Saturday, April 29, 2017


Not that I'm under the misapprehension that this is any kind of a news platform, but I know there are a few readers who play EQ2 somewhat sporadically and they may not be up to speed on every last little thing. If you're one of those people you may not have noticed that the log-in servers came over all faint yesterday and had to go for a lie down.

It didn't inconvenience me because I had no particular plans to play EQ2 last night or, indeed, this weekend. What with this being the bi-monthly re-linking of servers in World vs World and with Twin Saga still taking up all of my non-GW2 time (hit level 50 last night!) my dance card was full.

Until, that is, I saw this at EQ2Wire.

Well, the rumor proved to be true. As compensation for the downtime that I didn't experience we're getting a


Here's the official announcement. 

It is an actual weekend for once, too. The bonus is up and running right now but it ends at midnight tomorrow (that's midnight PDT). It's the full-fat version - Adventure, Tradeskill and AAXP - and very surprisingly it applies to all servers including the TLE server, Stormhold

When the triple XP event ends it will be followed immediately by a Double Ascension Scroll week. That doesn't interest me because I never even come close to using my regular allotment of Ascension XP, let alone need to use the scrolls I already have, but I'm sure it's welcome to those who play more regularly than I do.

The Big Spring Update that was due to launch on Tuesday has been put back a week to May 9th, just so DBG can be certain the servers are behaving themselves before they break them again. That suits me just fine because the original date was set to clash directly with the fifth chapter of GW2's Living Story 3 - Flashpoint.

So, as has happened often in the past, a server outage has had a serendipitous outcome for me. I wouldn't be half as cheerful about it all if it was happening in my main MMO but you take what you can get.

Anyway, enough of this public service stuff. I've got writs to grind!

Friday, April 28, 2017

DIY Noodles! Never Hit Face! : New Westward Journey Online II

SuperData released one of their regular, gnomic infodumps today and Wilhelm had something to say about it, as he usually does. I find their charts mildly intriguing, although not really for the statistical tidbits they include as bait for anyone that might have a few thousand dollars to spend on the full report.

What occasionally catches my attention are the names of MMOs I've never heard of, yet which are apparently doing well enough to make these Top Ten of Everything lists. I've long been aware that there are far more MMORPGs in the world than we ever hear about, far less get to play, but this is evidence that there are still some really big ones out there, waiting to be discovered.

It's been a year or two since I last took a tally of all the MMOs I've dabbled with over the past decade and a half but I'm sure the count is past a hundred and fifty by now. It's a good sample but I imagine there are several times as many I've never tried.

The new chart of "top grossing titles" includes a name that's new to me, although it shouldn't be because, as Wilhelm points out, it has appeared before, albeit not for a while. For reasons unknown, New Westward Journey Online II jumped up to #4 this month, having not previously troubled the charts in 2017.

For one moderately crazed moment I entertained the fantasy that I might try to download NWJO2 and give it a run. Then I came to my senses and decided I'd just have a quick google to satisfy my curiosity.

Considering this is such a commercially successful game, it has what I would consider to be a very short Wikipedia entry but it's packed with surprising details. For a start, this is no new entrant to the MMO scene.

In a manner eerily pre-reminiscent of FFXIV's troubles, it seems that the game had such a problematic launch it had to stop and start over, which is where the "II" in  New Westward Journey Online II comes from. Like FFXIV, the relaunch went well and the game became one of China's most successful MMOs.

In 2005 it boasted peak concurrent user numbers close to 600,000.  That's the equivalent of having every single EverQuest subscriber, at the time when EQ was by far the leading Western MMO, all logged in at once.

The closure after launch wasn't the only blackout in NWJO2's long run. It's a game that courts controversy, or so it seems. The wiki entry notes that "Unlike many Western MMORPG's, the games feature prominent nudity and anti-religious themes" but that wasn't why NetEase, the publishers, were forced to take it offline for a few months: the game was suspended for in-game criticism of China's ruling Communist party.

All of which makes it sound quite intriguing. I visited the website, hoping to find out more. NetEase has an English site - well, it's English of a sort - but it's skewed heavily towards business readers. The "Key Features" section begins like this:

"Loved by Chinese gamers, with 20% Market Penetration Rate, 5% Market Share, and awarded as the Annual Revenue Top10, Most Favorite Online Game in China, etc".

I love that "etc". At least the business jargon makes sense. After that opening paragraph things get kind of weird:

"Experiencing the dripping fun of Chinese Westward Journey culture by releasing 450 free growth mode and 38 kinds of child growth parenting system".

Not sure I want to know what that means.

I followed the link to the main game website but I didn't learn a lot more there. It was, as you might imagine, entirely in Chinese.

Chrome has the handy built-in Google Translate feature that purports to render any website in a language of your choosing so I swapped out of Firefox but that didn't help as much as I'd hoped. I think the Big Brains at Google have a ways to go yet before they'll be slipping a babel fish in anyone's ear.

 Oh well. I had too many MMOs to play anyway. This one will have to remain a mystery, along with why a twelve-year old MMO suddenly lurched back to the top of the charts. There are some things we just aren't meant to know.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Out Of The Ashes : Ashes of Creation

Only a few hours after I read Syp's piece on the Ashes of Creation "Node" system and the upcoming Kickstarter campaign the official promo popped up in my inbox. According to the email, AoC (isn't someone using that already?) has registered 75,000 accounts since the game announced its existence only four months ago.

One of those accounts is mine. I signed up a few weeks ago but until now I'd heard absolutely nothing. Yesterday's email is working hard to fill that silence. It includes three blog posts, three videos and a bushel of links to the game's Discord server, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube feeds plus more besides.

I could hyperlink all of those but since they're all on the very professional, AAA-standard website, I might as well just link that instead. It does seem odd to me that it's only now, as they ramp up for the final week before the Kickstarter opens on 1st May, that I'm getting my first email. Square Enix, as a comparison, send me an email approximately every other day (none of which I read, but that's by the by).

It's just as well they've woken up because although Ashes is supposed to be on my watch-list I'd actually forgotten it even existed until I saw Syp's post. With the prospect of having to open my wallet in mind I took the trouble yesterday to read those blog posts and watch some of the videos and I have to concur with Syp that public understanding of and interest in the proposed nodal structure of the game may underpin the Kickstarter's success or failure.

The problem with any pitch like this, which rests on a single high-concept strapline, is that everything has to be presented as a finished product with a gleaming, seamless, sheen, when really there's not much more behind the curtain than a working draft and a prototype - if you're lucky. Added to that, we all know that MMOs take forever to build and change a thousand times along the way. The game you get is very, very rarely the game you were offered.

Syp, who knows his way around an MMO better than most, was clearly having some trouble parsing AoC. So am I. In part it seems to be a Western analog of games like Black Desert Online or ArcheAge but with a bit more of a theme-park veneer than most Eastern imports.

I struggled to find anything that suggested the housing would be in any way similar to WildStar, Rift or EQ2, where the focus is primarily on decorating a home to live in. All the emphasis appears to be on the productivity and income you can squeeze out of owning property: "Homeowners in our game will have the ability to develop their plot of land as they see fit. Focus on farming, animal husbandry, or own your very own smithy. You’ll be able to specialize your land to maximize your profits or your comfort – be sure to choose wisely."

When they talk about "comfort" I suspect what they mean is "convenience" but I guess we can hope. If there is a plan to attract the hobby decorators, though, it's going to need some kind of get out clause for the game's main USP - eternal change. The core Node system relies entirely on mutability: "Cities will rise and fall, their populations based on the history of the world as the players create it...As the world’s NPC structure is established in real time, players will have the ability to destroy what they’ve created, paving the way for new development, new populations, and real change...Gone are the days of static worlds, change is here to stay".

Yes. Well. Really? That's all very exciting until you come home from work one day, log in and find the home you spent the last six months working on is a smoking shell because someone in another time-zone fancied doing a bit of sieging. The PR makes much of the epochal nature of an attack on a Metropolis but a close reading of the text suggests the huge majority of homes will be in villages or towns, which presumably can also be attacked and destroyed - more easily and more often.

This video covers housing from around twelve minutes in. I'm really no clearer on how it works after watching it.

The same caveat can be applied to all the underlying structures of the game. At this stage it's unclear exactly how a lot of things are going to work, especially over the longer term. For example, each server is intended to develop differently based on player activity, leading to significantly different virtual spaces. 

Let's hope they don't need to merge servers then. That could be awkward. But equally, how would all the various modern alternatives to handling population decline work? Hard to have megaservers or clusters when every server is functionally different from every other.

And as always we have to wonder, do MMO players really want change? They almost always say they do and yet, so frequently, when they get it they don't like it. It's my belief that MMO players, by and large, like only two kinds of change: something superficial and short-lived that creates a brief buzz of excitement or something permanent that directly benefits their personal playstyle.

It looks in some ways as if Ashes of Creation might be aiming for the long-mooted "Fantasy EVE" slot. "Political strife and intrigue will play a very real role in the structure of your world" claims the website. There was a period when this was a coveted position on the MMO wheel: Shadowbane and Darkfall probably came closest to filling it but I doubt either would be a model to which any mainstream-oriented developer would aspire.

That's most likely why AoC is looking to cover all the bases a true fantasy EVE might ignore: "Questing in our world combines the best elements of traditional MMO’s as well as the introduction of our unique player driven experiences. Ashes of Creation offers area quests, public quests, and quest chains that change dynamically and in real time based on the player’s experiences and choices." We call this "having your cake and eating it".

I could go on but there's really little point in over-analyzing public information on any MMO at such a ridiculously early stage of development. Or there wouldn't be if it wasn't that they're about to ask for our money. Up front. Sight unseen.

As Kickstarter and the crowdfunding concept ages there's a consensus building over the kind of projects that do and don't fit the mold. Exploding Kittens are good; Star Citizen..well, the jury's still out on that one. Ashes of Creation does seem to sit towards the more ambitious end of the crowdfunding spectrum.

It's the only MMO in development I can think of that's pitched squarely at the existing, broad genre audience. It doesn't have the self-identifying niche feel of something like Project: Gorgon or Camelot Unchained. It isn't a disguised survival sandbox like New World or a lobby-based arena game like Crowfall.

What it is is a pitch for an MMO that would have looked about par for the course four or five years ago. You could put AoC alongside GW2, TSW or WildStar at the equivalent point in their promotional cycle and it wouldn't look at all out of place.

Only none of those were crowdfunded. They all had established developers and/or producers with cash to spend. Given all that, would I back it?

Yes. I would and I'm going to. Always assuming the tiers are reasonable and there's a good buy-in for $50 or less. When it comes to prospects for a new MMO that could - just possibly - become the Next Big Thing chez Bhagpuss, there's a field of two: this and Pantheon and of the two, based on what we know right now, I'd rather play Ashes.

For all the gaping holes in its design it looks like both something a little different and something potentially interesting. Pantheon may be a great retro-fix of nostalgic fun if it ever arrives but Ashes of Creation could - and I stress could - be something new.

It's worth a punt. Especially if there's a buy-in Alpha. And no NDA.

Monday, April 24, 2017

It's A Magical World : Twin Saga

Twin Saga continues to impress. In fact it's getting better. The feverish hysteria of the opening few levels has given way to a much steadier, more measured pace and most of the dubious sexual politics and Benny Hill innuendos have vanished, hopefully never to return.

Instead what we have is a simple, linear plot with few digressions, played out against a series of stunning, vibrant, saturated landscapes that feel both familiar and alien all at once. The characters are drawn in broad strokes but they have personality and, coming back to a new session, I have no trouble remembering who is who, something I certainly couldn't say about every MMO.

The horns and the dress came in the mail. I paid cash for the furniture.

I'm concentrating on following the narrative but I'm aware that all around me lie other possibilities even though, unlike most free to play games, Twin Saga does very little to push them in front of your face. There are log-in rewards and daily quests but you could easily miss them altogether, which would be a shame since the rewards are worthwhile - devil horns, inventory expanders, new outfits...

There are "hidden" quests that you might believe are hidden only in the way your four year-old thinks you can't see him when he can't see you. Any NPC or object with a green exclamation mark rather than a yellow one starts a "hidden" quest.

The name is misleading rather than plain wrong. What's really hidden in these quests isn't how to get them but what to do once you do. The auto-path feature doesn't work for them and they require "problem solving skills" as the wiki puts it. They are, in other words, what we used to call "quests".

Then there are the "Astral Adventures" that pop up all over the open world. Signaled by a hard-to-miss glowing cube followed by a breadcrumb trail of gigantic question marks, these aren't even slightly other-worldly - or particularly adventurous for that matter. I suspect irony.

Astral Adventures are short stories that focus on the quotidian lives of inhabitants of this landscape through which you're always rushing on your own oh-so-important journey. When you take one on, you, the adventurer, become the observer. There's a lot of following to see what happens next and generally very little "action".

"Hand-crafted artisanal matches". Roll that one around your tongue for a while.

At various points you're asked to make a life-choice on behalf of the protagonist and the cat is revealed to be either alive or dead. Next time you encounter the same Astral Adventure you can choose differently and watch the possibilities shift. Heavy stuff.

The third in this triptych of idiosyncratic opportunities comes in the form of  "Conversations". Rein in your excitement! The name of this activity is unarguably accurate as far as it goes but don't go running away with the idea it's you who'll be conversing with anyone.

What you can't see is that off-camera Selena's Entourage are chanting "Kill! Kill! Kill!" I'm getting Manson Family vibes.

No, your role in these conversations is entirely that of auditor. Oh, let's not be coy! You're being invited to eavesdrop on conversations that are entirely none of your beeswax. Well, who could resist?

When you see a gaggle of NPCs standing around with little ellipsis-filled speech bubbles over their heads, take it as an invitation to earwig. Sidle in close and pretend to be studying your map or fixing  your shield-straps and you'll overhear something to your advantage.

Not, you understand, that anyone's talking about you. These people don't even know you exist. They have their own concerns and they don't mind airing them among friends, of which you pointedly are not one.
I think we can all guess where this conversation is going.

Everything in life is a learning experience, though, or it is if you make it one. By the simple act of listening to gossip you can gain loyalty points. Loyalty to what? Beats me. Who cares? You get a title for every conversation you overhear and that's what matters!

Twin Saga is about nothing if it's not about the titles. The last time I saw honorifics handed out so freely was in LotRO, where tripping over a pebble gets you the suffix "Pebble Tripper" (not really, I don't think, although I haven't checked. Maybe it does. Wouldn't surprise me in the slightest).

I haven't counted how many titles there are altogether but I know there are dozens, scores of them. What's more, unlike other MMOs where a title is merely something people call you, in Twin Saga prefixes and suffixes come with stat boosts attached. Run around with "Casual Gamer" after your name, a title I was very excited to receive, and your Attack stat goes up eight points. Earning the right to call yourself "Popular" gets you +16 haste.

Back in the Terracottage there are more subsystems to understand. Your Senshis live there when they're not out acting as your unpaid mercenaries in the field and they have a whole set of quests of their own. They get blue exclamation points and they like to reward you for keeping their loved ones entertained while you hold them hostage as well as for using the facilities in their prison. Okay, that's not exactly how they put it but try telling that to the judge after their families stage an intervention. Stockholm syndrome is not a defense in law, that's all I'm saying.

You know that thing where you put the wrong seed packet on the row marker?
It was through talking to one of my Senshi's, Fina, that I ended up planting cotton, flax and various root vegetables in my greenhouse. It's another interesting entertainment opportunity. For a few silver you can buy seeds from one of the vendors, who's inexplicably made the life-choice to travel with you inside a giant tortoise.

These seeds you plant in convenient molehills. Then you wait for them to grow, which takes anything from a few minutes to a few hours of real time. There are a whole bunch of factors you can affect which supposedly genetically modify your crop. I'm kind of surprised this game's legal in the EU.

I don't yet understand how much of this works. It reminds me of the plant growth systems in Black Desert Online and it took me a while to get to grips with those so I expect I'll need to do some reading and maybe watch some YouTube tutorials. So far I'm just letting the things grow as they will then handing them off to Fina so she'll like me even more than she already does. I'll know she lubs me when she raises my stats.

Here's a great UI trick I've not seen before:
if you scroll the view with the mouse wheel,
your character pops out of the frame.
Simple but very effective.
You'd think that might be the game's Reputation system but no, it has one of those elsewhere. It's actually called "Reputation" and it lets you buy things from special vendors. Giving gifts to your Senshi doesn't appear to have a name unless maybe it's called Gifting. I think I need a lie down now.

As has often been observed, part of the attraction of new MMORPGs is the mental stimulus that comes from learning new systems and mechanics. That almost certainly accounts for some of the really quite strong interest I appear to have developed for playing Twin Saga. The fact that it's gorgeous to look at and extremely elegantly designed doesn't hurt, either.

When it comes to what you might call the traditional gameplay - hitting things until they fall over so they give you loot - there's really not a lot to say. My character is in the low 40s and I believe she has died just once. That was in the first story dungeon, when I naively allowed her to auto-path from the entrance to the final boss, where she ended up fighting both him and every single mob in the instance, all of which had followed along behind her in one titanic train. Not doing that again.

"Difficulty", such as it is, seems to ramp up along with the levels only by dint of an annoying mechanic I think of as the "add two" formula. We started off with each quest asking us to kill four foozles. Then it was six. Then eight. At level 42 the per-quest foozle tariff is fourteen. I dread to think what it will be by the time we hit the level cap at 65.

This guy's a Boss that comes over to your side when you beat him. Oh, sorry, PLOT SPOILER!!

Another way the game slows down the pace as it progresses is in the frequency and length of its cut-scenes. There didn't seem to be all that many of these to begin with but now we seem to be fast approaching Square Enix levels of exposition.

Fortunately, quality is keeping pace with quantity. I find myself actively looking forward to every new cut scene then sitting back and enjoying them as they come. There's quite a bit of voice acting, all of it in Japanese. I find it quite endearing and oddly immersive. It's very much like watching a subtitled movie, only in reverse: instead of thirty seconds of dialog crushed into a five-word subtitle, here you sometimes get two lines of text to represent what sounds like a single barked syllable.
Might just as well have called the game Sister Issues and had done with it.

The central narrative itself continues to hold my attention. It has one of those "we're getting the old team back together" skeletons that Hollywood and I find both endlessly appealing and it's refreshingly free of the usual convoluted backstory. The regular boss fights that punctuate the general questing are slick, spectacular and readily winnable. It all makes for a very solid core.

So far, so good, then. Whether I'll still be playing Twin Saga in a week's time or blogging about it a month from now I have no idea, but I'm enjoying it a lot. Can't really ask for more from a game than that.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

It's Grouping, Jim...

The other day, Syl described me in a comment  as "a self-professed MMO soloer". It got me thinking: "solo", like "casual" and "hardcore", long ago lost most of its value as a way of sorting MMO players one from another. We all go on using these shorthand terms as if they still have the common currency and broad acceptance they did back when WoW was young but times have changed, along with the games and the players who play them.

When I played EverQuest around the turn of the century, the line between "solo" and "group" play was unequivocally understood by everyone. With "raiding" there was a de facto Holy Trinity of playstyles, at least in PvE. It was the status quo for quite a while and most players were happy to pin one of those three favors to their lance, even though in truth almost everyone did a bit of everything, here and there, now and again.

When I decided to brave the online waters I arrived in Norrath expecting to find myself fighting monsters shoulder to shoulder with other players. That's how I'd heard it was done. Somehow, instead, I found myself playing mostly alone.

A couple of early experiences in Blackburrow convinced me it was safer and a lot more productive to take direct responsibility for my own health and safety and I spent those first few months mainly soloing, with the odd group thrown for flavor. Still, it wasn't all that long before I found myself beginning many of my sessions  /ooc "20 Druid lfg" or  /tell "want a 20 Druid?".

When Dark Age of Camelot launched in October 2001, Mrs Bhagpuss and I upped sticks and moved there and for the next six months it was pretty much all group all the time. No-one in  their right mind would have wanted to solo in DAOC - it was the solo experience EverQuest was reputed to be but never was - and then some. Plus people - actual people - were always trying to kill you!

It was in DAOC that I got invested, at least to a degree, in Guild play. Guilds formed a central part of my MMO experience for the next five years and yet I never liked the guild concept. Back then I saw guilds as a necessary evil. Nowadays I just see them as an evil. Like them or loathe them, though, there I was in them, either guilds or quasi-guildlike structures built from scratch using custom chat channels.

Even when I swapped from game to game and back, much of my experience remained bounded by guilds and much of my gameplay took place in groups. Most of my long runs in EQ and EQ2 involved guilds, some that I founded or co-founded, some that I joined and then took over. My highest level EQ character, my Magician, the one I'm still leveling, is even now a member in good standing, a senior officer in fact, of the guild she joined almost a decade ago, a guild Mrs Bhagpuss was in before me. No-one else is ever on when I play these days but I'm still flying the flag.

In or out of guilds, over those years I thought myself as much a group player as a soloist. A raider I never was although I raided occasionally. Just enough to remember why I didn't raid.

It was, I think, Vanguard that broke the pattern. We went there intending to join a guild and engage fully in group content but the technical problems the game suffered in the early days seemed to get in the way. I remember trying to group but having so many problems just keeping everyone online that we were forced to gave up.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I were fortunate in that we had a lot less difficulty running Vanguard than most. We ended up duoing or soloing out of convenience as a result. We never joined a guild and never really did any group content in the game, even though we played for years, on and off.

For a good while after that, several years, I think it would be reasonable to say I was mostly a solo player. One who grouped sometimes, yes, but not every day and sometimes not every week.

Then, in March 2011, along came Rift. Rift was a genuine paradigm shift. A game-changer. After Rift MMOs would never be the same again.

Rift didn't invent the non-group group. That was probably Warhammer Online with its Public Quests. What Rift did was turn open grouping into a core game system and make it the default playstyle for the majority of its players. It also abraded beyond value the very concepts of "group" or "solo" play.

In the six years since Rift launched (and it seems much, much longer...) MMO gameplay has undergone a sea-change. Co-operation rather than competition has become both the ideal and the norm. Guild Wars 2 made a mission statement of the newly revealed truth: "You don’t have to join a party to join the fight. All you have to do is get out there and start helping."

Today any MMO that has ambitions beyond niche, ultra-niche or heritage needs to offer inclusivity. Players don't like to put themselves in the old boxes, much less find themselves boxed in. Group and Raid play do, absolutely, carry on, but neatly tucked away in instances where they won't frighten the casuals.

And even within those instances everything possible is done to reduce the social overhead of looking for, finding and making groups. There are automated group-finders and matchmakers to put the team together, smart UIs to handle the teamwork and neutral systems to divvy up the loot. "Grouping" no longer requires human communication let alone social conversation.

It's true that there are, even now, people who like to refer to themselves as "Group Players" just as there are people still running around professing their independent credentials as "Soloists". It's just words. The playstyles themselves and the concepts that underpinned them are long dead.

These days I don't consider myself to be much of an MMO soloer. I do solo in those MMOs that I don't play as much, the short-session, late night, keeping my hand in games. In those I'm usually not around long enough to do much more. They tend to be older games, whose systems have yet to adapt to the new realities or, as in Blade and Soul or Twin Saga, where the main attraction for me is a linear storyline that probably would work better in a single player game anyway.

Even in EQ2, though, these days I'm as likely to be in a raid doing a PQ as soloing. The reason I lasted a few weeks in WoW last year was entirely down to the open-group Invasion event. Last time I played The Secret World for a significant period was for one of the big, holiday-themed open raids. Open groups draw me in.

And in GW2, where I've spent more time than anywhere over the last four years, almost all play is group play. That's how the game was built. It's not just ad hoc proximity grouping either. At the moment I'm doing Tequatl two or three times a day and running in WvW for an hour or two most evenings and I'm usually in a Squad, often with a specific, assigned role or responsibility.

In gameplay terms all of this is group play, not solo. It may not be isolated, instanced, formalized group play, even the current bowdlerized version, but it's grouping just the same. It's the evolutionary development of the primitive form and it's superior in just about every respect. It's why the new has, by and large, pushed out the old.

All of which isn't to say that there's no case to be made for formal four, five, six or eight person closed groups (does any MMO use seven as a group size?). I'm very much hoping that Pantheon can make that case when and if it arrives. I'm looking forward to some old-school group fun there.

Much though I'd admire any developer who could successfully rekindle that flame, the last thing I'd want would be to turn the clock back. We don't need a return to the days when anyone thought it was a good idea to make players choose between solo and group play.

We didn't know any better then. Now we do.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Get Your Free Level 100 (What, Another?) : EQ2

There's a new Producer's Letter out for EQ2 and it's chock full of good stuff. Key takeaways for me were the introduction of Familiars and the news that this year's expansion will include a ten level increase, raising the level cap to 110.

Familiars are exactly what they sound like: a new set of companion pets that also give stat buffs. The senior game, of course, has had familiars for a long time. Indeed, there are so many of them that one of the features of last year's Empires of Kunark expansion was a keyring to store them all. It holds up to 125 of the critters!

In EQ2 until now only Sorcerors (Wizards and Warlocks) got familiars, a choice of three: an animated book, a drake or a gargoyle. With the upcoming "Menagerie" update on May 2nd we'll all be able to have a flappy, as they used to be called.

Familiars will come from Kunark Ascending Missions, as drops from Public Quests, or as a reward from the upcoming language-mangling "Co-opetition", which I do not propose to attempt to explain. Read Kander's detailed description and see how much sense you can make of it.

I'll wait to see just what this "Co-opetition" consists of before I commit to anything but I'm up for pet collecting and I'm always down for a PQ so let's hope they're one of the more common rewards there. Whatever, it's a really exciting addition to EQ2's already bulging cupboard of in-game hobbies. Gotta collect 'em all, as you know some people are already muttering.

As for the level cap raise, I'm very firmly in the camp that believes it's not a real expansion if you don't get a few more levels. The usual eeyores are out in force in the comment thread at EQ2Wire, bemoaning the impending collapse in value of the gear they will, by the time the as yet unnamed expansion rolls around, have spent the last two years working on.

I can see how it might be irksome, although you'd have to say that complaining about gear becoming obsolete in a theme-park MMO is a bit like complaining the sea's a bit wet when you go for a swim. It's both inevitable and really kind of the point.

As a casual player, though, new levels are awesome! Power creep means the opening up of new content. In the last few years Daybreak have done a magnificent job of enfranchising all playstyles, with solo versions of almost all Heroic and Raid content, but there are still some things I haven't been able to do. I'm hopeful that another ten levels might see me to the finale of Ages End at least.

Also of note is another free Level 100 giveaway, this time in the form of a "Boost Bauble". For two weeks from May 2nd to 15th any account made before the 20th of April is entitled to claim one bauble that will jump a single character to 100 and give them all the necessary gear to head to Obulos Frontier or The Proving Grounds.

Or in my case to sit around in a Freeport inn room for a few years, I imagine. I now have three level 100s and a level 96 on my main account and at least one level 100 on all the others. I have time to play, at most, two of them.

Not that that's going to stop me logging every account in and grabbing my birthright. I love the fact that it's a consumable this time rather than a straight boost from character select. Assuming these things don't have an expiry date that means I can sit on them until I find a use for them. Which, let's be frank, is going to be never, but, hey, free stuff!

There's also yet another Time Limited Expansion server, Fallen Gate. Like Agnarr, the upcoming EQ Progression server that's not going past LDoN ever, the new EQ2 version is eschewing democracy for a set schedule of quarterly unlocks. I'll probably pass. There are only so many servers you can meaningfully play on after all.

All in all, though, and especially after Easter's Beast'r home run, lookin' good, DBG!

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Road Goes Ever On...And On...And On : LotRO, Twin Saga, FFXIV

The MMORPG genre is a very broad church indeed. It stretches from spreadsheet spaceships at one end to prancing ponies at the other. Looking at the big picture, there isn't perhaps quite as much distance between Twin Saga and Lord of the Rings Online or FFXIV as you might imagine.

They all have central storylines revolving around momentous power struggles among godlike entities for a start. They also have tab targeting and hotbars, dungeons and boss mobs. All the good stuff.

One stark difference, though, is the extent to which the developers appear to give consideration to the value of time. The player's time, that is.

Twin Saga follows the common practice of Eastern MMOs: you can click on a quest in the tracker and have the game auto-run you to where you need to be. It's a particularly flexible version that delivers you not just to the general area but right to the precise creature you need to kill or to the object with which you need to interact to complete the quest.

When you're finished, another click takes you wherever you need to go to sign off on what you've done. Oftenyou need to see the same person who gave you the job in the first place but equally often they aren't where they were when they gave it to you.

It allows for a very relaxed, smooth questing experience that keeps you moving through the landscape without a lot of doubling back (although taking side-quests messes with the flow  somewhat). It also means that you can sit back and enjoy the view as you travel.

Neither LotRO nor FFXIV, at the equivalent levels, seem interested in running package tours for armchair adventurers. Although they both have equally dominant central storylines, (in FFXIV's case, like Twin Saga's, unavoidable if you want to open up certain options for your character) how you get from where you are to where you need to be is your responsibility.

To be fair, neither game follows the full, old school practice of giving you a vague description in the quest dialog and then leaving you to run around until you trip over whatever it is you're looking for by sheer luck or stubbornness. They both have some form of quest tracker that allows you to select whatever you want to work on and have the general location highlighted for you on the map.

After that, though, you're left to your own devices as to how to get there. This, I think, is supposed to be immersive. Or maybe it's meant to be morally instructive, inculcating some kind of protestant work ethic or boy scout sense of self-reliance.

Having played all three games in sequence several times recently I'm in two minds. I did find an odd sense of satisfaction in traveling from Rivendell to Forochel but it took so long I ran out of time the first night and had to camp half way, coming back to finish the journey the next morning. That's the next real morning, not game day, by the way.

What's more, what I was doing wasn't actually all that different from the auto-pathing in Twin Saga. I was going to a Stable Master, looking to see what routes he serviced, opening the map and choosing the best option, then mounting up and letting the game auto-run me to the next staging post. At which point I'd do it all over again.

LotRO has instant travel of a kind but there's some arcane rule over what you can and can't use as a Premium player and in any case by no means all routes have an instant option. Mostly I just sat on the horse and let the countryside flow by. Actually, mostly I tabbed out and web-browsed. So much for immersion.

LotRO's maps are vast. Incredibly huge. I don't think I ever realized while I was playing the first time just how sprawling the game-world is. I happened into Angmar the other night and after a full five minutes of riding on my reasonably fast pony I looked at the map and saw I was - maybe - five percent of the distance across the map. West Karana is like walking across the room compared to this.

Eorzea feels quite big but that's mainly because it's awkward, I think. It, too, has an automated travel option via the Chocobo Porter system and like LotRO it's one that leaves a lot to be desired. There aren't too many stops and most of the questing seems to happen in the wilderness where the only option is to travel on foot.

FFXIV famously made a huge concession with tradition when it allowed jumping. It was an innovation made grudgingly. While it's true that you can't be blockaded by a six inch rut in the road as you could in FFXI, there are still a lot of impassable slopes. Just because you can see your quest destination marked clearly on the map doesn't mean you can get there - or not the way you think.

All of this leads to some very different gaming experiences. Whether or not I prefer one over another comes down more to mood than any innate superiority in one design over the other, I think. The trip across Middle Earth was okay the once but I surely wouldn't want to make a habit of it. By the time I reached the snowlands I was very happy to have it over with.

Once there, though, I was entirely absorbed exploring the bleak, forbidding landscape, I'd never been past the first village before but with a couple more levels notched on the hilt of my sword I felt confident enough to press ahead and see what lay over each next hill. It made for an immersive and exciting session but that's because it was all new.

In FFXIV, where I'm criss-crossing the Central Shroud and occasionally running back to Gridania for a hand-in, I would kill for an auto-run button. It's a beautiful forest but I've seen it so many times now and when it comes right down to it there's not really all that much there, is there?

Against that you have to set my lack of interaction with the environment in Twin Saga (whose world is called - hang on, let me look it up...nope, can't find it...I'm sure they mentioned it once, somewhere). I have no idea how anywhere connects to anywhere else let alone what's in any part of any zone where I didn't have a quest to do. Maybe there isn't anything!

In the end any automated movement option, be it GW2's waypoints, LotRO's pony express or Twin Saga's UI driver, is only an option. No-one has to use it. I could just ride my giant ginger guinea pig around until I happen to spot the cluster of crocodiles I need to club to death. Like all easy options, though, if you know they're there it's hard to resist.

If I had to choose I think I'd come down on the side of automation. It doesn't detract as much as you might imagine from my involvement in the world  - not as much as getting really annoyed about yet another ten or fifteen minute run just to get to somewhere I've been countless times before. Then again, if you always know where you're going you never run into anything you weren't expecting.

There's no easy or right answer to this one. I do think that weak compromises like staged rides and limited instant travel are prone to create more problems than they solve, though. And once you start highlighting quest locations on the map you really might as well make it straightforward to get to them.

Or maybe I'm just spoiled after two days of click 'n' run.

Monday, April 17, 2017

There Goes The Neighborhood : Twin Saga

Well, that went a lot faster than I expected. Only yesterday I was speculating whether I'd last long enough in Twin Saga to makes it into the twenties and get my Terracottage and here I am this morning, riding around in one.

After I finished in GW2 last night I went back to play some more and this morning when I sat down at the PC after breakfast I realized this was still the game I wanted play. I put in another three hours or so and now I'm a homeowner.

I was somewhat tentative about posting twice in a row about a game that, most likely, no-one reading this is even going to bother to download. Nevertheless, it's what I'm playing and also what I'm thinking about so I guess we'll just go with it.

There's also an issue of fair reporting to consider, or fair reviewing, if you consider this to be a review, which it kind of is. One of the very specific things I drew attention to in yesterday's post, the fruity tone and overripe prose, just seems to vanish around the time you leave the starting areas.

There's a major tonal shift from nudge-wink to gosh-wow! It's as though the writer and the translator both got up, took a walk to stretch their legs, came back and noticed what the game they were working on actually looked like. And who the audience might be - either tweenage girls or people who think like them.

That may not be an accurate assessment of the playerbase. It's the internet, after all, and as we know, everyone on the internet is a 57 year old trucker from Boise, Idaho. Still, it's quite hard not to assume the developers were targeting a very particular demographic when they came up with Rita and The Kitty-Cat Crew.

If Twin Saga has a screenshot function I haven't been able to find it so I'm relying on good old FRAPS and sadly I didn't have it running when I bumped into Rita. Someone on YouTube did though so if you're interested you can share the entire experience vicariously. Ailurophobes and diabetics beware. Also anyone who considers themselves to have either taste or standards.

It's probably not a good idea to dwell on why, but I'm enjoying Twin Saga more than just about any Eastern MMO I've played since...well, probably since Zentia. I suspect this may have something to do with TS being Japanese rather than Chinese or Korean in origin but then again Zentia was Chinese so maybe not.

Anyway, it's good. It's also coherent and easy to follow, which is not something I've been able to say about any imported MMO for a long time. So far it has a single, linear plot that makes sense. Okay, it's the regular nonsense about gods and goddesses but it's clear who is who, what happened to them, what they need to do about it and what your role is.

It may be that I've now played enough of these games to get an intuitive feeling for the "break it down and re-use it" progression mechanics they all use but for once I had no trouble working out the specifics of how to improve and upgrade my gear. It's also because Twin Saga is one of the most ergonomically acute MMOs I've ever played.

The UI is a model of efficiency. I found it immediately accessible and understandable. I didn't really need the tutorial tips but they're there and they're among the best I've seen. Twin Saga is a very comfortable game to settle into, with a very shallow, gentle learning curve.

That said, the Terracottage has turned out to be a bit of a challenge. You get one for nothing at level 21 as you progress through the Main Questline and it functions both as a house and a mount. It took a few mouseclicks and some trial and error to work out how to spawn and unspawn it and a few more figuring out how to get inside.

Once I was in there I somehow managed to set the shared storage so that no-one can access it, not even me! I think that was mainly because I'd become so (over) confident by then that I didn't bother listening to the NPCs as they explained everything. That's also how come I have a chair that I don't know how to place.

Nothing the wiki won't sort out, I'm sure. The Terracottage itself is fantastic. It really is. It has three floors - the Hall, which you can decorate, the Greenhouse, where you can grow genetically mutated plants and then cook them, and the Workshop, which is a full-function crafting center.

All three settings are quite stunning. Indeed, every setting in Twin Saga is stunning. It's a gorgeous game. Once again, as with Revelation Online, I've scarcely explored anything or anywhere. The on-rails auto-questing mitigates very strongly against doing so. Yet I feel as though I have. There are so many wonderful, rich, strange sights that it's as if exploration comes to you without you having to go looking for it.

In the early twenties I notice leveling speed beginning to slow. I see from the map that there are at least sixty-five levels. There's three-quarters of the overland yet to see. I could be here a while.

Just as well I have somewhere nice to live.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Seperated At Birth : Twin Saga, Dragomon Hunter

What I need is another MMO to play, right? Or how about a couple? I mean, according to my own account, I'm only playing five right now, with another dozen lined up, waiting to go. That can't be enough, right?

I didn't even mention Dragomon Hunter when I was counting down the possibles although last year I was playing it and enjoying it. I even blogged about it a few times. I took a break and the main reason I didn't go back was I lost my log in details, something I only found out when I tried to play another MMO in the Aeria Games stable, Twin Saga.

Quite a while ago someone - it might have been Kaozz at ECTMMO - wrote something about Twin Saga that made me think it might be worth a look. Then Syp at Bio Break wrote it up for one of his Try-Out Tuesday pieces and almost everything he said reminded me very strongly of Dragomon Hunter, which I took as a recommendation.

Wait a minute...I'm Level 2 and I haven't logged in yet.

So I downloaded it and installed the inevitable Aeria Games front end, which for some reason I'd never needed for DH. It was at that point that I realized I could use my existing Aeria Games account to play both games. Only, not having hunted any dragomons for quite a while, I couldn't remember the password. Or even which email account I'd used.

I searched around but I couldn't find the details. At that point I could have made a new account - they're free after all - but then I'd have had to start Dragomon Hunter over from scratch, which I really didn't want to do.

So I shelved the project and mostly forgot about it, except the Twin Saga icon stayed right there on my desktop, eying me balefully, which meant I could never completely forget about it after all. Then yesterday, when I was trying to find my Dragon Nest log in information (successfully, I might add, although my installed client is now so far behind the current version it won't even patch, so I have to download the whole thing again before I can play), what should I stumble across but the missing Aeria Games details!

Gatefold album sleeve c. 1973

A little window into the chaos and serendipity that I call a life, there. Anyway, with that incentive I opened up the Aeria patcher and patched both games. I tried to log into Dragomon Hunter but the servers were down for maintenance (at EU prime-time on a Saturday night on a holiday weekend if you  can believe it!).

Which is how I come to be playing Twin Saga. And guess what? Enjoying it, too. Probably more than I should.

Follow the yellow mud road

Couple of things to say about it up front. Twin Saga is hands down one of the most visually attractive MMOs I've ever played. The screenshots, for once, do it justice. It does look that good in game.

I realize you have to like the particular style, which won't be to everyone's taste, but as an example of that style I have never seen better. The colors are extraordinarily rich and the environments deliriously lush. I get the profound feeling this is a game that's been art designed to within an inch of its life and that's always a positive in my book.

And it wasn't even the most disturbing encounter I had that day...

Secondly, it's lubricious to a disturbing degree. No, perhaps "lubricious" doesn't quite catch the flavor. It's fleshy. There's a disturbing delight in sexual imagery that seems all the more inappropriate given the doll-like characters but the game doesn't rest at bawdy. Appetites in general are the focus here: from a delight in violence to an orgy of gluttony, character after character indulges in a frenzy of lust - for weapons, for pies, for defenceless elf girls.

It could be unpleasant.  It often is unsettling. Twin Saga is saved, just about, from outright creepiness by two things: the sheer gusto of the writing and the relatively demure visuals. The quest text isn't merely extensive and verbose, it's baroque and bizarre, while everyone dresses as though they're about to take a walk-on part in a restoration drama.

Okay, that's not at all inappropriate...

I haven't taken the trouble to determine whether Dragomon Hunter and Twin Saga share a developer but I'm all but certain they share a translator. TS's quest text is nowhere near as batshit insane as DH's, which may speak to an underlying difference in authorship, but tonally they're identical.

Syp was taken aback by the vocabulary, saying "listen, I write professionally, and this game is throwing words at me that I’ve never heard of before". He wondered whether Google translate might have had a hand but I think the explanation is much more likely to be one particular translator having the time of their life and getting away with it - possibly because they're the only one in the office who speaks both languages.

Flocculent? Flocculent?! "Bushy" wouldn't have done?

Whoever it is knows their way around both a thesaurus and a dictionary. Almost every arcane word that appears - and there are many - is used correctly. On the other hand someone did decide to render "curlicue" as "curly-Q" so who knows? Either way I love it. I read every word, which is why it took me nearly three hours to get to level 12. Syp estimated he spent 60% of his game-time talking to NPCs but I'd guess my tally came in closer to 75%.

What I certainly didn't spend much time doing was fighting. I think almost every single quest was either a fetch or kill, usually four, sometimes six, one time eight. The universal MMO gathering action is faster here than the average and combat at these levels consists literally of drumming your fingers as fast as you like on keys 1 and 2.

That's if you're in a hurry. Autoattack works just as well. It just takes a few seconds longer. Combine that with auto-find on the quest locations and auto-complete on the hand-ins and you have one very relaxing MMO.

I've seen a capybara. Trust me, they do not look like this.

And it very definitely is an MMO. You could assume that a game such as I'm describing would be indistinguishable from a solo RPG but these are precisely the kind of mechanics that attract what is probably the real global MMO audience.

The starting areas are heaving with players. I got two friend invites in a few minutes when I was hanging around the starting village - one in a pop-up and one in a whisper. All around you can see player characters standing in pairs or clusters talking to each other. It's like these are people who've come to an MMO because there are other people there to play with not in spite of it.

If I had unlimited time I would happily play Twin Saga for an hour or two every day. It's a bit of a sugar rush but it's bright and zippy and there seems to be plenty to do. What's more, the progression mechanics don't appear to be as abstruse as they often can be. I almost understood them right off the bat.

And so to bed.

If I can fit a few sessions in I'm going to try to get at least as far in the main quest line as it takes to unlock the housing option - The Terracottage. One of these stomped past me while I was out adventuring and it was quite something.

That means completing the main quest sequence as far as level 21, which sounds entirely doable. I think I got further than that in Dragomon Hunter. Speaking of which, I guess I should do some more there, too.

So many games...

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