is still extremely useful and largely up to date.

That's where I found out why there was no armor for me in The Bazaar. It seems I have to make it myself. Fortunately that doesn't mean leveling my Tailoring to 400+. If it did I'd be wearing the same gear for the next decade. No, it means buying components from both players and NPCs and combining them in a special box.

That's a thing I can do, so I did and it was an adventure in itself. The armor set for Level 90 turns out to be from an expansion where I have never set foot in a single zone - Veil of Alaris. I had no idea how to get there so I turned to google yet again.

What should come up but blogging friend Stargrace's 2011 account of her own first visit to Alaris on the day it opened. I read through that and set off to Steamfont. How did I miss that gigantic airship these last five years? Bear in mind I've been running through Steamfont almost every session, gating home to Ak'Anon with the Origin AA or heading out to Dragonscale Hills or Loping Plains. You only see what you're looking for, I guess.

A quick, thrilling flight and a safe disembarkation, thanks to Stargrace's warning about levitation not working in the zone, and there I was, at the vendor. After I'd used the Find function. New zones are confusing and I'm not proud. Anyway, no-one can see your sparkly trail. I hope.

I'd already bought the player-made patterns and tradeable dropped components needed to make a new hat in The Bazaar before I set off. I added the Reliquary of Refinement tradeskill container and the Consort Adorning Agent from Yuan, the helpful NPC vendor. Then I made space in inventory, opened the Reliqary, put the lot in the box and hit combine.

Bingo! New hat! That simple. I checked how big an upgrade it was. Big. So I bought six more Reliquaries and six Adorning Agents at a total cost of around 15k and gated back to The Bazaar to get one of each of all the Fantastic Silk patterns and Rustic dropped pieces before the server came down for scheduled maintenance and cleared out all the vendors.

There I ran into a slight problem. I bought a chest slot drop but no-one was selling the matching crafted pattern. All the other player-made parts were up at reasonable prices but the cost of the equivalent drops varied wildly. Some were more than I was willing to pay.

I've been making good money in Jewel of Atiiki. I put over 20k Platinum in the bank this weekend. Still, I only had around 80k in total and a couple of the dropped pieces were going for between 20-30k. On the other hand, the legs were only 900 while a couple of other pieces were just 2k or so.

Guessing at the reason for that, other than players being players, all the pieces drop from Named mobs in the VoA expansion so maybe some come from bosses that aren't killed very often these days or are particularly difficult. Probably need to google that. Maybe I can go kill my own and save some money.

In the end I bought all I could reasonably afford. I spent around 15k more to upgrade my Magician's head, legs, feet and one wrist, and of course I also have all the NPC components pre-purchased and ready to hand for when I can afford the rest of the drops.

The servers are down for the weekly maintenance and patch right now but when I get back in it'll be time to go round the spell vendors and update my spellbook. Then I might head back to Veil of Alaris. It looked like a very interesting place to explore and thanks to Brewall's EverQuest Maps, another new EQ resource I found today, I might even know where I'm going for once.

EverQuest: always something new to find. And if no-one wants to sell me a Fantastic Silk Robe Template I might be seeing it all still wearing that blasted green frock.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Problem With VR or You Could Have Someone's Eye Out With That!

Virtual Reality. Is that a thing yet? I guess it must be because people keep talking about it.

Somehow it isn't shaping up quite how I imagined. As Pete says, back in the 80s, when William Gibson's Neuromancer was stoking the zeitgeist and cyberspace was all over the mainstream media, there was a general feeling that Virtual Reality wasn't just the future, it was our future.

Somehow, I don't think this is what any of us were imagining back then, especially not after three decades of technical innovation. It doesn't even come with straps.

With the default cardboard you have to hold the whole thing up to your face

Pete's description of Google's VR on the cheap sounded so bizarre I had to go to Amazon to see for myself. It does indeed look like half a shoe box, "Made from High Quality, Hard-Wearing Cardboard", into which you shove your smartphone. It reminded me of the old ViewMaster we used to have when I was a child, all the way back in the 1960s. 

