Sunday, July 31, 2016

Chilling At Ground Zero : GW2

Jeromai has an excellent post up analyzing the attractions of GW2's new map, Bloodstone Fen and the way it plays to an entirely different demographic than the raid content ANet have been pumping out for the rest of this year. He neatly outlines the attitudes and expectations of two major playstyles - Low and High Energy - both which should be immediately recognizable to anyone who's played MMORPGs over the last fifteen or twenty years.

If you browse the official forums you can easily spot the two demographics as they give feedback on Bloodstone Fen. The high energy crowd are complaining the map is small, boring, has nothing worth getting and anyway they've already finished it in a just a session or two. The low energy folks are praising it to the skies, saying what a great time they're having, how they have their freedoms back and how this is what the game is meant to be.

It won't surprise anyone who reads this blog to know I'm in the latter camp. If I had a motto for gaming it would go something along the lines of "if it's not fun, don't do it". I have no issues about dropping things as soon as I notice I'm not enjoying them. Life is already filled with things we don't want to do but can't avoid. I see no rational reason for dragging that painful inevitability into any voluntary leisure activity as well.

Being able to sort all activities easily into "this is fun" or "this isn't fun" and keeping or discarding as appropriate was one of the key attractions of Guild Wars 2 in the first place. The original game didn't require you to do anything specific at all. The player was given absolute agency.

Take the Personal Story as an example. Most MMOs these days have a core storyline, a narrative that the designers expect players to follow. Star Wars: The Old Republic built the entire game on that "fourth pillar". Final Fantasy XIV gated almost all significant character progression behind steps in the story. World of Warcraft, in Cataclysm, constructed a leveling path that was predicated on completing each quest hub before any new ones would open up.

At launch GW2 had a detailed "Personal Story" with multiple, branching starting points for each race that eventually came together in a unified sequence for everyone that climaxed with the death of an Elder Dragon. After four years and with sixteen max-level characters I have never finished it on any of them. It blocks nothing and not doing it has absolutely no effect on any other aspect of the game.

In the original conception of GW2, everything was optional: dungeons, World vs World, PvP, PvE, storyline - they all existed in glorious isolation. There were some small anomalies, like having to open WvW maps for PvE map completion, but not only were such things the exception. Once pointed out, ANet's response was generally to remove them.

In the run-up to launch there was a lot of talk about flat leveling curves and horizontal progression. There was to be no gear grind. You would be able to level your character by doing literally anything - fighting monsters, following the narrative, exploring, crafting. Even picking up other players after they fell down would give experience.

There would be no quests because, as Mike O'Brien put it, "we’ve all clicked so many exclamation points and accepted so many quests in our lives that we’re pretty immune to quest text". Instead we would get a "Living World". It all sounded amazing. A lot of people bought into the concepts outlined in the now-notorious "Manifesto".

For a while what was promised was, broadly, what we got. I don't remember any occasions where "a centaur wheels a siege machine up to the outskirts of a village" nor has either of my elementalists ever picked up a boulder thrown by a "Stone Elemental" and used that boulder "to create a meteor storm" but hey, things can change in beta. In essence the game we got at launch was the game we were expecting.

The entire conception of GW2 as it was back then seems to have been designed with Jeromai's "Low Energy" gamer in mind. The kind of player who, in his words, wants "to relax, be comfortable and content, be relieved, feel peace". While committing mass murder, arson and wholesale devastation of communities and ecosystems, naturally...

It was too good to last and it didn't. Without rehashing the whole sorry timeline, ANet blinked at the first confrontation with the very audience they'd supposedly rejected - the players who craved a competitive, directed experience with vertical progression, power creep and formal grouping. "High Energy" players, whose primary motivation was achievement and overcoming obstacles, in other words.

From then on the story was one of increasingly desperate appeasement. Beginning with the addition of fractals, ascended gear and achievements, it was a path that led inevitably and, we can but hope, finally, to raids. Like many, most, MMOs before it, GW2 spiraled down the rabbit hole of trying to be all things to all players, with the inevitable result that it ended up being nothing special to most.

Heart of Thorns saw the apogee of that process. Even the raids that have churned out over the succeeding six months are a part of the HoT experiment not an extension from it. GW2's first expansion underperformed both critically and commercially and the narrative ever since has been one of damage limitation and brand reconstruction.

All of which brings us to Bloodstone Fen, a rather small map that, in Jeromai's words once more, "looks like it was cobbled together using a ton of re-used assets"  as it "specifically addresses a number of reaction feedback from HoT" in "a mad iterative stopgap scramble to band-aid fix some issues".

And yet Bloodstone Fen is fantastic. It brings back the complete freedom of action, of player agency, that so many found missing in Heart of Thorns. There are no long "meta" event chains to complete, no map-wide timers, no overarching targets to hit.

Instead there are the small, medium and large Dynamic Events of the kind you'd expect in Core Tyria, the maps that came with launch. There's gathering and exploring and general pottering about to be had. You can set your own pace, come and go as you like. It's a Low Energy map with High Energy graphics.

Oh, it isn't perfect, not by any means. It's genuine "high level" content of a kind the original manifesto suggested GW2 would never have, for one thing. You can't even enter Bloodstone Fen without a level 80 character. Technically, there is still one loophole they haven't closed that would get you in but you won't be having much - or indeed any - fun without a full set of gliding masteries.

As several posters on the forums have complained, there's an absence of the kind of quotidian NPC activity that made the original maps feel so convincingly lived-in. Bloodstone Fen is not a place where you can imagine anyone choosing to settle down. I guess that's hardly surprising given it was Ground Zero for a continent-rocking explosion not a week ago but there's no sign that anyone ever lived there.

Following on from my recent post on the attractions of low-level gaming in MMOs and the appeal of adding new places to begin even as the games mature, it's sad to say I don't see any prospect of that happening in GW2. ANet have wedded themselves to the concept of horizontal progression at the existing cap of 80 and it looks certain that all future content will be constructed with that paradigm in mind.

If so, I hope Bloodstone Fen is a strong indicator of how they'll seek to achieve that goal from now on. It may be missing the depth of detail that make most of the sub-80 maps such a joy to explore but at least it has the Low Energy, endlessly repeatable gameplay I came to GW2 in search of four years ago, and that's something that has become increasingly hard to find in recent times.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Managing Expectations : GW2

Yesterday Guild Wars 2 saw the long-awaited arrival of Living Story 3. The update became available around six in the evening, my time. I finished the whole thing just after midnight. Therein lies the conundrum ArenaNet have yet to unravel.

Of course, the Summer Quarterly update or whatever we're calling it now has a lot more going for it than just LS3. There's a new fractal and a lot of tweaks to that game mode. There's a revamped sPvP map. There are the usual slew of class nerfs and boosts, bug fixes and Quality of Life improvements.

On the last of those, why it's taken four freakin' years for ranger pet names to become persistent is beyond me. How was that not a) the original default or b) fixed in beta? ANet seem almost to make a feature of the incredible amount of time and effort it takes them to do things other MMO developers knock off without thinking as a matter of routine.

During the six hours I was playing (in reality nearer five thanks to a number of re-patches and server outages during which I wandered off and did other things) I took over eighty screenshots. Some of those were in anticipation of writing this post but most were in response to the usual excellent visuals. You can fault ANet on many things but the quality of their art department isn't one of them.
Speech-maker, ice sculptor, Commander of the there no end to my talents?

What is a problem, however, is using most of those shots to illustrate this piece. There's a spoiler in just about every one. This happens every time. I'd love to discuss the nitpicking details of the plot with anyone who's got to the end but I don't want to spoil anything for those who haven't.

It's a spoiler even to say that the update adds a new map but I'm going to go that far. It does. At first sight it seems like a small one, along the lines of the original, partial introduction of Dry Top, but on exploration it turns out to be much larger than it looks.

Bloodstone Fen rivals Verdant Brink for verticality, which makes the use of "Fen" in the map's name ironic at best. Has anyone at ANet ever seen a fen? Or looked the word up in a dictionary?

Faulty geographical nomenclature notwithstanding, Bloodstone Fen is a fine new map. Wait, let me qualify... Bloodstone Fen is a fine new map if you have all your gliding masteries and jumping mushrooms unlocked.

Updraft Central

It's very much a post-HoT map. You can go there at 80 but if you can't use updrafts, stealth while gliding, ride ley-lines and hop about via mushrooms I struggle to see how you could even survive let alone prosper.

If you do have all those, though, it's great! There's a ton of things to do. Dynamic Events, champion battles, collections, achievements, all the usual entertainment is there and in quantity. There are some new additions - for the first time you can fight while gliding - and some nice twists to old ones.

There also seems to be no overarching meta this time, which is refreshing. Instead the map has its own set of Dailies discrete from the regular ones. That suits me very well.

From what I've seen so far I give the new map four stars out of five. I'd give the storyline about the same. It would have been less if I hadn't just seen Mrs Bhagpuss finish the final boss fight with ease.

Without going into any spoilery detail I found the two boss fights that end the adventure as tedious and annoying as most of the ones in LS2 but it turns out that was mostly because I made the mistake of doing them on a berserker staff elementalist. When you don't have to dodge and heal for ninety per cent of the fight just to stay alive it seems things go a lot faster. Who knew?
That's how I shall always think of you from now on, Rytlock. Uncle Trombone.

The best part of the story this time around is definitely the humor. I laughed out loud on five separate occasions. The writing is snappy, the voice acting solid but the star by far is Rytlock, who gets all the best lines and delivers them superbly. Taimi is on good form too, particularly in her sparring with the odious Phlunt.

There's a lot of non-combat action, all of which is either amusing or emotionally engaging. It's always surprising to find out my character has skills of which I was previously unaware. I had no idea she could ice-sculpt like a professional artist, for example. There are also some puzzles simple enough that even I could manage them although I recommend failing at least once for another chuckle.

In a week or two I'll probably feel able to discuss the narrative developments, some of which are intriguing. GW1 veterans are, once again, very definitely the target audience. The final cliffhanger was a surprise to me.

Until then, let's go back to the conundrum to which I referred at the top of the post. It took me one evening to wrap up the entire narrative element of a quarterly update. Mike O'Brien hopes they might speed that up to bi-monthly. Whoop and if you will pardon the hyperbole de doo.

Can we say "ironic foreshadowing"?

It isn't that GW2 is actually being unreasonably parsimonious in its content right now. With the drip of WvW tweaks, the Current Events and the general QoL improvements that come in the usual two-weekly updates the game has been getting a fair amount of new stuff. This update includes several decent medium-term goals including new Masteries and an  Ascended Backpack to work towards.

If they didn't have a past history of hyperactive oversupply and a very unfortunate tendency to mismanage expectation they would have no more of a problem than most MMOs in keeping the audience from throwing cushions. But they do and despite all the pre-emptive damage limitation there is a clear belief  among many that LS3 will be pumping out enough content to keep everyone busy all the time.

So far they have tried continual development of narrative in the open world and very fast delivery of packaged content in instances and each time the main complaint has been "is that all there is"? Players are never satisfied. Players never will be satisfied. That's why you under-promise and over-deliver, because that way you stand a fighting chance of getting grudging approval.
So much subtext.

If you check the forums it's plain that quite a few people are still expecting LS3 to roll out a new episode every two weeks, while the ones who have been paying attention are now focused on "every two months", which was an aspiration, rather than "every three months", which is the commitment. Managing expectations is an art every bit as important to the success of a business as delivering content and it's an area that needs a lot of work.

That said, it's a more substantial, more entertaining, more satisfying update than I was expecting. I can't really see it as a great deal more than we got in, say, two LS2 episodes, making it about half the size we used to call "not enough" but it's not at all bad. It should keep me amused for a couple of weeks and here's hoping for more Current Events to keep the hoop spinning.

Overall I give Out of The Shadows a B+. Good but can do better.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Low Level Life : WoW, EverQuest, EQ2

It didn't take long for MMORPGs to develop a reputation for being all about the "end game". I'll have been neck-deep in the hobby seventeen years come November but the only brief respite I ever had from the bitter knowledge that everything happens at cap came way back at the turn of the 21st Century.

For the first six weeks or so that I played EverQuest I played with the /ooc channel switched off. Back then I had this quaint idea that I was involved in some kind of role-playing experience, living a vicarious life in a virtual world. Conversations about sports or current affairs or even just general chit-chat were immersion-breakers I could do without so I did without them. For a while.

As the weeks drifted on and the initial, overwhelming wonder began to bleed out into a less intense yet more urgent need to know, so the research phase began. I discovered EQAtlas, Allakhazam, Caster's Realm, The Newbie Zone. And I switched the /ooc channel back on.

From my foreshortened perspective down in the twenties much of the conversation was hard to parse but it was impossible any longer to ignore that Norrath, like every other society, had its clades and hierarchies. This was still a couple of months before the release of EverQuest's first expansion, Ruins of Kunark, the expansion Wilhelm likes to refer to as "the best MMO expansion ever and the mood was one of impatient expectation.

My Nightmare

Until RoK arrived in March the cap remained at the launch level of 50. The out of character chat channel revealed to me a whole dissident world; discontented, fractious, self-identifying as "bored". These were the Level Fifties, tired of Lower Guk, done with Nagafen's Lair, already looking past The Plane of Hate toward the jungle coasts of Kunark.

The pecking order was well established. At the apex, the ten percent: proto-raiders, developing DKP and strats. Below them the rest of the Fifties, running the treadmill handful of high-level dungeons over and again, complaining all the while. Then came the Dungeoneers in their Trinities, pushing to the cap as fast as the merciless mechanics allowed.

These three groups appointed themselves the Royalty, Aristocracy and Nobility of Norrath. The Commonality, making up the great bulk of the ever-growing population, toiled away in overland camps and semi-open dungeons from The Commonlands to The Karanas. Many of those commoners would gain enough confidence to become Dungeoneers in time. Others toiled all the way to the top under open skies, making do with the lesser xp, all the while attempting to shrug off the contempt of their peers.

On the fringes mavericks and malcontents soloed, some with arrogance, some with self-loathing. Druids, bards and wizards and most especially necromancers, they camped static spawns, killed guards, kited. Verant/SOE's official position, as expressed by a series of deeply unpopular Community Managers, particularly Abashi and Absor, seemed to suggest soloing was a necessary evil, not something to be encouraged. Bottom-feeders was one of the more polite descriptions.

I'm sorry, that was just a noise.

Regardless of the status of your clique there was an expectation so ingrained it never needed to be articulated: everyone was heading, however slowly, to the top. When the Ogres began launching their terrifying barrel rafts towards The Overthere every player clinging to the rigging knew Kunark meant the future. Only in Kunark could you hope to break the statistical ceiling and soar, or scrabble, to Level 60.

And yet, Kunark did not arrive as a neatly packaged new ten levels to bolt on to your existing game. Kunark came as a continent. A whole New World. It brought a new playable race, the Iksar, with their great city Cabilis and their four (count 'em - four!) starting zones.

My initial Kunark experience, once I'd recovered from the loss of half a level and an unrecoverable corpse for my mid-20s druid, who retired to The Karanas to rethink her options, consisted of leveling an Iksar Shadowknight from Level One. When Scars of Velious, the second expansion, followed just nine months later (believe it!) there was no longer a logjam at the top.

Phat Lewts!
Kunark was vast. Velious arrived long before most people were done with it. New hierarchies had barely had time to establish themselves before the paradigm changed again. Some would say it was a Golden Age. From there the train rolled on through a total of twenty-two expansions and counting but only twice more did an expansion amount to a complete reboot.

Shadows of Luclin, the much-maligned but loved by me third expansion added not just a new continent but an entire new world. Cats on the moon and another new start, this time one that took. My Iksar SK is still somewhere in the high teens or low twenties but for a long time my Vah'Shir Beastlord was my highest EQ character, topping out at 84 before the Heroic Boost saw my Magician hurdle her and push on into the nineties.

SOE's last shot at starting over came five years later with The Serpent's Spine, an expansion that had its moments but proved to be the death-note for growing the base. For the following decade everything has been about keeping the established order onside, about adding more storeys to the teetering top of the skyscraper.

And that, by and large, has become the model for every MMO, for the genre. The base game establishes the setting and the world, sets the criteria for success. Most every subsequent expansion, update or DLC adds content at the cap.

Even Guild Wars 2, the supposedly level-neutral poster child for horizontal progression, has settled into a penthouse life. When Living Story 3 debuts later today you will be required to have a Level 80 to follow the plot. Of course, ANet have removed any need for you to go through the tedious process of leveling one. To play through LS3 you also must have the Heart of Thorns expansion and that comes with a Level 80 character boost ready to pop.

I bet they have better weather at the cap.

 Legion, when it appears at the end of next month, adds another ten levels to Azeroth. Ten levels appears to be the industry standard for building on top these days although some games scrape by with five. Once again, with the box comes the option to skip the tedious chore of getting there. One hundred levels of content you don't need any more.

Except that it turns out some of us do. I do. Playing EQ2 and WoW through again as I am right now I find it is, after all, this low-level and mid-level path that I want to follow. It seems I can indeed go home again and, what's more, find a welcome equal to any I've had before.

Playing through the low levels in MMORPGs is fun. Not for everyone, that's apparent, but for me. I enjoy high level content. I enjoy new content. I like novelty and I enjoy a sense of achievement. In the end, though, I have to accept the evidence: by choice I return, over and over, to begin again at the bottom.

There really is nothing to match the satisfaction, the involvement, yes, the immersion. Stepping out in rags with a rusty sword or a knobbled stick, making your way in a hard, harsh world, being useful, helpful and always, of course, violent. Learning a craft, finding a path, seeing your rags turn to riches or at least to leathers.

Sure Kyle, only some of us have other plans...

Taming pets, earning mounts, flourishing your first cloak. Seeing your reputation rise. Watching the world open up around you. Making space to stash the treasures you find. Paying the rent on your first home and laying down the pelt of that great bear you slew, in front of a roaring fire you made all on your own.

At the cap the explosions are louder, the colors brighter, the numbers bigger but somehow the magic dries out. Not always, not inevitably, but often. Sometimes it can all go a bit Nigel Tufnel.

I miss the days when we had it all. When expansions meant both much more to do for the ennui-ridden capped and a new start for the dilettantes at the bottom. When the expectation was that new players would want to jump in at the beginning, would grab a fresh opportunity with all claws. I miss the days when developers were able to look out on occasion, not always in.

Yes, I miss those days and it would be so fine to have them back but the world doesn't turn the other way, not even for Superman. Wishing doesn't make it true but luckily, for me, it doesn't need to. Recent events prove to my satisfaction that all the old magic is still there, just waiting on a click of  the character create button.

If MMO developers are determined to keep adding to the top I'll just keep diving to the bottom. It's funny but I find I can breathe much better down there.

Monday, July 25, 2016

That Summer Feeling

We're more than half-way through 2016 now and these are the MMOs I've played and blogged about so far this year:

Black Desert
Blade and Soul
Celtic Heroes
City of Steam
Dragomon Hunter
Dragon Nest: Oracle
EverQuest 2
Guild Wars 2
Project Gorgon 
Riders of Icarus
The Secret World
World of Warcraft

The lion's share has gone to GW2, as it has done for almost four years now. I've played every single day. I always do the dailies on all three of my accounts. It rarely takes more than three-quarters of an hour to knock them all off. Depending on my work schedule I either run through them all before breakfast or after tea. It's relaxing and enjoyable.

Most days, once I've cycled through the two minor accounts, I settle on the only one that has Heart of Thorns enabled. It's been good having three accounts in different states because the dailies vary according to whether or not the account has HoT and also according to the level of the highest character.

To maximize the difference in dailies offered I've made sure that the account I bought during ANet's 75% off sale has no level 80s. Indeed, it doesn't even have any level 70s. I've retired an Engineer and a Ranger both at 68 and now I'm leveling a Necromancer.

Next up to the plate: The Necromancer

The recent half-price sale caused a moment of anxiety. I didn't want to miss out on a good deal and somewhat to my surprise I find myself looking forward to going through the whole HoT process again - Masteries and Ascended weapons particularly. On the other hand, I don't have any characters on the account that has 80s but no HoT that I particularly want to play right now, while I am very fond of all the characters on the account that isn't allowed to get to 80.

In the end I solved the dilemma in the way I usually do - by kicking the problem down the road. Instead of upgrading either account from within the game, as Mrs Bhagpuss did with her second account, I went to the website and bought a standalone half-price HoT. Now I have the code available to upgrade either of the accounts if and when I feel like it, or I can use it to start a fourth one.

Meanwhile I carry on doing whatever takes my fancy - World vs World, World Bosses, Current Events, HoT Metas and so on. I play each day until I either run out of things I feel like doing or out of time to do them. Then I log out and play another MMORPG.
Somehow it's just not the same without DK and Chris.

The GW2 content drought has made a lot of space for other MMOs, which is the very definite upside of an otherwise unfortunate situation. The desultory state of WvW hasn't helped, what with one of our main Commanders upping sticks to move to Isle of Janthir and the other going on hiatus due to a combination of unresolved internet issues and pending vacation time. Mrs Bhagpuss, who generally only plays one MMO at a time, has drifted away from playing as much as she did, spending more time watching documentaries and playing non-MMOs.

Having no particular goals left in GW2 right now, with Mrs Bhagpuss often absent from the game and not feeling the call to Defend the Honor of The Yak as strongly, I have slipped into a routine of playing three or four different MMOs each day. The choice varies. Earlier in the year I was taken up by a couple of refurbished imports, Blade and Soul and Black Desert but, while I thoroughly enjoyed them both at the time, neither seems to have stuck.

It's hard to predict which MMOs will stick. I'm slowly and sporadically plugging away at both Dragomon Hunter and Celtic Heroes, with characters now in or around the twenties in both. Mostly, though, when I log out of GW2 it's to log into an old favorite not a new pretender.

The two EverQuest titles never really drop out of rotation. I am always doing something in one or the other. Still, it's quite unusual for me to find myself playing both concurrently, as I have been this month.

It really is quite embarrassing when the peak of your ambition is to kill "a small insect"

In the elder game I've been logging in almost daily to chip away at the levels on my Magician. A couple of days ago she finally dinged 92, a significant level in that it opens up a number of gear options I've been eying up on the Broker that require level 92 to equip. Somewhat awkwardly, she's on the F2P account but that does free up the All Access account to operate as a full-time storefront for the copious loot she acquires, since AA accounts are able to trade while offline.

In fact, there's a good deal of unattended play going on in EverQuest. Not only is my trader hawking his wares 24/7 but, at least when I remember, I log into EQ on the Magician's account and leave it running in the background while I play something else. The Magician, her Mercenary and her pet idle in the Guild Lobby, sopping up MGBs, so that when I come to playing them they're all raid-buffed.

Then the Mage scoots out to Plane of Knowledge on her Highland Craigslither (a kind of flat-to-the-ground lizard she got from a Legends of Norrath loot card), chats up Franklin Teek for a task or several and heads for the Hot Zones. The efficiency of this method of leveling is variable.

The change to how Hot Zoning works that happened back in the spring means there are three zones in rotation for each five-level bracket and they are by no means all either as convenient or as efficacious as each other. Currently the Level 80 zone is Valdeheim, the Giant's city from The Serpent's Spine expansion. It's very easy but the xp was poor at 91 and will be worse at 92.

Sometimes I just wander around the Guild Lobby slack-jawed.

The level 85 zone, much better xp, is currently Meldrath's Magnificent Mansion, which is too cramped for comfort. So it goes. They will all switch again soon so I'm hoping for something better suited to my playstyle. Both The Foundation and Gyrospire Beza (or was it Zeka?) would be preferable.

In EQ2 I'm plugging along with the new Bruiser I created for the patchwork pony deal. The pace seems just about right and I really love having a character who has to do everything for himself for once, rather than leaning on the immense largess of his well-established, high-level account-mates. Currently he's sitting at level fifteen in both adventuring and tradeskill.

When the Race To Trakanon reaches the finish line and the server closes down I'll move him to my regular server. Whether he'll level much further after that is another question altogether. I suspect that, if DBG follow the plan and replace RTT with another "event" I'll be more interested in starting over there instead of playing him up any more.

Lettuce? What do you want lettuce for? You're not a real rabbit!

It's not news to me but recent events have re-emphasized that what I enjoy most of all in MMOs is starting new characters and playing through the lower levels. The other MMO in my daily round at the moment is WoW, where my Gnome Hunter has also reached the dizzy heights of level fifteen, albeit in about a quarter of the time.

While I still believe WoW isn't quite as super-easy as people like to suggest - I'm not one-shotting anything for a start and a bad pull can still result in an ignominious scramble for safety - it certainly has gotten easier as I've acquired better gear. Now mostly in greens, every quest is easy (although finding the quest location sometimes is not). Much easier, definitely, than I remember the same areas and quests being back in 2009, last time I did them. Moreover, the amount of xp per quest seems to be enormous. I think that has changed and, for my tastes, changed too much. Still, it's a lot of fun.

I ran into a Blingtron 5000 two days running, which meant I was able to hit the Starter Account cap of ten gold and then some. By comparison I don't believe either my Starter Warrior or Goblin had hit that cap by level 20. At least it's allowed me to buy some extra bank space, although as yet inventory hasn't been an issue.

I don't usually accept gifts from strangers but in your case I'll make an exception. Now gimme!

The final piece in my present MMO jigsaw is Landmark, where I log in every few days to make sure my house doesn't fold itself up and put itself back in my pack. Then, inevitably, I end up tinkering around with things and stay there for an hour or several. I'd like to make time for several other MMOs too but there are only so many hours in the day so TSW, B&S, BD, RoI and the rest of the acronym crowd are just going to have to wait their turn. I have managed to log into Rift a couple of times. Come to think of it, that might be an interesting place to start over from scratch...

All in all it's been a very enjoyable and restful period of MMO gaming. I'm making the most of it while it lasts because, unless ANet really shoot themselves in the foot tomorrow, the next few weeks should set the focus firmly back on Tyria. 

Right now, though, I'm off with Mrs Bhagpuss to take a stroll around a real-life castle and, I hope, eat an ice cream in the sunshine. It is summer, after all.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Gnome Is The Hunter : WoW

When Blizzard announced the forthcoming sixth expansion for World of Warcraft almost a year ago it occurred to me that I might, for the first time ever, buy in at the beginning. The whole package sounded attractive, much more so than either dull Draenor or potty Pandaria.

There was going to be what sounded like a very welcome shift in gameplay to a more modern, less directive approach, borrowing from the trend begun by Guild Wars 2. The whole enterprise had a looser, more relaxed, less intense vibe than the war-torn drama and earnest work ethic of WoD, yet without crossing the credibility barrier into cartoonism that so tried the patience of the hardcore prior to the release of MoP.

Admittedly, a lot of the tent-pole features didn't do much for me. Order Halls sounded eerily like yet another way for Blizzard to wriggle out of offering real housing (something that, were they ever to take a proper run at it, would probably bring back literally millions of their missing subscribers and hold them, not for months but years). Demon Hunters didn't catch my fancy any more than Death Knights had. Artefact weapons are a thing I actively avoid in any MMO that has them.

There were ten new levels though, and although I tapped out at 69 on my original run, the expansion was set to arrive with the now-traditional boost to the previous cap, meaning I could start at 100 and go on from there. The half-dozen new zones of The Broken Isles sounded interesting. The new scaling mechanic meant they could be approached in any order and I've always been a sucker for an archipelago.

Move your ears, can't you? The reception's terrible..

There were, however, two standout features of Legion that made a re-up more likely than ever before: a real appearance system and Gnome Hunters. Add the super-sweetener that gnomes get clockwork pets and really, what more is there to say?

My highest character in WoW is a Dwarf Hunter. I found the class eminently playable and very enjoyable. As a rule I like dwarves in MMOs but playing a dwarf does have a certain effect on my demeanor and in-game personality. I tend to joke less and act more soberly. It's still more fun than playing most tall races but noticeably less amusing than playing a goblin, a ratonga or, yes, a gnome.

For this last year the prospect of being able to roll a gnome hunter at launch and take him or her clothes shopping as a career has kept the possibility of an early purchase of Legion alive. It was never a done deal because I have a lot of MMO pots on the boil right now and the end of August might not turn out to be the best time to commit to a subscription, but on balance I would have said it was more likely than not.

And then came came patch 7.0, forever to be known, around here at least, as The One Where They Gave Away The Farm. Not the Pandaria farm (anyone remember those?). No, just the very parts of the expansion that I would have been most willing to pay for.

The patch largely removed my need to buy the expansion but it gets better still (or worse, from Blizzard's point of view). As someone who has always tended to enjoy the ultra-low level game in MMORPGs most of all, I don't even need to subscribe to indulge my whimsy. Both gnome hunters and the new transmog system are fully available in the free starter edition that lets you play WoW with few restrictions up to level 20.

With that, I dusted off my old log-in details and gave birth to a new gnome. Thus far (level nine) it's been a thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The character creation screen seems to have changed a little since I made my Goblin nearly three years ago. It seems slicker and shinier than I remember, with a nice sliding-panel that shows off the limited selection of looks. It was easy to get a face I was happy to look at in screenshots and a hairstyle I could stand to look at from behind for hour after hour.

The Gnome Hunter arrives fully petted up - with a mechanical rabbit. It's an odd choice. I realize "rabbit" says "small woodland animal suitable for a newbie" but it's a machine not a mammal. I didn't have to go out at level one and tame it. If you're going to make a mechanical animal to fight for you, wouldn't you choose something more intimidating than a bunny?

None of which logic affects the simple fact that the rabbit looks great and fights like a tiger. Oh come on, you know what I mean...

As a major addition to the game, Goblins get what amounts to an entire ten level RPG of their own. Gnomes, being ever the Unlucky Alfs of Azeroth, probably need to count themselves fortunate to get even a very short introduction. I did initially take it to be something new for Gnome Hunters but on research it turns out to be merely the general post-Cataclysm reboot for the race, which I hadn't seen before.
Gnomes don't really do elegant, do they?

It's a short, tight tutorial with a couple of nice set-pieces. WoW does tutorials as well as MMOs tutorials can be done - in the world and not in your face - and Dun Morogh is one of the most aesthetically pleasing of the starting areas, so the first few levels passed very pleasantly.

I'm currently playing a ratonga bruiser on EQ2's new Race To Trakanon server, which has reduced leveling speed and higher difficulty settings, akin to those on the Time Limited Expansion servers. The difference between that experience and the one I'm having in WoW is instructive.

Neither is clearly "better" than the other - they are just different. There's a lot said about how incredibly fast leveling is in WoW these days but I suspect that's mostly hearsay, based on the accounts of players who burn through the levels using Heirlooms, Recruit-a-Friend and other leg-ups. With none of that, leveling is sprightly but no sprint. On RTT, by contrast, it's definitely a marathon.

It's also my feeling that the actual difficulty of the encounters and quests has changed a lot. I leveled through the pre-cataclysm Don Morogh several times back in 2009 and I remember it very clearly. Some of the quests haven't changed much, if at all. When I was killing Wendigos last night I had flashbacks to the frequent deaths I had in their caves in the past. I'm about certain that with one character I had to postpone that entire sequence and come back a level or two later because I couldn't solo it. Now it's a cakewalk.

Hunter's Moon. So it's told.

Even so, I managed to die twice. The first time was on the quest where I was meant to call on High Tinker Mekkatorque for "orbital" strikes to help kill sub-boss Crushcog. I was so busy enjoying the mayhem I forgot to notice Crushcog's many minions had killed my rabbit and were finishing up the job on me.

The second time I died while AFK looking up how a quest worked. For all its much-vaunted slickness and simplicity, I have always found WoW to be at least as fiddly and unintuitive as any other MMO and more so than many.

The quests use a myriad of systems that are often explained only vaguely if at all. In this particular one my admittedly perfunctory scan of the quest text led me to believe the gears I wanted were ground spawns when in fact they were drops. Close reading of the text could have cleared this up but so could the quest helper - which was no help at all!

Acquisition of gear and abilities at low levels is a  slow and steady process at best. At level nine my gnome is wielding a Poor (grey, vendor trash) bow rather than the Uncommon (green, quest reward) rifle because the grey one has better DPS. Same happened with two pieces of armor.

Gnomes come from Sunderland, apparently. Who knew?

The quest rewards can be odd. At level eight a quest gave me a choice of four items, the only one of which I could equip was a cloth robe. Since the patch also gave Hunters the right to wear Chain from level one (they previously started in leather and had to wait until 40 to equip chain) doing half a level in a dress seemed an idiosyncratic option at best.

Still, at least the frock didn't expose her bare, pale gnomish skin to the wicked Don Morogh wind. At level nine she replaced the robe with what appears to be a chainmail sports bra. Here's hoping something better drops before she gets frostbite.

 It's a racing certainty this gnome will make twenty. I like WoW. Every time I play I have fun. There's a vast amount of content I've never seen. It's highly likely that at some point I'll buy Legion and resubscribe.

For the moment, though, any sense of urgency to grab the digital download or buy an actual box in a real-world store has ebbed away. I still might jump on board at the end of August - the new expansion buzz is always a draw - but it all depends on what else is happening at the time.

For now I'm happy pootling about in Don Morogh. I always liked it there but it's even better with a robot rabbit.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Broken Mirror - Now Available For Bottle Caps : EverQuest

I was just logging in to EverQuest this morning, planning on letting my Magician soak up some MGBs in the background while I worked on a blog post, when I spotted the above. On click-through the detail is precise.

As Wilhelm has chronicled over the years, SOE's poor decision-making over what to offer for funny money at times came close to giving away the farm but  selling expansions for SC/DBC seems to straddle the common-sense fence.

Expansions are a big earning opportunity for any MMO company so allowing customers to claim them by cashing in credit seems like a bad idea. On the other hand, there are supposedly some difficult accounting issues wrapped up in all that unspent Daybreak Cash - and there's got to be a lot of it out there. I have over 30,000DBC accrued across various accounts, for example. Almost enough to buy ten copies of The Broken Mirror (Standard Edition of course).

I doubt I'll be be taking DBG up on their generous offer all the same.

With my highest character still trudging towards 92, more than a dozen levels shy of the cap, there's not much appeal right now in seven zones where I wouldn't even dare to set foot. If they scaled, the way the Raids in TBM scale, now that would be a major selling point, but they don't. And the single quality of life sweetener, a "keyring" to store Illusions, is something I might pay 500DBC for at most.

I am curious as to what the target market for this change might be. It's obviously not meant for potterers like myself. It was only yesterday that I took my first, nervous steps into The Underfoot, EQ's sixteenth expansion, released in 2009.

Welcome to The Underfoot
Although I have already visited a couple of later expansions, House of Thule and Veil of Alaris, that was no more than a quick shuffle round the opening zone of HoT and a shopping trip to the safe city in VoA. There are three expansions between those and The Broken Mirror that I have never even looked at - Rein of Fear, Call of the Forsaken and The Darkened Sea.

Who, I wonder, has characters capable of progressing through the max-level content of last November's expansion and yet hasn't yet bothered to buy it? That sounds like a very specific demographic - people with a lot of time to play, plenty of friends to group with, but insufficient disposable income to come up with a spare $30 over six  months.

Under the prevailing plan, each new expansion lifts the velvet rope on the expansion two boxes back, so The Broken Mirror won't join the F2P offer until the release of the 2017 expansion - assuming there is one. At current rate of play I would expect to begin to get interested in TBM somewhere around 2021.

I think I'll be keeping my DBC in my wallet for this one. All the same, it's nice to have the option and I suppose I'll have to spend it sometime, on something...

Addendum: This just in from EQ2 Wire. I do thoroughly recommend Terrors of Thalumbra for anyone with an interest in playing EQ2 at the top end. I thought the solo content was worth the admission price and it will be even more so for some old Station/Daybreak Cash you might have lying around.

Here's hoping this is in preparation for an announcement of details of this year's expansions for both games.

Second Addendum: Now they're all at it! FFXIV? You're up next. Anyone would think there was a WoW expansion about to appear or something...

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Where Is Everyone?: GW2

Guild Wars 2 is currently suffering what has been perceived to be the worst content drought in the four years since launch. The situation is so dire that even head cheerleader Mike O'Brien felt compelled to acknowledge it in his recent "Don't give up hope" forum post.

Thanks for your patience through the recent content draught. 

Well, I assume he meant "drought" although since the spelling error has gone uncorrected for nearly a week, who knows for sure?

I'm very familiar from my working life with managerial doublethink. People who used to be in charge of something turn around and rubbish the way it was managed even though they were largely responsible either for the decisions or the implementation or both. It seems that changing seats is often enough to absolve a person of any responsibility, at least in their own minds.

Even so, it's not often a senior official will openly acknowledge the failings of the company that pays their mortgage. Not to the customers, anyway. MO, as he is generally referred to nowadays, seems to want to make a virtue out of hair-shirting.

The post itself is vague and ill-defined but that seems to rest more on hasty construction than any intent to obfuscate. Even as the post was acquiring a comet-tail of speculation and conspiracy theory the first broadside of hard information hit the official website.

The first episode of Living World Season 3 is coming to Guild Wars 2 on July 26

This was followed by two crowd-pleasing Lore pieces featuring journal entries from probably the only major character from Season 2 to have acquired something akin to a fan following - Taimi.

Someone is clearly working hard on both damage limitation and rebuilding trust. In addition to fine words and promises the game has actually received quite a lot of low-key hydration over the past few weeks. A connected and accretive series of open world events backed up by Achievements have kept some of us reasonably busy and passably entertained, while WvW has actually seen more attention and alteration than at almost any time since launch.

These things don't count for much among many. For most MMO players it seems that the definition of "content" is quite rigid: new explorable areas, new classes, new races, new quests (or in GW2's case quest-like activities), new plots and storylines and anything that makes their characters significantly more powerful. And Festivals.

For some reason, recurring festivals, even if they're almost identical to the previous year, count as content to a lot of people. ArenaNet have been absurdly unwilling to capitalize on this easy win. For four years the only highlights on the Calendar have been Halloween, Wintersday and Lunar New Year.

Super Adventure Box, following years in the wilderness, was re-instated as the fourth annual holiday a few months ago. Dragon Bash, Queen's Gauntlet and Bazaar of the Four Winds, all of which are eminently suitable for an annual appearance (and I could write the lore get-out for Bazaar in ten minutes) languish in limbo.

In nine days the second of what MO has already chosen to stop calling "Quarterly Updates" will drop. In keeping with the new mode of "show, don't tell" we probably won't have much idea what it contains until it arrives. It apparently includes "content and quality-of-life updates for several other game modes" but the big ticket item will be the first episode of Living Story 3.

And what does that mean, precisely? MO mentions in his forum post that "nine or ten releases" from 2013 equate to something "that we’d today call a Living World episode". 2013, of course, was the year of Living Story 1, the cadence that began with a series of open world updates that, at the time, were perceived to be very low in content indeed

Even so, nine or ten releases? Really? That would mean the July 26th update would have to contain as much Living Story content as we got from January to July of 2013

Flame and Frost: Prelude - January 28, 2013
Flame and Frost: The Gathering Storm - February 26, 2013
Flame and Frost: The Razing - March 26, 2013
Flame & Frost: Retribution - April 30, 2013
The Secret of Southsun - May 14, 2013
Last Stand at Southsun - May 28, 2013
Dragon Bash - June 11th, 2013
Sky Pirates of Tyria June - 25th, 2013
Bazaar of the Four Winds - July 9th , 2013
Cutthroat Politics - July 23rd, 2013

Full details here.

If that's true then I'll be very impressed. And surprised. Even if we do get a drop of equivalent scale, however, I can almost guarantee that players will have burned through the entire thing in a lot less than the proposed three months before the next one lands. No wonder MO hopes to get the engine ticking over a little faster:

we may be able to increase the pace, ramping from four bundled releases per year towards six

You'll need to. You'll need to get more Festivals in place to tentpole those releases too. And information about that second expansion needs to come out from under the cloak of invisibility pronto. Presumably we're looking at a 2017 release date at best.

At the moment there is a lot happening in the world of MMOs and MMO-like experiences. The firehose of Western WoW-alikes dribbled to a trickle a while ago and now appears to have dried up completely but the torrent of Eastern imports continues unabated. Meanwhile the genre has opened out to include action-oriented and fps iterations, transcended the console barrier and is presently colonizing the mobile space.

With the beyond WoW-level success of Pokemon GO, hailed by one of the founders of the form as "just a virtual world, an MMO", we may be on the verge of a paradigm shift for the hobby. Existing MMORPGs that want to retain market share are going to have pedal really, really fast to keep up with the vanishing MMO event horizon.

So. Living Story 3.

It better be good.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Project Patchwork Pegasus : EQ2

The change of name and management from SOE to DBG has brought a lot of changes to the two EverQuest titles but one thing that has continued unabated is the long-established predilection of Sony Online Entertainment for experimenting with variant rulesets. It's an approach to curating MMORPGs that I have always endorsed wholeheartedly. I've even suggested that for any MMO to have two servers running under the same ruleset is a wasted opportunity.

Over the years I've done my best to taste all the flavors but even with the greatest goodwill and enthusiasm there are only so many hours in the day and you can only play so many characters. When Holly Longdale announced in her Producer's Letter back in May that two new servers would soon be available I read the rulesets and decided that I'd probably pass on the offer this time around.

Neither of the new servers looked especially appealing. The Isle of Refuge server, whose unique selling point is that almost all items that are flagged "Heirloom" on regular servers will be freely tradeable, seemed to me to be a re-run of EverQuest's Firiona Vie server minus the awkward (and quickly abandoned) "roleplaying" rules.

I played on Firiona Vie when it launched and for a few weeks afterwards. It was a unique and surreal experience. The RP rules included severe language restrictions that meant even characters of the same alignment couldn't communicate - dwarves and elves and gnomes had no common language for example.

The first few days seemed to consist mainly of language parties, where groups of characters of different races would sit in circles and spam each other in /say with repeated text in their own language. That's how you learned a language in  Norrath in those days.

The fact that almost the first thing players attempted to do on the RP server was nullify the very restrictions that had been implemented to encourage roleplaying foretold the story of Firiona Vie's future. Within a short time the only aspect of the ruleset that mattered was the free trading of just about everything, which in turn led to FV's status as the RMT capital of Norrath.

I'd remembered that Firiona Vie later fell into severe decline but it seems that's not the case. If it ever happened that decline has been reversed. I mentioned my belief in a comment to Wilhelm, who observed that FV sits at "Medium" on DBG's server status page, a level that puts it well above most servers for population.

Since I have a level 22 ranger there I took the trouble to log in and check. Using the very reliable benchmarks of /who in Plane of Knowledge, and the Guild Lobby, number of people in General Chat and number of Bazaar traders, all data points that can easily be compared between servers, I find that FV does indeed have a considerably higher population than Luclin/Stromm, my main server these days.

So, reports of Firiona Vie's failure seem to be apocryphal and it makes a lot more sense than I thought to see EQ2 attempting to replicate its comparative good health. Still doesn't make me want to play under that ruleset. When Isle of Refuge went live at the end of June I declined to attend the party.

The other server, which launched a couple of weeks later, looked if anything even less appealing. The server name, Race To Trakanon, is self-explanatory. This is the first of what Holly Longdale suggests may be a series of "Event" servers.

The server runs until the specified event is achieved, in this case the killing of the dragon Trakanon. There are set markers for players to achieve, which provide a variety of material rewards if hit, but soon after the dragon dies the server closes. At that point players get a free character move to the regular ruleset server of their choice and the server re-opens with a new target event.

This seems to me to be a good idea in principle. Over the years the various "Progression" servers for both games have tended to be seen by certain players and guilds as competetive "race to the top" environments. That hasn't always played well with the wishes and desires of the players who were looking to recreate the original Norrathian experiences of the past, or just to play through older content at a reasonable pace with a decent population around them.

Although I approve of the concept of Event servers, which should help to serve the needs of those conflicting communities, as someone who already plays far too many characters in far too many MMOs, much though I love that new server smell, the idea of starting yet another character on a server that won't exist in three months didn't really seem to make much sense. I was going to give this one a pass as well. And then I saw the sweetener.

Like Telwyn I couldn't resist the lure of a free flying mount for every character on my account. That really is a proper incentive. The mount itself isn't just a pegasus, something I have never owned, but a rainbow-hued patchwork pegasus. The patchwork versions of creatures, which appeared a few years back as part of the Bristlebane Day festivities, have always been one of my favorite looks.

What's more, the bar for obtaining this highly-desirable mount has been set exceptionally low. All you need to do is get to Level 10. Even under the slower xp rates and restrictions of the RTT server, that's no more than a couple of decent sessions.

It's very smart marketing. The server requires an All Access account to play on, which effectively makes it a Subscription-only option. Chances are most people playing there right now already had such an account but each of these "AA Only" additions to the game takes it further in the direction DBG clearly intends to go - back to a Subscription service with a generous free trial.

I've spent several hours playing on RTT very happily. Very happily indeed, actually. I forgot just how much fun starting a genuine new character with no access to the accrued wealth of high levels on the same account can be.

Right before I began writing this post my ratonga bruiser dinged ten and the free mount was mine. I could stop there, mission achieved, but I'm not going to do that. I'm having far too much fun.

I chose to begin in Qeynos because even after all these years there's still a great deal of content in Queen Antonia Bayle's capital that I have never experienced. I could have written three more posts already on new quests, new instances and new events that I've found, all of which I've never seen before.

When the time comes for my new bruiser to move home I'll be excited all over again for whatever comes next but it's not the event for which the server is named that's doing it for me. I'll never see Trakanon fall, not unless I watch it on YouTube. No, it's that starting over yet again has made me realize just how much there is still to see even after a dozen years of heavy play. That's been the real "event" for me.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide