Monday, August 28, 2017

I Should Be So Lucky : GW2

I like lockboxes. There. I said it. I do, truly, unironically, like lockboxes.

What I don't like, of course, is paying for them with real money.

In-game money - gold, karma, reputation, pretty shells you pick up from the beach - that's fine. I don't mind paying imaginary money to open imaginary boxes. Where I draw the line is paying money I could use to buy something more tangible like, oh, I don't know, food?

I'm a huge, huge fan of RNG in MMOs. If I had my way there would be at least an element of chance in every possible transaction, from whether a crafted item turns out to be exceptional or below-average to the standard path to upgrading your armor. As for drops, as we call them, I freakin' love drops!

What I find tedious, dull and unimaginative are trading systems where you earn tokens and buy things from a vendor. That is too much like real life.

Dragon's Stand. Please clear inventory before arrival.

GW2 has its share of token systems but fortunately for me ANet are much more obsessed with delivering loot of all kinds inside boxes. Boxes and bags. It's long gone beyond parody. After any major event it can take me up to half an hour to go through my inventory and open all the bags and boxes I've acquired.

Seriously, it has actually taken me half an hour in real time, although to be fair some of that was time taken clearing space to receive each new burst of goodies and not-very-goodies. I did Dragon's Stand tonight and it took me almost twenty minutes to open everything I got.

EQ2 likes to use flashy ground chests but generally the game tends more towards direct drops because, for all the ridiculous things SOE and DBG have done over the years, at least they never invented "Magic Find". Magic Find is a ludicrous stat used in many F2P MMOs under various names. It purports to increase your chance at getting better drops.

Not in my experience.

Originally GW2 included it as a stat on gear but that proved controversial, with people being kicked from Dungeon groups (remember them?) for wearing Magic Find gear rather than something useful for killing the mobs that drop the loot in the first place.

These days it's a character stat instead. On my main account my Magic Find is 330%. I'm not going to explain how that works. Just roll with it.

Magic Find is bloody useless. With a handful of exceptions it only works on direct drops, although you'd hardly know it. In theory it includes hyper-rare items like the Precursors for Legendary Weapons. In five years, on six accounts, with thousands of hours played, Mrs Bhagpuss and I have received one precursor each. I hate to think how much worse that drop rate would have been if we didn't have MF!

The reason ANet loves putting drops in boxes is that it protects them from Magic Find. First they add the stat, then they make it useless. Brilliant. The first rule of magic find is we don't use magic find and that's also why we can't have nice drops.

Of course, no matter how bad something is, it can always get worse. In the upcoming Path of Fire expansion we are apparently getting a new system wherein loot will drop as "unidentified". We'll then either have to take it to an NPC and pay to get it identified, at which point we'll find out if it's worth anything or just fit for salvage. Or we can cut out the middleman and salvage it unidentified.

This is proving controversial, although not very. The main thread on the topic didn't manage a hundred replies. I'm betting most GW2 players don't know about the change yet so the real shouting won't start until launch day. Who knows, maybe it'll be popular. At least the unidentified items stack.

Anyway, I like opening my bags and boxes and so, as long as no real money changes hands, I find lockboxes are 100% acceptable as well. They're fun. More than that, they're exciting. They have interesting things in them, as you can see from the recently-added inspection feature, although in my experience most of those interesting things stay inside the box.

It's like the Bizarro World version of Developer Appreciation Week
They certainly did today, when I logged all my accounts in to grab the free "Customer Appreciation Package" from the Trading Post. It turned out to be a Black Lion Chest (aka lockbox) and a Black Lion Key to open it.

I opened one on each account, three of them (F2P players aren't "customers" apparently, which I guess is technically true if not something game companies usually say out loud). The only remotely interesting thing I got was a dye. Everything else was embarrassingly dull.

Leaving aside the name, which I can only assume is a marketing department in-joke, the clear and obvious purpose of this free taster is to encourage players to buy Black Lion Keys, which by an exceptional co-incidence happen to be on sale right now.

I did once work in Marketing. It was a long time ago but I think I can still remember how it goes. Something about getting people to use your company's products or services more, not shun them like a fatal disease.

I'd have thought it might be worth rigging the odds on these infrequent freebies so that everyone gets at least a halfway decent item. The dye would do it. A mini, perhaps. Nothing amazing, just not a Bank Express and a 30 minute booster.

Had there ever been the slightest chance that I might one day buy a Black Lion Key to open a Black Lion Chest (there wasn't) this utterly pathetic experience would have put the can on it. As a promotional device it's up there with "Two For The Price Of Three" (an actual promo run by a London bookshop once - it did at least get them some free publicity on national media...).

None of which is going to stop me squealing with excitement and linking it in guild chat next time I get a Black Lion Key for free (they do drop, incredibly rarely, and you can often get one for completing a map). I still love lockboxes!

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Tunnel Vision

The official announcement of GW2's second expansion, Path of Fire and more particularly its unexpectedly imminent arrival, has had an all-too-predictable effect on my gaming these last few weeks. Prior to the drop I had been juggling several games quite effectively but now it seems to be all GW2 all the time.

Large numbers of familiar names are reappearing, both in the open world and in WvW, some of which I can't remember seeing for a year or more. As Zoso observes, there's nothing like a new expansion to remind people an MMO actually exists.

Unlike some other MMOs - probably most of them, now I come to think of it - there isn't a lot anyone needs to do to prepare for a GW2 expansion. All you need is a Level 80 character and you get one of those with the download.

Not only that but it comes fully equipped and ready to go. Decently equipped at that. I recently used the Level 80 boost I got when I added Heart of Thorns to my second account and I've been doing HoT content and WvW very comfortably in just what came out of the box.

EQ2 came under some considerable criticism last year for the inadequacies of the gear that came with its max-level boost. Kaozz was by no means alone in her disappointment over both the initial difficulty of the expansion and the unfriendliness of its systems and processes towards those who keep a large stable of alts.

This time it seems they have taken considerable steps to avoid those pitfalls, not least with the excellent "Days of Summer" series of quests. Just to make sure there's no doubt that this year will be different, Kander makes it plain:

"Alts and new players will have virtually no pre-reqs for expansion 14 content. We’re even going to gear your alts and new players for said content before they begin. The plan is to make the new content easier for alts to go through after the initial pass."

We'll see how that goes when the still-unnamed, still-no-release-date expansion arrives. I'm sure that no matter how carefully DBG prepare, the general attitude will be that it's not been enough.

The only significant pre-expansion warm-up I had in mind for Path of Fire was a quick run-through of Guild Wars "Nightfall" expansion to give me a chance of recognizing at least a few of the threatened promised flurry of references and in-jokes.

It's not going all that well. The initial cakewalk, when I was heavily over-levelled, didn't last long. Now the mobs are mostly a couple of levels above me and everything's a slog. I have a few basic tactics down but I'm just not interested enough to practice placing my Heroes properly. Mostly I clump them up around M.O.X. while I stand back and try, not very successfully, not to get killed.

For all that GW veterans like to rip on the writing and storytelling in GW2, I can's say I'm finding the older game an improvement. The dialog is mostly hokey, the voice acting, when there is any, is stiff (as are the cut scenes, but that's an aging game thing) and the plot has yet to grab me.

As for the Heroes and their many catchphrases, clearly a cracker factory somewhere missed out on a valuable joke-writer when ANet snapped them up. I really don't think "I can kill you with my brain" works as a battle cry, even for an Asura, although "I've been thinking about the Charr. I think they can be domesticated." did raise a smile.

At the moment I can't entirely see the point of finishing Nightfall but I will probably grind through a few more sessions before the sequel arrives. At which point I don't imagine I'll be playing anything else for quite a while.

Whether that's a good thing I'm not entirely sure...

Friday, August 25, 2017

This Is The Modern World

Yesterday, Keen posted in support of a tweet from a particularly disgruntled game developer, who made the controversial - some might say bizarre - claim that "In a world of $5 lattes a game with 50 hours of content is worth $1,000." Wilhem responded with a hilarious rebuttal, which Zubon saw fit to reblog, so by now the topic has probably had about as much publicity as it needs, at least as far as this corner of the blogosphere is concerned.

It's unfortunate for me that the analogy chosen happened to be chain store coffee. I already have such a strongly negative, pre-determined position on the coffee-shop phenomenon that the mere mention of it in any discussion drives all other considerations clean out of my mind. Luckily there were plenty of more rational responders in Wilhelm's comment thread, easily able to dismantle and dispose of the entire spurious argument.

It only occurred to me this morning that there is a potentially relevant and apposite analogy to be drawn between the modern coffee and video game experiences. Comparing a $5 latte to the video game itself is ludicrous but comparing that same purchase to the purchase of a consumable within the game is not.

Indeed, once you step in front of that particular train, the argument in favor of video games being at a disadvantage when it comes to separating consumers from their cash gets knocked into next week and then some. Just open up your current MMO of choice and browse the virtual shelves of the in-game cash shop and see how the prices for boosts and buffs compare with your local coffee dealer. Then think about the production costs and marginal costs. We've come a long, long way from the days of the Ten Dollar Horse.

That $5 latte's beginning to look like a bargain, isn't it? No? Okay, but if it's still an insanely overpriced rip-off then what does that make a $2 Revive Orb?

The game developer who kicked all this off, Michael Hartman, is someone of whose existence I'd previously been as unaware as he surely is of mine, but it turns out he's behind a game that's been, very vaguely, on my radar for a while: Stash. And when I say "vaguely" I really mean it - apparently Stash went into Steam Early Access last year, something that completely passed me by, although it was reported on MassivelyOp at the time.

Michael Hartman is President and CEO of Frogdice, which claims to have been "arguably the first video game studio to utilize the "free-to-play" (F2P) business [model] in 1996", a model the company defines as one in which "players can play the game for free and have the option to purchase additional content, customization, cosmetics, boosts, etc".

His Linkedin entry goes on to say that F2P is "currently the hottest business model in the industry and Frogdice has 20+ years of experience with it". All of which leaves me somewhat confused as to why Mr Hartman was railing against customers' unwillingness to part with cash for games upfront in the first place. Maybe it made more sense on Twitter...

Talking of things that don't make much sense, given Keen's open hostility to the F2P business model and his deep suspicion of Early Access, he and Michael Hartman do seem to make unlikely allies but then I guess it makes about as much sense as the original proposition. I think I'd best leave them to it while I drink my tuppenny instant coffee and open the unsolicited free gifts that shower down around me in my own MMOs of choice.

In the end it comes down to this: make something I want, sell it at a price that's worth paying and I'll willingly give you my money. On the other hand, if you insist on shoving things at me, things that I also want, far more of them than I can possibly find time for, and all of it for free, then you can hardly complain if I take those instead and spend my money on something else, now, can you?.

If I promise not spend any of it on  a $5 latte, will that do you?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Secret World: GW2

When GW2 started it looked for a while as though it might follow the development model I've always preferred for MMOs; one where regular, permanent content is continually supplemented by one-off, never to be repeated, "you had to be there" events. It used to be close to the norm for the genre but as commercial success moved MMOs further and further along the mainstream curve, this particular expression of "exclusivity" fell out of fashion.

I consider this not just to be a mis-step for the genre but a fundamental change in its function. Unrepeatable content that yet left an impact that could be seen years later by players who weren't there when it happened was one of the defining features of playing online - that and talking, competing and co-operating with strangers. The shared experience of such events, events which had a beginning, middle and end and which left lasting changes to the landscape or structure of the game, contributed hugely to the sense of MMOs as Virtual Worlds as opposed to merely games.

Mrs Bhagpuss's Charr Mesmer modelling the Catmander Tag
ArenaNet struggled on with this concept for a long while, even after the very first flagship event, The Lost Shores, crashed and burned. The entire first season of The Living Story relied on content that appeared, hung around for a while, then vanished. Often it left the physical environment altered, sometimes in ways that now appear mysterious and strange.

I sometimes wonder what new players make of locations like North Nolan Hatchery or Cragstead, which seem to exist without any in-game purpose. That thought came back to me last night, when Mrs Bhagpuss ported me into the hidden area behind the waterfall in The Desert Borderlands so I could buy my Catmander Tag and Mini.

It occurred to me as I explored the cave behind the waterfall that someone at ANet, possibly a lot of someones, have never given up the fight, even though an increasingly intransigent, demanding segment of the audience, arguably although not necessarily the majority, has, over the course of the last five years, driven the developers into a corner.

The requirement is that everything that's added to the game must remain - at least theoretically - available to everyone forever. It can be gated by whatever means you like - real money, time played, luck - but the possibility that anything there ever was can be yours, whether you've played since launch or started yesterday, is sacrosanct.

A young quaggan misunderstands the Pirate Ship Meta

The most recent example and probably the most cynical (because acquisition is gated by lockboxes purchased through the Gem Store) is the addition of  a vendor that sells signature items from Living Story events that can no longer be replayed. Some of those, like the Selfless and Thoughtless potions, once the rewards for lengthy grinds, remained until now badges of honor - or at least effort - for those who displayed them. Others, like the Minis from Lost Shores, were increasingly scarce, highly valuable trading items on the exchange.

Now you can have them all - in theory, at least. This is ANet's "if you can't beat 'em, exploit 'em" response to the barbarians at the gates. There is, however, a much more subtle, almost subliminal faction quietly at work beneath the surface.

Yellow Catmander puzzles over the futility of life.

As The Living Story limped on into its third season, bound both to instances and a funereal cadence, it began to be supplemented by something known only as "Current Events". These were patched in much more frequently, with no fanfare other than one solitary, enigmatic line in the update notes and sometimes not even that.

They spread by word of mouth (and Dulfy, of course) and they only began to appear in your Quest Journal Achievement List after you happened to stumble across them in-game. I found them to be reliably and consistently more interesting, enjoyable and thought-provoking than the Living Story content itself.

Caution: Moving Parts
These, too, have now been consolidated and codified, hardened into the game as official Achievements accessed through their own tab. Like everything else, they must always be there for anyone who wants them, evermore.

And that's fine, provided there are more unpublicized pleasures to come. ANet have arrived at a bizarre state of doublethink, in which the entire landscape of the game, both in and out of instances, is now, by canon, snapshots in time. Every Map is frozen in stasis. How we as players figure in that or where we can find the part of the game that occurs in "the present" escapes me but I'm sure someone, somewhere understands it.

Against this chaotic, incoherent and unmistakably fudged backdrop, the struggle continues. The weapon of choice for this insurgency? Cats.

I forget exactly when collectable cats began to appear in the game. It was earlier this year, I think. Tyria has always had a lot of cats, along with rabbits, owls, hawks and various other "ambients". They never interacted with players in any way until, suddenly, they did.

Who would notice that a cat had an interactive speech icon when targeted? Someone must have. Then Dulfy knew. Then  we all knew. Knew to speak to cats, to feed cats, to find cats installing themselves in our Home Instances.

Can we watch another channel? I'm bored!

After that, Catmanders. As far as I can tell, this wasn't documented in the Update Notes but somehow, someone knew and word spread fast. There are two Catmander Minis (vanity pets), two Commander Tag Variants (with cat ears) and two Catmander Home Instance spawns, which come with kittens, who do battle with each other.

The Blue Catmander can be purchased near the end of the Alpine Borderlands Jumping Puzzle. The Yellow Catmander is in a hidden cave behind the waterfall in the Desert Borderlands. Dulfy has everything you could possibly want to know.

Television is all very well but you can't beat the thrill of a live performance.
Everything, that is, except anything at all about the amazing cave itself. I always wondered why there was a huge waterfall and an idyllic lake in a hidden corner of what was a) a desert and b) a battleground. I've wandered around there several times, exploring and, naturally, I'd gone behind the curtain of the waterfall, looking for secret caves, because that's what you do when you see a waterfall.

I'd never found one but there was one there. You have to drop down from the top, edge along, drop again, go behind the water, jump up, edge along some more and finally do a little dink and you're in. After I got ported inside, after I'd gosh-wowed all round and taken my screenshots, I came out only to realize I'd forgotten to feed the cat some chilli to get the house pet, so I had to find my own way back in. Even with the video to follow it took me half a dozen attempts.

Catmander inspects the troops at a training session.
What I'm wondering, after all that, is this: was that cave always there? Did some designer, some artist, create that back in 2014/15, just to let it sit there, unknown until now? Was it always filled with quaggans and cats or were they added when someone came up with the Catmander pun and thought it was too good not to use?

There's more: why are all the quaggans children? Where are the adults? Why are the cats being trained to fight? Why are the training dummies all frogs and why do they have buckets over their heads? Why is the quaggan working the puppet theater dressed as a ghost?

Is that a television that quaggan is watching? What does that orrery represent? WHY DOES THIS GAME NOT HAVE A FULLY FUNCTIONING HOUSING SYSTEM?

There is more going on here - more that makes me think, makes me feel I'm somewhere real, for a given value of reality - in this hidden cave than in all the episodes of LS3 put together. Much more.

This is what we were promised. The fight goes on!

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Bleedthrough : GW2

A couple of weeks ago, while I was hanging around in Krennak's Homestead, an NPC dive in Wayfarer Hills that I like to use as a surrogate home when I'm in the area, I was startled to hear a conversation strike up behind me. The Norn family that live there, none of whom I'd ever paid  much attention before, began to run through some kind of comedy routine.

It was a pretty funny little skit and quite a long one, too. I laughed out loud a couple of times but my amusement was heavily outweighed by my confusion and surprise. I mean, I doubt I'd be exaggerating much if I said I'd spent a dozen hours in that hut over the life of the game. I camp there almost every time after I've done The Frozen maw and I frequently afk there to web browse or write a blog post.

Since I have the sound of the game set to continue playing while I'm tabbed out, I can absolutely guarantee that, had the Norn Family piped up, I'd have heard them. I never had until then.

Since then I've heard them exchange the same banter so often I could almost recite it by heart. It starts up every time I enter the lodge and replays often if I stay there. It's gone from amusing to annoying to "I really have to find somewhere else to afk".

It would seem very strange for ANet to have paid writers and voice actors to add this kind of flavor to
such old content so my best guess was that it had long been bugged until something in some patch nudged it working. That explanation didn't entirely convince me but it was the best I could manage.

Anyway, I soon stopped wondering about it as the dialog became part of the soundscape of the game. Then today I happened to be in Plains of Ashford when something happened that surprised me even more.

I'd logged in my Free to Play account to take the screenshots for my Elite Spec Beta post (because reasons) and since I had it logged in I thought I'd check whether F2P accounts are allowed to claim the free promo item currently in the Black Lion Store (yes, they are).

After that I thought I'd just do the Dailies and one of them was Plains of Ashford Events. My F2P ranger is a Charr and I used to love doing my dailies in Ashford so much I once wrote a guide on the subject (albeit the long-lost and much-missed "Kill Variety" kind), so that was too tempting to ignore.

First I went to the cave under the waterfall to spawn the Rampaging Skale. As I was standing there waiting, I thought I faintly heard a sound I'd almost forgotten: Drottot Lashtail demanding devourer eggs.

Drottot is a Charr given the unenviable task of teaching cubs how to catch and raise devourers for the Legions. His charges are sassy, the work is tedious and as far as I knew he'd given up trying about three years ago. Not his choice: he was retired as part of the New Player Experience patch that, among other things, strove to do away with many non-standard events that supposedly sent delicate new players into a tail-spin.

This particular event required you to activate some small devices that look and sound like old-fashioned gramophones in order to distract female devourers so you could break into their nests and steal their eggs. It was fiddly enough that a three-year old child might have taken five or ten seconds to grasp the mechanics so it had to go.

Well, it's back! I did it this morning. It was joyous. So good, in fact, that I did it twice. With other people. Still busy in Ashford on daily day I'm happy to confirm.

Of course, now I'm beginning to doubt my own memory. I can't find any sign that I, or anyone else, ever wrote about the event going away, much less anyone commenting on it coming back. If it wasn't for that absolutely, definitely, for certain sure new to me after five years, dialog in Wayfarer Foothills I'd think I was losing it (whatever "it" is and always assuming I ever had it in the first place).

Oh, and there's this, which does prove things get changed under the hood now and again without ANet coming out and making a big fuss about it.  I note that was also a belated acknowledgement of mistakes made in the New Player Experience.

Co-incidence? I think not.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Playing It By Ear: GW2

Last weekend ANet threw open the gates to the Crystal Desert. Metaphorical gates only. Not, sadly, the actual, huge gates that stand so imposingly and implacably outside the city of  Ebonhawke.

Those massive gates were constructed on the orders of Queen Jennah to bar the route southwards through the desert to Elona, after Destiny's Edge's attempt to kill the Elder Dragon, Kralkatorrik, failed. A more egregious example of bolting the stable doors after the dragon has bolted is hard to imagine.

It takes some beating in the desperate face-saving stakes, too. Having wrecked a perfectly good plan that would have worked if she'd held her nerve, having gotten Snaff killed and half of Ascalon Branded, Jennah apparently thought a big public works project was all it would take to restore confidence in her judgment and authority.

Even as I write this, I find it quite astonishing how annoyed - almost angry - I get just thinking about it all, particularly Logan's desperately poor decision-making and Jennah's imperious arrogance.

Herein lies one of GW2's huge problems: the much-maligned story has huge emotional heft if - and only if - it has been experienced in media outside of the game. By the standards of genre literature (far less those of literature per se) the novel in which all this happens, Edge of Destiny, is little more than a classic potboiler. The prose style is professional in the way of competent work made for hire and it zips along like the shooting script for a movie. No claims could be made on its behalf beyond efficiency and purity of function but those are claims that far outstrip anything ever seen in the story within the game itself.

Nevertheless, I have a strong and lasting affinity to certain characters in the milieu, purely because I read that unexceptional novel. It's why I share Rytlock's deep distrust and suspicion of Logan. It's why I do not trust Jennah in any way, shape or form. It's why I feel Zojja's entirely justified bitterness and anger and it's why I have more faith and affection for Caith than anything she's ever been seen to have done in the Living Story could possibly support.

It goes on. Others, who played through Guild Wars Campaigns over the years (and no doubt read and absorbed a deal of out-of-game lore and story, too), have had little patience or sympathy with the raft of new characters introduced to supersede the familiar faces from that era. The emotional attachments they developed to the characters and lore that ANet, apparently intentionally, chose either to ignore or, worse, to trash in favor of an entirely new cast and direction remain far stronger than any bonds the new, in-game material has been able to forge .

It's taken years for even a grudging affection for one or two of those new actors to build. Possibly only Taimi has a real following, even now. Canach, maybe. The best the rest achieve is tolerance. Maybe some curiosity. Jory and Kas, for example, have one of those soap-opera relationships that make you feel guilty for wanting to know how it's going to turns out (badly, of course). You want to look away but you can't.

All of that keys in to why it is that I've wanted to go through those Ebonhawke gates ever since I first saw them, barred to me, five years ago. When we learned the Path of Fire lay in the same direction I thought we might start our journey there but it seems that's not to be. Instead, we're set to take yet another cut-scene trip on yet another unfeasibly buoyant airship.

All of this went through my mind as I sorted the screenshots from this week's Path of Fire beta. Yes, there's another one. You may have missed it. I nearly did, albeit intentionally. For this one no airships are involved, let alone any opening gates.

It all takes place in either PvP or WvW zones, where you can trial the new Elite weapon skills and specifications for each class. I wasn't going to bother with it at all until I read Jeromai's post, in which he tells us he's not "super keen" either, then goes on to write over two thousand detailed, insightful words about his experience. My interest very mildly piqued I thought I might as well at least take a quick glance...

The first surprise was the loading screen, shown at the top of this post. I'd completely forgotten that ANet recently revamped the entire PvP lobby. Instead of a long-familiar scrubby afterthought it's now as visually sumptuous as any other GW2 location, It has waypoints and POIs and everything. Make GW2 another one to add to Massively OP's list of MMOs obsessed with floating islands.

Distracted, I wandered about exploring for a while looking at the old new stuff before getting around to looking at the new new stuff. I am not going to say much about the PoF elites in any detail - Jeromai covered that already - but I am going to echo his tone, when he says

... the prospect of having to learn too many new tricks is a little scary and intimidating, and not a little depressing...

Yes, it's all a bit much, isn't it? I mean, I love the chaotic rush of a new MMO expansion, when all the old certainties get thrown into the air and come down in tatters and for a brief, breathless while no-one knows any better than anyone else, but there's always a hangover after that party..

That iconoclasm is the good part (the best of which I will miss this time round because the pot will be four days off the boil by the time I get a taste). The less-good comes with the construction of the New Certainties that have to last us for the next two years, or at least until some nervous dev pulls the nerf alarm.

At some point, probably a lot sooner than I'd like, there will be a new Meta for every class. In GW2, that's not merely a metaphor: there will actually be an official New Meta. It will be posted at MetaBattle and you will be asked by any number of authority figures (Guild Leaders, Raid Organizers, WvW Commanders) to go read it and apply it to your character.

Therafter, if you choose to ignore such advice, you will be "off meta" and can expect to be treated accordingly. If you want to get old-style groups - although probably the only place that happens nowadays is for Fractals, I guess - or if you want to raid or do ranked PvP or run with a "serious" WvW guild, there will be homework. And practice.

Fortunately, GW2 remains an extremely open, forgiving environment for mavericks, self-starters, bullheads and slackers. If you solo, you can forget the Meta - any Meta - entirely; it means absolutely nothing to you; carry on as you were, no-one cares. Also, if you play GW2 as originally intended, hot-joining Dynamic Events, being a good ant, very little will change there, either. In the Zerg no-one knows your name - or your build.

The anonymity of crowds doesn't just apply to PvE. In five years of increasingly obsessive WvW play I have never, ever, not one single time, been called out for having the wrong build, class, gear or playstyle. People say it happens but I've never seen it happen to anyone, let alone experienced it myself.

It's not that there's no drive for efficiency. Commanders frequently ask for people to swap to, say, Guardians or Eles because they don't have as many as they'd like. And people do swap, willingly. I've just never heard any Commander ask a specific individual to change when they didn't want to anyway.

Certainly no-one has ever whispered me to suggest I stop running around as an Engineer, firing my Flamethrower randomly in all directions (as I do on my third account sometimes) and swap instead to a class or build that might actually be useful. Or even, failing that, swap to a class I have at least the shadow of an inkling how to play.

Consequently, I'm not going to go as far as Jeromai and say I feel intimidated or depressed by the new elites but I did find myself feeling a little ennui as I tried to read through the new Elementalist line, The Weaver. There's such a lot there to take in. Really, such a lot. I'm not sure I remember signing up for extra tuition.

Recent discussion on GW2 in this part of the Blogosphere has circled around how much more complex an MMO it is than it first appears. You don't by any means have to know or understand anything more than the absolute basics; you can play the game enjoyably without knowing much at all about builds or synergies, but it's becoming ever more apparent that if you do know those things, the game gets quite a lot easier.

There's a nuance to this that we all seem to miss. Jeromai alerted me to it when he described playing an Elementalist or an Engineer in GW2 as being "like playing the piano".

When we argue about what "playing" MMOs means, as we often do, the discussion tends to focus on the balance or imbalance between the dual concepts of play as "fun" and as "game"; no-one ever seems to notice that "play" has that third meaning.

Playing almost any video game is directly analogous to playing a musical instrument. It only takes a few minutes to pick up the basics but countless hours to become a virtuoso. Just to achieve basic competence requires dedication and practice and if you want to play in a group - well, you'll need to rehearse together.

Raids in MMOs add the possibility of playing in an orchestra and require the same degree of discipline. GW2's huge, sprawling open map events are more forgiving. Like the Rockin' 1000, the zerg can carry a few passengers and if one or two are off the beat, well, who's ever going to know?.

At a glance, though, getting to grips with a new PoF Elite spec doesn't look so much like learning a new tune as picking up a new instrument entirely. I don't know that I'm up for that. I can knock out a few tunes on the old elementalist joanna but I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to take up the harpsichord just yet!

Which isn't to say it doesn't all look rather intriguing. In the detail of The Weaver I see a lot of Stability uptime as well as some 50% super-speed and a lot of auto-condi cleanse. As someone who specializes in being slippery and not getting caught, that has real potential I'm keen to explore.

Just not yet. I'm going to skip this beta. I'm interested, yes, but I'm in no hurry. I think I'll wait until the music starts - for real.

Monday, August 14, 2017

From A Distance : GW2

After yesterday's mammoth post and chunky comment section I'm going to attempt to keep this short. We'll see how that goes...

Jeromai has an excellent piece up about GW2's failings when it comes to introducing new or returning players to its particular mechanics. As I was reading it I had a small epiphany about just why I don't seem to experience the same difficulties others do when traveling through Heart of Thorns maps.

I posted a lengthy reply and came here feeling all clever and wise, only to read some of the comments that appeared overnight, after which I realized that my so-called epiphany was in fact a case of me not having been able to see some very obvious wood among a number of extremely large trees.

Here's the thing: I don't melee in GW2. Never have. Not on any character, not on any class.

It's not that I have anything against melee, aesthetically, conceptually, practically or any other adverb. I melee non-stop in EQ2, where I usually play a Berserker. I tanked for years on a Shadowknight in EverQuest and on both a Disciple and a Dread Knight in Vanguard.

Before I ever played GW2, though, I read a lot about it and all the talk of active combat and dodging worried me. I did a bit of research, asked a few questions and when the first beta weekend arrived I rolled a ranger.

Without me he's nothing!

That worked incredibly well. It removed all my apprehensions about GW2 at a stroke. I realized I would be able to play GW2 just like I played EQ or WoW or LotRO, if that's what I wanted, because GW2 had a class with a pet that tanks.

I wrote about it at the time, concluding with this advice: 
I would encourage anyone who found the whole action combat hype too daunting to make a Charr ranger next beta [and] let your pet tank pretty much anything you're likely to want to solo.
That advice still stands (the details I've cut out of the quote, about hunting drakes to craft your own armor and equipping Troll Unguent and Signet of the Wild...well, MMOs change over time). There's a reason why "Bearbow" rangers are looked down on and even laughed at - it's because playing one is choosing to play GW2 on Easy Mode.

I haven't played  a Bearbow ranger for almost five years. I rarely play a ranger at all these days, although Druid is my go-to class for story instances. The thing that carried over from that initial experience, the thing that has stayed with me ever since is this: if the mob can't get to you it can't hurt you.

In GW2 I play ranged. On every class. One of the big advantages of the way the game is set up is that every class can play ranged. Whether every class can also play melee I'm not sure. I haven't tried. They probably can, with the right build.

Jeromai astutely points out that prior to the arrival of Heart of Thorns, the GW2 dungeon meta was Berserker build, stack in a corner, melee cleave. I didn't do dungeons then (I was ahead of my time - now no-one does) so that particular meta passed me by. GW2 is a game very much prone to having "metas" and most of them pass me by so nothing unusual there.

Come here! Yellow stuff bad!

Consequently, when HoT intentionally and by design shattered that meta into a thousand pieces I barely noticed. I arrived in Verdant Brink ready to play the way I always play - stand well back, drop a lot of AEs at maximum range, be ready to get out of Denver at a millisecond's notice.

As I examine this playstyle choice I begin to see just why I find some of Jeromai's detailed accounts of what Mordrem and other mobs actually do to be so surprising. Vile Thrashers, apparently, leave acid trails. Leeching Thrashers heal up to full if you melee them. Who knew? Not me, that's for sure!

And why would I, since I never get close enough to any of them to find out? If I'm traveling I avoid everything I can avoid and use all my tricks to dodge anything I can't. I'm not going to stop and fight any of them. Why would I do that?

If I'm doing events then either I do them with others, in which case someone else can jolly well eat all those CCs, or I pick only the events I can complete comfortably at range. I don't really recall many - possibly any - events that I had to solo.

And yet, soloing is arguably what Heart of Thorns was made for. Certainly I argued that. I wrote about it at some length at the time, in a post wittily entitled "Soloing in Heart of Thorns". In it I suggested that

To me, "soloing" in MMORPGs means having complete freedom to do whatever I choose, while having that choice meaningfully progress my character. It means walking out of the city gate into adventure, alone, and returning, who knows how much later, still alone but stronger, wiser, battle-scarred and proud.
That's not everyone's definition but it's mine and I found HoT matched it perfectly. I summed it up thus:

So, yes, this is solo heaven. For me, anyway. It can be for you. Pick the right class and build. Take your time preparing. Explore until you feel you know how the land lies. Learn your escape routes. Practice your tactics... It's a classic interpretation of the MMORPG solo experience and classics never go out of style.
 And that's exactly how I still feel about it. Only with this caveat: pick ranged.

If you love to melee, if you're never happy unless you 're getting all up in the mob's grill, maybe HoT isn't the best fit. MMOs generally don't come in one size fits all, though. You do need to adapt.

Stick to what you know.

That's where builds and all that jazz come in. Again, Jeromai has some pertinent observations and good advice. You really should have some kind of stun break loaded and these days a condition cleanse too.

Tyler comments 

 "I don't think I've ever even had a stun break equipped on any of my characters. There's nothing in the game that says you should, and in most MMOs such things are considered to only be relevant in PvP, so it never even occurred to me it might be necessary".

He's right. I never used to have one either. I do now but it has nothing to do with Heart of Thorns.

I hate changing builds and I hate changing spells/abilities. I like to set my characters in stone when they hit max level and by preference they would never change after that point until the game closes down. I might not like changing builds but sometimes I have to.

The last time was when the big Condi change happened. World vs World became almost literally unplayable without a condi cleanse and a stun breaker loaded so I put some in. If I didn't play WvW I wouldn't have bothered but it turns out that choice has also stood me in good stead for Heart of Thorns.

Never mess with those who carry round a fire hose.

In this, GW2 is like every other MMO: it changes, sometimes radically, over time. It also changes across different game modes, at different levels, on different classes and on different maps. What worked in Wayfarer Foothills might not work in Frostgorge and what worked there could falter in Verdant Brink. Tactics that work for a Guardian might not have the same happy outcome on a Necromancer.

So far, though, in five years, in the open world, at every level, on every class and every map, what's worked best for me is range. Range and perpetual motion. Put those together and you'll stay alive longer. Probably.

Somewhere down the line some smart ANet dev may decide ranged classes are having it far too much their own way. We may get an expansion that favors the good old axe to the face approach. If so, I'll have to deal with it. Until then I'll be the one at the back, throwing fireballs.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Taking It Easy : GW2

The Path of Fire demo kicked off a very interesting discussion at Endgame Viable and Why I Game. It followed on, in a way, from another conversation about GW2 that was already going on over at Aywren Sojourner. Some of the insights, explanations and observations in the various posts and comments helped to  clarify a few things I'd felt or suspected about the game but hadn't quite been able to put into words until now.

It's long puzzled me that GW2 can both have a reputation as one of the most casual mainstream MMOs, demanding a low level of player skill and little in the way of dedicated discipline and organization, while simultaneously being castigated for the unforgiving difficulty of almost all of its high-level open world content.

As soon as the first cohort of players started to trickle into Orr, five years ago, the complaints began: the mobs were too tough, there were too many of them, they didn't play fair. Orr got a good few thumps with the nerf bat and the complaints quietened down, only to return with just about every new piece of max-level content or large-scale, open world set piece event we've seen since.

Karka Queen, Molten Core, The Marionette, Tequatl, Three Headed Wurm,  Scarlet's Invasions, The Battle for Lion's Arch... you name it, it had to be nerfed then nerfed again before the mass of GW2 players would accept it. Usually then only with very bad grace. Meanwhile, even as ANet developers found themselves routinely de-fanging the content they'd just provided, the forums were filled with seemingly endless complaints that the game was "too easy", that what it needed was "more challenge".

Come round. Come round, I say! I never had this much trouble with the glider...

Out of that morass of disconnected discontent a tainted flower grew: Heart of Thorns. GW2's first expansion managed to satisfy almost no-one. It was perceived by many as being far more arduous and challenging than they either expected or wanted. The inevitable nerfs, when they arrived, served mostly to alienate the minority who found the difficulty, for once, tuned to their own more rarefied tastes.

By the time HoT had been knocked, dragged and pummeled into shape it was all but too late. Players from both camps had already left, in droves. The lasting impression was of a botched and misjudged attempt to turn a casual game into something more "hardcore". There was a change of leadership and with it a change of direction. Path of Fire will be the biggest test so far of whether that change has worked in favor of the long-term health of the game or run counter to it.

All of which is fine and dandy but how and why did GW2 in general and HoT in particular manage to acquire such a mismatched set of reputations in the first place? If you scan the current #3 thread on GW2's General Discussion forum, which looks forward to the forthcoming expansion and asks: "Has ANet Remembered the Casuals?", you'll find a wealth of comments like these:

"I took a year off too because how terrible HoT was and how I hated every minute playing in those maps".

"HoT made it clear that Anet was moving away from it’s casual base to cater to other gamer demographics"

 "Gw2 is one of the most casual friendly mmos".

"GW2 is the most casual player friendly MMORPG I ever played"

It can't be both great and terrible for casual players all at the same time, can it? Well, yes it can, not least because, as one of the most lucid and well-written comments explains, "while you may self-identify as casual, there is little agreement among all who so identify".

"Are you sure you're the Pact Commander? You look awfully small..."

Talking about whether a particular MMO is or is not "casual friendly" isn't going to get us far when we can never agree on a definition of "casual". That's always been a stumbling block to my own understanding of why it should have been that I, playing with what I would self-identify as a casual mindset, experienced Heart of Thorns as a liberating, exhilarating explorer's paradise, while others, similarly self-identifying, found it a constraining, frustrating turn-off.

UltrViolet, returning from a long sabbatical from the game to give the demo a run, found it confusing and frustrating in a whole number of ways, most of which I heartily endorse. As an advertisement for the game it has all the welcoming warmth of a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. What I found particularly interesting, however, was his description of the combat experience:
"It is a typical GW2 fight–totally chaotic, a million bad guys throwing a million AoEs and other effects at you all simultaneously."
Exactly, in other words, just what I love most about combat in GW2. It's explosive, colorful, exuberant and above all utterly chaotic. It's the kind of combat I think many of us dreamed about back when we were root-rotting treants in West Karana, standing motionless, casting a spell every thirty seconds or so then sitting down to meditate so we'd have enough mana to cast another thirty seconds later.

GW2's frenetic, rolling, dodging, mayhem, where everyone is healing herself and everyone else, where buffs last seconds and part of the gameplay relies on battle-rezzing anyone who goes down, is exactly the kind of free-rolling, liberating fun many of us could never even have dared to imagine, back when we were huddled together in the corner of a dank cave beneath the Crypt of Nadox, shaking with fear as we prayed our tank could hold agro and no roamers would wander along and add.

Okay, we're here. Now what? And remind me - who are you, again?

So why isn't everyone loving it the way I do? Jeromai can explain:
"The number one killer of people used to other MMOs – staying stationary or facetanking mobs in GW2. Every time.

You can observe this phenomenon on Twitch or if you watch newbies in the lowbie zones and so on. They lumber up and just STAND THERE because that’s what they do in other MMOs to attack. They expect a tank to deflect the aggro and a healer to take care of their health.

You’re thinking, “OMG move move too much damage incoming you can’t heal that up with your self heal OMG red circle why u stand there still plz MOVE”

Couple minutes later, they fall over. RIP."
Well, no wonder. No wonder people are finding it hard. No wonder they aren't enjoying themselves. I had no idea.

After all, why would I? Here's my description of how I play, from my own comment at Why I Game:
"My tactics, if you could flatter them with such a name, are to fire off every ability on my hotbar as often as it becomes available, while moving constantly. I don’t just dodge all the time, I run about, jump on objects, strafe and generally behave like a toddler on a sugar rush who just peed up against an electric fence".
It's a slight exaggeration. I don't always do that. If the situation requires it, I can be more tactical and anyway I do have a few channeled skills that require me to stand still. In general, though, I like to keep moving.

It's not a new thing for me. I didn't just start playing like this when GW2 came along. The first MMO I remember allowing me to cast and move at the same time was Vanguard; I believe it was one of the key reasons I loved that MMO so much and still do.

Since Vanguard arrived a decade ago I have wanted, even expected, my characters to be in almost constant motion during combat. It's the MMOs that don't allow it which seem somehow off-kilter.

Don't ask me. I just got here.

Once I began to think about this I realized something. Although I shy away from "Action MMOs" that use center-screen or reticule targeting systems and rely on pounding the mouse keys for attacks, it's not the "action" part I dislike. Not at all. Yes, I really hate not having proper control of the mouse and I can't abide having to hit keys for specials, but it's the method I'm objecting to, not the intent or the outcome.

GW2 has all the flexibility, all the dynamism of that kind of set-up and yet I can play it exactly the way I prefer, using the keyboard for nothing but movement and conversation and the mouse for the purpose God intended - clicking hotbars. It feels somehow natural - right - in a way no other MMO has, probably, since Vanguard.

On a slightly different but related topic, commenter Athie said something pertinent in a thread following the post by Aywren I linked right at the start. Referring to Auric Basin, she said

"...this isn’t an RPG zone. It’s a team action game. The story of the zone is: we win or we lose... GW2 is now a grindy action game with great casual grouping and wonderful art."

That description does have a ring of truth about it. Certainly, the "story", such as it is, has less and less relevance: as Jeromai says:
"I think regular GW2 players are starting to block out the story instances out of self defence..The narrative is prosaic and not very memorable, involves some chatter with some NPC you kinda knew once and see every six months when a new story instance is released, and some fight or other. Plot? Eh, whatever, it’s just a cardboard reason to get us from point A to B".
The thing is, I never wanted a story to begin with. And while I was nervous about playing an "action" MMO, it turned out I took to the particular mechanics of GW2 like a quaggan to water. I love the dodging and running and the constant movement. I love the self-reliance and I also love the big events that demand a lot of people, organizing spontaneously, to complete.

GW2 gives me the excitement of action rpg gameplay without the annoyance of action rpg controls. It gives me the camaraderie and sense of satisfaction of raiding without the inconvenience and responsibility of raid schedules or guilds. No wonder I find the game so exceptionally casual friendly.

For a particular value of "casual", that is. One that just happens to have my number.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Path Of Fire Preview - Color Me Impressed

Beta weekend. Demo. Preview. Call it what you will, the doors are open. Last time we did this, when we caught the beta bus that was bound for Heart of Thorns, you needed a pre-order to board. This time you don't need a ticket at all. Just jump on.

Okay, it's not quite that simple. Before you grab a raptor and roam the desert you have to jump through a few hoops. First you have to make a new character. Then you get to watch a rather nice cut scene while you take an airship ride from Lion's Arch to Crystal Desert.

I got the feeling I was missing some plot here. Maybe there's a pre-expansion lead-in we're not seeing. I hope so . If not it seems a bit of an abrupt transition form the end of the last Living Story. The view's nice, anyway.

Next comes what is presumably the first segment of the expansion's storyline. There's a lot of fighting, a lot of fire and it's all very orange. You get a mount. It was easy enough but I could have done without it. I just wanted to get to the real map. 

Once the flames die down you begin to see just how gorgeous this thing is going to be. The scenery is astonishingly lovely - and we're only in a quarry!

I wanted to explore the mine workings but this is one of those story instances that warns you you'll be summarily ejected if you deviate from the program. I hate being on rails. I don't have that kind of tunnel vision. Okay, I'll stop.

After a bit of business with Kasmeer and Rytlock, which I found very interesting and amusing enough that I laughed out loud, twice, the story segment concludes and the real doors open.

Blimey, Charlie! It was night when I arrived and it stayed night until I left which seemed like about an hour but can't have been, can it? The city, Amnoon, is stunning. It's mostly the color palette and the lighting, I think. I just gawped.

And gawped. And took screenshots. And ran around and gawped some more. The desert sky at night, the stars and the moon, the sea, the clouds... I'm not sure you even need gameplay with visuals like these.

There is gameplay, though. Plenty of it. And it's the same as you're used to if you've played GW2 in the last year or so. There's something to do in every direction, some event to complete, heart to fill out, Mastery or Hero Point to get, Champion to kill...

Or all of them at once. Here's a snapshot I took mid-battle. Someone had triggered a Djinn at a Hero Point and while we were killing him a Champion Hyena for one of the new Bounty Hunts got involved, so we had the two of them on the go, when a Veteran (or maybe it was a Champion) Hydra wandered over the hill and thought he'd have a go at us as well.

All good fun until someone loses a head, as I think I heard the Hydra say. And enough for me for a first look. I saw enough to know that I'm going to have a great deal of fun exploring and I'll probably need to buy a new Hard Drive just to store all the screenshots.

Not sure I'll be doing any more of the "beta". I don't want to take the edge off and there's always that niggling terror in the back of my mind - this might be the time a precursor decides to drop.

Looking good, though, ANet. Looking really good.

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