And guess what? ViewMaster is still going. And they've spotted a marketing window they probably never dreamed would open for them again. Here's the ViewMaster Virtual Reality Starter Pack. For not much more than the cost of the Google Cardboard you can get something vaguely retro-futuristic in red plastic. And you shove your smartphone into it and hold it to your face. Again.

I don't know. I had something a little more...sophisticated in mind. Forget William Gibson and cyberspace. My desire for VR goes back a lot further than that. I grew up reading Philip K Dick, where housewives spent the day immersed in the lives of soap opera stars, their lonely monologues seamlessly integrated into the action streaming from their giant wall-screens.

Further down the VR rabbit hole, entire PKD families subsumed their consciousnesses to the doll world of Perky Pat. I wanted to join them  but when you've been waiting all your life for CanD and layouts, retooled ViewMasters and Skylanders just aren't going to cut it.

Image found at this blog

 Then I started wondering. What are the long-term implications for your sight of holding a smartphone four and a half centimeters from your eyeballs? Sure, it was never going to do any of us much harm, looking at  static three-dimensional images of the Grand Canyon for a few minutes, but if this whole thing takes off we could all end up strapped in for hours. Every day.

C. T. Murphy, in the comments on yesterday's post, wished for VR support for EverQuest. It sounds fanciful in the extreme, retrofitting the latest technology onto a game that many would believe should have been retired long ago. But is it? 

When a new medium successfully supplants an older one there's usually a rush to convert past successes to present standards. How many times have we bought the same music or movies, on vinyl, cd, dvd, mp3...? Who's to say that if VR goes truly mainstream we won't see everything and anything ported over, especially if it turns out that the process can be automated?

EverQuest was famous - infamous - for its addictive nature.  The whole MMORPG genre is. Gaming sessions frequently run for many hours even with the unimmersive pseudo 3D we've all been pretending to enjoy on our primitive flatscreens all these years. Wrap that drug in 360 degree sensory overload and who's going to want to stop?

So I turned to Google again. Someone must be researching the side effects and the downsides, right? Well not so much as you'd think. I read half a dozen articles on the web, from journalists, scientists, industry analysts and concerned bystanders. The takeway I got from all of them is that no-one has a clue.

Sharples is cautious about linking known “effects” with “problems” - the evidence, she says is simply not available.
 when it comes to understanding how VR affects the brain, scientists "don't really know what's going on," said Mayank Mehta, a neuroscientist at UCLA
I asked whether using VR systems for long periods of time could result in long-term vergence-accommodation problems.
“Well, we don’t really know,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a smoking gun out there, but what we don’t know is long-term use — let’s say 12 hours a day — would that have any long-term effect? I doubt it, but I can’t prove that to you scientifically.
 the lack of long term studies on the possible impact of VR headsets may make caution sensible

All quotes from the linked articles. No one knows. Go ahead. Be your own guinea pig.

I think I need glasses.

Of course, if you're a gamer, chances are you won't be content with a twenty dollar strap-on for your phone. Most likely you'll be in for a few hundred when Playstation VR arrives just in time for Christmas; that's if you're not already in hock for your Oculus Rift.

Does a higher price tag mean better health outcomes? Possibly, at least when we're talking focal length and comfort fit, but definitely not when it comes to all those many imponderables from nausea to vergence-accomodation to psychological dependency.

Of course, as some of the writers of the quoted articles point out, every new technology arrives with a slew of  fearful warnings and dire threats. Even reading a novel was once considered a danger to your health. We all seem to muddle along with books, radio, cinema and television somehow, and all of them were reckoned in their early days to be harbingers of the end for civilization.

Still and all, I think I'll wait a while. Much though I'd love to wander the mean streets of a three-dimensional Freeport and watch as The Overlord pushes another dissident into the pit, I'm holding out for a tabletop hologram system. Should be along any day now. Delivered by drone, naturally.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

What's Old Is New Again : EverQuest

As a rule, I don't find all that much to complain about in EverQuest these days. Over the long years since I began playing, back at the death of the 20th Century, many of the wrinkles have been smoothed out and I like that. As much as I enjoyed the "up hill both ways in the snow" gameplay of 1999, I prefer the modern version. Coming back yet again after another break of six months or so I noticed a couple of improvements that had slipped under my radar.

Time Stands Still In Plane of Knowledge

Ever since the Guild Lobby was introduced with the Dragons of Norrath expansion in 2005 players have gathered there by the score because that's where time stands still.  If you go afk in the Lobby all your buffs will be in exactly that the same state of decay when you return as when you left. What's more, if you stand around running your idling animations for long enough you can guarantee some generous max-levels will spray MGBs all over you - and that's a good thing.

MGB means Mass Group Buffs - and retinal scarring.

The huge conglomeration of players, pets and mercs huddled in the center of the Lobby has long been known as the Lag pile for obvious reasons. As this thread suggests its not seen as a social activity by everyone but I've always appreciated it.

One thing I hadn't noticed until yesterday is that the temporal stasis effect now extends to both Plane of Knowledge and The Bazaar. I don't know when this change happened but it's incredibly convenient and most welcome. Being able to wander around PoK and go shopping in The Bazaar without having to worry about losing buffage or needing to swap to a "shopping" character is wonderful.

Tunes For A New Moon 

Zoning into The Bazaar yesterday afternoon I was immediately aware of something whose wonderfulness was somewhat less certain: the new zone music. It was so striking that I tabbed out right away to google what had happened.

It seems that when the Shadows of Luclin expansion was released SOE simply forgot to include most of the music files. I know, right? You'd think someone might have noticed but I must have played for many hundreds of hours all across Norrath's ill-fated moon and I can't honestly say it ever occured to me to wonder why there was no orchestra accompanying my adventures.

You'd think she'd notice the lack of music with ears like that...

Dev Dzarn explains on the forums
Previously unreleased music for every Shadows of Luclin zone was recently unearthed from a dangerous trek through the studio archives. These musical pieces will now play when adventuring on Norrath's most cat-filled Moon.

So far I've only heard the music in The Bazaar, which the OP of the thread describes as "elevator music". That's a tad harsh but it certainly is on the jazz-lite end of the musical spectrum. I think whoever composed it might have been taking the "shopping mall" aspect of the zone somewhat too much to heart.

I look forward to exploring the new lunar musical assets at some future date. Right now I have a much more important discovery to unpick.

Gateway to adventure.

Get 'Em While They're Hot Zones

In another unexpected and very welcome evolution for this venerable game, DBG have revamped the way Hot Zones work. This happened back in April but news about EQ is hard to come by when you're not actively playing and I missed it.

It would have been sufficient news in itself to get me to log in again had I known but instead it came as a very pleasant surprise when I spoke to Franklin Teek a few days ago. I took his daily tasks for Levels 75, 80 and 85 and for the first time in many years he didn't ask me to go to Bloodfields or Oceangreen Hills.

Being a little out of practice I decided to start at the easy end with the Level 75 task. That turned out to be a great choice. Not only is Jewel of Atiiki a lovely zone to spend time in - light, airy, relaxing - but the mobs there are perfectly spaced for soloing and exactly the right difficulty level. What's more, with the Hot Zone bonus the xp ticks over nicely, at least by the standards of the late 80s.

I do like a nice, wide corridor.
 The Hollow World

Of my few complaints concerning latter-day EQ, near the top of the list would be overly dark zones. I am just about fed up of hunting in gloomy, overcast areas where it always rains and everything is green and brown. My favorite memories of Norrath are of the bright blue waters and glowing yellow sands of Oasis and the Deserts of Ro or the wide open plains and endless skies of the Karanas, not the murky hollows of Hills of Shade.

It was with surprise and delight, then, that I arrived in one of the many zones I've never before visited, Jewel of Atiiki, to find myself in an analog of ancient Egypt. Pyramids, sphinxes, efreeti, palm trees and...gorillas?

The zone is part of The Buried Sea expansion, which is one I have dabbled in before but never fully explored. I had no idea it went from Pirates to Pharaohs. I spent a couple of very happy hours there exploring the pyramids before getting down to the job in hand - finding and killing my five gorillas.

Now that is indoors, I'll  grant you.

Ironically, given the bright sunlight and clear skies, the entire expansion takes place deep underground. It's magic, I expect, although it must be mostly illusion, because although it might look like the wide open spaces down there, apparently it still counts as indoors and you can't ride mounts "indoors".

It meant I couldn't use the new mount I got from opening Legends of Norrath packs, which in turn meant I occasionally needed to take an old school sit and med break. Never mind. That's a small price to pay for being able to see what I'm doing for once.

Onwards And Upwards

With this great new hunting ground I'm confident of reaching level 90 at last. I made over 10% of level 89 yesterday, which feels as good as finishing a full level in most other MMOs. Where to go after that I'm not sure but I expect Franklin Teek will tell me.

Given the age of the game it's very encouraging indeed to see just how much work is still being done on it. Those Hot Zones had languished under SOE for so long that most people probably thought they'd never change again. Of course, most of the commenters in the thread seem to wish they hadn't changed even now, but that's EQ players for you.

Look at me, Ma! Top of the pyramid!

New Blood, Old Blood

There's change afoot out of the game, too. The most prominently reported of the recent bout of hires at DBG was the recruitment of Cryptic's Jack Emmet to be CEO of Daybreak's Austin studio, responsible for DCUO. Of more interest to me was the re-hiring of Ngreth, husband of EQ2Traders' Niami Denmother and longtime tradeskill dev for EverQuest.

For once the forum response was almost entirely enthusiastic. Ngreth, like Domino over at EQ2, has long had the respect of the players, crafters and adventurers alike. As I was pondering yesterday, Columbus Nova's plans are hard to fathom but the signs and portents continue to read very favorably from where I'm looking at them.

So, I'm back in EverQuest for yet another run. I will get my Mage to 90, which will allow her to upgrade the gear she got as part of the level 85 boost, all of which she is still wearing. How much further I can take her, solo, I'm not sure. The level cap now stands at 105. With the added incentive of some attractive new maps to explore I just might be able to make a dent in that before it recedes even further out of reach.

As always it will be fun trying.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

End Of A Legend

The news that Daybreak Games is to sunset the Legends of Norrath collectable card game didn't come as much of a surprise when it was announced yesterday. Despite Massively OP's yellow journalism (to which, once again, I decline to link) I don't read anything into the choice of Friday for the announcement. We're all on a seven day, twenty-four hour news cycle now. The days of burying bad news before the start of the weekend died with print media.

Anyway, the straws were in the wind a while back, when the client for the game was decoupled from EverQuest and EQ2. It's hardly the most upsetting of sunsets, given that in the many years the game has been available to play I've never done more than run through the tutorial and open my free packs.

All the same, I do feel mildly miffed. I will miss opening those imaginary packs of imaginary cards once a month, hoping for a loot card to drop. Over the years it has become something of a ritual. One more small death along the way to the big one, I guess.

There's still time for a couple more rounds. The final date for clearing the decks is Aug‌ust 1‌7, 20‌16 at no‌on pacific. The final round of free cards under All Access membership will arrive by Ju‌ly 1‌8, 20‌16 at 10‌AM paci‌fic, which is also the last opportunity you have to buy packs, assuming anyone ever does any more.

The very exact and precise notification of the timing DBG have announced seems unusual. Presumably they are aiming to avoid any messy in-fighting or even spurious threats of legal action over supposed virtual assets and obligations. Not that any amount of detailed information before the fact will prevent that. There will be plenty of people who go to log in and claim their dues after the cut off date having heard nothing about the game ending. There always are.

I logged into the standalone client to see how many packs I had left to open and to start thinking about claiming all the Loot that I've left sitting in LoN over the years rather than bothering even to move it to the Claim section of the games themselves. I probably don't need to explain that my /claim is stuffed to bursting with freebies I've never gotten around to using...

I was surprised to see, since I was, for once, paying attention to what was on the screen instead of
ritualistically clicking through check boxes, that to date I have accumulated almost 5,000 different cards on my longest-standing All Access account. I am also Level 9 in LoN just from opening packs.

For a few seconds I considered screen-shotting the lot. There's some lovely artwork in there. Then sanity prevailed. I'm sure someone, somewhere, is archiving them as I type. They will live on the internet forever. And if they don't, well, we'll muddle through somehow, I'm sure.

It did make me consider just how much work has gone into this small, uncelebrated game over the years. And how much "art" is produced commercially to no real end, day after day, year after year. It's no wonder Keen can't find anyone with the time to make him a Twitch logo.

The ratio of Loot cards to regular game cards has always seemed quite generous to me. It seems to run at less than one Loot card per five packs but better than one per ten. I am in the habit of holding a safety margin of 20-25 packs unopened in reserve, so each month when I get my five freebies I open them until either I get a Loot card or I've opened ten packs. I rarely have to open all ten.

Today, though, I had a bad run. Because the game is closing soon there's no reason to hang onto the packs, which was just as well because I opened fifteen without a Loot card popping. The LoN client was also lagging very badly, possibly because lots of people are trying to clear their backlogs like me. More likely, DBG is under yet another DDoS lockdown as it has been all week. H1Z1 at the root of that, as usual.

Because I've played a lot more EQ2 than EQ since the free monthly packs were added to All Access, I've mostly chosen to allocate any Loot cards to the newer game. You have always had to specify, at the point of opening the pack, which game you are pointing it at.

Today, partly because I've just recently gotten EQ re-installed on my new PC and I'm back playing there again, partly just because of the bad run, I switched the target to EverQuest. That really changed my luck!

In three packs I got two Loot cards. One was an ornamentation for a dagger, which I will never use, but the second was a mount! Mounts are a big deal in EverQuest and my magician has been riding the raptor that comes with the Heroic Level 85 boost for what seems like forever. That mount puts her at a ridiculous angle, staring at the sky, and it marks her out as a Heroic upgrade, so it's great to have a low-slung lizard to ride instead.

Mostly what I've received over the years have been pictures. There are a lot of those. Some of them are very nice but they tend to have ludicrously ornate frames that overwhelm the illustrations so most of mine are still in the "box". I've had some exciting drops, though. I got a house once.

There is a very useful page on the official LoN website that allows you to see every Loot card for both games in detail, along with which packs to open to try to get them. I have used it to go for specific items but not with much success. There are sixteen packs to choose from and usually I just pick from the list at random.

I also have a Choose Your Loot card that I haven't used yet. That allows me pick any Loot card from any pack there's ever been. I've been saving it because, the way my mind works, until I use it I own ALL the things. Yes, I am Schrodinger's cat. I'll have to collapse the wave function before August 17 though. I'll probably go for the Ice Cream Cart. Always wanted one.

I only have about thirty unopened packs left but Mrs Bhagpuss, who hasn't played EQ2 or over three years and EQ for a lot longer than that, has 120. They aren't going to go into the void. If she doesn't want to open them then I'll do it. Could take a while.

The end of LoN, along with Planetside, a game I never even downloaded in all the years I had the option, probably signifies something both about the future of Daybreak Games and of the EverQuest franchise but I have no clear idea what that might be. It's apparent that DBG is clearing out what someone in charge sees as the deadwood but to what end is impossible to say.

They could simply be reducing costs to increase profitability (or mitigate losses). They might be cleaning up the business to make it more attractive for sale. They might simply be removing older properties that are not well-used and which are increasingly time-consuming to maintain - housekeeping in other words.

The acquisition of SOE by Columbus Nova has been a strange and mysterious event in gaming. Unlike other takeovers or sales, where one gaming company has assimilated another, the purpose and intent is hard to fathom. I find it hard to imagine an investment company choosing to run a portfolio of low-impact MMOs long term, but equally it's hard to imagine them buffing the current roster of games to a shine that makes a profitable resale likely.

As all MMO sunsets do, it makes me aware of the fragility, the evanescence, innate in the genre. It's really not a hobby for anyone who deals badly with loss. The thought of all my EverQuest and EQ2 characters slipping into darkness disturbs me more than it probably ought. The knowledge that, as  Vanguard and Warhammer attest, games can get a rez is a considerable comfort but still I'd hate to lose my little people and their homes. So much time and love has gone into all of that.

But that's life. Everything is mutable. Doesn't do to dwell on it.

For now the servers are up (hackers permitting) and the worlds live on. Let's enjoy it while we can. And don't forget to grab your Loot!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Short Attention Span

So, what have I been playing? Reading through my back pages it would appear that I've turned into some kind of Jekyll and Hyde character, at least when it comes to MMOs.

Most of the time I'm a mild-mannered GW2 steadfast. I play GW2 every day. Literally every day. There can't have been many days since the game launched back in 2012, other than when we've been away on holiday, that I haven't at the very least logged in and done my dailies.

What's more, I do my dailies on all three accounts. Every day. Never missed one. I have it down to a fine art now. The dailies pull from a random pool and I know just which ones I can knock off in a few minutes.

Reently I've tended to have late starts at work so I've been doing two accounts before breakfast and the main account in the evening. On a good day I can do all three in twenty minutes.

I have no reason to be doing the dailies other than I like doing the dailies. All the stuff I get for doing them just goes in the bank or the currency tab. Little ever gets used.

Everyone expects the Asuran Inquest.

Other than that I've been doing all the new, short LS3 lead-in events as they've been added. Those have been a lot of fun. Really looking forward to LS3 now, as well as the reveal for the setting and theme of the next expansion. Surely that has to happen soon? I hope we go to Crystal Desert to see to Kralkatorrik, which seems to be the way things are pointing after our recent outing to Blazeridge Steppes.

These new big, open world events gave me a nostalgia for the good old days that I didn't think were all that good back when they were just the days. I've been picking away at the final couple of Achievements for Triple Trouble and I've been seen (and heard in map chat) at Teq and The Shatterer.

Most of my GW2 time isn't spent in PvE at all. I spend countless hours in WvW, partly because Mrs Bhagpuss lives there pretty much full time and partly because it remains one of the best log in, have fun options in MMOs.

They should totally put me in charge...

Anet's ongoing attempt at revitalizing the format and balancing the matchplay remains a work in progress at best. Tier 1 was averagely awful for a few weeks after the Great Linking but things have settled down a lot and now it mostly feels like any other rather lopsided match of the last three years, of which there have been all too many.

I doubt whether any of the levers ANet can pull will turn WvW into anything more than an echo of what it once was and a shadow of what it could have been. My feeling is that the game mode as it stands is irreparably broken and they'd need to change so much to fix it that they would be better off just scrapping the whole thing and starting over.

That said, if huge fights featuring hundreds of characters flinging massive AEs in all directions and lots of scrambling around battlements as you heroically fail to defend structures against overwhelming odds is the kind of thing you enjoy then WvW will give you that with admirable reliability. That does indeed happen to be the kind of thing I like so it's working for me.

That's my Dr Jekyll day face. Late at night and on days when I'm home and Mrs Bhagpuss is out at work, I turn into Mr Hyde.

Okay, no I don't. I play EQ2 and Dragomon Hunter. In one I'm a three foot tall rat dressed like Steve Martin in Three Amigos and in the other I appear to be a twelve year old girl with a rabbit, riding an otter. It's hardly the dark side, is it?

Not so fast El Guapo!

So, yes, I am still playing Dragomon Hunter. Who'd have thought? I could be playing Black Desert. I could be playing Blade and Soul - I certainly gushed about both of them enough earlier in the year, but I'm not. As has been the way of it for longer than I like to remember, my enthusiasms for these bright, new MMO worlds has failed to sustain itself long term. Instead I'm playing this quirky little F2P because I happened to read about it on Noizy's blog.

So far I'm level 19 and doing fine. Last night I started to get to grips with crafting. I upgraded my armor and weapon. DH has a gear system far less arcane and abstruse than Blade and Soul. It reminds me of the later version that City of Steam used, which I liked a lot, once I understood it.

I don't get on well with the combat controls. A hotbar clicker that insists you right-click is just wrong. Nevertheless, I'm able to use them well enough that last night I went into the Level 18 Main Quest instance, which was flagged "Hard" for me at a level below the optimum, and beat it without dying once. Levelled up twice doing it and came out overlevelled! Hell of a fight it was, too.

Game hopping to the newest shiny while still carrying on with my old favorites has really been a trope of this blog since it began. It's not pretty but it's been going on long enough that I can no longer deny the evidence of my own authorship.

Did we do that, Pollock?

I've written prolifically and enthusiastically, in bursts, about The Secret World, ArcheAge, Villagers and Heroes, FFXIV and more. For a while every other post - sometimes every post - is about whichever latest craze I'm on. And then it all somehow drifts back to GW2 and EQ2. Those are the mainstays.

Yet I never really abandon any MMO if I ever enjoyed it. I always mean to go back and often I do. Right now I'm on the verge of playing Blade and Soul again. After a flurry of recent blog posts mentioning it, I'm even reconsidering Rift, the MMO I considered my "main" back when this blog began.

Honestly, I could play almost any MMO. I'm not proud and I'm not fussy. I am still minded to buy Legion and give WoW another go. Gnome hunter! (That's a Gnome with a pet, not someone who hunts gnomes. Sorry to disappoint.)

I'm also still playing Celtic Heroes on my tablet. It's very good. Better than I expected even and I already thought it was pretty good. I'm level 19 there as well. I tend to play it in bed for half an hour if I'm not in the mood to watch YouTube.

We get housing, right? This is my house? Oh come on!

Why it's had so little publicity even when people have been complaining about the lack of good mobile MMOs for so long beats me. It's been around for years and it's a complete, full-function, classic MMO. I imagine it waving and jumping up and down, yelling "Hey! Over Here!" while everyone just goes on talking as if it wasn't there.

The other "MMO" I've been playing a little is, of course, Landmark. According to Massively OP, which seems to be fast turning into the "We're so bored with MMOs we wish they'd all just die already so we can write about something cool again" site, Landmark bombed on Steam and has a peak concurrency of 125 people. I'd link to the story but I don't want to encourage the negativity.

Certainly DBG seem to have no interest whatsoever in selling it. Even the in-game cash shop wasn't working last time I logged in. That's a first. I managed to have a lot of fun all the same, and for once I wasn't finessing one of my truly awful builds.

Continuity! I think we have a problem!

A trip to one of the underground caverns found me staring at a really impressive Science Fictional structure teeming with Novatech heavies. I spent the best part of half an hour fighting them and it was very surprisingly enjoyable. 

Despite the limited combat options I found myself using some old school EQ tactics, pulling mobs using line of sight around structures to break up groups, as well as as some very non-EQ tricks like grappling to a vantage point and hanging off a high ledge to pick off mobs from above. They used to call that "perching" back in the day and you could get banned for it. Here I think its legit. And if it isn't, I don't think anyone cares.

I also reinstalled and patched up NineLives. I might get back to that soon. When I finish this post and have a coffee I intend to install EverQuest and The Secret World on my new PC. EQ I am very long overdue to go back to and The Secret World has the museum coming soon. That sounds like a really excellent reason to check in with The Templars again. I wonder if I have back pay due?

Have you taken your Joy today?
There's even an outside chance I might play a couple of non-MMOs. No Man's Sky is an option and Keen inadvertently alerted me to what looks like one of the more interesting takes on the Survival genre in We Happy Few.

I've never played a survival game. Maybe I'll start there. Early Access comes to Steam in July. If I go for it expect a slew of gosh-wow blog posts and then radio silence.

Followed, inevitably, by more posts about GW2.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide