Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My Time's My Own : LotRO

My unexpected return to Middle Earth continues. Since repatching LotRO a couple of weeks ago I have found myself logging in almost every day. Some days I play for several hours.

Why? I asked myself that and, while there are probably any number of reasons, I think it has a great deal to do with the vastly reduced number and simplified nature of quests available to me as a Premium player.

Syp posted recently about the difficulties of returning to an MMO that's been around for a long time. It absolutely can be overwhelming. He also posted about the difficulty of keeping up with multiple MMOs and that's something that I find increasingly challenging, too.

Like Syp, I like to cultivate the impression that I play a plethora of MMOs and I have played, or at least dipped into, a lot of them. I think the count must be somewhere north of a hundred and fifty by now.

MMOs, though, take a long time to "play". Even if you only potter around, see the sights, stick with the low level areas or the easy stuff, you're looking at an investment measured in hours per week rather than minutes.

If I'm intending to do current content at the level cap I've found that I can realistically only handle a couple of MMOs at a time and even then probably only of those is going to include a run at full-on "end game" content. To that playload I can add another three or four titles that I'm either trying out, messing around with or bingeing on.

There are a lot of MMOs I once played that in theory I'd like to play again. I have a mental list on which certain titles persistently appear - Fallen Earth, Allods, Dragon Nest, ArcheAge, Rift, World of Warcraft... and Lord of the Rings Online.

Every once in a while I'll patch one of them up and log in. Usually I'll wander about a bit, look at my bags and banks, check my mail, flip through my quest log and then...give up. As Syp says, "it can feel absolutely overwhelming when you try to get your head around the mountain of content". And the even bigger mountain of stuff in your bags.

Occasionally, though, something just clicks. Last year I spent a couple of months in WoW mostly because the pre-Legion invasions offered both an accessible re-entry point and an easily understood goal. In LotRo this time it wasn't anything so dramatic or obvious that set the hook.

As I recounted at the time, the thought of a free horse was just enough of an incentive to persuade me to take the necessary time to clear enough bag space to open the Anniversary gifts. Going through my bags to decide what to throw out led directly to an investigation of the Task system. I liked the sound of it.

This time when I mounted up and went exploring, something I'd done on previous short-lived returns to Middle Earth, I was able to do more than just take a few screenshots. I fought stuff and had room to loot what dropped. Then all I had to do was ride into town and hand in the skins.

This seems to me to be the essence of virtual world gameplay although I'm not sure how much it has to do with MMOs. It's an entirely solo, automated process. It is, however, one of the handful of key experiences that drew me to what we loosely describe as MMO gameplay in the first place.

I really, really like hunting down creatures and returning to town to hand in their body parts. Or, in the case of sentients, their possessions. I liked collecting the pelts from rabid bears in Qeynos Hills, the ears from gnolls in Highpass, the helmets from Lucan's guards in Freeport or the belts from the Crushbone orcs.

Bounty hunting in these fantasy settings offers a clear and straightforward proposition that always seems to make sense. Naturally the city guards want the threat outside their walls curtailed; naturally they are authorized to pay a small stipend to anyone able and willing to keep the wolf from the door - literally. And equally naturally they want proof before they pay.

The LotRO system uses Notice Boards as did Vanguard, another MMORPG that had an excellent network of local bounties. That, too, seems entirely convincing. I find this sort of thing simultaneously more convenient and more immersive than traditional questing.

It's not that I don't like questing. I love a well-written quest, but questing, as it has become in all the years since WoW began to introduce and codify the new orthodoxy, is a very time-intensive and formal experience.

In most modern quests, even the very best of them, for example in The Secret World, the experience of the player is more akin to participating in interactive fiction than either playing a game or living in an imaginary world.

Each quest has a sequence of stages that must be taken in order. Everything must be done in exactly the anticipated sequence or the whole thing will stall. At many points the player's character will listen to other characters speak or watch other characters act. The player may be asked to select responses on his or her character's behalf but all the responses will be in the words of someone else.

When I started playing MMOs with EverQuest there wasn't a lot of that sort of thing. The game, as many observed at the time, appeared to have been named ironically. In EverQuest you really never needed to quest at all and I didn't, not very much.

Most of the quests I did were simple. Someone wanted something delivered (FedEx Quest) or killed (Kill Ten Rats Quest) or made (Crafting Quest). Occasionally someone wanted you to take them somewhere (Escort Quest) but that was usually the time you'd decide you were going in the other direction.

Even back then there were immense, convoluted quest chains that took hours or days or even months. EverQuest invented the Epic Weapon quest after all. I didn't do those. Didn't like 'em. Didn't do 'em. Never needed to do 'em.

That was the thing. You could get by very happily without questing and that was the way I liked it. And then WoW came along, with their faster leveling pace that was tied to doing more than just killing things. You had to follow a story. Lots of stories. And then we got Quest Hubs and it was Game Over for the kind of leveling experience I most enjoyed.

LotRO, when I played it first time around, was quite literally all about the quests. The entire ethos of the game is based on Frodo's Quest, the one that there and thereabouts started the whole genre fantasy fiction ball rolling.

I remember the increasingly onerous, exhausting commitment to questing in Middle Earth and I don't remember it fondly. All that swimming and riding. All that stiff text. All those unpronounceable names. There were several reasons I stopped playing LotRo and quest overload was among them.

This time I don't have that and I don't need to worry about acquiring it. When Turbine moved the game to the F2P model they saw questing as a key part of their offer and they chose to package up the quests and sell them separately. They are very keen to let me know that.

Every time I enter a new zone they send me a note asking if I'd like to buy the quests. They have icons over every quest-giver that indicates if the quest on offer is free (there are a sprinkling of those) or whether I need to open my wallet. Even the animals in the forest have "Pay Me - I'm In A Quest" symbols behind their ears.

And I'm at liberty to ignore them all. If I don't stump up the cash I can just carry on doing my tasks and the odd free quest that turns up here and there, none of which is going to be very complicated or very long because if it was it wouldn't be free.

That, more than anything, is why I'm still playing LotRO two weeks after my return. I've added a level to both the characters I'm playing and yesterday I used some of my LotRO points to remove the gold cap from the account, which is an indicator I plan on hanging around for a while if anything is.

It's not all plain sailing. There are traps for the unwary. I picked up a simple "Go to Rivendell" free quest. I thought it would be a nice day out so I went and what did I find when I got there but Elrond, trying to guilt trip me into picking up the Epic Story where I left off at the start of Chapter Four.

I might. I might not. The important thing is I feel this time it is entirely up to me. I feel as though I am playing the game instead of, as so often in quest-driven MMOs, as though the game is playing me. And my characters feel free to go where they want, when they want and do what they want.

There's a hybrid genre somewhere between MMORPG and Survival Sandbox just waiting to be made and this is a little taste of what it might be like. And it tastes good.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Long Lost Shores: GW2

In a comment to a recent post by Syp at Bio Break, Telwyn said

"Guild Wars 2 makes me sad, it’s a game I loved for a year or so after launch and played with close friends and family. As you said in your post, I didn’t feel like the game was catering to my sort of player anymore, especially with Living Story season 2. I doubt they’ll come back to what the game was at launch, why would they? But that’s the game I wanted to play."

This is a sentiment often expressed, both by ex-players and some who still play. I've said much the same myself, often. I wonder, though, how true is it, really?

For quite a while, years, the infamous Manifesto would get dragged out and waved about like a torn and bloodied flag. That happens less now, although it's been linked and excerpted several times on this very blog, mostly when I wanted to rail against some betrayal of faith or hold some errant dev to account.

If the brave claims and promises of that proud document were ever enacted in the game itself, though, it was only briefly. People talk about the second Living Story marking a step-change for the game, the moment when most of the lore action moved to instances that could be packaged for cash shop sale, but the first and so far only expansion, Heart of Thorns, seems to be the tipping point most commonly defined.

My contention has always been that if GW2 did lose its way, the turn from the righteous path was taken long, long before any of that. The only version of GW2 that resembled the vision so energetically promoted in dev blogs and PR promos throughout the long march to launch was the one we saw in the six beta weekends and in the game's first three months. Everything since then has been ANet's New Game Experience.

Forever Ascalon
GW2's short-lived Golden Age ended with the catastrophic release of the game's first major live event, The Lost Shores, on November 16th 2012. With a prescience they could hardly have predicted, the ANet PR department trailed the update with the tagline "a massive one-time world event that will change Tyria forever!"

And it did. Player feedback was so virulent, so corrosive, the entire direction of the game changed as a result. The fundamental conception of the GW2 project, that there would be a dynamic, unpredictable, ever-changing world that players could affect and be affected by, was abandoned almost overnight.

From then until now the direction of development has been focused on making as certain as possible that no-one can say they didn't have at least a fair chance to do everything. If it isn't exactly "all must win prizes" it's certainly "all must have an equal opportunity to win prizes". And, failing that, buy them.
Maybe I did buy my hat in the Gem Shop. What's it to you, pal?

The result has been a relentless slide towards predictability. Everything happens on a schedule. There is always a tick list. Some things have a limited duration, it's true, but the limit is measured in weeks. Any sense of event or surprise is meticulously excised. There must never be any suggestion that anyone might miss out on anything.

It took a long time and many of ANet's famous iterations before these processes were sufficiently codified, tested and confirmed. The first season of the Living Story failed to take replayable accessibility into account, an error that means it cannot now, years later, be offered to those who missed it, tied up in neat Gem Shop bundles the way Seasons Two and Three have been. There are still plaintive posts about that on the forums now and again.

Once the revisionist steamroller began to pick up pace, though, it flattened everything. Megaserver tech removed variations between worlds, annihilating server cultures and collapsing alternate timelines. No more guesting to find a version of Tyria where the battle against Zhaitan's Risen was succeeding when it had failed in your own.

Even in the days of the Megaserver a very late map can give you that 3-man Maw experience you crave.

World bosses lost their power to surprise, weak as it was. Instead of a somewhat randomized "window" in which they might appear they were all issued with a strict schedule. Every quarter of an hour, to the second, a specific major threat would step out from behind the curtain, make a short speech and wait to die. There's a timetable.. More than that, there's a train.

I could go on. For four and a half years, beginning immediately after the perceived failure of the Karka Invasion of Lion's Arch, GW2 has stumbled towards order. The game that exists now, the game many ex-players dislike and avoid, is merely the later stage of the process that has been with us almost from the start.

Like the apocryphal frog who never notices the warming water it may be that those of us who stayed don't realize the trouble we're in. That's not quite how I see it. More likely, I think, the changes most widely reported and condemned seem more onerous, more divisive, less optional, when seen from the outside, than they really are.

Yes, I heard you the last seven hundred times.

Raids, for example, are entirely ignorable in exactly the same way raids have been entirely ignorable in every MMO I have ever played. No-one needs to raid. Most MMO players never raid. Raids stand to core GW2 play as sPvP used to and still does stand. If you played GW2 in 2012 and never felt like you "had" to do sPvP then you can equally play GW2 in 2017 and never feel like you "have" to raid.

Fractals, that infinite hamster wheel of achievement, are equally avoidable. What happens in Fractals stays in Fractals. Don't do them and you will never need to do them.

Ascended armor, the once controversial extra gear tier ANet either said they'd never add or always said they'd add depending who you believe, is a useful but absolutely optional addition. If you do choose to raid you'll need it because raiding is about marginal efficiency. If you WvW it's better to have it than not but only if you WvW seriously, with the whole VOIP and guild-build nine yards.

If you're raiding or WvWing in that manner then getting good is part of the deal you accepted. Everyone else - just chill! There is nothing anywhere else in the game you can't do in Exotics. Frankly, I doubt there's much you can't do in Rares. And you absolutely can WvW in Rares - I have characters doing it all the time - when there's a map call and I'm at the bank in Citadel I go with whoever I happen to be. You don't have to wear pink to fire an Arrow Cart or fix a gate.

Map calls know no color.

Heart of Thorns is an issue. Not having that flag on your account is a limiter, there's no denying. There's still a lot you can do without HoT but ANet's clear intent is to tie most new content to ownership of the expansion even when the content doesn't happen there.

After nearly five years, though, it hardly seems unreasonable to ask people who want to do anything more than dabble in the game to pony up just once more. Or, indeed, just once if it really is the first time.

And contrary to what you may have heard, Heart of Thorns is good. It's beautiful, it's content rich, it's varied and above all it's fun. It never was anywhere even close to being as "challenging" as the reviews suggested but what little added difficulty it ever offered has long since been nerfed into history.

I've been wearing this outfit since 2012 and I see no reason to change.

Masteries are mostly soloable and enjoyable to collect. The big events mostly run regularly and successfully even now, something that still surprises me. If you prefer to potter and wander and explore, though, then the Heart of Maguuma is your playground. And gliding in Verdant Brink is worth the price of entry on its own.

So, the game absolutely isn't what it was, or what they promised it would be, but then, when was it? That time was so short it seems like a dream. If I hadn't recorded how it was back then I'd scarcely believe it ever happened.

All MMOs change, at least while they live. GW2 has changed, for the worse and for the better. Whether it's shifted further, either way, than any other MMO I've played I somewhat doubt, although, maybe, it stumbled and lurched a little more along the way, trying to get there. I'm pretty sure it did that.

I wouldn't let what it's become stop me enjoying what remains of what it used to be, though. There's plenty left. And more besides.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Free To Play: GW2, LotRO, EQ2

It takes getting everything you ever wanted, and then losing it to know what true freedom is.

It was around a year and a half ago that GW2 moved from a "Buy to Play" business model to what ANet call "Free to Play". In common with many such transitions it's very arguable whether the result is "F2P" in the true sense or some form of open-ended free trial.

The majority of new content added since that changeover requires the Heart of Thorns expansion, which has to be purchased separately. That seemed to make some kind of sense when the action was taking place in the region of Tyria known as the Heart of Maguuma but the latest addition to the world, Lake Doric, lies slap up against the walls of Divinity's Reach and yet you still can't go there without a HoT flag on your account.

Whether you call it true F2P or not, the entirety of the content that launched with the original game and most of what was added in the first three years is available for no more than the bandwidth it takes to download it. Already having three accounts I managed to resist the temptation - until last week.

It was returning to LoTRO as a free player that inspired me to try the same in the MMO that's taken up most of my attention and gaming time over the past four years. The first few hours of my return to Middle Earth reminded me of something I discovered when John Smedley first tried to nudge a reluctant clutch of Norrathians in the general direction of what would become "free to play - your way".

When the Freeport server, EQ2's first attempt at a F2P offer, went into beta Mrs Bhagpuss and I were comfortably settled on Test. We'd been there for five years. We had multiple max level characters, houses, a guild, all the trimmings. We went to Freeport out of curiosity. We never came back.

The Freeport experience was probably the high point of my time in EQ2. Some of that was the inevitable attraction of starting afresh on a new server but most of it was due to the restrictions - and to the options available for circumventing them.

Having less inventory space, fewer character slots, a limited selection of gear and spells, being throttled back in experience gain, controlled in use of the broker and of chat channels - all of this, far from making me feel constrained as a player made me feel more free to play the way I wanted to play.

Of course I could always have played that way. There was no restriction that the Freeport ruleset  imposed that I couldn't have imposed upon myself at any time, on any server, simply by an effort of willpower. Having an outside agency make those choices for me, however, was something I found surprisingly empowering.

A great part of that sense of empowerment came in the knowledge that any and all of these restrictions could be overcome, incrementally and discretely, at a time of my choosing. I found it much more involving, enjoyable and, yes, immersive, to know that I would need to obtain and use an "unlocker" to equip a Legendary or Fabled item or that I'd have to buy a token to place something for sale on the broker.

What the particular set of restrictions on Freeport did for me was give me back control. Instead of "everything now", which is what all MMOs under the subscription model purport to offer, every session became a series of interesting decisions. What's more, those decisions added to my sense of immersion because it felt as though my characters had both a deeper agency and a more interactive relationship with their world.

Some of this same sense of solidity and "thereness" returned to me when I began to explore LotRO's free to play experience. As on Freeport, where I paid the one-time $5 fee to upgrade to "Silver" status, which imposed a different, more lenient ruleset than the bare-bones offer, in LotRo I'm playing as a "Premium" member because I was once a subscriber.

The first and greatest benefit I noticed was that, as a Premium player, I find myself relieved of any need to quest. I have more to say about this but it will keep for a separate post. Suffice it to say, I am finding the freedom to mount up, ride out and take adventure as it finds me to be far more in keeping with the magnificent setting than the old "go here, do that" ever was.

The "task boards" and the free crafting materials tasks in towns and settlements provide all the structure and reward that's needed. If I end up playing more than the hour a day I was expecting (and I played for nearly four hours yesterday so that may happen) then I'll be happy to pay to extend the number of tasks I can take. 

When I was a subscribing player I found the Auction House overwhelming so I avoided it. Now, limited to five auctions, I'm using it with pleasure. Inventory space remains a severe problem but that's a "feature" of LotRo for players of all access levels and always was.

I still believe the EQ2 "Silver" account as it operated during Freeport's heyday represents the gold standard (ironically) for F2P conversions but there is one way in which LotRO's model is preferable. There was no way to buy upgrades in EQ2 other than with Station Cash, which itself had to be purchased with real money (albeit often at a stupendous discount).

In LotRo you earn LotRO points simply by playing. Granted the gains are small but so far they are also steady, a drip drip drip of five points here, five points there. I very much like the idea that the more naturally and organically my characters experience the world in which they live, the more their options open up. It seems to me to bring a degree of immersion to the underlying structure that marries imagination to practicality almost seamlessly.

GW2's free play has fewer restrictions than either Freeport era EQ2 or current LotRO. The sub-cap game is already heavily level-gated for everyone regardless of account status and many of the additional restrictions in F2P mode are intended only to prevent gold-spammers and other non-playing parasites from exploiting the lack of a box fee.

There are some very significant changes to the rules nonetheless, all of which I feel enhance rather than diminish my enjoyment of the game. There are strict controls over what can and can't be sold on the Trading Post, which means that the search for suitable gear becomes a core part of gameplay, something I always find deeply immersive. I also found the requirement to reach level 10 before entering a racial capital and level 35 before being allowed to set foot in Lion's Arch to be both aspirational and motivating.

Individual players will quibble over which particular restrictions are onerous or unwelcome. I do feel a bar of level sixty is a tad high for access to WvW for example and I'm not at all impressed with the ban on free accounts converting gold to gems.

Overall, though, once again I found that moving to the more restrictive environment of what is supposedly the least desirable account option had precisely the reverse effect on my interest and involvement with the game. I haven't felt as much "in the world" in GW2 for years.

There is, naturally, a scale of diminishing returns to consider. A player who begins with only the basics and chooses to stay will, over time, almost inevitably buy his or her way out of most of the very constraints that created the positive impression in the first place. In a worst-case scenario the end result would be an experience functionally identical to the fully paid version.

Even so, the process will be slower and there will be ample opportunities to consider the implications of each upgrade. Under these kinds of buy-in systems it becomes possible to manage or even micro-manage the impact of every inventory upgrade or quality-of-life improvement. It's an approach that allows for each new acquisition to be properly anticipated, appreciated and enjoyed.

None of these counter-intuitive benefits is or should be specific to the payment model. The exquisitely ironic twist is that in attempting to make their "free" offer sufficiently unattractive to induce players to spend their way out of the restrictions imposed , what developers have managed to do is re-discover some of what made MMORPGs so immersive and addictive to begin with.

Far from seeing these design choices as penalties MMO developers should be extending them and building on them within the mainstream structures of their games. The developmental stages shouldn't be imposed by Account status - they should be integral to character development, something  to be amended or removed at a time of the player's choosing not by payment of real-world cash but by in-game actions or payments in the currency of the character.

Free to play rules are too good to be wasted on free players.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Light In The Darkness : LotRO

There's a post I want to write about what makes people go on playing MMORPGs long after they've finished the supposed "content". I started thinking about it after I read Armathyx's Hiatus From GW2 announcement, in which he wonders what there can be about any MMO that would keep someone logging in for "7 hours per day, every single day of the year without exception" for over four years.

It's something I've thought about many times. The problem is that I have rather too much to say about it. Blogging may be considered "long form" for social media these days but I find it increasingly constricting. Most of my posts already run too long and yet many of them barely qualify as introductions to want I want to say.

Sometimes I think I'd be happier working in the five to ten thousand word scale of a dissertation but that would create more problems than it solved. For one thing, there is no real forum or format for writing of that length that I'm aware of and for another I'm not a full time student any more. If I were to write at that kind of length I would have no time to play the MMOs I'd be writing about.

So instead I am, yet again, going to try and do the thing I say I'm going to try every year: write shorter, more focused pieces. Keep to the point. The two posts this weekend were an attempt to do just that.

In that vein, rather than include these screenshots as evidence in an extended analysis of what can make logging into an MMORPG feel more like going to a place than playing a game, I offer them simply as a demonstration of that same principle.

I have been playing more LotRO than I expected. Only an hour or two each day but I want to play more. I took my level 40 Guardian (I always have to think about the class names in LotRO. None of them come naturally to mind) to Forochel, the final zone from the original game and the only one I never explored.

There I took all the tasks on the board and spent a couple of hours on consecutive days killing orange and red cons and handing in the furs, skins and other body parts. At first I was very, very wary. I expected the orange cons to kill my dwarf in short order but they did not. Even though I had no real idea what any of his attacks did and even though he was dressed in gear from five years ago he was able to cull the forest wildlife with fair success.

From that examination I moved on with even greater trepidation to red cons and found they, too, died. As long as I stuck to animals and didn't get adds it was manageable.

It was, however, hard work. For reasons I don't understand LotRO is the only MMO I have ever played which gives me RSI-like symptoms. Actually, I should say, the Guardian does that. My Lorekeeper is fine.

Playing the Guardian, though, I could feel the strain an hour in. I would have had to stop even had I not discovered that the task system is time gated. Also it was dark for the entire time I spent in Forochel.

At first that was wonderful. The recreation of the Northern Lights is truly spectacular. I spent a good while doing nothing more than marveling at the sky and taking screenshots.

After a while, though, the darkness becomes oppressive. Night in Standing Stone's Middle Earth is shockingly dark by modern MMO standards. It's immersive, that's for sure, but you can have too much immersion.

When the snow began to fall I was out in the woods. Visibility dropped to something very close to nothing. With aggressive creatures above my level all around, now invisible in  the darkness, I began to feel much of the old fear from nighttime in early Norrath.

LotRO may not have corpse runs or item loss but I have an adversity to dying just because I can't see my hand in front of my face. I got on my new fast pony and relocated to the previous zone and waited for sunrise.

At this point I would normally move on to what happened next and how it relates to a thesis I am working on about the way Free to Play restrictions enhance and encourage that sense of immersion that once seemed so easy to find in the genre but now often feels so elusive.

That, though, would extend this post beyond what needs to be its natural length. I'll get to that another time. Maybe.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

King Of The Rumbling Spires: EverQuest

I mentioned that the celebrations for EverQuest's eighteenth included a few new quests, one of which looked particularly intriguing. Last night my Magician went to the party grounds in Plane of Knowledge to track down the the questgiver, High Magister Zueria.

She found her inside the building beside the Nexus stone, the one where all the guild functionaries hang out. Zueria was about to leave on a fact-finding mission with the head of The Combine Empire, Tsaph Katta himself. She asked my Mage to come along and help although she didn't say how.

Looking at the entry in the Quest Journal I wondered if she might want me as cannon fodder. Zueria is a dark elf, after all, and The Combine is hardly known for its outreach programs. The quest clocked in as a red level 105 and in Norrath red generally means dead - as in you are - so I didn't have too much hope of finishing it.

It also had a duration of six hours which made me think. Anyway, what the heck, right? You only live an infinite number of times. When Zueria asked if we were ready I said we were and off we went.

There's a walkthroughs up on  Allakhazam already so I won't go through the steps one by one. It's a sign of the ongoing health of EverQuest that full details of brand new quests like these appear so quickly on fan sites. Not to mention that I thought Allakhazam was in maintenance mode. Maybe that's just the EQ2 pages.

With the quest being called Tsaph's Day Off I did wonder if it might be a humorous homage to Ferris Bueller but it turned out to be something much more wistful and elegiac. Although maybe there is a connection after all....

The whole quest takes the form of a tour of inspection. Zueria, presumably a Wizard, creates portals that whisk everyone nearby from spire to spire so her ruler can assess the state of some of the more far-flung outposts of his empire. As they travel they chat and in their conversation much is revealed, about their beliefs and attitudes and hopes for the future. Far from lasting six hours the whole thing took only around fifteen minutes and my Magician didn't die once. Her pet did, though.

The whole thing is quite beautifully written. The conversation is natural and the personalities of the two characters shine through every phrase. My understanding of the past and current states of The Combine is hazy at best but I do at least know that it was they who built the constructs we often call the Wizard Spires in the first place.

Most of the round required only that my Magician listened. Nothing was asked of her. Her thoughts and opinions went unsolicited. At the end the Emperor told her she'd been good company by which I took him to mean she knew not to interrupt her betters.

There were several interruptions to the conversation. Some of the locals seemed not to take kindly to the landlords making a tour of inspection of their property. When the first bunch of mobs attacked my Mage sent her pet in and started nuking. Force of habit.

It was only after we moved on to the next location I realized she didn't have a pet any more. When the next attack began I thought to con the mobs: red. Very, very red.

To be honest, the pet would probably have been fine had my Mage noticed it was taking damage in the first place. Or if she hadn't put the Merc on passive and forgotten. During one attack a mob did get past Zuera (who tanks like a boss - they make Wizards tough where she comes from, apparently) to take a few swipes at my Magician and the damage wasn't immediately fatal.

The quest, for once, though, really isn't about fighting. I'm confident I could do it on a much lower level than the Magician's 92. All that's required to complete every stage is that you stay with Zueria and Tsaph and Zueria is more than capable of handling everything that comes at her without any help from anyone.

The final reward is an extremely nice charm slot item that doubles as a clicky portal to all the places visited on the tour. That's something any of my characters would be very glad to have. Shame you need to be Level 105 to use it.

This is a quest that really isn't about the reward, though. It's a true story quest and a very good one. More than that, it felt absolutely right for an Anniversary.  Tsaph's Day Out stands as an  acknowledgment of the great achievements of the past and the lasting hopes for the future, both in EverQuest's lore and in its history.

Wonder what they have planned for the Twentieth in two years time?

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Put Another Record On The Old Gnomophone : EQ2

It's not often I spot something in an MMO I know instantly I just have to have. You could say I'm lucky that way. It does mean I rarely have to suffer those hair-tugging moments that come when you realize something you really wanted needs raid access or a faction you don't have and aren't going to be able to get.

There's a down side though. Those electrifying moments of desire that make a dull day come alive, they can be few and far between, sometimes.

Mostly I just potter along, contented to take what virtual life gives me and work with that. Well, not always. Not when I see something as wonderful as the Ancient Melodic Gnomophone. It's the classic wind-up phonograph. I want it!

And I can have it, too, and so easily! This mechanical marvel is going for a song  - actually for a mere five Ancient Platinum Coins - from the Chronoportal Event vendors who stand around in the baking sun or the pouring rain in The Commonlands and Antonica for a whole week this time every year.

Chronoportals is possibly my favorite EQ2 holiday. I've done it most years since it began. I've done it in pick-up groups, in guild groups, in duos and on my own. I've done it when it was so tough we couldn't finish some of the instances at all. I've done it when I had to stand around outside the zone-in spamming /lfg because I couldn't do it alone. Some years I've run the instances over and over trying to get rare drops.

I've written about the event before, twice, so I won't go over it again, save to repeat just how very well-observed most of the little vignettes are and how richly they reward and repay close attention. This year I bought some of the books I'd never gotten around to getting and they are just as cleverly written.
Because I've done it so often I could just have woken my Berserker up and sent him to buy the Gnomophone. He has over 80 Ancient Platinum
Coins in his currency wallet but The Warlock is trying to get those final five levels and Holiday Events offer a great grind-free way for characters struggling through the latter stages of the hundred level race to kick back and have fun for a while. There are eight instances, each with its own rewards, plus a quest to do them all, and a collection as well.

It took the Warlock about an hour and a half to do the lot. He filled out maybe a bubble of 95 and pocketed just over fifty Ancient Platinum Coins. He bought the Gnomophone and all the books, then he ported back to his cavernous Gorowyn mansion, where he realized he had nothing to put them all on.

One new table from the broker later and the job was done.

The Gnomophone plays a two-minute tune. That's nothing unusual. We've had music boxes and musical snowglobes that do that for years. The thing is...it's a gramophone! With a turntable. And a record! I can't really express how magnificent that is.

Next year I really hope we get a stack of records to put next to it. They don't have to play. Be nice if they did though. If you could select them and then the Gnomophone would play that tune.

After a brief interruption ( I had to take three of my characters all the way to Obol Plains to get the Guide quest Nebulous Newsies. It's a rare opportunity for which anyone on the server, who hasn't already done it on every character, traditionally drops everything the moment they hear the broadcast) I woke my Berserker up and sent him to buy a gnomophone of his own.

He bought four. He's like that. That's why he can barely get in his house these days.

Friday, March 17, 2017

It's Your Birthday, Give Me Presents! : EverQuest

I had plans for today's post. I was going to write about something that occurred to me the other day while I was playing Lord of the Rings Online. I had all the screenshots ready and everything.

Then Wilhelm alerted me to EverQuest's 18th birthday celebrations, which include a free level 85 Heroic character for every account that has ever logged into EQ, even once, at any time in the last eighteen years. I have, I believe, seven of those.

Okay, more accurately, I know the log-in and password details to seven of them. Technically they aren't all mine but let's not get all lawyered up about it. However you  cut it, the opportunity is there for me to create seven new, free Heroic characters, just so long as I can be bothered to go through the process seven times.

My old Stromm enchanter, who just jumped forty levels.
And looks exactly the same.
What I would do with seven extra level 85s scattered across seven accounts is a question I prefer not to think about very hard. Certainly my previous plans of three-boxing a Heroic Magician, Necro and Shaman never got beyond an idle fantasy. Nevertheless, suffice it to say, free stuff is free stuff and I'm a lifelong believer in that philosophy which can be neatly summed up by the expression "it might come in handy someday".

Murf of Murf Versus asked Wilhelm on Twitter and myself in a comment which Heroic 85 he should choose, which is a question that just begs more questions. What do you want to do with the character, for example? Go exploring, solo casually, level up to the full cap, get groups, work towards full endgame dungeon play or even go for full raid viability?

He probably should have asked Kaozz, who, although she says she isn't playing much EQ these days, has certainly been playing it at a higher level and more recently than either Wilhelm or I. All the same, I do have some opinions on the matter, having already made and even played a level 85 Heroic character the last time they gave one away.

That was for the fifteenth anniversary in 2014. and at the time the level cap was exactly 100, so even then 85 was some way off an end game which has since drifted up to 105. Given the speed of leveling in EQ you might question the logic of luring former players back with the offer of a free high-level character only to strand them well short of the established active population. When EQ2 gives you a 95 that does put you, at least, in the current story arc.

EverQuest does have a very wide grouping range, though. A level 85 can certainly group with a level 105 and gain experience. There's also a truly insane amount of content available for a level 85 character to enjoy solo and I guess there's a good chance that, during this two-week window of opportunity (the offer ends on the 31st of March), there will be plenty of fresh 85s around to make up groups at level.

My Magician who got the treatment last time.
She's 92, you know.
Last time around I made two characters, a Magician and a Necromancer. The necro, a brand-new
creation, has mostly lived in the Guild Lobby ever since. The Magician, who was a longstanding character with whom I had much history, who I bumped up from the 60s to 85 with the boost, has been played a lot. Indeed, she hit her target of Level 90 before other projects intervened. That was very satisfying.

I spent a good while back in 2014 looking into what would be the best option, bearing in mind I would almost certainly be soloing for most of the time. In the "good" old days there were limited options for genuinely enjoyable solo play in EQ but even then the Magician was among them.

As time has gone on and design attitudes and development priorities have changed, the Magician has arguably taken on the mantle of best solo class that used to belong squarely to the Necromancer. Of course, the invaluable addition of Mercenaries to the game with 2008's Seeds of Destruction expansion means that quite literally every class can now "solo" - or "molo" as the neologism has it - with good efficiency.

There's still a deal of difference in the speed and style in which classes can solo, even with a Merc alongside, though, and I would definitely recommend the Magician. The class has huge versatility, with massive single target and AE DPS, a vast range of utility options and the most powerful pets in the game.

The problem with the Mage used to be survivability and even now, if that's your top priority, there's nothing in the Magician's box of tricks to match the Necromancer's Feign Death reset button. With a cleric merc on standby, though, even the inevitable, occasional bad pull can be survived. And if not the Cleric can rez.

Back when I was trying to come to terms with the almost indescribable, overwhelming amount of new information that has to be processed and understood before a boosted player can begin to make use of the powerful character he or she has acquired, I found this thread to be of enormous help. I didn't follow all the recommendations but I found everything there to be both useful and accurate.

The one thing you really do need to do, whichever class you choose, is study all your AAs. There are hundreds of them and they make a huge, huge difference. Far more than your spells or abilities. Some of them are passives but many are Actives that need to be hot-keyed. Getting those right was probably the most thought-provoking and time-intensive part of the whole process.

Other than the Magician and the Necromancer, I'd say the Shaman would be a very solid choice. That's what I just made this morning. Speaking from experience, if you're thinking of taking up the offer of a free 85 this time round, the process isn't quite as straightforward as it could be.

The new shaman, before taking the blue pill.

 There are a couple of things to be aware of. For one, when you log into your account you won't see an option to make a free 85 at all. In typical SOE/DBG fashion there has to be a fiddly part. I had to check the forum before I started just to be sure I was doing it right.

The trick to it is this: you have to log into the world itself for the game to flag your account as eligible. Just going to character select won't do it. Once you have set foot on Norrath you can log back to character select and the option will appear - in very small letters, very easy to miss.

At this point you can either boost an existing character or create a new one. Whichever you do, when you log that character into the world for the first time after hitting the Upgrade Character button you will be greeted by an explosion of windows and a succession of "Rewards" to "choose". In fact the rewards are your gear and equipment and the choice is to take them. There is no other choice.

I can't remember exactly what we got three years ago but I think this time might be slightly more generous. I don't recall getting a Mercenary before. This morning I made a Vah`Shir shaman and she came with a Warrior merc. She also came with 15,000 platinum pieces pocket money, the annoying raptor mount that stands at an angle that makes you look like a prehistoric lone ranger and two 100% weight reducing, Giant capacity 24 slot bags, which for EQ is the equivalent of having a couple of pack mules trailing along behind you.

I still get excited over bag space
So, there we have it. Free 85s for everyone who ever played EQ. Also for anyone who has an All Access account for any other DBG game but never played EQ, which I guess means non-EQ playing EQ2, DCUO and Planetside 2 players. Is there anything else on AA any more? I don't think so.

After eighteen years EverQuest remains a wonderful MMORPG. I'm not absolutely sure that jumping in cold at level 85 is the best way to experience it but what I would heartily recommend for anyone thinking of giving the old warhorse (another) run around the field is to make the Heroic character first and then, if it's all too overwhelming to decode, make a normal character and play that for a bit.

Having the Heroic on the account gives you options for lower characters you would never otherwise have. It's like having a rich uncle or aunt without the pipe-smoking and sloppy kisses. Even if you don't imagine you'd call on them for help it's good to know they're there.

All that remains is for me to play the character I just made. I suspect that her role will be limited to standing in the Guild lobby and buffing my Magician. Shamans make the best buff bots.

EverQuest's 18th isn't just about free 85s either. There is new content to explore for the 18th anniversary. The Anniversary quest Tsaph's Day Off sounds good. Going to do that one. There are other quests too but I imagine they will be for real endgamers not noddy nineties like me.

I was also amazed to see the following in the patch notes (my highlighting).

I can only assume this incredibly overdue and eminently sensible change has finally made it in because of the upcoming Progression Server that was announced in Holly Longdale's latest Producer's Letter. The new server, Agnarr, will progress as far as the Lost Dungeons of Norrath expansion and lock there for good.

This makes it, effectively, the permanent "Classic" EQ server people have been asking for for years. There will be no end of argument, I'm sure, over what "Classic" means and DBG have very wisely chosen not to use the word at all, describing it only as the "Planes of Power" server, even though it goes a couple of stages beyond PoP.

Take it or leave it is still a choice.
For my money, the period they have chosen for the lock is the absolute peak EQ experience. They could not have judged it better. Much though I loved the original release, Kunark, Velious and, yes, Luclin, my own, personal Golden Age of EQ was the six months when Lost Dungeons of Norrath was the newest content. I learned more about playing MMORPGs in that half-year than at any time before or since. And I had more fun.

When Agnarr begins I will certainly make a character there but experience suggests I won't play him or her for long. Whether I'll find or make time to play there more regularly when the unlocks reach LDoN  - well, we will find that out when the time comes, I guess.

I wouldn't bet on it. There is just so much to do, all the time. Chronoportals landed in EQ2 this week and they only hang around until next Thursday. There's a new house item, the Ancient Melodic Gnomophone, that I have got to have and I don't say that very often about anything in any MMO.

It looks like I'll be spending more time than I expected in Norrath this weekend. Middle Earth, which was where I was thinking of heading, may have to wait a little longer.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

A Lot Of Power But Not So Much Glory : EQ2

This morning has been mildly frustrating. Maybe more than mildly. With the whole day to myself I thought I'd do something a little self-indulgent, something I've always enjoyed, something at which, of all MMOs, EQ2 has always been one of the best. I thought I might take advantage of power creep to go back and complete some content I couldn't quite finish first time around.

EQ2 has ferocious power creep baked-in. It's more like power sprint. There's an expansion every year and every expansion is a step change, even if there's no level increase. Some people find that onerous but as a casual, mostly solo player these days I love it.

There's little more satisfying in an MMO than going through your quest journal to follow up on the half-finished missions that failed last time on a DPS check or at a jump in difficulty, certain that this time your new gear will turn a clattering into a cake-walk. Although they seem to have abandoned the annoying practice, the EQ2 team long enjoyed writing bait and switch signature questlines that flipped from solo to Group or even Raid at the end and it's these quests that are particularly attractive to return to when power creep permits.

There are currently three such quests in my Berserker's journal going back as far as Update 54 (In Search of Lucan). I skipped that one for now. It looked like it might be better mentored and i didn't want the fuss.

Instead I went to the other extreme and took another run at the final, Raid instance that completes the signature line for the Age's End story that ran for what seemed like forever, finally concluding about three years back. It was originally intended as a two group raid but I gave it a decent shot solo less than a year ago.

When I wrote that post I titled it "I'll Be Back" because I know how EQ2 works. Already Kunark Ascending has turned everything up to eleven so I wasn't surprised to find that the Epic X2 mobs I was able to whittle away at ten months ago now fell like wheat before the scythe.

Even so, I still died a lot to begin with. It took me a couple of deaths to realize that the huge dragon Kerafyrm wasn't just flying around the floating platform to provide photo opportunities for spectacular screenshots. No, he was doing what dragons tend to do, namely breathing death and destruction - and in my direction too.

Once I'd worked that out it took a couple more deaths to gauge the safe spot to stand when he opened his maw. And a couple more before I spotted the General dropping meteorites on me from above. I wrote about the problems he caused me last time but a lot has happened since then and I forgot all about him.

You really need a wide-angled lens for dragons.

In the end I got into the rhythm needed to dodge those two, unkillable, one-shotting nuisances. The crystals all got destroyed, my quest updated, I got to listen to some more very average voice acting while the plot progressed. Most importantly a box in my quest journal got ticked so I never have to do that part again.

Unfortunately the same can't be said of the next part, in which I have to fight and subdue an Epic X4 boss using Firiona Vie's Lifegiver Staff. She can't use it herself because she's lying on the ground unconscious, where said boss just put her.

The problem with this part is the problem GW2 likes to give players over and over again: learn all the skills on a weapon you never saw before at the exact same time something very, very tough is trying to rip your arms off and beat you death with them. Chances are I could probably do this part but the point was to have fun not pass a test so I banked my one progress step and passed.

Next on the list was the conclusion to the Signature Line from one of the two Velious expansions. It's called Casting a Long Shadow and it ends with the death of everyone's favorite jilted bride, Tserrina Syl`Tor, chatelaine of The Tower of Frozen Shadows.


I won't go into the details but this turned out to be a lesson in muddled thinking, both mine and the developers'. The original sequence was famously convoluted and even though it's been much simplified over the years there are still multiple instances and access quests and so forth.

I thought I'd done everything but the final instance and so it seemed when I entered The Tower and spoke to the Coldain inside. He confirmed I'd killed all of Tserrina's lackeys, leaving only the vamp herself, but even though my quest journal updated I couldn't find any way to access the eighth floor where Tserrina broods on her misfortunes.

A deal of wiki reading and googling did little to dispel the fog. I went around and around getting my hopes up and then having them dashed. I killed all the named mobs over again on all seven floors, only there was one that I just could not work out how to spawn, for reasons far too long and tedious to outline. By the end I was pretty much convinced that the problem all stemmed from the order I'd done things, which means I most likely need to go out and come in again (Metaphorically that is. I already tried literally going out and coming in again about half a dozen times, to no effect whatsoever).

Always reminds of the famous shot of The Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.

In the process of all that, however, I also discovered that even though I had access to the Epic finale of that Signature line, I had apparently never done the Heroic part that comes before it. I have no clue how that happened.

So I started it. It would have taken me maybe half an hour to finish except I ran into another mysterious roadblock. My instance appears to have no Second Floor. It skips straight from First to Third. I killed the Third Floor boss, who was, ironically, the only one I couldn't find in the Epic version, but that gets me nowhere if I can't get the one before him.

All that took about three hours, maybe an hour of which was taken up with reading the wiki, the forums and various guild pages. EQ2 is in that period of it's existence where there's still a good deal of information being created to support it but only going forwards. For older content you have to hope someone had your problem back when everyone was doing it and, more importantly, that someone told them how to get around it.

Although strangely less confident that I'll ever find her in the first place.
Frustrating it was, because in the end I didn't finish either of those questlines, but fun as well. I did make some progress that's been saved by quest updates and I got a ton of loot, some of which may even be worth something on the market. I also got decent experience throughout, all of which went towards filling my new Ascension xp bar.

Of course, the one old, unfinished Signature questline I really should be doing, Proof of The Pudding, the original "Crafter's Epic", is the only one I didn't touch. There's absolutely no power creep when it comes to crafting.

I kind of wish there was and yet I'm kind of glad there's not.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide