Monday, July 31, 2017

Meanwhile, Back In The Jungle... : GW2

Tomorrow sees the official reveal of GW2's second expansion. We'll find out how much of the information leaked in May was real (hint: all of it). Looking back through a few of the posts I wrote about the first expansion, it surprises even me just how very enthusiastic I was about Heart of Thorns right from the start.

I did remember that I liked it a lot more than I expected to and I know that I've had a huge amount of entertainment and enjoyment in the jungle maps ever since, but I'd forgotten that I'd said such positive things about the expansion, across the board. Here's just one of many such, from my Day One Report :

"It all feels better. The UI changes, the Guild changes, the minion changes, the spell effect changes... The whole game feels like someone took it into the yard, ran the hose over it, washed off the dust then buffed it up until it just shines".

At one point I even went so far as to offer the suggestion that perhaps ANet knew better what was good for their game than the players did: "It's almost as though someone at Anet knows what they're doing." Cold comfort for Colin Johanson now.

I did understand that things were going to have to get easier but the position I took back then looks even further from the canon view that HoT was a failure from the get-go. I'd forgotten that just one specific complaint thread on the forums reached 57 pages and 3000 comments in the first couple of days.

The issue that was burning hottest back then was Hero Points; specifically, their acquisition. One of the pillars of the expansion was the addition of an Elite Spec for each class. This came with both a new weapon (weapons being class-locked in GW2) and a set of new abilities which, though we only suspected it at the time, would turn out to be the default build choice for most classes for the next two years.

What Anet hadn't made clear enough in advance of launch (although it had been explained for those who cared to pay attention) was that these Elite Specs had to be earned. The initial requirement was completion of all class training and specializations from the core game plus another round of training in the expansion itself.

In addition to 398 points from the base game, 400 Hero Points were required specifically from Heart of Thorns challenges. Each HoT challenge is worth ten points so that meant finding and completing forty, which happens to be exactly all of them.

When the expansion first dropped most of those challenges were clearly not intended to be soloed. Some of them required specific Masteries which themselves required points that had to be earned, some of which also were not easy to solo. And all of this had to be done not once for the account but repeated separately for every character on it.

At the time I observed that GW2 had turned almost overnight into a Gated Community. What surprises me, looking back at what I wrote, is how sanguine I was with that change. Again, I was more than willing to give ANet the benefit of the doubt:

"I do believe these design decisions, which must be difficult to make at the best of times, have been taken with the best interests of the players in mind. Often players really don't have the clearest view of what's good for the long-term health of the game."

All the same, it was very clear that something would have to change and soon. And it did. The 400 point requirement was reduced to 250 points and many of the challenges themselves were altered either so as to become directly soloable or to scale much better for small groups.

As the weeks and months passed there were numerous nerfs to the overall difficulty of all Heart of Thorns maps and content. Colin left the company, new promises were made, the direction of the game altered. Just about everything got easier. Just about everything got grindier.

Six months after launch the 2016 Spring Update added a Level 80 Boost to all HoT accounts, new and old. It kitted out the character that used it in full exotics and filled in all the Core Tyria requisites needed for your Elite spec.

With that, the final barrier to entry was, nominally, removed. People still complained HoT was too hard, of course, but at least they could complain about it while playing through it rather than staring at it from outside as they trudged through Tyria trying to find 398 one-point "challenges".

I used the boost on my main account so long ago I no longer even remember which character got the benefit. As I've mentioned often, however, I have three accounts for GW2 (four if you count the F2P one). One of those still doesn't have HoT but another one does and until this weekend I'd never used the boost.

More than that, I still had one of the original five character slots empty. That account is linked to the Ehmry Bay server for World Vs World and Mrs Bhagpuss recently moved one of her accounts there as well so I found myself in The Mists as an Engineer. I only had two 80s there and the other is a ranger

I have no idea how to play an Engineer in PvE, much less WvW, so I had the bright idea of using both the free character slot and the boost to add an Elementalist to the roster, Elementalist being the class I have vague pretensions towards knowing how to play. I'd forgotten about the Hero Points.

The prospect of exploring Verdant Brink, Auric Basin, Tangled Depths and Dragon's Stand all over again did not fill me with dread. Far from it. I was looking forward to it. I'd missed it. I took one of every class through most of the content during the first year or so as I worked on each of the class Ascended Weapon collections (a couple of which I have still to finish, come to think of it).

I certainly wasn't concerned about soloing the whole thing. When Heart of Thorns was just a week or two old I wrote at length about what a great addition it made to the solo content of the game. I described it as "solo heaven...a classic interpretation of the MMORPG solo experience", a description I stand by 100%. And that was before it got nerfed into the bedrock.

Back then I had other concerns about the future of those maps. It wasn't that future players would struggle to solo through them - it was that they'd have no choice. I imagined the jungle two years on, empty, forgotten, ignored in favor of the newer end-game content that would surely have arrived by then.

Well, newer end-game content certainly has arrived, in the form of raids, the Living Story and a clutch of new maps with very desirable rewards. So, are the HoT maps dead?

Like hell they are! Last night I had one of my most amazing MMO experiences of recent years and when I say "MMO" I mean exactly that.

I'd done a few of the easier to get to Hero Points in Verdant Brink last week and I'd followed the main storyline as far as Auric Basin. I did the Meta Event in the center of the map a couple of times on Sunday morning then logged out to do some WvW on my main account.

When I returned to the jungle at about 7pm on Sunday evening literally the first thing I saw in map chat was someone inviting all-comers to join her for a "Hero Point Train" through Auric basin and Tangled Depths. A Hero Point Train is when some masochistic cat-herder tries to lead an unruly pack of ill-equipped newbies through dangerous and inaccessible terrain so they can complete difficult and deadly challenges that will most likely be too much for many of them.

Fun, in  other words. I've done a few here and there. The best I've managed is maybe four or five challenges before either I fell off the train or the train crashed and burned.

Last night was different. In one of the most impressive displays of both charisma and patience I've seen in any MMO, a pink charr in what appeared to be a guild of one, filled a squad with fifty random players and then took them through the entirety of two maps, the second of which is generally reckoned to be the most awkward to navigate in the entire game.

She hit every Hero Challenge in both maps along with all the waypoints, many of the Mastery points, some of the Strongboxes and a few of the vistas. She ported everyone who didn't have the gliding skills required, she went back and collected everyone who got lost or fell off. She waited for anyone who'd missed a checkpoint and re-did every challenge for anyone who didn't get credit.

She did the whole thing in her second language over a less-than reliable internet connection with unfailing good humor and immense competence. The whole thing took almost three hours and was one of the best examples of why, for me, there is simply no comparison between MMO gameplay and any other kind of video game. I tipped her after the first map but by the end of the second I was so impressed I doubled my donation.

When we were done I had exactly the number of points required to fill out the Trait wheel and become a fully-fledged Tempest. I just hope the Pink Charr is around when I decide to take the next character into the jungle.

What both this exemplary experience and my return to Heart of Thorns reveals about the state of the game is more than encouraging. My pessimistic prediction that "I wouldn't be surprised to find much of the new land opened by Heart of Thorns underused, even neglected in a few months' time." has, thankfully, turned out to be very wide of the mark indeed.

With the next expansion about to arrive, there are still a lot of people working their way through the last one. We had a full squad of fifty people throughout and there were more outside the squad running with us. People dropped out along the way and were immediately replaced.

The maps themselves remain busy and populated. As we passed by in our train there were plenty of others working on the Metas, asking questions about the story in chat, and just generally pootling about doing stuff. I'm sure ANet would always like to have more players but there certainly doesn't seem to be any sign they don't have plenty already.

All of this has left me more excited than ever for what's coming next. I very much hope that I'm able to say in a few weeks or months, about the as-yet unnamed expansion, as I did about Heart of Thorns, that "I'm a satisfied customer right now. For once I'm getting what I want."

Yes, I really did like HoT that much. I'd forgotten. This is why I blog. So I can remember how I felt then without feeling it through the filter of how I feel now.

New expansion! Bring it on!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Under The Radar: EQ2, DCUO

Syp is a great ambassador for the MMO genre. He's enthusiastic, curious and indefatigable. He's the most entertaining writer at MassivelyOP as well as, with his Game Archeologist series, the most informative.

When it comes to Daybreak Games, though, he does seem to have a bit of a blind spot. The introduction to a recent post on games we haven't heard much of for a while (the DBG title in question being Planetside2) reminded me of the kind of call you might get from your mother six weeks into the second year of college - "Are you okay? Are you sure you're okay? Is there something you're not telling us? You never write, you never call...we worry about you!"

It is true that DBG seems less interested these days in pushing new product to a new audience. The focus seems to be much more on dishing up a familiar diet to the customers they already have. It's interesting to learn that DBG's PR department "hardly ever (read: never) sends out notices these days"). Radio silence for the media, while, for those of us actually playing the games, there's a steady stream of information and new content.

This week brought a couple of new developments to DBG's portfolio, one a major and long-awaited revamp, the other a small tweak to a holiday event. Guess which impressed me most.

The big ticket event was the sweeping change to the way stats work in DCUO. I can't remember how long ago this was trailed; it seems like years ago. I remember I'd just made a fresh character on my new All Access account. I was enjoying leveling her up but as details about the extent of the revamp filtered out I decided to mothball her pending the patch.

By the time that patch finally arrived I'd forgotten so much about how the game worked that any subtleties buried in the new systems were utterly lost on me. I logged in, got lost in the JLA Watchtower as usual, then made a complete hash of choosing my new powers and abilities.

I ended up putting all my points into my travel options. Fortunately, in DCUO travel powers are also fighting powers, so I can still function. It's not the character I was planning on playing though. Lucky I finally found a mailbox to collect the free respec token granted to subscribers. I'm going to need it!

The game seemed busy, especially given most of the action takes place in instances so the huge majority of players are never visible. The Watchtower resounded with explosions as players dueled each other, or pretended to. The hallways of the Metropolis PD stations were alive with heroes zipping in and out. It's always hard to judge but DCUO seems healthy.

EQ2 may not be quite as insanely sprawling as EverQuest but as it approaches a decade and a half of continual growth the in-game real estate is far too large for anyone to assess the population at a glance. Periodically, certain events cause critical masses of players to coalesce; the launch of the Fallen Gate server was one such occasion and to a lesser extent so is every in-game Holiday.

Mid-summer means Tinkerfest, one of my favorite Norrathian holidays. I would have made time to log in for the gnomish festival even if nothing had changed since last year but as it happens there was a very big addition to the blueprint for 2017.

Public Quests got off to a shaky start in EQ2 but over the years they have become a core part of gameplay. "Any PQs up?" would probably head the list of "Things people ask in General Chat" these days, closely followed by "Can I get an invite?" as each zone hosting an active Public Quest fills to capacity.

I love PQs. In every MMO I play they are an absolute highlight: Dynamic Events and World Bosses in GW2 Invasions in WoW, Rifts in Rift, even FATES in FFXIV, it seems to me that this is the gameplay MMOs were invented to provide.

EQ2 doesn't have a huge number of PQs but they're being added all the time and they are getting better and better. The new one that came with Tinkerfest is top-notch.

It's called Hack & Slash and EQTraders has a great write-up. I won't go over that ground again. If you play EQ2 at all, log in and go do the PQ before it vanishes next week. If you don't, read Naimi Denmother's piece and wish you did.

I've said this before but it very much bears repeating. Whatever may be going on behind the scenes at DBG and however much certain customer-facing representatives may appear to lack any of the necessary skills for that role, when it comes to adding free, fun content that inspires me to want to log in and play, the EQ2 team has no competition at all.

Every holiday event they step up to the mark but this time they really hit the ball out of the park. It's not just the quality of the events and quests themselves, which is uniformly high, but it's the rewards. They are almost always truly desirable.

I can only dream that one day ANet might come up with a Living Story episode that includes a single item I actually want. It could happen. I guess. For Tinkerfest this year, for the most determined we have the big ticket reward from Hack & Slash, the Spidermech Defender familiar (which I can't link because no-one's made one yet).

For everyone else we have a slew of house items, cosmetic pets and plushies as well as the regular PQ armor drops and a new helmet. I got a house pet from the very first one I did and I was as excited as if I'd had an Ascended Weapon crate in GW2 - more excited!

Since then I've done the PQ twice more and received a plushie and an excellent furniture item with a revolving turret. This is what I want!

What's more, the event itself is an absolute hoot. PQs in EQ2 are very hard to screenshot because they are, without exception, a chaotic jumble of players, mobs and explosions. My personal heaven in  other words. I would absolutely do this particular PQ multiple times even if there were no rewards I wanted because it's thrilling, exhilarating and hilarious.

Returning to where we began, it's also very busy. I have no idea how many people are playing EQ2 these days and even less can I estimate whether however many it might be is sufficient to keep the game profitable. What I can say is that, from the perspective of a player, the game feels vibrant, bustling and very much alive.

I do wonder sometimes why I play anything else.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Busy Doing Nothing: Yonder

About a mile from where I grew up there was a hill fort. For some reason it was always known as "Up Yonder". I spent countless hours playing there, unsupervised, back in those Just William days, when parents pushed children and dogs out the door at 9 am and didn't expect to see them home again before teatime.

When I first heard of Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles, my thoughts drifted back to those happy times, not least because the game is supposedly both an "explorer's dream" and "very relaxing", two phrases that recur frequently in the very positive (Official Steam Rating) reviews I read. I imagined wandering aimlessly with no agenda across the sunlit greensward, idly lopping the heads off daisies and humming to myself.

Did I miss an Apocalypse?

I wish! After around six hours play according to Steam (really, it seems a lot more, which is revealing in itself) I would sum Yonder up very differently: a directed, intense, Achiever's agenda.

Just read the headline pitch on Steam:

"Gemea maintains the appearance of a paradise, yet an evil murk has enshrouded the land and its people in despair... As the hero of Yonder you will explore Gemea and uncover the islands secrets and mysteries within yourself".

Does that sound laid-back? Relaxing? I don't think so! It sounds like an emergency, a crisis, a problem that has to be solved. And since this isn't an MMO or even a Co-Op, there's really no-one to solve it but me.

The Moth Sanctuary. Took me two days to fix this. Moths. I ask you.

It's all very well for reviewers like the writer for Rock, Paper, Shotgun to dismiss the set-up as "Blah blah shipwreck blah blah magic compass blah blah find something" and advise you to treat it as "... a giant space in which you can do the bits that interest you, when you want to do them" but the game doesn't want you to do that. Instead, it constantly encourages - you might say nags -  you to follow the storyline, do the quests, be useful.

The UI is inflexible. You can only have one quest highlighted. You must have one quest highlighted. Whichever quest you've chosen (and if you don't pick one the game will pick one for you), try to forget it as you may, you can't help but see it out of the corner of your eye. It broods there, in the upper right corner of the screen, while down in the lower left, the mini-map pings exclamation marks, points the arrow of your character in the direction the game wants you to go.

I have been attempting to ignore all this. I've been trying to skip around the gorgeous landscape, trilling "Hullo Flowers, Hullo Sky" in my best Fotherington-Thomas but it's not working.

Hello, Flowers!

There's my farm for one thing. My two farms. If I get too far away I worry I'll get lost and my Grassfox will wander off. Grassfoxes get anxious. An NPC told me they have been known to hold hands in the dark to stave off loneliness. Grassfoxes don't even have hands.

And there's the Murk. I don't know what it is but it's bad. I need sprites to clear it but I can't find any more sprites and I don't have enough. The big patch down by the water is a sixteen sprite job. I only have eight.

I haven't seen a sprite for a while but I've seen a lot of cats. There was a patch yesterday and more cats came. The patch notes said "Added surplus cats to the world". Surplus cats! Now I hear them mewing everywhere.

I could jump off cliffs all day!

Trees. There's another thing that's changed. Before yesterday's patch I was blithely chopping down trees, stump and all, then planting the seeds I found in the circles that crop up occasionally in the grass. That gave me a nice, satisfying increment to a counter for Trees Planted in the region. It felt like I was making progress. Making a difference. Doing Something Good.

Post-patch, I discover via a pop-up that each tree I cut down decrements a counter for Trees Growing in the region. It's a zero sum game! So much for progress. Now I just chop the trees and leave the stump, which apparently still counts as a Tree, but I don't get any Seeds so my planting has come to a dead stop.

Worst of all, I have no home. Oh, I have a Farm. I have two Farms. They come complete with cosy farmhouses whose windows glow cheerily through the dark nights but I can't go inside. There are no opening doors in Gemea.

I can't lie down. I can't even sit on the soft, lush grass. That's to say, it looks soft and lush but how would I know? I can't touch it. I can only reap it for Fodder.

Last night I slept in the archway outside my own home. Standing up. My animals can lie down but I can't. They have pens. They can go inside. They can lie down. Meanwhile, I can't even get into my own house. Is that fair? Is that right?

At least it's safe to sleep out. There's no Combat in Yonder. None at all. Don't take that to mean there isn't Adventure or Action, though. In my opinion there's almost too much. I've been running from place to place clearing Murk, talking to Wizards, fixing ferries and generally adventuring away like there's no tomorrow.

Excuse me? Miss! Could you stop slacking and Solve My Problem? Please?

Only there's always a tomorrow. Days flick by like minutes. Years flick past like days. I'm always On The Clock and there's no time to relax and no place to relax in. It's busy busy busy all the way.

Something about Yonder reminds me of Landmark but Landmark was zen meditation compared to this. If Landmark had had this focus perhaps we'd all still be playing it.

Inventory space: that's a major issue. There's a storage chest at each farm but I have to go to the farm to get anything out of it and there is no means of travel other than jogging everywhere at a fixed speed. There's extensive crafting but every recipe requires a range of things that have to be bought from vendors in specific villages or stations, which means a lot of jogging.

Or you can forage the raw materials and make them yourself, which takes up more inventory space and requires even more jogging. Oh, and did I mention there's no money? All trade happens by barter, which eats up still more inventory space.

Oh, I' to see the wizard... Like it or not. Just look at those lighting effects though.

If it sounds as though I don't like Yonder, well that's wrong. Very wrong. I like it a lot.

It's genuinely lovely to look at. The weather and lighting effects are some of the best I've ever seen - so good you can't wait for a thunderstorm so you can watch the rain sweep in or for night to fall so you can get your lantern out and play with shadows.

The characters are delightful. I connected with mine immediately. I love the way she runs, the way she looks, the way she dresses. The animations are solid and satisfying. Chopping trees is a never-ending pleasure.

Follow me, fox. No need for us both to sleep out in the rain tonight. Sniff...

The animals are cute and cuddly but of course they are. Everything is cute and/or cuddly in Yonder. There's a great deal to love about the game. I expect to keep playing it for a good, long time. Just not for relaxation. When I step into Gemea I know there'll be work to be done and I'll be the one doing it.

Better get on with it, then, hadn't I?

Thursday, July 27, 2017

How We Live Now: GW2

Unlike most MMO developers, GW2 doesn't do Producer Letters. (Edit: Oh, wait, now they do!) Officially, that is. There is, nevertheless, someone in charge, an individual who sets the tone and announces the direction for the game.

For a long while that was Colin Johanson. He fell on his sword after Heart of Thorns failed to perform as well as expected. His replacement, who was supposed to be taking on the role only for as long as it took to find someone to do it permanently, was Colin's "boss" Mike O'Brien, one of the three people who created ArenaNet back in 2000 and the only co-founder still working there.

As each episode of The Living World arrives, ANet host an Ask Me Anything session on Reddit. Since Mike's been in charge he's tended to open the proceedings with a statement that can be read as his Producer's Letter.

They don't tend to be very revealing or even interesting, unlike some of Colin's more explosive statements. The current one from a day ago doesn't divulge a whole lot of facts or plans but tonally it says a lot about where the game is now and where it's likely to go in the next year or two.

I found it to be both a reassuring and a depressing read. Also annoying and frustrating. There's an unmistakable tone of satisfaction that borders on smugness. Here are some quotes that should give an idea of what I mean:

"I want to take a moment to celebrate the journey we’ve been on together this year.

I think with Season 3 we’ve hit a really good balance.

I think and hope that this year’s releases have been the best work we’ve ever done.

I think we’re finishing this year in a good position."

From that I take it that Mike has the business in the shape he wants it and we are likely to see things carry on much as they have been for the foreseeable future. That's good to hear, in terms of the health and longevity of the game, but somewhat unnerving if, like me, you feel GW2 has largely been spinning its wheels since Colin left.

Not that you'd know it from this AMA. For all Reddit's reputation as a bear pit, it's obvious why ANet prefer to host discussions there rather than on the forums. The AMA is stuffed with easy set-ups, soft questions and fawning. To read it you'd think the game had nothing but happy, docile fans.

The official forums tell a very different story. Comments on the feedback thread for the current LS episode are more nuanced. Many people are happy but by no means all of them. The praises and pans run about 50-50, with the negative comments mostly focusing on the gameplay and the narrative:

"Probably the weakest episode to date, in fact of all the Seasons.

I’m sorry, but if I had wanted to play a puzzle game, I would have bought a puzzle game instead of this game.

Surprisingly disappointing. I feel like the trailer tricked me.  

This episode left me saying why? why? why? Do you switch writers literally every episode? I felt like none of them made a coherent story and that reveal was not shocking but left a feeling of " this was dumb waste of time"

The real problem for me, though, comes not from Mike's - arguably complacent - satisfaction in a job well done or his understandable preference for chatting with a friendly audience rather than taking on a hostile one. No, it's some of the structural changes that have been made under his watch that concern me:

"We’ve always been good at shipping things, but with our renewed focus on quality above everything, we’ve had to get better at not shipping things. We now develop new content and features with a default assumption that they won’t ship, and then if they turn out great, we proactively decide to ship them".

Pre-launch, the mantra was Iteration. Everything had to be done and done again until it was done right. That ran completely counter to what has become the prevailing mode of the industry, the "bash it out now and tart it up later" ethos of Early Access and it inevitably slowed the whole process to a crawl.

If Iteration seemed to take forever, imagine how much more delay "not shipping" must add. GW2 already feels like one of the slowest-to-react MMOs I've played and it's infamously one of the most tight-lipped. Now we can just imagine them all, hunched over keyboards in their double-locked security cells, working on projects we'll never see, while problems in the game that have persisted for months and years go unaddressed.

Not an encouraging picture and one with which I have little affinity. I hugely prefer to get my hands on something rough but functional now, the chance to play around with it while it gets smoothed and polished, rather than wait months and months to get something that's supposedly "the best work we’ve ever done" and yet which turns out to be, as one comment in the official thread ironically puts it, "a solid 3/10".

When it comes to World vs World, considered by most aficionados to have been in free-fall for at least a couple of years, the following assertion raises a very hollow laugh:

"With PvP and WvW...the community owns the game modes and chooses what we work on...our goal this year was to develop more incrementally, test with the community on Live, and take feedback every step of the way". 
I can't speak for PvP players but WvW regulars, as they express their feelings on the forum and in the various chat channels in game, mostly feel ignored, not listened to and sometimes actively trolled by the developers. It would probably be not too far from the truth to say that WvW fans play the game mode despite the development attention it gets not because of it.

For all that, GW2 is clearly a stable, successful MMO. It's about to launch its second expansion and we'd better hope its a good one because the guy who's been in charge of development there, Mike Zadorojny, is about to take over the direction of the core game. If, reading between the lines, the new Xpack doesn't do a HoT:

"You’ll see a lot of him in the lead-up to the expansion, and then he’ll join the Live side too, and I expect he’ll eventually take these reins". 

At this stage I'm sanguine both about where things are and where they're headed. This is not the GW2 we were promised before launch, nothing like it. The Manifesto was torn up and burned long ago. This isn't even the GW2 of Living Story 1, an era when, as Mike O'Brien now claims to regret,

"Guild Wars 2’s content model [was] all about exciting events happening in the world" and "we went for the literal version, constantly shipping changes to the existing world".
Yes, we complained about it then but be careful what you wish for, as they say. Instead of something approximating a "Living World" we got a series of Unliving Tableaux, each "a slice in time" in which every map is zip-locked, a museum exhibit that never changes and never will change.

The original GW2 project was to create an ever-changing world, a dynamic environment in which no two players would have the same experience and no two sessions would play the same way. The current orthodoxy is

"It’s a game, after all...a game that doesn’t need reinvention but mostly needs a steady stream of great content, so we can focus on delivering great content."

I get it. It's just a game. I won't take it any more seriously than it deserves.

Now entertain me.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Glad It's All Over : GW2

Well, at least that's out of the way.

Is that what ANet's writers think every time they sign off on another episode of GW2's Living Story World? I only ask because that's generally how I feel when I get to the final cut scene.

This morning I finished the Season Three finale. I started it last night, when I got home from work. It took me about three hours to get to what I suspected would be the final instance. Knowing from bitter experience that there was bound to be at least one long, tedious session of kiting and dodging to come I chose to log off and start again fresh the next day.

Since I have a couple of days off work, as soon as I'd had breakfast I picked up where I'd left off. It took me another couple of hours, so, approximately five hours in total.

That five hours included doing my dailies in WvW and completing all the Hearts in the new map as required by the storyline. It also involved several "puzzle" instances, during which most of my time was spent trying to read mouse-over tool-tips while various NPCs and Security Devices tried to set me on fire plus some time tabbed out searching the forums for hints about why certain things didn't seem to be working.

If you subtract the trial-and-error/research time and the filler, I guess there might be a couple of hours of actual content. If I ever take a second character through it, which is unlikely, I guess I'll find out.

Now that we've hit the buffers, Season reviews are starting to pop up on the Forum. I thought about doing one but I don't have the enthusiasm or the interest to go into detail. It's over, let it lie.

What I would say is that the whole format is looking tired and formulaic and that the underlying conceit - trying to mirror the narrative structure of a TV show - simply doesn't work. A successful TV show pumps out far more episodes far faster with much shorter gaps between them. Intertwined plot lines have time to develop and resolve; characters have space to change and grow.

You can't do that with four to six episodes spread across an entire year. Or, I should say, there's no evidence that ANet's current team of writers and instance designers can do that.

