Monday, January 29, 2018

Known Unknowns : EverQuest

This morning, purely by chance, I happened upon a surprising resource for EverQuest that was entirely new to me. It happened as I was replying to a comment by Shintar on yesterday's post.

I was googling exactly when the Mines of Gloomingdeep tutorial was introduced to EQ. I didn't get the answer I wanted but one of the results pointed me to a website called Almar's Guides.

Now, I admit at this point that it's entirely possible I've mentioned Almar and his guides before. My memory isn't what it was and it was never all that to begin with. I do seem to have some very vague recollection of posting some list of EQ resources but if I did I can't find it. I'm probably thinking of EQ2.

Regardless, it's an astonishingly detailed and useful collection of pages, full of very helpful information, clearly laid out and very well explained. If I mentioned it before I don't apologize for mentioning it again. It includes exceptionally detailed guides on how and where to level dependent on which expansions you have, whether you play solo, on regular or progression servers, with a mercenary or if, as so many do, you multibox.

I dipped into the multiboxing guides, which are extensive and somewhat daunting. Like most EQ players I have at one time or another at least dabbled with playing several characters at once. The complexity of the process has always put me off taking it up as a serious playstyle but if I was ever going to try I'd begin here.

As I browsed Almar's site I was scarcely able to believe that such a well-maintained and current resource could exist for a game fast approaching its nineteenth anniversary. The dedication and enterprise of players like Almar and Yeebo, who recently put up an excellent suite of guides for the almost equally ancient Dark Age of Camelot, deserves the highest praise and respect.

This is a cutaway of the center of my screen in EQ2. The four long hotbars are all in-combat abilities. I use most of them on cooldown in every fight that lasts long enough. To each side are ones I use more rarely along with some auto-populated stuff I haven't removed yet and the Ascended abilities that have very long cooldowns. If I included the full screen it would show three more hotbars for a grand total of ten, which is the maximum allowed. If I could have more I would!

It also inspires another kind of awe. Reading Almar I was struck once again by how ferociously complex and intimidating MMORPGs can be. Those of us who play them regularly and have done for a while hardly have any sense of the vast ocean of mystery that lies below the surface of almost every MMO.

For example, consider the making of Macros in EverQuest. I've know how to do this since somewhere around the turn of the century and I do use a few when I play but it's clear from reading this guide that I have barely begun to scratch the surface of what they can do. Most MMOs have systems and subsystems that are capable of radically restructuring the entire experience and yet how many of us understand them, let alone use them to the fullest?

It's not just the complex machinery under the hood that goes unremarked. Even simple, surface staples of gameplay like spell rotations or the efficient use of consumables go largely unreported. We all write and talk at considerable length about so many aspects of the virtual worlds we inhabit, from the way our characters look to the inconsistencies in the lore that lies behind the narratives they follow, but we rarely discuss in any detail the straightforward mechanics of how we go about playing the "game".

Indeed, as I can attest from just the few entries on Almar's site that I scanned, and as has come up many times in conversation on this and other blogs only in the last few weeks and months, there are often very basic elements that simply pass us by, either ignored or unnoticed. How often does the supposed difficulty, awkwardness or poor design of an MMO mask an unwillingness on the part of the player to engage fully with the mechanics required to make that "difficulty" go away? Do we even take the trouble to find out that such mechanics exist, let alone practice and master them?

Given that few of us are slow in pointing out the problems when they arise, it's all the more surprising that we discuss the fine details of the solutions so rarely. Perhaps, in a fashion, we feel that to do so would detract from the necessary illusion many of us try to maintain; that we live in another world which is, in some sense, true. There's a trick we have perfected of seeing one thing while doing another. No-one wants to draw too much attention the props and wires that make the trick work.

The deceptively simple center screen as seen by my Elementalist in GW2. Compared to EQ or EQ2 there's far less clutter but as the pop-up tool-tip shows there's plenty going on behind the scenes. GW2 relies much more than other MMOs I play on invisible synergies that have to be committed to memory. Or blind luck. Guess which I rely on.

At a meta-level, it's fine to lay out tactics and strategies. Many of us love to examine the greater structures, to elaborate on the design and approach that each game developer takes in making a world. All of that is fair game, along with any number of treatises on the interface between art and commerce.

It's a lot rarer to see posts that elaborate on the fine detail. How, exactly, we control the movement and action of our characters. What marks the precise outline of their capacity to interact with their environment. There aren't a great many people posting instructions on exactly which button to press when. Certainly I'm not about to start doing it.

Perhaps to do so seems to risk breaking the thin bubble that holds back reality. Or maybe it's just not as exciting to write about that when we could be gushing over what our characters are wearing or speculating about the latest industry blow-up.

The information is out there if we search for it. It's the preserve of analytical websites like Icy Veins or MetaBattle, places where all that matters is the "what" and the "how". To step through such a portal is to admit that what happens when we play is at the same time both far more complex and much more codified than we may care to admit.

All of which is just a way of admitting how little I still know. Mostly I think it doesn't matter but how can I be sure? I float along on my little island, enjoying the scenery but sometimes I catch a glimpse of the vast iceberg stretching away beneath me and I get a shiver down my spine.

Finding Almar's Guides gave me the chills.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

All Roads Lead To Gnome : EverQuest, WoW

If there's one thing I don't need it's a new character in EverQuest. I have no idea how many I've left behind over the years, idling in banks or inn rooms or camped out in the wilds somewhere. For the longest time I tried to keep most of them ticking along, logging them in now and then, adding a level here and there. Now, though, as the years pile up like autumn leaves and my characters and I approach winter together, for many it seems less and less likely we will hunt together again.

Like Telwyn, who alluded to it in two consecutive posts this week, I believe strongly in character permanence. I, too, like to check in once in a while and touch base with my imaginary friends and alter egos. But nearly two decades and a hundred and fifty MMOs makes for an awful lot of characters. Some I'll never see again, far less play.

So why start another? And why a gnome? As Mrs Bhagpuss said, when I told her what I'd done, "Haven't you got enough gnomes?".

Well, no, apparently I don't. And you can't ever have too many gnomes, can you? As for why now, I think there were two proximate causes. First there was something Syp said in an offhand comment at Bio Break. When he described the first dozen levels in WoW as "slow and boring" it triggered a burst of nostalgic desire in me for some good old-fashioned low level gaming.

I couldn't disagree more strongly with that sentiment, finding as I do the very low levels in WoW to be the best part of the game that I've seen. Indeed, the very low levels of most MMORPgs are among the best for some very good and well-known reasons.

The lowest levels represent the game's shop-window, so they tend to be designed to please. They are also usually the content that most closely represents the original vision for the game and as such are more coherent, consistent and convincing than most of what follows. Finally, staring zones have usually been around the longest so they have been repeatedly polished until they positively glow.

In terms of core RPG gameplay the hook never sets so deep and firm as in those first few levels, when every upgrade makes a substantial and noticeable difference to gameplay. Not only does your characters increase in power and capability almost with every item that drops but the way they look changes too.

The low levels are the most playful part of almost any MMO. There's room to experiment, to find out who your character wants to be. The time will come when decisions have to be made, points have to be spent, rotations have to be set. Eventually your "role" will have little to do with roleplay and much to do with learning your dance steps but in those first, few levels you're still free to move to whatever music you hear in your head.

So, that's why I made a new character. I wanted some of that. As for why a gnome, well I blame Isey for prompting me to realize that I really should have saved the title of the previous post for one about gnomes. And once I start thinking about gnomes it's only a short step to making one.

Given where I began, with that quip from Syp, I might have made a gnome in WoW. I'm currently playing WoW a little most days, pottering around on my endless free trial, exploring and evaluating the implications of the new level scaling.

Mostly I've been leveling up my Worgen Druid, spending almost all my time in cat form. It's been fun. The level scaling seems fine. Everything takes three or four casts or hits to kill, which is still ridiculously fast by any standards other than WoW's recent own.

I already have a level one Gnome there, ready to go, but he's a Rogue and I really don't want to play a Rogue. I have no idea why I made him. There were probably reasons.

When it came to it, though, there was no point fooling myself. I wanted to make an EQ gnome, start in Ak Anon and level up in Steamfont for a bit. So I did. Ah, the whirring and ticking of clockwork. There's nothing like it.

I'd actually managed to forget that Steamfont was one of the few Faydwer zones (the only one?) to get a visual makeover many years ago. Which is surprising considering I must have crossed it literally hundreds of times in the past few years, taking my highest level character to Dragonscale Hills and the rest of the zones in 2007's excellent Secrets of Faydwer expansion.

Even so, the new Steamfont has itself now been around so long and I've leveled up so many characters there (all of them gnomes) that it has its own nostalgia. Come to think of it, I'm not sure I can really remember what it looked like before. I might need to log in to P2002 and remind myself.

As in WoW, leveling in EQ is not the uphill slog it once was. Even so, it's hardly a downhill sprint, either. It took me about forty minutes to get to level two. It would have been faster but I had to run back to Ak Anon to zone a mountain lion and I died when I pulled a Krag Chick. They are still the same insane undercon they were in 1999.

When I dinged (that sound still so satisfying) I took the book to Plane of knowledge. I was very happy to see that well outside of U.S. primetime, on one of the less-popular servers, there were still over 70 players in PoK and a couple of hundred vendors trading in The Bazaar. Life in the old game yet.

After a visit to the bank, where my new gnome helped herself to a few hundred platinum from the shared vault, thereby bypassing about a year's gameplay from the  good old days, I logged out. Will I ever log her in again?

Who knows? What I do know is that one gnome leads to another. And if you can't find a gnome then a dwarf will do. Or any anthropomorphic animal that walks on its hind legs.

I have all next week off. I wonder how many new characters I could make in how many MMOs?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

I'm Gonna Buy Me A Dog : DCUO

Palawa Joko's deluded fans may think he's all that, what with his Awakened armies and his stolen Inquest tech, but he's a very minor player in the megalomaniac leagues. These past couple of weeks I've been taking time off between beating back Joko's hourly invasions to deal with a much greater threat.

The Anti-Monitor doesn't just want to conquer and rule. He's here to devour. His purpose is to destroy universes. According to the wiki he's "directly responsible for more deaths than any other known DC supervillain, having destroyed thousands of Universes."

Apparently he was first encountered in DC's 1985 mini-series "Crisis On Infinite Earths", which I not only bought and read but even reviewed at some length in one of the fanzines I was writing for at the time. I remember the piece I wrote but I don't remember him at all.

He's back now, looming over Metropolis, occasionally intoning threats in a booming, robotic monotone, while his endless minions attempt to convert the population into anti-matter. I've been zipping around on my flying discs trying, rather successfully, to put a crimp in his nefarious plans.

Once a week I've even met him face to face in a raid instance, where I and seven of my closest friends-I've-never-met-before have given him a surprisingly hard time, considering he eats universes for breakfast. You might not think a cosmic entity hundreds of feet tall, responsible for the deaths of Supergirl and The Flash, able to "effortlessly withstand blows from Superman" would be bothered by a slightly-built girl hitting him on the ankle with a stick but apparently you'd be wrong.

 The continued existence of the known universe aside, the reason I'm doing this is to get a dog. Krypto, to be precise.

I mentioned my intention to dognap the El family pet in a previous post and now I'm happy to report the deed is done. In the end I did put down a part-payment via the cash shop. The event runs another week, ending on January 31, so I would almost certainly have had time to earn the whole 140 Qwardian Crowns required before the clock ran out but why take the risk?

I was up to 112 QCs this morning but I decided to cough up the 540 Daybreak Cash required and buy another fifty. That's effectively my free monthly stipend for All Access membership, which I rarely spend, although I think Daybreak have just about the best in-game cash shop in MMOs.

It's full of things I could and would use, from good consumables like Tracking Scrolls to gorgeous Prestige Houses. There's also a very extensive range of player-designed housing and cosmetic items. Remember Player Studio? Well that turned out to be one of SOE's wild ideas that lasted.

DCUO isn't one of the games that benefits from the ingenuity of player-creators, presumably either for technical or, more likely, licensing reasons. It's a pity because it's a perfect setting for it, what with the limitless potential for costumes in a super-hero game and the well-developed and implemented addition of quality housing via the Base system.

Speaking of bases, mine is coming along nicely. Quite a lot of housing items drop from the reward crates of events and there are frequently free hand-outs with new releases and updates. It's not up to the standards of even one of my lesser domiciles in EQ2 yet, but it's beginning to feel quite like home.

The one thing I was really missing was a house pet. I love my house pets in EQ2. They wander about as though they own the place, flapping and buzzing and whirring. It makes the place feel lived in.

My DCUO base is a bit cavernous and forbidding but the addition of a cheerful, lively pet makes a big difference. And Krypto really fills the bill. A YouTuber named Torikumu put together a nice video showing all the hound's best moves, which saves me the trouble. I wonder where he got that cat at the end?

In a piece of very poor timing I bought the crate just fifteen minutes before the server came down for weekly maintenance so I had to scrabble a bit to get everything placed and working in time to take a few screenshots. I'm looking forward to getting back in to spend some quality time with the pooch.

I'm not much of a dog person but Krypto and I do have a lot of history. I followed his adventures when I was a small child. My very favorite comic, growing up, was The Legion of Super-Heroes, with Superboy a close second and Krypto featured regularly in both.

It's kind of incredible when I think about it. More than fifty years on, both Superboy and the LSH aren't just still around, they've moved further towards the core of the culture than anyone back then could conceivably have imagined possible.

The Anti-Monitor event has been a lot of fun and the rewards have been excellent. Krypto was one of the more costly items on the event vendor and well worth saving up for but there are a load more goodies there worth having. If I have any Qwardian Crowns left over at the end of the week I'll be spending them on a few upgrades.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

I Wish I Was A Little Bit Taller : Level Scaling in World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft has always had the reputation of being an easy game but all things are relative. Back in 2004 the wider gaming public, if they thought about MMORPGs at all, considered the genre to be so appallingly slow and grindy that few outside the niche cared to waste time there. WoW changed all that - at a cost.

The journey began with a revelation: you could level up by wandering the world like the Littlest Hobo, blowing into town after town, righting wrongs and solving mysteries. Out went hiding in a corner, chain-killing trash mobs by the tens of thousands, praying you didn't get run over by a train; in came questing 'til your fingers bled while generally debasing yourself before NPCs with punctuation marks for hats.

Over the years the format refined itself into oblivion. By the time a decade or so had passed we had soloists in Heirloom gear one-shotting Elites and tanks pulling entire dungeons while the healer watched Netflix on another screen. Or so they tell me. I only know from hearsay. I missed both the sublime and the ridiculous.

My time in WoW was straight down the middle. The concept of the "quest hub" was already old hat and leveling by doing endless tasks for NPCs too lazy to walk to the corner of the street had become the norm in most MMOs.  There were already murmurs of discontent.

Conversely, I didn't stick around in Azeroth long enough to see it slide into self-parody. I turned up somewhere in the middle of Wrath of the Lich King and left before whatever came next. While I was there the leveling game felt solid enough; occasionally it may even have run a little slow.

But then, I was playing my first character, or at least my first collective of first characters. I never leveled anyone high  enough to benefit from heirlooms and when I returned, off and on, I mostly pottered around the starting zones on a free account.

Eventually even that proved no protection against out-of-control power creep. By the second decade of the 21st century even the very lowest levels were showing the strain. The moment any character I played left the extended tutorial of their racial starting instance it became apparent that "challenge" wasn't what the leveling game was about any more.

Last year Blizzard must have decided the situation was unsustainable. The population had migrated into the canopy of a bloated endgame, the final, meaningful ten levels of the current expansion perched precariously atop the etiolated and rotting trunks of every abandoned expansion and associated "endgame" that came before.

Eying, no doubt, the apparent success other MMOs, particularly Elder Scrolls Online and Guild Wars 2, in keeping much of their older content permanently in play, the decision was made to do something similar for Azeroth. Or to it. The practicalities were ironed out in the Legion expansion, where for the first time it was possible to have the mobs match you level for level, regardless what order you chose to progress through the zones on offer.

That must have gone well because this week that process was rolled out across the game.  As the patch notes to update 7.3.5 put it, it's now A Scaling World:
"Every zone in Kalimdor, Eastern Kingdoms, Outland, Northrend, Pandaria, and Draenor now use the level scaling system introduced in Legion. This new scaling system greatly increases the amount of options you have when deciding where to quest and when to move on to the next zone."
 And for good measure:
"All corresponding dungeons and the rewards therein now scale as well."
I logged in to take a look at this brave new world. There's only so much you can tell when your highest available character is locked at level 20 by the contingencies of not paying a subscription but the difference was immediately apparent all the same.

Waking up in a comfortable dwarven cottage outside Ironforge, the first thing I noticed was that everything in the Dun Morogh foothills conned even or thereabouts. All those leopards and boars in the forest, every elemental around the lake, the whole lot of them. From memory those would normally have been around level eight or nine. Now they came at me in the late teens.

And come at me they did. This formerly safe area for a mighty level twenty was suddenly somewhere I needed to be on my guard while traveling. Not merely because of the inconvenience of being attacked when I would previously have gone unmolested but because every one of these creatures is now capable of putting up a fight.

I wouldn't go so far as to say I was in any real danger but it didn't take me long to realize that if I wanted to get anywhere in a hurry I'd have to avoid drawing agro. True, it only took three or four arrows to bring down a wolf or a boar but every battle whittled a bit off my health or chipped the paintwork on my mechanical rabbit and if there's one way that WoW still feels old school it's in how long it takes to get your health back.

A quick visit to the forums showed reaction to be mixed. There are clearly two factions in play: those who like leveling and found the situation over the last few years unbearable and those who were more than happy to be able to one-shot their way to any content that they needed. I have sympathy for both sides.

I love leveling. In any MMORPG where I stick around for a while I level up anything from two or three to twenty or thirty characters. I've complained before about how the sheer speed of leveling in WoW sucks a lot of the entertainment out of the lower levels and I'm very pleased indeed to see that rectified.

On the other hand, it is very possible to have too much of a good thing. The reason I never hit the level cap in WoW on my first run through was that after several months, which is how long it took me to get into the 70s, I was fed up of running errands for NPCs.

According to many angry comments on the forum, questing is now the only viable means of leveling a character other than by buying a $60 level boost in the cash shop (which is exactly what most of those commenters believe is the reason behind Blizzard's changes). Dungeon xp is reported to have been nerfed through the floor, although whether by an actual change to the amount rewarded or simply by the hugely increased difficulty that comes with the scaling effect is a matter of conjecture.

Again by report, quests that require the killing of Elite mobs or the completion of content flagged for groups now actually require a group to complete. Which would be fine if there were groups to be had, but the complaint is that nothing has changed, or is likely to change, about the paucity of population in the leveling game. Content that could happily be soloed last week is now likely to go untouched, or so is the fear.

As an interested but largely uninvolved observer I can afford to sit back and watch how this develops. At worst it will enhance my low-level pottering. I already feel the urge to make a new character and try it out. I have to say, though, that if Daybreak decided to do something like this to EQ or EQ2 I would be incandescent with rage. i am very much not a fan of any "one size fits all" solution to problems that may not even be perceived as problems by everyone.

EQ2 currently enjoys the best of several worlds when it comes to older content. If there are specific quests you need to finish you can keep your own level, blitz through grey cons, getting no agro and one-shotting everything. I prefer to quest that way. The oft-repeated mantra that outleveling a zone means you can never complete the quests there seems completely paradoxical to me. Questing is more fun when you can concentrate on the plot and the dialog and forget about the fighting.

If you disagree with that opinion you're free to mentor down to whatever level gives you the challenge you feel most suits your tastes. If you want to help a friend who's leveling up you can mentor to them or if you want to solo you can visit the Chronomancer and self-mentor.

Mentored characters are more powerful than characters of the "real" equivalent level but if you want to be a real purist as you level you can level-lock your character whenever you feel you might be about to outgrow content you haven't finished. Call or dismiss in your Mercenary for even more granularity.

There are so many ways and means and styles to leveling in EQ2 that I feel spoiled for any other system. I would always opt for a toggle that puts the choice in the hands of the player but that isn't how Blizzard rolls.

I feel this particular change will take a while to shake out. Stargrace already reports changes to the way it affects old raid content. I'm looking forward to reading more bloggers' impressions, like Bhelgast's and Atherne's. For now, I would say my own impression is broadly favorable but I really don't have the perspective to make a meaningful judgment. Maybe when I finally get around to reactivating my account to play through Legion.

It's a big change, though, that's for sure.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Be Careful What You Wish For : Rift

 "...I'll take a Rift Classic server, please. I really miss those Sunday afternoons in Stillmoor."

Me - at the start of the week

 "In the Spring of 2018, we will launch a new server, RIFT Prime...We plan to present RIFT at its roots as much as is possible to do."

 Rift Producer's Letter - three days later

Thanks, Trion! I think.... 

Although I guess no-one should really be surprised at anything Trion does any more, this move does seem to have taken most people unawares. The MassivelyOP thread cuts the company a little slack but posts at Bio Break and TAGN take a more skeptical position, one which I share and then some.

The immediate assumption appears to be that Rift is getting some form of "Progression" server of the kind long-established, now perfected, first by SOE and latterly by Daybreak, for the EverQuest franchise. As yet there's not a whole lot of detailed information on how this might work and what there is does little to encourage any expectations of a true progression server, far less anything that could reasonably considered a return to the Golden Age of Rift as we knew it.

It took SOE/DBG many years to iron the wrinkles out of the Progression concept. Reverting a long-running MMORPG to the status quo ante turns out to be a major undertaking that requires the diversion of considerable time and resources, as Blizzard are no doubt very well aware. Practical considerations mean that even with the best of intentions some infrastructure changes just can't be rolled back. The final result is an approximation, a reminder, of how things used to be, not an archival reconstruction.

That doesn't appear to be an issue for Trion because they don't seem to be interested in taking the time, trouble or expense even to get within hailing distance of the authentic 2011 Rift experience. The Producer's letter makes that abundantly clear to anyone whose rose-tinted glasses haven't steamed up entirely with excitement.

Leaving aside for a moment the fact that the new server will both be time-limited and set on fast-forward ("The PRIME server will progress at a faster pace than the original launch and will eventually come to an end in spectacular fashion") there remains a much bigger roadblock to any fleeting sense of authenticity: "Many upcoming live content changes that apply to existing servers will also apply to the new PRIME server".

Added to that there's some not-so-nostalgic fiddling under the hood in the planning stage, with the Prime server "dynamically matching characters to their current zone’s level [and] dungeons dropping loot specific to your character’s true level". It's clear from the outset that the goal is not to create any kind of long-term home for players longing for the Olden Days, the way Blizzard plans to do for WoW Vanillaheads and Jagex already did for Runescape purists.

In addition to the aforementioned preset demise of the server, almost inevitably there's also the incentive of "participation awards that carry over to your characters on existing servers." I think that makes it clear that the target audience is existing Rift players out on a jolly.

On closer examination, what this appears to be is a version of another of SOE/DBG's popular and successful money-making tropes, the Limited Time Event Server. Trion did float this balloon sometime last year, in the relatively downbeat Producer's Letter of March 2017. There the talk was of bringing the "challenge" back to Rift with a series of special ruleset servers, possibly beginning with a Hard Mode version.

That went out to consultation and Rift Prime would appear to be the first practical result, its style and direction taking cues form the forum discussions that followed the original announcement. Trion, in their inimitable fashion, have managed to spin a year's worth of complaints about lockboxes, aggressive cash shops and other similarly unpopular business practices as "suggestions on how to make the business model more appealing".

Apparently that means no lockboxes, "a significantly reduced store" and a non-optional subscription. Pardon me for not being impressed. Or grateful.

The one significant, positive effect this announcement has had on me is to make me re-consider my nostalgia for the game. I loved Rift in beta and I liked it a lot at launch but when I take a step back and look at the overall experience more analytically I have to admit that it was a short love affair that came to an unpleasant end.

My time in Rift overlapped the beginning of this blog and it's easy to see my growing impatience and disillusionment in posts like this one from December 2011, some nine months after launch. Soon after that I went back to playing EQ2, then the GW2 beta weekends started, the The Secret World filled a gap before GW2's official launch and by summer 2012 I was a full-time resident of Tyria. 

In February 2012 Trion made the first 20 levels free with Rift-Lite and I enjoyed a fair amount of casual, drop-in low-level play when the whim took me. When they announced the first expansion, Storm Legion, for November 2012, I made the big mistake of buying two copies, lured in by its deal of a year's subscription bundled in. At that point GW2 was suffering considerable issues with bots and we were uncertain whether we would hang around much longer. The expectation was that that Mrs Bhagpuss and I would make a triumphant return to Rift and our short run in GW2 would be at an end. 

Instead, ANet banished the bots, Tyria felt clean again and Storm Legion turned out to be dour and dull. I think I played for about a week and Mrs Bhagpuss for maybe a day or two. In nearly twenty years those two copies of Storm Legion are the MMO purchases I most regret. I consider the $150 we spent on Landmark alpha access to be far, far better value.

After that I soured on Rift. I still dropped in and out once in a while in desultory fashion but neither of us played again until the game went free-to-play. At that point Mrs Bhagpuss had a brief fling with Dimensions until she'd spent all the free currency we got as ex-subscribers whose subs still had months to run.

It's a patchy history at best. I had very good times in beta, a good run after launch and a few odd moments after that. If I'm analytical about it, the main thing I really enjoyed were the Invasions and some of the Rifts. I liked the questing in a few of the original zones and I enjoyed the crafting to a degree. I liked some of the PvP and I also always found Telon to be a visually rewarding world to explore.

The actual gameplay, however, was always labored and clunky and crucially I never developed a close-enough affinity for any of my characters, although some of them had their moments. Leveling was grindy, especially on the second or third character and from Ember Isle onwards that grind became unbearable. Apart from those addictive and occasionally thrilling afternoons in Stillmoor, there's not an awful lot for me to be nostalgic about.

All of which, ironically, means that if anything induces me to give Rift Prime a try it will be the extent to which the experience doesn't accurately replicate the original. I would positively welcome faster leveling, better loot, less grind and the ability to vary the journey (via zone or level matching) from the very limited options available back at launch. When I stop to think about it, it very much appears I never wanted a "Classic" server after all.

Then there's the question of whether I want to pay a subscription for the privilege of playing (most probably in a half-assed, half-interested fashion) through content I've already played through several times already (much of which wasn't that great to begin with). I guess that will depend on what else I'm doing when it arrives and how much spare time I have on hand. Also on whether Mrs Bhagpuss is interested, which I'm willing to bet she won't be. She doesn't really do nostalgia.

One thing I never did first time round, which might justify subbing for a month or two, was dungeons. I saw a couple, briefly, but almost everything I know about them comes from the stories Wilhelm told about his adventures there with the instance group. That might be a diversion worth a few dollars.

Then again, I really feel like I've already given Trion more money than I want to. Last time didn't turn out well at all and there's such a thing as learning from your mistakes.

Anyway, there's no need to make any decisions yet. That time will come when Trion post some hard details, I guess. I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, January 15, 2018


As I write this, I've just finished the fifth of the six Palawa Joko Invasions I needed to complete the full set of maps for the Zone Defense achievement in GW2's new Current Events update. That. mind you, is on my third account. I've already done it on accounts one and two and when I finish it on number three I'm going to log in my fourth, the F2P one I haven't used since last September, and do six more.

This weekend both Mrs Bhagpuss and I barely missed an invasion. Every hour, on the half-hour, there we were, waiting in the crowd in Metrica Province or Wayfarer Foothills or Caledon Forest as predicted by the Phasic Distortion Reader, a handy device which we both now have on all three accounts.

The Reader costs two gold to make and involves a fair bit of running around plus a full day's wait if you aren't an Engineer, an Asura or a Charr in  the Iron Legion. All it does is tell you in game what you can see on Dulfy any time you care to look. It's fluff in other words.

And yet we dig it out of our bags at the top of the hour and announce its findings to each other in Guild chat and thank each other for the information. We used it to encourage our one other regular guild member, who only plays on Sundays, to come and join the fun, which he did, although he probably had no idea what was going on.

In between invasions there were times when I did little more than clear my bags and hang around waiting for the next one. It's not as though I even want the rewards. The Achi gives three kegs of Karma, which totals 22,500. I have nearly 15 million karma on my main account. Even my third account has nearly seven and a half million.

The dropped loot is quite nice but it's the same loot you can get 24/7 in Path of Fire maps. Only I would never go there to get it. I don't go to Path of Fire maps any more. Well, for the vista daily or the plant-picking daily, occasionally, if there's nothing better. Otherwise, never.

PoF is all but dead to me already, as I predicted it would be. I saw the story once and hope never to see it again. I got the mounts and didn't like them, although I am gradually getting used to using the Griffin for general travel.

I haven't even finished a single one of the Ascended collects even though I want the weapons. Occasionally I think about it, then I imagine going through those tedious maps again and I decide to leave it for when I'm in the mood, which so far I never have been.

Whether the PoF maps are, in general, well-used these days I have no idea because I'm not there even to gather anecdotal evidence. I know the ludicrously overgenerous meta in the first LS4 map was being heavily exploited, just as Auric Basin was before the nerf , but that has everything to do with a broken game mechanic and nothing to do with whether anyone is actually enjoying the content. I did it once and haven't been back.

All I can say is that the Joko invasions, which look like they must have taken a very small team a very short time to create, are drawing big crowds and those crowds seem very happy. I know I am.

What the invasions remind me of more than anything is Rift in its early days, when it was good. As I think about it, a very great deal of the MMO content I've enjoyed most - certainly the content I've found the most addictive or compelling - in the last seven years or so has followed a very consistent and rather simple pattern: a bunch of mobs descend out of a portal and try to kill us and take our stuff and we band together to try to stop them.

As well as rifts, Rift had invasions. I liked those even more because they came at me instead of waiting for me to come at them. WoW had the Legion invasions which kind of did both. I really enjoyed those. I played more WoW while they were on than at any time since my six month stint years ago. I even subbed for a couple of months just to do them.

GW2 had the Karka invasion and then the wonderful Scarlet Invasions plus a few more along the way. Even World vs World, the part that appeals to me, follows the format. The enemy zerg arrives unexpectedly and starts sieging our keep, the call goes out and we rush to defend.

It seems to me that this could - should - be the PvE answer to PUBG. Content that's easy and quick to make but also infinitely replayable. Because it's PvE and it's in an MMORPG it probably has to have loot attached. Loot or achievements or titles. Preferably all three.

It's also best, I think, if there's something at stake. Something practical. In WvW you don't want to lose your structures, particularly if they've been upgraded and have banks and waypoints. In Rift beta and possibly for a month or two after launch if you failed to stop an invasion the baddies would kill your questgivers and take over your quest hubs for a while. I liked that but it got removed so presumably most people didn't.

Still, I don't think it should be beyond the wit of professional game developers to hit a balance between incentive and annoyance that falls on the side of motivation rather than frustration. The payoff would be a game that people wanted to keep playing because it was fun to keep playing - as seems to be the case with PUBG and its clones.

Gevlon posted today about the terrible fit "story" makes for an MMORPG and while I don't often agree with the goblin on much I do think he has a point here. Lore, for sure. MMORPGs thrive on lore. It gives context, creates a world. Story, though? Story gets in the way. It can work if it plods along behind or off to one side but put it at the front and get it to pull and the whole cart veers sideways. Sometimes it tips over.

No-one really knows what Joko is playing at with these invasions. There's no story to them and no-one cares. The action tells its own story. Invasions are exciting and dynamic but above all they are inclusive. They require no explanation beyond "Stop them!" and no organization beyond "Get here, now!". They're drop in and drop out if you want them to be or stay all day if you have the time and the inclination. They have a rhythm and a pace that allows for time to breathe between battles and yet they feel relentless, inexorable.

In beta, Rift looked like it might be the first MMORPG built around invasions. For a while, even after the post-launch nerfs, it was. If I had a wish for a new MMORPG it would be just that - all Invasions, all the time. I think someone could make a lot of money doing that right.

Failing that I'll take a Rift Classic server, please. I really miss those Sunday afternoons in Stillmoor.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Join The Club

Belghast alerted me to an interesting post at Digital Initiative, which was also a new blog to me. I added it to the blog-roll. Then I read the post. It breaks down the typical guild membership by type and Tamrielo, the author, clearly speaks from experience.

It's been a long time since I was in an active guild that had more people in it than just Mrs Bhagpuss, myself and one or two others but I instantly recognized just about all of the personalities listed. I could put names to most of them - if I could only remember the names. Actually, I could go "Oh, that sounds just like that guy, remember him, oh what was his name? Always wore green and used to sit in Plane of Knowledge all day moaning nothing was as good as the old days..."

Reading through the list was a little disturbing. I felt like I was auditioning for the lead in one of those T.V. movies about multiple personality disorder - that's me, and that's me and, oh, wait, that's really me!

I would lay claim to being any guild's lead Things Explainer - one of the "good" ones, I'd like to think, although other opinions are no doubt available. I literally left a guild over a stand-up argument with the Raid Leader because my You Need Yours position was so unwavering. I could make a strong case for being labeled Side Projects and I have certainly played the Chill AF role to the hilt on occasion.

The sumptuous and largely forgotten interior of the Guild Initiative Office.
There's probably a smattering of several others in there from time to time. I was certainly The Positivity Canon for a while in Vanguard, when I was having the best time of my MMORPG life while all around me people were just praying they could get the game not to crash for five minutes in a row.  I've been the Backpack to Mrs Bhagpuss's Hiker in a few guilds, too.

There are a few categories I am pretty certain no-one could ever accuse me of representing. I do talk a lot in guilds but apart from that I'm no Socialite. Come to think of it, one category that's glaring in it's absence here is The Chatterbox. /em raises hand.

I'd like to think I've never been The Downer or The Griefer but sadly neither have I ever been The Ninja or Silent But Competent. (Noisy But Incompetent - now you're talking...or more likely I am, while we're wiping).

Not sure if this is decoration or fly-posting.
Although all of this seems very familiar from the increasingly distant past, I wonder how accurate it is in terms of current guild practice and experience? Do guilds even work this way any more?

My view may be colored by five and a half years in Guild Wars 2, where guild membership is a very malleable affair. Apart from my own guild, where I spend most of my time, and a bunch of "Bank Guilds" I made for storage, I'm in two fairly large guilds each numbering somewhere in the hundreds of active members. Neither of them seems remotely like any guild I was ever in outside GW2.

They seem to be relatively structureless for a start. There's a nominal hierarchy with names for the ranks but no-one seems to refer to it. If we have "officers" I have no idea who they are (and I've been in both guilds for several years now). Events, when they occur, seem to be ad hoc and while someone got us a guild hall and did a bang-up job decorating it I have no idea who that might have been or when it happened.

Despite my apparent disconnection, I remain a member in good standing and if it all seems fairly anonymous and impersonal then that's because it is. In GW2 you join guilds by your Account rather than by your character and each account can be in up to five guilds simultaneously. Since it's common to have more than one account (I have four) the number of guilds you can be in at the same time is potentially quite large.

It used to be that you had to "Represent" a guild (which means specify it as your active guild) and you could only speak in the Guild Chat of that guild. Guilds were also server-specific. Over time all that has gone. Now you can speak in the chat channel of any of your guilds and you can join guilds on any server.

The even more sumptuous interior of the even less-frequented Arena in the Windswept Haven Guild Hall.

I wonder if that dilutes the intensity, indeed the cabin fever, that used to characterize the clubhouse mentality of many guilds in the past? It must be much harder to develop and maintain the kind of obvious idiosyncratic character traits listed by Tamrielo in an environment where guild membership is so much more tangential and fractured.

Finally, a reason to visit!
It also removes that whole "I quit" drama that made guilds so enervating in the past. If you get fed up, or someone's annoying you, you can just start chatting in another guild and go play with them instead, then come back to the first when The Drill Sergeant or Ready To Go has logged out.

I certainly have never seen anything in the two large guilds I'm in that comes anywhere close to the kind of emotional hothousing that so strongly put me off guild life back in the mid-noughties. It's a far more relaxed, casual, laissez-faire experience than anything I remember from EverQuest or EQ2.

As I do my dailies in DCUO, slipping my Qwardian coins into my wallet as I save up for Krypto, I'm still getting random drive-by guild invites. I haven't yet accepted one because it seems a bit louche to join and then never turn up for anything. At best I'd be a classic What's Going On Lately, dropping in for fresh events, grabbing the freebies, maybe staying for a week of dailies then disappearing until next time.

Even so, I am tempted. I never want to have to deal with proper Guild Drama ever again but I wouldn't mind being Things Explainer or Chill AF in a nice, quiet, steady guild somewhere. Maybe that time will come in Ashes of Creation or Pantheon, if either of them ever happen for real. Pantheon particularly strikes me as a game where a good guild would be more of a necessity than a luxury.

Meanwhile I guess I'll carry on as I have been, with the personalities I know from map and wvw chat standing in for guildmates. I could allocate a few names to categories there as well...

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Inbetween Days : GW2

Yesterday's update to GW2 didn't add much to the game other yet more pointless nodes for the personal instance and a tweak to the way Black Lion Chests (the game's lootboxes) work. In celebration of that momentous event there's a free chest and a key to open it with for all non-F2P accounts. Look in the Promotions section of the Trading Post while stocks last.

The current BLC comes with a guaranteed Mini Yellow Jackal Pup, multiples of which can be combined with dyes in the Mystic Forge to make several different colored versions. They are also tradable so you can go for the set without needing to spend real money although it would cost you a fair amount of gold for a full jackal pack.

More interesting and far less publicized was the arrival of the latest Current Event. As I've written before, these supposed side-dishes that ANet slip onto the table to keep us from getting hungry between servings of the Living Story are frequently a lot more satisfying than the main course itself.

The only hint this time was a line in the Game Release Notes that read "Reports of undead attacking travelers near major cities have increased". They did at least make it the first line this time, so it was harder than usual to overlook.

Even so, in all the excitement of World vs World, which was very lively last night, I forgot to go and see what was happening. It was only when I logged in to do the vista daily in Metrica today and nearly got trampled by a stampede of Level 80s on Springers, Raptors and Griffins that I remembered there was something I was supposed to do.

I won't go into details. Dulfy, as always, has an excellent rundown of exactly where you need to go, when you need to go there and what you need to do when you arrive. The event involves the overrated and currently ubiquitous Palawa Joko and his Awakened Army but it's a lot of fun anyway.

It's not dissimilar to the much-missed Scarlet Invasions but this time the whole thing has been streamlined and sped up so that it feels like it's on fast-forward. There's a lot of opening the map, finding a waypoint and hoping your map loads in before everything dies. It's frantic and chaotic which appeals to me no end.

After the Lord Mayor's Show

As is so unerringly the case when ANet makes events of this kind, there's an unfortunate and quite serious bug. The event comes with a series of Achievements, one of which triggers a very nice little follow-on "quest" but lots of people aren't getting the correct credit for participating that's needed to trigger the Achievements.

The bug has been acknowledged by ANet but so far there's been no fix even though we've had several subsidiary updates since the main one. I got all my necessary Achievements on one account on my first attempt but I got nothing at all on my second account and Mrs Bhagpuss hasn't had anything on either of hers.

Even so, it's still worth doing before the fix because it's a lot of fun and there's a lot of loot to be grabbed. I've had two exotic weapons drop (well, pop out of boxes I opened) so far. I know that's pure RNG luck and also Exotics are now barely worth what Rares went for before PoF (and Rares are all but worthless) but it's exciting nonetheless.

And one of them was "Kevin", the bizarrely-named Mace that looks like a thigh-bone . I've wanted that for over five years, just so I can link it in chat at opportune moments. Yes, I could buy it on the TP these days for under a gold but that would take most of the fun out of it.

And a partridge in a pear tree.

Further mention should be made of the the little quest that comes after the events. As is often the case with these Side Stories, it's particularly well done. Better than almost anything in either Path of Fire or Living Story 4 in my opinion.

If that sounds overstated, given that it's no more than a short scavenger hunt with some dialog, I have some evidence to offer. A lot of thought has been put into how the quest is going to be received by the players doing it.

It doesn't require you to have completed Hearts in order to buy the items, for example. Two of them are in boxes on the ground and one is sold by a regular vendor. The locations where the items are found also make complete logical and lore sense.

Better still, even though the items themselves are Account Bound, as is the final item they make, only the character who was present at the original event when the Achievement was completed can take them out of the chests or buy them from the vendor.

I found that out when I sent my Ranger to get one because my Elementalist had never been to Timberline Falls and the Ranger wasn't able to see the dialog or the item on the vendor. The Ele had to fly all the way from The Priory to Fisher's Eye Bridges on her griffon to get it herself.

For special customers only.
That will infuriate some players but it made me happy. I was even happier when Mechanist Ninn, the Asura who makes the final item, told me it would take a day to finish it and my Asuran character was able to say she knew a bit about machinery herself so could she give him a hand?

She and the NPC then had a little chat about it and made the item on the spot. Iron Legion Charr and all Engineers can do the same but everyone else has to wait a whole real-life day! Things like that, and Ninn addressing my character by her class and name rather than just calling her "Commander", go a long way towards drawing me into the story, even when there really isn't much of a story to be drawn into in the first place.

If previous Current Events are anything to go by the invasion should carry on for a few weeks. It's hard to see how it could be made a permanent fixture the way most (all?) of the others have been but I certainly wouldn't complain if it was.

Now if someone would just fix the bug so everyone can get credit for their effort, that would be lovely. Thanks, Anet!
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