Monday, October 31, 2016

I Know When I'm Not Welcome : AQ3D

I haven't played much AdventureQuest 3D since it went into Open Beta. Indeed, I haven't played much AQ3D at all so far, just dabbled. Any impressions I have of the game come from the first three levels, although it should be emphasized that this an MMO where Level 13 apparently counts as "end game".

As I've attempted to explain in previous posts, the cheerful, child-friendly cartoon visuals belie the steep leveling curve and unforgiving difficulty setting of this decidely un-casual MMO. It wasn't until I read this post on Artix Entertainment's website today, however, that I realized just exactly what kind of a truly elitist, hardcore game AQ3D is setting out to be.

In getting on for two decades of playing MMOs I can't recall ever seeing any developer talk down to all but their hardcore players in such an un-nuanced way. I thought Yoshi P from Square Enix was a tough customer but he's a pussycat compared to this.

Indeed, the last time I can recall anything even approaching this level of passive-aggressive disdain directed at the customer would be when Abashi (or was it Absor?) repeatedly referred to players who pushed back against the EQ grind as "bottom-feeders".

The linked post has to be read in full to appreciate just how dismissive the underlying ethos appears to be towards the more casual or, perhaps, just less obsessive player but here are a few choice quotes:

They are jumping in and trying to coast on the coat tails of their stronger team members

 They are taking up a valuable seat on the team that could be filled by someone level and gear appropriate

You might think it's not fair to only allow top level players access to the hard to earn gear. You're wrong.

The higher level players have worked hard, gotten to or near the level cap and played through much of the game's content that is still waiting for you lower level players
This, bear in mind, is in the context of players of a game in Open Beta, who are trying to see and enjoy a limited-duration Halloween event. Granted it's only one part of that event, a dungeon wing "balanced for five level +13 plus members to tackle with some difficulty" but even so the solution is harshly exclusive rather than warmly inclusive.

Where most modern MMOs would use scaling, mentoring, smart loot or one of the many non-divisive methods developed over the past two decades to allow friends to play with friends regardless of the level of their characters or time in the game, Artix Entertainment has found a much simpler method of dealing with those pesky coat-tail grabbers. Level-lock them out.

As I think I said before, if you're one of those bitter vets, yearning for the days when it was uphill to the dungeon both ways in the snow, when low-levels knew their place was watching you strut around the bank in your high-level gear, well, there's no need to wait for Brad McQuaid to bring back the good old days - AQ3D is ready for you right now.

None of which suggests AQ3D is going to be a bad game or even a bad MMO. It just isn't going to be the MMO I thought it might be. And probably not one for me.

Maybe it's time to write this one off. Leave it for the hardcore. The players who have "worked hard" at playing a video game. Perhaps I should just get out of their way and go somewhere I might feel more welcome. I might take another look at Villagers and Heroes for that elusive cross-platform MMO fix.

Passive aggressive? Me? Well, who started it?

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Home For The Holidays : EQ2, GW2

Having said that I don't have any great affection for Halloween events in MMOs I find I've spent the last few days doing pretty much nothing else. Circling GW2's Mad King's Labrynth with a never-stopping zerg exerts a counter intuitive, zen-like calm, especially with post-Heart of Thorns autoloot enabled.

This year there are several items of mild interest available, either on the vendors or as drops, not that I ever need much encouragement to farm stacks of lucky bags. There was some consternation Chez Bhagpuss over the appearance of a nifty shadow raven mini with the frankly insane price-tag of 120,000 candy corn (120 Candy Cobs if you prefer) as well as a cute cat-in-a-hat mini that, according to Dulfy, was an ultra-rare drop from Trick or Treat bags.

Fortunately there turned out to be a vastly more achievable Endless Raven Potion, which made an excellent alternative, and - gasp! - Dulfy was wrong about the provenance of the cat. It arrived on the Trading Post as a four-day special for the eminently reasonable price of 350 gems, putting paid to a frenzy of speculation on Reddit.

That was GW2 sorted but to my own surprise I then found myself hip-deep in Nights of the Dead activity over on EQ2. I was lured in by the new collection with the Baby Bone Dragon house pet reward but then I made the mistake of looking on the vendor, something I haven't done for a few years.

That Bone Dragon, by the way, is incredible. Not only does it do all the usual house pet tricks, it breathes fire on command and does a head-stand. A head stand! If you play EQ2 at all do try to get one before the event ends on Tuesday. Or pay through the nose for the shinies on the broker later.

EQ2 really is head(stand) and shoulders over every other MMO I have played when it comes to holiday events. Not only does it have more actual holidays than just about anyone else but each of them has more content and the rewards are more extensive and more desirable. Although probably only if you love decorating.

With characters spread over two active accounts (let's not even think about the inactive ones) and four or five servers I used to have my work cut out servicing everyone even when EQ2 was my main MMO. Playing just a few hours a week there's no chance of even-handedness. I had to play favorites.

The Berserker, who I guess I have to accept is my EQ2 "main" these days, or at least my go-to character, went first, followed by the other two high-levels on his account. Then the Shadowknight on the TLE (aka Progression) server, whose first ever Halloween this was.

Running him over to Loping Plains (a level 70-80 zone) at level 24 was peculiarly satisfying. Completing the Haunted House instance there, usually a face-rolling romp, was touch-and-go at times, even though it scaled to his level. He prevailed in the end and in doing so established himself as a character who deserves to be played more often. He's fun and so is the TLE server.

At that point I might have been done but I happened to notice on Niami Denmother's invaluable EQ2 Traders Corner site that the moment Nights of the Dead ends we go straight into Heroes Festival. I really like Heroes Festival but this year it includes something absolutely unmissable: a gorgeous patchwork griffin mount that can fly at Adventure Level 35.

I thought from Niami Denmother's brief caption that Heroes Festival was up on Test already so I patched up (an extremely easy and painless process these days) and logged in my much-missed Level 90 Bruiser to take some screenshots for this post. After a few minutes fruitless flying around I realized that Test only has NotD the same as Live. If Heroes Festival is up anywhere it must be on the Beta server.

That's why the picture at the head of this post was stolen borrowed from EQ2 Traders. Meaning it won't count for this year's IntPiPoMo, curated once again by Chestnut of Gamer Girl Confessions. I signed up although really it's hardly fair since I post more than fifty original screenshots every month. I hardly need an incentive - more like an intervention.

That was how I came to be running around picking up purple shinies for yet another Bone Dragon. And shopping at the vendor. And decorating. And when I finish this I have to go back and do the same for my Level 90 Necro on Test because she's one of my all-time favorite characters. And after that I really ought to get one for my Defiler, on yet another server. It never ends.

Fortunately it also never ceases to be relaxing, enjoyable entertainment. MassivelyOP did a thing recently about Your Five Favorite MMOs. My five would most likely include both EverQuests and Everquest-wannabe Vanguard but as I suggested the other day, if I had to choose just one it would be EQ2.

I really could play it forever. There are just so many things to do - more than any other MMO, I'm sure. Just while I was rooting around in the bank my Bruiser found three volumes of his old diary, written in some books crafted by my Necro. It occurred to me that you could perfectly well blog - in  character, in game - in EQ2.

Then there's the housing. I'm not much of a decorator in the accepted sense but I can fiddle around with fixtures and fittings with the best of them. I have so many half-decorated houses in need of care and attention...

Anyway, if there's anyone reading, who dabbles in EQ2 on low or mid-level characters, a flying mount for Level 35s is not to be missed. Heroes Festival begins on November 3rd and runs until the eleventh. Don't miss it.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

We're All Stories, In The End : EQ, EQ2, GW2

Somewhere back in the dawn of time I played tabletop RPGs like AD&D, Golden Heroes and Swordbearer. In an eerie pre-echo of my much more extensive MMO experience, during the four or five years our gaming group lasted we tried out a dozen or so games. We'd pick them up, give them a shake, then drop them. It wasn't unlike the "three-monther" phenomenon that ripped through MMO-land for a while.

Those RPGs varied wildly in content, style and systems but one thing they all had in common was the structure. Every one expected a gaming group to follow some kind of narrative arc or storyline.

Oh, there would be adventures along the way; some scripted, some created on the fly, randomly generated or out of whole cloth at the wit or whim of the GM. Regardless of sidebars and discursions, however, the accepted and understood purpose would always be to reach some goal, known or unknown and, eventually, to find out what the heck was going on.

When I eventually arrived in Norrath, well over a decade after I'd rolled my final D20, I found myself in a world with none of that certainty.  RPGs had been all about the story but MMOs seemed to be all about the world.

No graphics engine has ever been created that could match the power of imagination. Even with Virtual Reality probably none ever will. EverQuest's late-90s era 3D visuals, seen on a 14" CRT monitor, more than half of which was obscured by the UI frame, clearly had no chance of competing with the wonders I conjured up in my mind. None at all.

Yet, almost from the first moment, Norrath was the experience that felt more intense, more visceral, more real. Thrusting a rusty sword in the general direction of shapes barely-identifiable as bats as they flapped against a backdrop of muddy textures, - yellow supposed-to-be sand and blue supposed-to-be sky - I was there.

Seventeen years later and I'm still there even though, after all that time, I scarcely have any clearer idea why than I did when I began. Whatever the story has been I couldn't summarize, much less explain it. Most likely every MMORPG has some kind of storyline and yet, for me at least, most remain ineffably obscure.

Over the years MMO developers, designers and most especially writers have made all kinds of moves to foreground the narrative, drive the attention of the player towards the why as well as the how, the what and the where. From SW:ToR's infamous "Fourth Pillar" to TSW's enigmatic throughline to GW2's Personal and Living Stories, everybody's got a tale to tell.

Only, in the patchwork, makeshift, hotch-potch world of massively multiple roleplaying games, that narrative has to fight for interest and attention with everything else. In a tabletop game, no matter how unruly, anarchic and undisciplined the players, all activity must eventually lead back to the story - or else to the break-up of the group. An MMO can persist indefinitely, successfully even, although almost no-one playing pays any attention to the plot at all.

That's why I can have seventeen level 80 characters and thousands of played hours in Guild Wars 2 and yet never have completed the official storyline on any of them. There are people in my WvW guild, who've been playing since launch, who claim never even to have seen their Personal Story beyond the compulsory five minutes that makes up the Tutorial.

In GW2 I have, at least, seen the entirety of the original storyline, albeit only while helping Mrs Bhagpuss finish hers. And I've done all of the Living Story arcs at least once, right to the end. In EverQuest my knowledge of the storyline effectively ends at the understanding that yes, indeed, there is one.

For the first few years I played I'm not sure I even knew that much. In those days the story advanced almost exclusively through the high-level content added in each expansion, which, let's not forget, at that time SOE was pumping out at the astounding rate of twice a year. That meant raiding and I was never a raider so I never saw any of it.

I think the first time I can remember actively following, let alone understanding, the plot was with the arrival of the sixth expansion, Lost Dungeons of Norrath, in 2003. It was an expansion aimed largely at groups rather than raids. Prior to that, with the appearance of the The Nexus in Shadows of Luclin (2001) and the Plane of Knowledge and associated Books that came with Planes of Power (2002) all I really knew or cared was that I had new travel options for this almost incomprehensibly vast and mysterious world.

LDON had a relatively defined pre-expansion storyline involving the appearance of a new organization called The Wayfarers. Not only did they have some quests for you to do but they contacted you directly and suggested you might want to get on with doing them. As a direct result of that pro-active approach I found myself actively preparing for the launch of an expansion for the first time.

When Lost Dungeons landed it changed Norrath for me in a way no expansion before had managed. I would contend it changed EQ itself, and quite profoundly, if only for a while. There's a whole post in that. I must write it some day. For now let's just say that before LDoN I was a solo player who liked to group and after LDoN I was a group player who soloed while I waited for my group to fill.

For six months Mrs Bhagpuss and I did LDoN dungeons back to back, day after day, week after week. I already knew how to be a good group member, how to main heal, tank, pull, control crowds - the basics - but it was in LDoN that I refined those skills until they were so automatic I didn't need to think, just act. I came to appreciate and understand all the roles in a group and all the abilities of classes I didn't play. I learned tactics and strategies and most importantly I learned how to create, fill and lead a group.

It was, in the most fundamental sense, a formative experience. And yet, for all that, by the time the infamous Gates of Discord expansion arrived and broke up our happy gang (with the help of EQ2 and WoW, of course) I had scarcely any more idea who The Wayfarers were or why I was running six dungeons a night for them than I had when I started.

In a couple of weeks or so EQ2's thirteenth expansion, Kunark Ascending, will arrive. I pre-ordered it soon after it was announced and this week  I've been prepping. Not by doing the pre-expansion Public Quests; I haven't even seen one of those yet and looking at MJ's account I don't particularly care to. I've been following Feldon's To-Do List.

So far I have completed everything apart from the Greenmist Heritage Quest, which I started last night. My Berserker already knew Goblish and he did the Underdepths Saga back when Terrors of Thalumbra came out last year so those came pre-ticked.

The two colored tome language quests, Black and Red (although Red has now been removed from the pre-req as not req'd after all) were short and simple but To Speak As A Dragon is a famously time-consuming proto-epic that I've been avoiding for fourteen years. Well, I've done it now and all I can say is thank Brell I waited until I had a level 100 character with 150% flying speed and a wealth of instant travel options. Even without any fighting it took me nearly six hours!

To Speak As A Dragon deserves a post of its own. In fact that was the post I sat down to write this morning until my opening thoughts got away from me. I wandered off the path, forgot the storyline I was meant to be following. That's just how MMOs are.

When Kunark Ascending descends I'll be as ready as I can be; level 100, well-geared for Advanced Solo, all pre-reqs done. Of course, if I actually wanted to go for an Epic 2.0 weapon I'd have to go and do my Epic 1.0, something else I've studiously avoided until now. Maybe I will.

The way things are these days, I'll also have a rough idea of the plot. Only a rough one, though. The last half dozen or so EQ2 expansions have told a linear story and made it - mostly - available in solo instances as well as via group and raid. Even though I did the Terrors of Thalumbra Signature Questline, still about all I can remember is that Lanys T'Vyl is Up To Something and we don't like it

Like the ongoing, really quite interesting, storyline in GW2, in the end it's always going to be more set dressing than substance. In MMOs story always is. Your character might have to do some storyline work to get the gear or the titles or the zone access she wants but chances are you'll go on playing her long after that story's over and all the fine plot points are forgotten.

For all they share a common ancestry, MMOs aren't online RPGs. In a tabletop RPG, or even their CRPG pale shadows, the end of one story merely clears the stage so another can begin. In an MMO, finishing up the story frees up the stage for you to tell stories of your own.

I like it better that way.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Making Games Is Hard, Yo! : AQ3D, 9Lives

AdventureQuest 3D went into Open Beta while we were away. I popped in for just a few minutes last night to take a look. I found it quite different to how I'd left it.

My character was still there (no wipe) but she was back at the very beginning of the game. There was a new "tutorial", hosted by Zorbak, a sarcastic little...something, who self-identifies as "evil". He might be a rabbit. It's hard to tell.

He also claims to be AQ3D's "mascot". One thing that's immediately apparent in this new version that's been opened to the public is that this is going to be a much more self-consciously arch, even camp, MMO than I was expecting from my limited experiences in closed beta.

There's a post-modern, meta vibe hanging over the whole thing that I swear wasn't there before. NPCs openly discuss being in a game, often. A grandfather and his granddaughter raised a cheer when they saw me coming and then lost hope when they saw I was "very low level" and this while they were cowering in fear of their lives from a bunch of skeleton invaders.

At the same time there's a whole, traditional MMORPG plot going on, with the whole world being invaded by Dark Forces and you being the Last Hope. It's all a bit of a puzzle.

There are also a slew of new cut-scenes that work rather well. Quests offer a lot of dialog but no actual choice, which leads one NPC to wonder whether you can actually read or whether you might just be clicking, blindly, trying to get to the end. As I said, very, very meta...

Coming to the gameplay,  at first I thought the danger rating of the mobs had been toned down several notches; then I realized I was still Level 3 in a Level 1 area and I still had all my old Closed Beta gear. No wonder everything was dropping in a few hits.

I got as far as the first (only?) town, Battleon, where I camped for the night. Overall I thought the very early stages gave a much better impression than in Closed Beta. We will see if that continues.

One thing you can't help but notice and admire about AQ3D is the immense enthusiasm and energy of its developers. They all seem to love what they're doing and feel very proud of it. There was a choice of ten or so servers at log in although only two were open. They are clearly planning for success.

Sadly, the same can't be said of another game I've had my eye on, Ninelives. It appeared to be trundling ahead steadily if unspectacularly, adding new content and polishing up old, although things had gone rather quiet over the summer. Then I checked the website last night and found this:

After careful consideration, we SmokymonkeyS have decided to temporarily suspend the operation and development of Ninelives.
The main reasons are because since the game couldn't gain enough support from players, we don't have enough funds to continue operating and developing the game and we couldn't maintain the motivation to continue the development
 That's a terrible shame. Ninelives was shaping up to be a minor work of art. It's hard to understand why someone would put so much work into creating something so rich and strange only to abandon it out of ennui.

For now the server is still up. SmokeymonkeyS promise that they'll "... keep operating the game server of Ninelives as long as possible". If anyone reading this had vaguely meant to check it out one day but hadn't gotten around to it yet, well, now would be the time.

My feeling is that, as a poster on the forum suggests, the game could be packaged for offline play and either given away or sold for a nominal fee. I'd certainly pay $10 for an offline version as it stands right now. Or they could open source it, but obviously that's more problematical.

One in, one out. The dance goes on.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Home Again, Home Again, Jiggitty-Jig

We returned yesterday after an excellent, meandering trip that took us through Portugal's Alentejo region into Spain's Extremadura and South Eastern Andalusia. Mostly we were revisiting places we'd been before but there were plenty of new experiences sprinkled in.

We slept two nights in a tree museum, trudged through the sandy streets of a town that might have come from the Old West and looked down on the clouds from a castle that seemed to be floating in the air. We played no MMOs at all but every day something led one or other of us to comment that we seemed to be living inside one.

WiFi connectivity in hotels has improved immensely and there are whole city squares and parks offering good, free access. We could easily have gamed and I certainly could have kept up with my Feedly feed and even posted a time or three. We did none of that.

For all I've written enthusiastically about devices that can bring internet access to the palm of your hand and the ever-increasing feasibility of playing full-fat MMOs on the go, I find that, in practice, mostly I don't want to. In the daytime we preferred to read or just sit and watch the world going by and after dark, well, we mostly did the same.

We took a case of DVDs but in the end the only one we watched was the 1983 BBC TV series Johnny Jarvis, which Mrs Bhagpuss had never seen and which I had seen only once, when it was originally broadcast, but had never forgotten. Like the author of the linked post I had to resort to a website of dubious provenance to get hold of a copy of this criminally neglected gem in the BBC's archive. I remembered it being brilliant and it turned out to be even better than I recalled. Sometimes rose-tinted glasses see truly after all.

I read the third and fourth of Robin Stevens' Wells and Wong novels, a series intended by its publisher for the "9-12 year old" category but which, like much of the best writing for that age group, is equally suited to an adult readership. Also just about perfect for holiday reading.

After that I moved on to a book I've been meaning to read for a decade or so - Donna Tartt's first novel The Secret History. For some reason I read Tartt's second novel, The Little Friend, before her hugely celebrated debut. I absolutely loved The Little Friend, to the degree that I delayed reading the supposedly superior earlier book, concerned that it might either overshadow its successor or disappoint in comparison.

It did neither. Each is almost exactly as brilliant, compelling, engrossing and delicious as the other. Tartt could really not be any more firmly in my wheelhouse as a writer, so why it's taken me this long to get two-thirds of the way through her very sparse back catalog is a mystery. Next up, The Goldfinch. I'll try to get to that one in less than the ten years it took her to write it.

The Secret History has some unexpected fantastical elements. It reminded me in places of The Secret World. It also made me wish that gaming in general and MMOs in particular had more texture, more variety, more reach. I often wish TSW could have been more of a commercial success than it was. I don't think launching two months before GW2 did it any favors although it was probably the combat that really held it back.

Walking through the sandy streets of El Rocio, past hitching rails and signs in Spanish reading  "No Parking - Reserved for Horsemen", I wondered yet again, where are our MMO Westerns? Reading Donna Tartt and Robin Stevens, I asked myself why are there no murder mystery, private detective or police procedural MMOs?

Why, indeed, do so many pegs on which entire popular culture sub-genres have hung for decades going into centuries now, stand empty and unused in online gaming? I do hope EverJane does well, even though I can't imagine I'll ever play it seriously. We need, we deserve, a lot more than just an endless parade of Elves, Zombies, Pirates and Spaceships.

For all that I enjoyed a whole week with no MMO action and no gaming news, though, within half an hour of dumping my bag in the hall I was logged in and working through more than 200 Massively OP squibs before plunging into the scores and scores of blog posts I'd missed. If these are the dying embers of blog nation thank heavens I wasn't around to feel the heat of the full blaze.

After a couple of hours clearing those decks it was back to GW2- once I'd reset all our accounts. Every time I switch the Router off, as I do if we go away, it generates a new IP address that ANet finds suspicious and requires me to authorize. I wish every MMO was as diligent.

Halloween is in full flow and apparently farming is even more of a thing than in previous years, Merry Mike O'Brien taking a much dimmer view of Diminishing Returns than Colin Johanson ever did. I did some of that for a while but I've never been mad keen on Halloween. I'll wait for Wintersday for my farming sessions.

This weekend I plan to get started on the To Speak As A Dragon quest in EQ2. Feldon at EQ2Wire has an extremely useful guide on how to get ready for the coming expansion and one of the essentials appears to be That Quest, which I've managed to avoid for the last decade or so.

There appears to be a surprising amount of homework required for Kunark Ascending. There are also some disturbing comments in the EQ2Wire thread concerning the current commercial viability of EQ2, referring to rumors that the game could even be "in danger of sunsetting". I'd be surprised if things were that dire but I'm also not entirely sure that the current focus on making things more hardcore and less alt-friendly are well advised.

Whatever the truth of the finances, there's an expansion on the way and that's always cause for celebration. I've pre-ordered mine and now I'm off to prepare for it. It's good to be back.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Shades On : GW2, EQ2, EQ

October is likely to be a quiet month here at Inventory Full. At the start of the month my posting routine, such as it is, was somewhat disrupted by an annual event at work that requires a change in shift patterns and now, much more enjoyably, this week we're going on holiday.

I'm taking my dual-boot tablet with me, which means that at least in theory I could both play MMOs and blog about them while we're away. It's an excellent device. The inbuilt graphics can handle full-blown PC games like WoW and Allods under Windows and there's Celtic Heroes and AdventureQuest 3D on Android.

From experience, though, I tend to forget about gaming while I'm traveling. It's true that in October there will be dark evenings to occupy but it's a lot more likely we'll pass them chatting, watching movies and reading than playing MMOs on a 10" screen.

As for posting, I really don't fancy knocking out a thousand words with my thumbs. I need to feel the impact of the keys - it's a tactile thing. I'm also far too disorganized to schedule pre-written posts to pop up automagically - and anyway for that I'd actually need to have written some...

Of course, by taking the trouble to pre-empt the silence with this announcement I'm almost guaranteeing I will end up posting something, just because that's how the universe works. Maybe if it rains.

If the tablet would run GW2, which it won't - I've tried -  things might be different. The next bi-weekly update will drop while we're away and that should move the Current Events and associated plotline forward. I'd clear an evening for that. Also I don't think I'd be able to resist a little WvW action, not while everything is so vibrant and so volatile.

I'll have to content myself with following the fortunes of Yaks Bend on the invaluable page and maybe on the forums once in a while. It looks like we're back in Tier 1 again and likely to stick there for a bit. I was hoping for an extended berth in Tier 2, where there tends to be less hysteria but when you're hot, you're hot I guess.

We'll also miss out on the part of the first of the "Gear up, Level Up" events over at EQ2, although that's no loss. It's already been running for a few days and I haven't felt the need to log in yet. It's a Triple Ethereal Coins event, which is a very big deal for people proposing to perform effectively at the true end-game but of marginal interest to anyone else. I've managed to get by just fine with no Ethereal items at all so far.

Chances are the next one will kick off while we're away, though, and if it involves enhanced xp then I'd normally want to take advantage. I'd be a lot more interested in a bonus xp event for EverQuest itself. That's where my characters - my level 92 Magician, specifically,  - need all the help they can get.

It's harder to come by reminders for things happening in the older version of EQ since it has no real equivalent of EQ2Wire. I look at EQ Resource when I remember and I see from there that there's currently a two week long double rare spawns and double faction bonanza going on, which again I can very easily stand to miss.

By the time we return we should be approaching the final countdown for the launch of expansions for both flavors of EQ, each of which features a return to Kunark. As soon as I finish this post I'm going to pre-order the standard edition of EQ2's Kunark Ascending, which looks outstanding.

I'm particularly excited about the new Wardrobe feature, not least because of the bank space it will free up. I have a whole load of boxes labelled "Dressing Up" that I'll be clearing out as soon as the expansion goes live.

I'm also very intrigued by the four new "Ascension Classes". I'm hoping they will be similar to the Elite Specializations that came with GW2's Heart of Thorns, which I thought were one of the most enjoyable and satisfying aspects of that particular expansion.

That carpet's got to go...

Being still a dozen levels adrift of the cap in EQ, and each level taking me around a month of somewhat repetitive hotzone grinding to burn through solo, I don't feel any need to buy the EQ expansion, which seems light on features other than new things for max levels to do. A "Familiar Keyring" is not something of which I've ever felt the lack until now, to be honest.

I'll skip that one as I have the last nine or ten. I think the last one I paid money for directly was Secrets of Faydwer in 2007. Of course, since EQ and EQ2 went F2P, you get every expansion for nothing in the end, albeit at a slight delay. I'm only about four years adrift in terms of content I can actually use!

A date hasn't been officially announced yet, or if it has I've missed it, but I'm guessing that when we get back The Mad King will be up to his usual, rather faded tricks again. I'm not a huge Halloween fan in general but MMOs love it and at least it's something to do. Also - 20 slot bags for cheap. Not to be sniffed at.

That reminds me - Nights of the Dead has already started in EQ2. It runs into the first week of November so plenty of time left to get the goodies. Not much has been added this year by SOE/DBG standards, just a lot of new housing items -some crafted, some vendor-bought, all rather desirable - and a new collection with a must-have baby bone dragon pet

Lots to look forward to, lots to be getting on with. Do I even have time to go away?

Saturday, October 8, 2016

No Going Back : GW2

There's a developing trend in GW2 that I very much appreciate. It's the addition of new content without fanfare or publicity.

We have the big ticket drops in the two-to-three monthly installments of the current Living Story and I very much welcome those but for a long time now we have also been receiving a patchwork of events, activities and what in any other game would be called "quests", all dished up under the rubric of "Current Events".

While these are clearly designed to give people something to do between Episodes they are nevertheless a lot more intriguing than that suggests or demands. All of them, even those that seem light on context or narrative, add texture to the weave.

Stop it! It tickles!

I hate to harp back to the good old days of EverQuest yet again. Okay, I don't - I relish the opportunity - but this really does remind me of how things used to be, back before the hand-holding got out of hand and the trainer wheels got welded on to MMOs, seemingly for good.

It used to be par for the course in EQ to log in after a patch and find something had changed but no-one quite knew what. It created a buzz. People puzzled over what it might mean, discussed it in Guild and zone chat, fired up their Wizards and Druids and began porting. It was one of the ways we felt we were all in a world not just a game...well, some of us.

Evon was robbed!

That's not to say I don't appreciate the conveniences that came along as the genre grew and broadened and sought for mass appeal. I was never a denigrator of feathers. I didn't feel I was too good for sparkly trails or blue patches on the map. Like Kaozz I have reservations about the wisdom of trying to turn back progress as Daybreak seem determined to do.

It seems to me that the old rule about always adding something, never taking something away, when you hope to make a change and have it accepted, has weight here. DBG have decided to drop quest markers from their expansion content entirely and I'm sure a goodly portion of their longtime, aging playerbase will accept and even welcome that call-back to the days when EQ was the big name in MMO gaming.

I've been waiting for you.

ANet, however, seem to me to have taken a smarter path altogether. Rather than, for example, remove the orange rings and icons from the map for new Dynamic Events they've chosen to create event-like happenings that operate in a more subtle fashion instead.

The mechanics for the recent Gillscale Pond sequence are positively abstruse. The deliciously named (by players I believe) "Sad Anomaly" plotline floated in like thistledown. Indeed, the Sad Anomaly didn't even signify its presence by the now-traditional single, enigmatic line in the Update notes. It just happened.

Often, when the possibility of smuggling mysteries into an MMO is discussed, the less-easily-convinced point to the godlike presence of the internet, that all-pervading hive mind that relishes the tearing of veils and shines a klieg light into every backstage corner. That misses the point.

Don't cross the streams!

Yes, Dulfy had guides up for both the new rifts and the anomaly in a matter of hours. Good. Very, very good. Dulfy, along with the wiki workers, provides an essential, much-appreciated public service.

These aren't spoilers. They spoil nothing. They are valuable resources to be used, gratefully, by all those who don't find mysteries amusing, or who come home from work tired and irritable and just want to Get On With It.

Their presence in no way detracts from or diminishes the value of the approach taken by the designers, who wrinkled up the surface of the world and left it to us to decide how we'd smooth it out. I chose to work through most of both events based on trial and error, head-scratching, the ignorance of crowds as demonstrated in Map and Guild chat and sheer bloody-mindedness. Then when I'd had enough I looked some stuff up on Dulfy.

Stop shoving at the back!

The two events felt very different, too. The Rifts are a communal, community-building experience, not least the part where twenty players jostle for a foothold on some wind-tossed crag where the latest port deposits them. The Sad Anomaly, something whose beginning comes upon the player privately and unexpectedly, is a much more personal affair.

I am not at all a fan of what we might call the BioWare approach to storytelling, where your character is confronted with seemingly endless "meaningful" choices, the consequences of which are not immediately apparent. My character is not there to be moulded or messed with by hands other than my own.

That doesn't mean I disdain hard choices. Not at all. I welcome those unpredictable turning points, when an action has repercussions that can be surmised but not yet quantified. They can be nerve-wracking but they add depth and a resonance that echoes.

It was, perhaps, ironic that this evening, when my Elementalist made her decision and allowed Historian Tranton of the Durmand Priory to irradiate her with a mystical object he didn't understand in order to cure a malady he could scarcely define, she did so with Evon Gnashblade's favor hovering over her shoulder. After all, she chose Evon in that fateful election and look how that turned out. She had her Scarlet Briar Hologram mini out too but really, let's not read anything into that...

Ironic foreshadowing?

Now, for good or ill, she goes forward under the twin influence of The Shadowstone and The Priory. It has to be better that than The Consortium and their snake Krait Oil

Doesn't it?

Monday, October 3, 2016

Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned : GW2

This weekend saw some lively discussions chez Bhagpuss over the current state of Guild Wars 2's World vs World mode. So much has happened over the last few months it's hard to keep track.

Yak's Bend is back in Tier 1 again after a precipitous plummet to Tier 4 and a cartoonish rebound back to the top. Our Celebrity Commander is back along with a host of names from the past, including our original CiC, now commanding regularly again for the first time in what seems like years. I even saw one of our very first Commanders yesterday, albeit not tagged up; one of the handful who bought the tag when most people didn't even understand what it was for, when a hundred gold was an unattainable fortune for most players rather than the pocket change it is today.

This time round, the ever-controversial linking system brought us Ferguson's Crossing for our new best friends. They'll be with us for a couple of months and they are a great asset, bringing numbers and several strong guilds and commanders.

You should probably keep that to yourself.

FC is a server, like Anvil Rock, who we had when the linkings first began, that I don't remember ever playing against. That's most likely why there don't seem to have been any community problems with the links we've had so far. It would be different if we'd been coupled to any of the servers that have a reason to hate us, which is basically everyone we've ever fought. Someone new to the server asked yesterday if there were any servers that didn't hate Yak's Bend, to which the answer was mostly laughter.

In this week's match we're facing Tarnished Coast, home of several major guilds with whose leaders our own top brass seem to be on extremely bad terms, including one who was a big cheese on YB for a while but left under something of a cloud. TC started out as GW2's self-elected roleplaying server and there's still a moony, renaissance fayre glimmer around much of what they do but they put their spikiest armor on when they play us.

The other server in the mix is Maguuma, GW2-NA's designated bad neighborhood. Maguuma is where some of the more notorious MMO guilds rolled when they thought GW2 might be something they'd enjoy - or enjoy wrecking. Some are even still there - I saw Starfleet Dental out in minor force over the weekend .
That's because it's difficult to type when you're laughing that hard.

Anyway, Maguuma has been known as the Troll Server ever since; accused, often with good reason, of not just tolerating but encouraging most forms of cheating and exploiting, while all the time expounding the virtue of the mythical Good Fight. We've run up against the Magpies a few times and it's always been a bruising encounter but I wasn't really aware of any great animosity, nothing like the deep and abiding hatred between YB and FA or SBI or...well, it's a long list.

Some hot words were spoken at the start of this match, though, and I fear such news travels fast when there are spies around. This time it all seems to have gotten very personal. Of course it's anyone's guess who's actually on Maguuma right now.

The current Maguuma is a bandwagoned version. Everyone who fancies a run at easy karma and effort-free rewards in T1 (everyone who's never been there knows the T1 borderlands are paved with gold) simply chips in a few hundred gems and moves to Mag's linked server, Kaineng. Remember them? They were the original  bandwagon, long ago.

Anyone fancy a game of footie?

Kaineng languished at the bottom of the table for  months until some bored high-tier guilds set out to see if they could bootstrap a server all the way to the top. If I recall correctly they got to Tier 2 before the wheels fell off. Well, Kaineng is the ghost in Maguuma's machine, clinging to the running boards as it tries to drive Yak's Bend clear off the track. It's a real team effort, too, because Tarnished Coast are dead set on achieving the same goal, to the point of really, truly double-teaming with Mag to get the job done.

As a rule I dismiss claims of double-teaming out of hand. Every single match features loud claims that X is allied with Y against Z although it's rarely anything more than an ad hoc, momentary partnership of convenience if it's anything at all.

This time, though, there apparently really is a formal alliance between the other two servers - across one time zone at least. The evidence of this brutal weekend is convincing.

Brutal? Yes, but also wildly enjoyable. Mrs Bhagpuss, like many on YB, is not a fan of 2v1 grudge matches but I tend to favor the views of a forum commenter philosophizing  on the subject recently : "Organised 2v1’s are very fun and should be encouraged, the fights happen at your doorstep instead of having to chase them down."

I certainly spent far more time in WvW this weekend than I'd planned, including an unbroken six-hour session last night. The action quite literally never stopped. It was heating up even further when I had to go to bed. As someone who rates sieging and defending structures against heavy and determined opposition as about the most fun you can have in a PvP mode, my main problem right now is having too much of a good thing.

The problem, as mentioned already, is that not everyone sees it that way. Indeed, the real problem with WvW is that almost no-one sees anything "that way". Everyone has a different conception of what the game mode is, is for, could be, should be.

Theorycrafting for Dummies.

MMOs at large are portmanteau formats but usually there's some clarity of intent when it comes to the individual components. There's generally a consensus on how to use an instanced PvP battleground or a 5-man dungeon and everyone knows what a bank is for.

WvW has never had that clarity. To some it's a stage for large-scale PvP battles, for others it's a siege warfare sim. There are those who want to roam alone or in twos and threes to test their skill and prowess and those who are interested only in the current score or their server's standing in the league. There are vocal constituencies arguing that WvW should be geared towards Guild vs Guild contests or even individual duels.

Many of these interest groups do not play well together even when they are supposed to be on the same team. The whole mess isn't helped by Anet's unwillingness to truly own the form and settle on a clear and unequivocal direction for development.

Across the summer we suffered a series of often fatuous, occasionally momentous polls. We've been in a running series of "Live Betas" for most of this year and there seems to be no prospect of that awkward scenario ending. The entire game mode is being warped and twisted around us, changing from week to week, as a handful of developers attempt to wrest meaning from chaos without apparently having a set of blueprints or even some notes on the back of a napkin.

Sorry. Sorry! I didn't mean you!

And yet, despite all of that, WvW remains enormous fun. Great entertainment. A compulsive, stay-up-too-late, miss-a-meal-without-noticing thrill. If you read the forums you'll hear that WvW is dying or dead but if you log in and play you'll find the corpse up and dancing the polka.

As I write it seems from the scores that we have recovered from our weekend mugging. We will still most likely end the match in third place and next week we should be back in Tier 2, where indeed we should be by rights, having only drawn a wild card to breach T1 these last two weeks in any case.

Our glicko rating will almost certainly have risen but straws in the wind suggest that may not matter for much longer. WvW looks set to endure a lot more tinkering under the hood before someone finally declares the old jalopy ready to race.

When that day comes, if it ever does, I feel confident that there will still be plenty of us left playing, no matter what lunacies we've had to endure along the way. Whatever the final outcome - and of course MMOs rarely have final outcomes until they sunset and sometimes not even then - the one thing I remain confident in predicting is that WvW will remain great fun.

Maybe there's a way to break even that but if so no-one seems to have found it yet.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Ready For Prime Time? : AQ3D

In his September In Review post, Wilhelm observed "... if you want to be popular, post about WoW". To this sage advice I can add a corollary: if you want to be ignored, post about AdventureQuest 3D.

My previous post on that particular game drew fewer page views than just about anything I can remember writing; certainly fewer than any post this year. No-one, it seems, is on the edge of his or her seat waiting for the upcoming Open Beta of this one.

Ah yes, the open beta. The open beta that's scheduled for "October". That's now.

Is it ready? Not according to most posters on the forum. Here are some sample quotes:

"After playing for quite a lot over the past few days, I feel that this game isn't ready to be launch to the public yet at its current state"

"I personally think launching the game in October is dangerous when the game is at this current state"

" might be a good idea to postpone the beta"

"Really can't see why you'd put the game in open beta in this state so soon."

"The game, at the current state, is not ready for Open Beta"

I do love how my character looks.
And so on.  Now, I've beta tested quite a few MMOs. Comments like this are not all that unusual because there's a contingent that thinks things could always be better and that nothing should ever be revealed to the general public until it shines like the Spirit of Ecstasy on a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. They're usually drowned out by the majority that just wants to get on with it.

The last time I had access to beta forums so determined that the doors should stay shut must have been the original launch of FFXIV. We all know how that turned out. AQ3D does not have the kind of problems SquareEnix did. The game works. You can play it. It doesn't claim to do a thousand things it doesn't do. It doesn't have a rabid fanbase hammering at the doors trying to get in. As far as I know...

The reason AQ3D may not be ready for Open Beta is not what you might think. It's not overly buggy or filled with half-finished systems that don't work. It runs fine for the most part - for an MMO in closed beta. No, the real problem AQ3D has is this: it's bloody hard!

Ye gods, is it hard! If you yearn for those glorious days in the late 1990s, when Level 3 took you six hours grinding orc pawns, get those rose-tinted specs on and sign up now.

Remember the fun you had killing hundreds of lions in East Karana in the vain hope that this time, this time, the High Quality Lion Skin would drop and you'd finally be able to craft your Fleeting Quiver? Imagine how much more fun it would be if that drop rate applied to all crafting mats!

Drop table needs work.
Disgusted by the way MMOs have shifted over the years to favor soloists over groups?  Here are dungeons so hard that solo players can't expect to get through the first room; where even being grossly over-levelled doesn't guarantee you won't die horribly.

Don't just take my word for it. Have some more quotes:

"... the drop rate for the items are terrible, you will be sitting in 1 farm location for 1-3 hours and still not have any of the materials you were farming for"

"...part of the dungeon is almost impossible for me, and I'm a level 14 player with Nightlocke weapons. I don't think it's a level 7 dungeon at all."

"The drop rates to get crafting items are horrible, and you need to run the same dungeon approximately 10 times (if you have some luck) to get ONE item. ONE upgrade."

"Made it to level8, and still lvl4 monsters in the first dungeon are impossible."

"I have been fighting the monsters ... for over four hours and I am still only level four. ... I am level four and a level two monster can almost kill me".

I could pull out dozens of quotes like these. Surprisingly, perhaps, most of the players complaining
have actually taken the time and effort to grind their way up the levels, through the dungeons and into the meat of the game. I haven't. I'll just have to take it all at face value because although I've played three or four times, I've already decided there are more entertaining ways to spend an evening than grinding the same two or three mobs for incremental advances and identical drops. And that's at level three.

Camping a single spawn for a quest drop. Two more mobs trained on me by another player. Both of us dead in a second. Brings back so many memories. Sadly, none of them good...
Part of the problem is the extreme dichotomy between what the game looks like it's going to be and what it is. It looks like a cheerful, cartoon-colorful knockabout MMO aimed at a younger-than-average audience. You come to it expecting a light-hearted, unchallenging romp and you get something that plays like EQ circa 1999. Only more so.

As several commenters point out, this is not likely to sit well with the audience it's sure to attract, particularly as a cross-platform game appearing on Android and iOS. This final quote neatly sums up the situation:

"I have not even touched the game for weeks now, simply because of all the issues with the XP curve, progression difficulty curve and combat system. If they can't even hope to keep their already loyal players entertained at this point, then the game will most likely not survive the general public".

It's not that AQ3D is a bad MMO. Not at all. It has a great feel, tons of personality, huge potential. Neither is it that there's no audience for a game that harks back in difficulty and challenge to the world as it was before WoW. Lord knows there have been enough calls for that Return to Values for years now.

In fact, there's nothing very much wrong here that can't be fixed with some tuning, tweaking and a general reality check. The game probably could use at least the rest of the year in Closed Beta, where major changes could be rolled out and rescinded as required, after which it would stand a good chance of launching to resounding applause.

Once it goes to Open Beta, though, the reviews and Let's Plays and Steam Ratings will roll in, like it or not. On this evidence, launching as it stands, that verdict could be as harsh on the game-makers as the game itself is on the players.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Revelation Of A New World

When Amazon began snapping up discarded MMO developers there seemed little doubt they had something massively multiple in mind for their game division revamp but as the "unboxing" approached and the tease reveals rolled out certainty dipped a little. It seemed we weren't getting a ragnarok-themed version of WoW after all, just another MOBA, because the market for those is desert dry right now, after all...

That never felt right. For the brief few days when the seal was split but the lid remained unlifted I still believed there'd be something interesting inside. And there kind of was. Is. Will be.

Somewhen, in some future time as yet uncalendared, exists an Amazon MMORPG. Faint ripples in the chronosphere suggest some kind of "massively multiplayer, open-ended sandbox game". The signal is occluded. All we know is what's in the single paragraph.

Oh, wait, no it's not! There's a video!

It's only fifty seconds but I think it answers a lot of questions people seem to be asking; questions raised but not answered by the text description on the website.

This is going to be a PvP Sandbox. Probably one with a non-consensual free-for-all ruleset. Check these quotes:

"...the players are our content." (25s)
"...whatever they do with it and in it and to one another is really up to them." (43s)

Or that's the plan as it stands right now. The game itself is who knows how far out? Two years? Three? Five? We all know the MMO you get is very rarely the MMO you were promised. Sometimes it's barely even similar.

Which is why I can't see much point getting hyped up or riled up. Yet. Let's wait at least until there's...something. At least the setting, one of the very few elements that has both been announced and is extremely unlikely to change, sounds promising.

The elevator pitch would seem to be The Secret World in Colonial America:

"...everything they were afraid of, everything that they hoped for, everything that they wanted to believe in, that they wished wasn't true, all of that stuff is real".

I could go for that. And, as many people have pointed out, Amazon is the epitome of a mainstream mass-market service provider. It does seem unlikely that Jeff Bezos will want to restrict the potential to the relatively small FFA PvP market when there's a much greater restricted PvP and pure PvE audience to tap.

The developers may anticipate a true New World but chances are they'll end up with much the same compromised old version we usually get. Some combination of level restriction, safe zones or even PvE/PvP server splits. Yes, the real target for all these new games seems to be the Twitch viewer (the Wooden Potatoes video linked above is very good on that) but I'm sure they want to sell a few million boxes too.

Not, as far as I can see, that there's been any mention of payment models, although I didn't watch the main stream. Still, it's probably safe to predict these will not be pure F2P titles. Amazon is in the box-selling business, be those actual boxes or digital downloads. There's going to be some kind of fee in there somewhere.

That's all a long, long way off. We can worry about how much it costs when there's something to buy. What interests me more right now is the idea, expressed by both Syp and Syl, that the MMORPG genre needs news of a big AAA release like this right now.

Why is that, exactly? Wasn't it only a year or two back that everyone was claiming it was big budget releases from megacorps that had crushed the life and spirit out of MMOs and the true future of the genre was and always had been niche? Did I miss a memo?

Syp found so many upcoming indie MMOs of interest to examine on MassivelyOP that he had to split his preview post into two parts. That list is just shy of three dozen titles. If this is a genre in the doldrums, heaven only knows what would blow in on a fair wind.

Let's not be negative. I'm a big Amazon fan. I've used their services for many years. I've found them to be reliable and good value. I recommend them often to others. There's certainly a smaller-than-usual chance New World (clever title, by the way) will end up being rushed to market half-baked due to the developers running out of money. It will almost certainly be polished and as finished as MMOs ever are at launch.

Whether it will be anything I'd want to play I have absolutely no idea. I won't know that until there's a game. Call me when that happens.

Oh, and the post title? Apparently all that writing carved in to the face of the guy in the pot helmet up top there? That's from The Book of Revelations, that is. Now you're scared.

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