There is abundant evidence that their artists and map designers can keep up the pace but even there I see a problem. It's been great to get a new map every two or three months - a huge step up from the way the world failed to expand during the first two seasons. Unfortunately, although the maps vary widely in their environments, covering everything from permafrost to lava, they are all structurally more alike than that would suggest.

Add to that the very similar content - the Hearts, chained events, rewards - and there's a strong sense of diminishing returns. Yes, these are gorgeous maps, soaked in visual flair and rich with detail. They're still beginning to feel samey.

Looking back at my posts on the earlier episodes, my feelings a year ago were a lot more positive. I gave the first episode four stars out of five. I'd give the current one two stars for the storyline and maybe three for the map, although I haven't done map completion yet, nor fully explored it, so that's a tad premature.

Without giving any spoilers I would say that the storyline in this Finale is incoherent. That, however, is something we've come to expect and a lack of coherence is, frankly, the least of its problems. Much worse is the seeming inability - or possibly interest - in even paying lip-service to the idea that the player character has any agency, individuality or existence other than as a tool of the plot.

At one point, when words were put into my character's mouth that neither he nor I would ever utter, I shouted out loud at the screen in denial. I can only thank my stars I swapped from doing the Living Story on my Charr to my Asura because, had I been playing the Charr I might have thrown the monitor out of the window. I'm not alone.

Apart from that, the voice work seemed lackluster compared to earlier episodes, the dialog in general was often wooden, the persistently ironic tone seemed inappropriate and much of the humor fell flat. In terms of character and backstory I thought it was the least engaging episode to date.

As a "Finale" it fails completely because it doesn't finish. One - and only one, - sub-plot is resolved (in a way that presents serious moral problems that are simply ignored). Everything else is left to hang.

Instead of a resolution we get a commercial. The final cut scene is quite literally a trailer for the unnamed expansion. Or, more accurately, a trailer for the Official Announcement of that expansion.

At this point I have to say I'm about done with The Living Story as a narrative. It's pointless becoming emotionally or intellectually invested in something so arbitrary and etiolated.

Characters appear and disappear with no more than a half-line reference. Entire sub-plots proceed, climax and fade off stage. If we're lucky Taimi gives us a report in precis by cat-whisker. I read superhero comics for decades; I'm inured to this kind of thing but even I can't suspend this much disbelief or fill in this many plot-holes for myself.

Next week we get to find out the name of the forthcoming expansion and, presumably, what's in it. At this point I'm looking forward to some new maps that look and play at least a little differently. I'm hoping for some new Ascended weapons for each class because the "quests" for those were one of my highlights from Heart of Thorns. I'd like some big-ticket events as enjoyable as Dragon's Stand or Auric Basin. And that's about it.

What I'm really hoping is that ANet's A-Team has been working on the expansion the whole time and what we've been getting from Living Story for the last year is sloppy seconds. If so, then it's not been at all bad, considering. If it's the best they can do, though...

Monday, July 24, 2017

Short Attention Span

"Of course, all of this means EverQuest II and the Fallen Gate server will drop by the wayside as I jump games after a month yet again".
Wilhelm at TAGN

Ah, yes. "All of this". It's a problem, that's for sure.

In March I was enthusing about returning to Lord of the Rings Online. That didn't last.

In April I was thundering through Twin Saga  on a turtle until FFXIV's endless free trial shouldered it out of the spotlight for a while.

Along the way I took the unusual step of buying Tanzia, a game that plays like an MMO but isn't. I barely even wrote about that one but I did play it quite a bit before yet another distraction came along.

I ended up enjoying Secret Worlds Legends more than I thought I would, although many of my original reservations remain. (For a more considered take on the problematic nature of this ill-conceived revamp, read Karinshastha's excellent review) but, much though I wanted to get to the end of the story, something else soon caught my eye and it was off to Norrath once again.

Did it stop there? No, of course it didn't. This weekend I found myself dithering between two new possibilities. Dark and Light appeared unexpectedly on Steam and Yonder cropped up on several blogs I follow.

I vaguely remember D&L from its original, disastrous launch as an MMO back in 2006. I didn't pay it much attention then and I hadn't been taking much more notice of the revamp but I visited the website and it looked somewhat intriguing.

Given that I'd been speculating about what a hybrid Survival/MMO might look like only a few weeks ago, it seemed churlish to ignore one when it came along. I got as far as reading some of the Steam reviews but while I was there I also took a look at what people were saying about Yonder.

It was neck and neck for a while but in the end it was Yonder's delicate footprint that nudged ahead. D&L is a 50GB download; Yonder is less than a tenth of that.

So I ponied up my £15 and downloaded Yonder, which took less than five minutes. That was on Saturday and I was working Sunday but Steam tells me I've already played for four hours. I would have guessed longer but time seems to drift when I'm exploring Gemea.

Posts specifically about Yonder may or may not follow. There's an awful lot I could say. It's as gorgeous as I was led to believe but nowhere near as relaxing. In some ways it's not so much an Explorer's dream as an Achiever's tick-list. I certainly wasn't was expecting so many quests, let alone a central storyline.

Perhaps we'll get back to that in a proper review sometime - or a First Impressions piece at least. Or maybe we won't because the next cab's already pulling away from the rank.

Tomorrow the Living Story Season 3 Finale drops. Titled "One Path Ends" it supposedly takes us back to Orr. Once the dust settles everyone's expecting the official announcement of GW2's second expansion, which so rumor has it, could be with us as soon as the end of September.

That's going to push everything else off the table for a while. Looks like I won't have time to take advantage of the Level 105 boost that comes with LotRO's imminent Mordor expansion after all. Maybe I'll ask for that one for my birthday in November.

Except, that's when the still-under-wraps EQ2 expansion will probably appear...most likely right on top of the XPack for GW2 (which I don't for one moment believe will land in September - at least I hope not, because I'll be in Italy then...)

Anyway, getting Legion for my birthday last year didn't work out so well. I still haven't found a window for WoW.

Remember when we used to talk about Three-Monthers? Ah, those were the days!

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Anyone Want To See Some Pictures Of My Pets?

Atherne observed in a comment to my last post that she had no idea I played so much PvP. Ravanel said that her blog doesn't accurately reflect what she does in game either.

Meanwhile, Gevlon, who's recently been trawling the entirety of Syp's extensive blog roll in search of something worth reading (sooner him than me!) likens most of the bloggers he's found there to people who put up pictures of their breakfast on Instagram.: "They are alike the facebook pages of random nobodies that are full of everyday busywork that no one cares about (not even the poster) and literal photos of food. Why does someone cares to share a meal? Or a minipet? Or a storyline."

When I was growing up, one of the very many aspects of the adult world that mystified me and made me mildly apprehensive at the thought I'd one day have to learn to do it was "small talk". I was nervous about small talk without really knowing what small talk was. The concept came up occasionally in books that I'd read but it never seemed to be properly explained.

I could tell it was something that the characters were instinctively either good or bad at but being good at small talk didn't seem to confer any great value or status, while being bad at it was often pointed up as a problem or a drawback, even for those characters who clearly found the entire idea an anathema.

In retrospect I recognize this probably says more about the authors than it does about either the characters or about small talk itself, but as a teenager I found a lot of adult life looked like that: opaque, mysterious, worrying. Then, when I finally worked out what the grown-ups were talking about it often often turned out to be an anticlimax; usually it was something I already knew how to do, had been doing all along, without even thinking about it.

Writing a blog turned out to be very much the same. It took me a good while to decide to start one and even when I'd picked a platform and a title and a layout it was well over a year before I found the nerve to upload my first proper post.

Once I'd got started, though, it ended up being just about exactly the same as several things I already knew how to do and had been doing for a long time. As I've mentioned before, blogging is really nothing more than the internet-enabled version of the APAzine scene that took up so much of my time and energy throughout the 1980s. All I was doing was picking up where I'd left off about a decade before only now I didn't have to keep buying glue.

Writing a blog is also not a huge step up from commenting on the blogs of other people or even on pontificating or arguing on Forums, which is how I'd bridged the gap between my last zine and my first blog. Honestly, now I look back it's like I started with my first fanzine in 1977 and never really stopped.

Blogging is an activity that also fits extremely well into the Bartle gaming schema . Bloggers can be Explorers, Achievers or Killers (that would be an interesting way to subdivide a blogroll) but they pretty much have to be Socializers. 

Or do they? Certainly the kind of blogs that puzzle Gevlon are very heavy on the socializing, which is, I guess, why he finds them so puzzling.

Posting pictures of your mini-pets is the blogging equivalent of small talk and as such it's both trivial and essential. The success of any social gathering (and for many of us doing it, blogging is a kind of social gathering) often relies not only on preparation and organization but on the willingness and facility with which those attending are able to engage with each other by finding common ground on which to stand. Small talk is the grease on the party wheel.

Which is all very well as far it goes...only there are some of us who really do love to talk about the weather - not because it's a safe, neutral topic but because weather is bloody amazing!

I grew up in a house with a barometer in the hall. My grandfather would tap it every day and tell us
what the weather was going to be. It wasn't a very good barometer so he was mostly wrong but I grew up with an understanding that talking about the weather was just something people did because weather was something worth talking about.

I love weather. I could talk about it for hours. Mrs Bhagpuss would tell you I do talk about it for hours. It's still my go-to topic for small talk but if I sense the slightest flare of interest then "small" drops out of the picture.

When it comes to MMOs and blogging about them, storylines, mini-pets and everyday busywork are exactly like weather. Yes, they provide a simple, uncontroversial backdrop for a little mild socializing, which is what many people want from their blogging, as well as their MMOs, but to some bloggers and readers they're not the sauce but the meat.

I do want to see pictures of other people's mini-pets. I do want to hear their accounts of quests they've done and how that turned out. I find reading this stuff and looking at the pictures entertaining. The fact that it also gives a warm burr of social inclusion is a welcome bonus.

It is indeed a warm, pleasant feeling and as I  blog, I increasingly feel an obligation to pay it forward. When I began Inventory Full I was writing almost entirely for myself but as the years pass I have come to accept that, as Ravanel says, all of us who publish blogs are "writing for (some sort of) an audience". 

An audience is not compulsory. There is an option in Blogger to make your blog accessible only to people you permit to read it or even to make it entirely private. There will be people out there writing MMO blogs that no-one has ever read but them.

If I truly only wanted to keep a diary of my MMO adventures then I'd be one of those people. When I took the plunge six years ago and submitted my first post for the approval or otherwise of the entire world (I got 13 page views) I was crossing the threshold to join a party already in full swing.

The party's still going on and having chosen to hang around it's on me as much as anyone to help keep the plates spinning. Some days I just feel like slumping in a corner of the kitchen, letting the buzz of conversation filter through from the next room. Other times I find myself talking too loudly and spilling my drink over someone's photos of their mini-pets.

So, I try not to bang on too much about the weather or how we lost Garrison last night because it was Reset in four hours and everyone was goofing off. I try to think of interesting conversation starters but I always have my wallet-full of pictures of the pets to hand in case there's an uncomfortable silence.

Whatever it takes to keep the party going.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Welcome Back, My Friends, To The Show That Never Ends : GW2

If it's anything at all, this blog is a record of the MMOs I've played over the last umpty-ump years. It's the diary I always wished I'd kept and, like most diaries, it's highly selective. To accurately reflect the way I spend my gaming hours, almost every post would need to be about GW2 and most would need to focus on World vs World.

I have three GW2 accounts that I play every single day. On two of them I mostly just do the dailies but those dailies always include a trip to The Mists, where I often find myself answering a call to defend a tower or a keep. One thing leads to another and before I know it half an hour or more has passed, all of it in WvW.

I have camped Veteran Creatures for dailies for a lot longer than I ever camped anything in EQ.

Eventually I'll arrive on my main account and settle down for the full session. On a weekday evening that usually lasts two or three hours; on a weekend it could easily be double. However long it lasts, it's in World vs World that the time is mainly spent.

How long I stay does depend on the match - who we're playing, who's commanding, how urgent or exciting the current situation - but even on a dull day, in a dead match with no-one tagged up and nothing much happening, it's odds on I'll hang around.

Competetive? Moi?

On days like that I sort my bags and bank in Citadel. I've done all my inventory chores in WvW for so long I think of it as the hub for all practical concerns. Until they took out the crafting stations it was where I did all my tradeskills as well. If everything's good and tidy I roam around killing sentries, taking camps and generally tidying our home borderland so it's all one color.

Sometimes I don't do anything at all. I just stand on the battlements at Hills or Garrison and stare. I have dozens - scores - of screenshots of empty keeps with a lone figure under a bleak, blue sky. Several times, most weeks, I position my character in spots known to be vulnerable to attack - the cata wall at Hills is a favorite - then I tab out to read or write blog posts, browse the web, look stuff up...

Alarum! Alarum!
With the sound set to bleed through, my character acts as the canary in the mine. When I hear the distinctive crank of the siege engine, the zing of the sound effect that signifies a structure contesting, or, most dramatically, my character screaming as some invader yanks her off the wall and stamps on her head, I tab back and raise the alarm. Even when I'm not in WvW I'm in WvW.

Anything else I write about here, even when it's about GW2, is an outlier. Or, at least, it is quite often. Not always. While Mrs Bhagpuss threw herself wholeheartedly into WvW from the very start, it took me a year or so to acquire the taste and of late, for most of this year, that taste has staled. There were a few months this spring when I didn't think I was going to bother with WvW much longer.

Rather more than that now...

Something always changes. Something pulls me back. This time it was the recent, extensive changes to both scoring and rewards, which made the game mode spasm like a jolt to a corpse.

Hordes of long-lost names re-appeared together with hosts of people I'd never seen before. The frenzy only lasted a week or two but with the novelty over we arrived at a new norm; populations are higher, people are more focused, winning skirmishes and matches is back in fashion. It's better all round.

Anyone seen a fatted calf around here?

More significant for Yaks Bend than any rule change, an immensely influential and endlessly charismatic Commander came back from a long break. Within days of his reappearance the entire feel of the game on YB changed. In his absence we'd slipped into something like a second-rate "fights" server without the guilds or the skills to make it stick. Now we're almost back to our old, loathed, siege-humping best.

How one person can have such an effect is difficult to figure but the more I learn about other servers the clearer it is that many have one or two such major players, able to swing the server behind them without apparently even trying. Once you know it you can immediately tell whether or not those Commanders are running even when you're on the other side. They make the whole shaky structure stand; without them it all falls apart.

And a few I wish I didn't.

Little of this translates well to prose. For all the play PvPers make of the vitality, the vibrance and unpredictability of their playstyle compared to rote PvE questing or the formal dance of the raid, running in one zerg is much like running in another and every Stonemist three-way blurs into one as the years drift by. 

Of course the detail is always unique. Every single time my Zerker staff ele makes another death-defying run through the the enemy blob, arriving inside the besieged keep stretched flat in the dust gasping for breath, it thrills like the first time - thrills me. Not so much anyone who has to hear about it.

Yeah, whatever...
Other people's war stories are tedious. Not, perhaps, to those who stood side by side as fifteen fought thirty in a half-hour rearguard until, at a famous last stand in Air Lords, the fifteen finally prevailed, but to anyone who wasn't there? So what?

In a never-ending Valhalla, where you fight forever to hold what you own and never own what you fight to take, where nothing changes then everything changes in a game of musical keeps and shifting colors, sometimes it can be hard to remember what you're fighting for, if you're even fighting for anything. EVE stories have such currency outside the game because they mirror recognizable gain and loss. In WvW only memories matter - memories and pride.

If it's purple it has to be important.

Still, this is my diary. My web log. These should be my memories, here, set down for me to remember. I should write more about these things that matter to no-one but me because it's for certain-sure I shan't remember them in anything more than form and shape come the day I can no longer stir to the call.

A picture, though. A picture tells a thousand stories. Or something like that.

I'll make myself an album. Someday.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide