Monday, February 26, 2018

Familiarity Breeds Content : EQ2

As I may have mentioned once or twice, there's nothing I like better than a free lockbox. Whenever I see one I grab it gleefully, chortling as I rip the lid off. EQ2 has just added some real corkers with a new quest that strikes me as immensely - possibly insanely - generous. And if that's not enough it's also really good fun!

When Update 105 arrived a week or so ago I was so focused on the belated appearance of the new Planes of Prophecy Signature tradeskill questline that I barely registered another feature, Season 3 Familiars. Well, why would I? It was just some cash shop  fluff, wasn't it?

Familiars were added to the game in May 2017, since when they have bedded down nicely. They seem to be a fun addition, designed to appeal to Gotta Catch 'Em All collectors at one end of a peculiar spectrum that abuts the Min Max Bleeding Edge Elite at the other.

'Scuse me mister. Got any familiars you want findin'?
For everyone else Familiars are yet another of EQ2's vast range of optional extras. If they were easier to come by I might have paid them more attention but when they first appeared I observed that although the cages they come in were available as drops, quest rewards and cash shop purchases, the only way it looked like I was going to get one was to buy it. Which, out of curiosity, I did. 

In the months since then I've picked up a couple through gameplay but I haven't bought any more,
nor felt the need or desire to do so. Neither have I paid much attention to the system or how it might be developing, although I vaguely registered that new ones had started to hit the cash shop every so often in something called "Seasons".

For a few months things carried on like that; DBG turning coin off the usual suspects while the rest of the population got on with their own business. Then, along with the third batch of Familiars that landed in the cash shop this month, came a new development.

There's a very well established practice in many games whereby items can be upgraded by "feeding" them to each other. I think I first encountered it in City of Steam and I remember it being a big part of Blade and Soul when I was playing. Mrrx at To Game For Life is currently exploring such a system in great depth with his series of posts about Summoner's War.

As the update explains "In addition to familiar training potions, you will also be able to use new familiars to level your favorite familiar." You simply Examine (right-click) the familiar in your inventory and select the option to "consume" it, adding the xp generated to the familiar you currently have equipped.

So far, so familiar, so to speak. Except that it only works with the current Season's familiars - any you already have from previous Seasons aren't eligible. As the website says,  "Familiars earned through /claim, quests, and any other specialized way will not be able to be consumed for experience".

Boo! And Hiss! Right? More slippery cash shoppery practice! Well, no, not really.

EQ2 has a first class cash shop. As well as acting as a sales window for the excellent Player Studio it sells all kinds of good and useful things, most of them for very fair prices indeed. Yes, there are some of the dreaded loot crates, containing randomized Mercenaries and Familiars, but whatever you get out of them can be converted to the valued Status currency, something which no regular player can ever have enough of. There are people who buy the crates just for that.

I would wager that we get to visit this "Conservatory" at some point. Once it's in the lore it's only a matter of time before it's in the game.

Still, there were murmurings about the new leveling route for Familiars taking this particular curve. And then this happened. A new quest that rewards a Season 3 Familiar Crate.

I spent two hours doing the new quest, Familiars Wild, last night and when I finish this post I'm going to spend a couple more doing it on another account. I found it to be both entertaining and rewarding. Especially rewarding.

The EQ2Traders link above gives the full walkthrough but in brief it goes like this:
  • Find a bunch of new NPCs hanging around outside the bank in either South Freeport or South Qeynos.
  • Chat with them for a bit.
  • Read the book they give you (actually that bit's optional but reading books is good).
  • Chat to them again.
  • Go find the type of "familiar" they ask you to look for.
  • Catch the required number with the cage they gave you.
  • Open the reward and get a free Season 3 familiar.
You can then add the familiar to your collection or use it to upgrade a familiar you already have.

I first did this with my Berserker which was, let me tell you, a barrel of laughs, oh yes... Did you know a Berserker has no zero-damage attacks? I've been playing one for years and I never noticed. I killed an awful lot of insects before I finally got eleven live ones in that cage. When the very least damage you can possibly do is about half a million hit points it's hard to be gentle.

Hard to say who looks the most ridiculous..

I was very pleased with the Legendary Familiar I got. I had a look at him. He wasn't pretty but he was amusing. The familiars follow you like pets and have full animations. You can hide them if you want but where's the fun in that?

It was only about half an hour later that a thought struck me. The Familiar I received was flagged No Trade. If this quest was per account, wouldn't it need to be Heirloom? I was on another account (a free to play one) by then so I went and did it with my Necromancer. Then I did it again with my Guardian. Then with every character on the account. I found it very moreish indeed and if it hadn't gotten so late I might have logged in more accounts just so I could go on doing it.

So, the quest is per character and according to Niami Denmother, who knows, it's intended to be a Daily. The NPC certainly invites you to "come back tomorrow" although at the  moment he won't give you a repeat. That's supposedly a bug, to be fixed in the next patch, which should be Tuesday.

This one licks the top of his own head. And you really don't want to see what's going on down below...

After that you should be able to complete the quest for a current season familiar every day, on every character on every account you have including F2P. As I said at the top, that seems to me to be immensely generous.

I'm one hundred percent happy with the way Daybreak post-SOE manages this kind of thing. It seems to me that they bend over backwards to make sure that everyone gets a fair shake, whether they pay or freeload, whether they eat, sleep and live EQ2 or just drop in once in a blue moon out of curiosity. There's always a wealth of things to do, usually something new, and as a semi-regular, rather casual player I always feel fully included.

This quest is a fine example of that philosophy. I just hope they don't go and nerf it tomorrow and leave me eating crow. It does seem extraordinarily generous...

Sunday, February 25, 2018

It's Not Called Ninelives For Nothing

I was browsing my blog roll after work last night when I came across this post from Chestnut at Gamer Girl Confessions. What a nice surprise, particularly since IntPiPoMo is my favorite of all the annual blogging events.

It's always nice to win something although in this case I can hardly claim I made a special effort. I probably post ninety screenshots most months, which is a fairly small fraction of the number I actually take.

Don't look at me like that. I don't have the key!

One of the great things about IntPiPoMo is that it gives me an excuse to run a few of the shots that I otherwise might not find a good reason to post. Not that I should need an excuse, I guess. Kaozz , who really should enter IntPiPoMo next time, makes a habit of all-picture posts and MassivelyOP has a weekly screenshot feature called One Shots.

Somehow, though, even if I start out meaning to post nothing but pictures I always end up writing a whole bunch of words. Case in point.

Re the recent discussion in the comments here: NineLives has fully functioning underwater environments.

I'm going to use this opportunity as a peg to hang a few pictures I took last week in a game that I've mentioned a few times in the past but which can be a tad hard to justify including on this supposedly MMOcentric blog. It's not an MMO and it's no longer in active development.

It is, however, one of the most aesthetically satisfying, visually subtle and deliciously appealing virtual worlds I have ever encountered and it deserves far more attention than it is ever likely to get. The game in question is Ninelives.

As far as I can tell, if you can see it, you can get to it. I saw that house and I got to it. Died a few times doing it, too.

Why the Smokymonkeys team decided to shelve this wonderful project is puzzling. I think they may just be obsessional perfectionists for whom nothing is ever quite good enough. For whatever reason, they announced the suspension of development over a year ago. As the website states, in terms idiosyncratically translated from the original Japanese, "Currently this game is suspended and has no plan to resuming."

It's still up and running though and occasionally some small update or improvement drifts in. Every so often I check just to see if it's still alive and last week I saw it twitch:

 "We decided to publish remain areas that under development. There are no creatures, no items, and no quests. It's like a walking simulator. There are only terrains and great music. Nothing to get valuable items or so on them. Even we believe it has some impression or some value for some people. It will not intrupt your normal game play. You need to fill some conditions to open the games to reach new areas."
Well, it certainly had some impression or some value for me! The game required a new download and installation, which took just a couple of minutes, then there I was, back in the gorgeous, unnamed world of Ninelives again.

Here I am, half way up the winding path, already into the cloud layer.

According to the update notes the pre-requisite for access to the new zones comes in the form of a quest to "get two climber's medals from the quests at Imera Climbing Cluba in Continental Highlands".  Easier said than done in a game that has so few players, no official support and struggles to populate even a basic wiki.

All of which is part of the appeal. As I was roaming around Continental Highlands, a map I thought I'd opened but actually had barely started exploring, I found myself thinking that I was quite glad Ninelives never followed its original dream to become an MMORPG.

And here's the house, accessed by a very scary almost invisible magic platform.

A significant part of the appeal is the loneliness. It's one of the most bittersweet, elegiac environments I've found in decades of gaming. It's more of an art installation than a game. It definitely wouldn't have the same bleak grandeur if it was filled with other players darting hither and yon, slaughtering the wildlife and complaining in chat about being bored.

I'm very keen to make my way into the new explorable areas because I think that having "no creatures, no items, and no quests" may even enhance the experience. The quests are nothing special and the awkward translations sometimes take you out of the moment rather than drawing you in. Progression is slow and there's a fairly steep curve, which makes exploring beyond the areas you're meant to be leveling in a dangerous affair.

It's so cosy inside! Who else would live here but an elven wizard. Look, he has the ears and the staff and everything!
And, naturally, he's got a quest.

All things taken in to consideration, it may well be that Ninelives will be best appreciated as a walking simulator with great music. But first I have to find the Imera Climbing Club. Easier read than done.

I opened all of the West side of Continental Highlands on the map in a thoroughly enjoyable session the other night. I died a few times doing it and every death costs me gold to respawn. I'm not sure what happens if I run out of money.

I didn't kill them! They were dead when I got here - honest!

I found a load of fascinating and beautiful locations and acquired a bookful of quests I'm not powerful enough to complete but I never found the Climbing Club. I hope it's somewhere in the still-fogged East. If not then I'm stumped.

In any case, I probably should go back to the start of the zone and level up a bit. I don't suppose those climbers are going to hand out their medals for nothing. I'll probably have to kill something at some point, even if it's only to get to the right area.

This is some kind of "research facility". Hence the white leather lab coat and the face mask. Not sinister at all...especially with that motivational poster...

It would be such a shame if NineLives just faded away out of some misguided sense of perfectionism amongst its creators. As someone pointed out on the forum, when  it was suggested the game should go to Steam, "even incomplete as it is, it's much better than most of the games there!" . Which may be true although I haven't exactly played enough Steam games to judge.

For now, though, it's freely available and as I've said before I recommend trying it while you still can. It's not going to set anyone's pulse racing with its gameplay but the visuals, the music and the ambience are superb.

Last time I wrote about Nine Lives I think the only person who mentioned trying it was Syp and he didn't like it much. He would have liked it even less if he'd made it to the Highlands and met this Elf Child.

When I get my medals and climb the wall I'll be back with another report. I'll be sure and take plenty of pictures.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Puttering About In A Small Land : EQ2, GW2

The Signature tradeskill questline, Stitch in Time, which would normally have been part of the annual EQ2 expansion, finally arrived last week. Any concern there might have been over the extent or significance of the content was laid to rest with a glance at the details.

I already knew from reports coming back from the Test server that it came in a sequence of five parts, the first alone estimated to take three hours and needing to be completed in a single run. It was clearly going to require both commitment and a block of time but it wasn't until I decided to read the full walkthrough at EQ2Traders that I realised the full scale of the enterprise.

At this point it probably sounds as though I'm winding up to a post about how it went when I tried it for myself. Afraid not! It took me literally forty minutes just to read the walkthrough, after which I felt dazed with detail and a little bit intimidated. Added to that, there are a few known bugs awaiting a fix, which should come in today's weekly patch.

I've decided to wait and let things settle. This looks like a major undertaking and the last thing I want is to get hung up on some bug that then gets fixed a few days later. I have the first week of March off work so I'm penciling it in for then.

I had a couple of paragraphs about that orange wisp trail but it'll have to wait for another day.
Instead, I decided to knuckle down and take a second character from level 100 to the new cap of 110. I have several candidates.

There's my Warlock for one. He got boosted to 95 from somewhere in the 30s a while ago but I did play him through those last five levels so I at least have a vague idea what his spells do. He's also a Level 100 Sage so he's going to have to do both the adventure and the craft line at some point.

Then there's my Necromancer, who was somewhere in the teens when she got bumped all the way to 100 with a free boost. She's never really been played, but I did play a necro on Test for five years all the way to the then-cap of 90 and I have another properly leveled necro in the 70s on another account, so I'm pretty au fait with the class, if a little rusty.

Finally there's my Inquisitor. She also got boosted to 95 then leveled the last step the hard way. Soloing an Inquisitor is mindblowingly simple. It really is the Battle Mage every fourteen year old D&D player imagines they want to play. Plate armor, gigantic healing capacity, a huge range of nukes and best of all Verdict.

This guy was a pain to kill. Looked impressive though.

Verdict is the reason everyone wants an Inquisitor mercenary. With Verdict every fight is shorter. Depending on the rating of the opponent, Verdict delivers a giant judge's gavel to the head that one-shot kills weaker mobs at just under 60% health. and most things you'll be soloing at either just under 30% or just over 10%. Even Epics take a nosedive at 3% when the verdict hits and that can be absolutely crucial in a tight fight.

I decided to go with the Inquisitor because she's just fun to play. Verdict came in handy when I accidentally pulled a level 112 named monkey, out questing in Plane of Magic (me, not the monkey. Although who knows?). All the soloable nameds in Planes of Prophecy are level 112 one-up-arrow mobs and I know from my experiences with my Berserker that they don't start to become easy targets until you hit around 105 and have the upgraded quest gear that goes with the levels.

I've been avoiding them for that reason but since I'd aggroed the thing, and since I really don't like monkeys, I decided to give it a go. It was an instructive experience to say the least.

Here's a monkey that could solo Veeshan's Peak. Power creep, much?
The entire fight lasted more than twenty minutes. My Paladin mercenary ran out of power after about five and the monkey (his name is Tiny) was flat out of power not long after. I was chain casting every DD and debuff I have, which is plenty, but my power was holding up far better.

Even so, the fight went on so long and the monkey seemed to have so much health that it looked as if I might run out of power before the end too. I've had fights like that, where it comes down to everyone swinging on auto-atack and casting one spell every few minutes when the little blue bar creeps back over zero. It's not something you want to be doing for entertainment.

Although Tiny appeared to have somewhere north of ten trillion hit points (probably an exaggeration but with EQ2's current insane stat bloat not necessarily) he hit like a wet blancmange. I couldn't even see my health bar dip. I had to open the combat log to check he was actually fighting back. He was, but my passive heals were easily outpacing any damage he could do to me.

Around the time he hit 20% health I had to start managing my mana and by the time I was finally able to verdict the little pest I had 4% left. Without Verdict in the bank it would have gone down to a no-magic slugfest and no-one wants that. Well, I don't.

Don't get excited, Vaynca. There's nothing in there for either of us.

Naturally he dropped something my Inquisitor couldn't use. Isn't it always the way? It was a fun fight - kind of - but I won't be pulling any more nameds in Plane of Magic for a couple more levels at least.

Thanks to the tri-partite faction system in PoP I've managed to reach 103 without duplicating any of the content my Berserker did back before Christmas. This time I went with the Sphinxes, who are an interesting bunch.

Their quest dialog is hilariously overwritten, most likely by someone whose wan't originally employed as a writer. There are some glaring grammatical errors here and there and the tone veers all over the place. I find it quite endearing but I'm not sure everyone would.

Most veterans probably just click through without reading anyway and there are places where it does seem the writer has that in mind. What strength there is comes in the characterization. The Sphinxes all have markedly different personalities and their little humanoid pals, the Aluxob, are hilarious.

Excuse me while I finish your sentence for you.

I particularly enjoyed the exchanges between my character and Grodney, an aluxob who speaks...very...slowly for no reason that's ever explained. I can't help wondering if it's an in-joke about someone in the DBG offices. The way my Inquisitor tried to chivvy him along so she can get on with her quest made me laugh even though the dialog had her expressing herself in a way I'd never imagined she'd speak. Later, when time really is of the essence, she won't let him talk at all, just nod or shake his head. It may not be great literature - or even high-quality quest dialog - but it works for me.

A couple of hours of questing in Plane of Magic is about as much as I want in one session. It's a lovely zone, very varied, attractive to look at and filled with ambient sounds and pleasant music but you can only do so many small tasks and kill so much wildlife before you feel like making a coffee and checking Feedly.

I did appreciate being sent to do some tasks underwater for a change of pace. I don't remember any of that when I took my Berserker through. It struck me as I was killing eels that there's such a ridiculous contrast between the way EQ2 and GW2 use their underwater areas.

Would it have killed you to put down a couple of rocks and some seaweed?

GW2 has the most gorgeous underwater landscapes I've ever seen. ANet went to all the trouble of creating special breathing masks with their own equipment slot to make sure all classes could breathe as easily underwater as on land. They created underwater weapons and skills for every class. They even added a great visual splash effect across the screen when you enter or leave the water. Then sometime soon after launch they seemed to decide that everyone hated all of it. They began to act as though deep water no longer existed.

EQ2, on the other hand, has some of the blandest, dullest underwater real estate you can imagine. Everyone needs special equipment or spells or items to breathe underwater and you can quite easily drown if you aren't paying attention. Fighting below the surface is exactly the same as above except you can't see or hear properly. The whole experience is minimal and minimally entertaining yet the developers never hesitate to make use of it.

Like a lot of things in EQ2, it's an acquired taste but it's one I acquired long ago. There's really not much about EQ2 that I don't like these days but I'm aware that there's a whole lot of "well I grew up here so it seems normal to me" going on. What's worrying is that I tend to benchmark most other MMOs against EQ2 these days and they all come up short.

I may have Stockholm Syndrome.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Race Question

A couple of weeks back, Syp used Massively OP's "Daily Grind" column to ask a pertinent question: "How do you feel about the increased focus on PvP in upcoming MMOs?" It was, I thought a remarkably restrained choice of words. Hardly click-bait, more the title for a term paper. 

But then, you hardly need to sex things up to start an argument over PvP.  It's been a hot button topic in MMORPGs ever since I began playing. A disturbing number of people tend to take positions on the subject that seem indistinguishable from religious conviction. Fundamentalist religion, at that.

Video games in general and MMORPGs in particular are riddled with enough moral ambiguities to keep a university department in research grants for decades but it's PvP that tends to act as the lightning rod for moral hysteria. Well, it was until lockboxes came along, anyway.

My own attitudes, both emotional and rational, have changed significantly over two decades. In answer to Syp's question, I feel sanguine.  PvP hasn't scared me for a very long time and if I have any moral qualms about what we do in MMOs these days I could apply them just as readily - perhaps more so - to many of the things we take for granted in PvE content.

That's a can of worms that might be worth opening another day but for now I have a question of my own: why does PvP have to mean players killing other players? Or to put it another way, why are MMORPGs so reluctant to include non-fatal but directly competitive content?

The reason I ask this is because I've spent a quite ridiculous amount of time this last week or so running races in GW2. I got all the achievements on all three accounts long ago but still I find myself hanging around the starting line in Divinity's Reach hour after hour, waiting for the announcement that the next race is about to begin.

It's not because I want to win. I'm usually on the rented mount without the skills and without the skills you ain't winning zip! It's not even because I want to prove I can win. I know I can win. It took a lot of tries but I did, eventually, win a race and I can prove it. I have a screenshot of my character's name being broadcast across the map (which is all the reward you get) because of course I have a screenshot.

All those italics go to show how involving and exciting I find it, even when it's over. It's bloody good fun, that's why I keep doing it! Unlike the races I enjoy in other MMOs like EQ2 and DCUO, it's not a time trial against the clock, nor even an asynchronous competition against the scores of others shown on a leaderboard. It's an actual, for real, proper race, with tactics and strategy and thrills and spills and personalities.

Why isn't there more of this kind of thing in MMOs? It's not that it doesn't exist at all. When it does exist, though, it's usually tucked tidily away in a corner somewhere, set off in an instance or inside a building, safely out of sight lest it frighten the monster-killing masses.

Take WoW's pet battles. They're a major feature I've yet to try it (free accounts are locked out) but as far as I can tell from my research, although you can play against other players, it's not player vs player in any sense that matters. Not only does everything happen away from the crowds in instances but according to WoWpedia, Blizzard has gone to extraordinary lengths to make the experience as close to fighting an NPC as possible:

"the player's opponent is represented by a randomly selected player character. They may be of any playable race, of either gender and faction, and may wear any of a variety of often quite impressive armor. The opponent's representation does not appear to be related to their actual character; meeting the same player twice in a row will yield an apparently entirely different opponent"

When EQ2 added its own version of pet battles way back in the first expansion, Desert of Flames, it was allegedly as a sop to the demands for PvP. Once again it was PvP by proxy, teams of creaturees controlled by players fighting in an arena. No-one really played it and now it's gone.

GW2 did, for a while, try to make a feature of  non-fatal player versus player content. There was Keg Brawl at launch, swiftly followed by Crab Toss and Southsun Survival, then Sanctum Sprint. None of them ever really garnered much of a following outside of achievers trying to eke out every last point, even though Southsun Survival is eerily similar to the mega-hit PUBG.

Nowadays you can only do the activities when they come up as a Daily and even then your chances of a good, competitive match are slim. Someone will always just idle until the timer runs out. They didn't want to be there anyway and if you attempt to play competitively they'll most likely yell at you in chat to stop wasting everyone's time - particularly in Keg Brawl and Southsun Survival, which can go on for a while if someone takes it seriously.

I'm sure there are plenty of similar examples from many MMOs but compared with the sheer, overwhelming volume of PvE (players killing monsters) and PvP (players killing players) content, the incidence of true, direct, real-time competition between named individuals under a given, non-fatal ruleset seems vanishingly small.

Why is this? Is it that players just don't want it? Or is it that letting players kill each other is just so much cheaper to design and code?

Surely it can't be hard to set up races. It seems like it would be cost-effective, too. If you add a course and ring a starting bell players will gather like a pack of Pavlov's dogs. It - and they - could run forever.

I'd love to see more races. I thoroughly enjoy racing in every MMO I've played that features it, even though I'm far from expert at it - with one glaring exception. Ironically, I'm unable to enjoy the only MMO specifically designed around racing - The Crew -  because I'm so bad I literally can't get out of the tutorial. There's a race there you have to beat to qualify for the main game and I can't do it.

But why stop at racing? I'd love to see a whole raft of competitive mini-games in MMOs. We could have quiz competitions. (The only MMO I recall that had quizzes was Zentia but those were against NPCs). We could have timed, competitive mazes or puzzles. We could have in-game board games, something roleplayers always ask for but which developers tend to be reluctant to add because supposedly it "takes people out of the game" - as though the endless instanced dungeons and raids and guild halls didn't do that already.

All these things are possible and I'd love to see them as options but let's be honest, what I really want is more races. Big, noisy, exciting races that encourage dozens of players to career through major population hubs, cornering wildly and falling off bridges. Flashy races that draw the attention of bystanders and make people feel like cheering - or joining in.

It's fun trying to beat your own best time or get your name higher on a leaderboard but it's nowhere near as much fun as using every trick you know to gain a few inches on the guy in front, the guy who just beat you to the tape last time. I'll take any kind of race but that's the best kind.

Anyway, Syp, if you want to know how I feel about the increased focus on PvP in upcoming MMOs I think it's unimaginative, unambitious and obvious. I think it's an easy option and I think it's lazy. It's not that I object to PvP- I'm completely fine with it. I'd just like some genuine competition that doesn't involve fighting, for a change.

I want more races!

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Can I Click It? : Ashes of Creation

When Intrepid Studios released their latest video this week I didn't take much notice. Yes, I backed the successful Ashes of Creation Kickstarter but my attitude to crowdfunded projects tends towards fire and forget, with the emphasis on forget.

I probably should be paying more attention. After all, I didn't just back AoC once, I backed it twice - firstly in my name and then again on behalf of Mrs Bhagpuss. She didn't ask me to do that, it just looked to be one of the only two possible post-GW2 MMOs we might end up playing together (the other being Pantheon).

I thought I might as well get both our names down early in case the beta turned out to be fun. The last time we tested something together was probably Landmark and that worked out pretty well - for a while.

There is a connection between Landmark and Ashes of Creation, of course. The "Companies our team has worked with previously" section on the Intrepid website has Daybreak's glaring eye front and center. Even more tellingly, of the nine listed titles members of the team worked on before joining Intrepid no fewer than seven are SOE/DBG MMOs. Landmark doesn't get a mention but EQNext does. Is that a healthy MMO lineage or does it suggest a worrying degree of inbreeding?

Mrs Bhagpuss was never sold on the voxel aspect of Landmark and I became quickly and increasingly skeptical about almost everything planned for EQNext. Whether either of us  would want to see any of those ideas carried on by a new studio is uncertain.

Nice dungeon.

While Landmark ended up being a fun toy that I would have gone on fiddling around with for years, I can't say I suffered even the slightest pang of sadness or loss when DBG shut it down. It was a directionless mess that never came close even to working out what it wanted to be, far less being that thing.

As for EQNext, what began as an exciting new direction fast turned into a vanity project that looked set to rival Star Citizen for hubris. I was positively relieved when someone at Columbus Nova finally had the gumption to pull the plug.

Looking at the design brief and some of the concept art for Ashes of Creation, I can't help but think that there's some carry-over from the doomed Landmark/EQN project. That might be concerning but the proposal for Ashes of Creation does look less insane overwrought. It still strikes me as over-ambitious in some respects but then so do the feature lists of almost all in-development MMOs. At least this time the suspicion is only that some features may have to be cut rather than that the entire underpinnings of the project are so far beyond the technical grasp of the people involved that the game will never even manifest a working prototype.

Obviously I think Ashes of Creation has potential as an MMO I'd one day enjoy. If not I wouldn't have backed it. Even so, I don't spend much time speculating about how it may turn out. I don't expect to be using my guaranteed beta invite until 2020 or so. These things always take much longer than the promises and pledges would have you believe.

Nice woodland.

Consequently I have barely been skimming the odd flecks of PR that drift into view. I took a very quick glance at the recent video when Massively OP featured it but I saw nothing to comment on and I'd already blanked it from my thoughts - until I read UltrViolet's brief observation:

My first draft of this post had a whole lot more negative words here, but I’m editing it way down to just this: I didn’t think the game looked very good, and I’m shocked that they released that video.

 Was it really that bad? What did I miss?

So I took another look at it. I still skimmed, but this time I dipped in and out of the whole thing, watching thirty seconds here, thirty seconds there.

And it looks pretty good to me. In fact, it looks remarkably similar to the footage from that other would-be MMO on my watch-list, Pantheon. Two upcoming MMOs, each heavily influenced by the design ethos of SOE/DBG, looking not unlike each other. Who'd have thought it?

Mouse pointer clearly in shot there - appeared to be used to target.

The characters look like fantasy rpg types. The world looks like a fantasy rpg world (western variant). The spell effects look like spell effects and the combat looks like combat. There's a lot of running around, the animation looks decent, movement seems smooth, even the cloaks ripple in the breeze. No-one gets stuck on scenery or falls through the world - at least in the bits I watched.

What more do you want from a "pre-alpha"? Performance-wise, in my testing days that would have exceeded the brief for what we called mid-beta. I think Pantheon looks the better of the two on all counts so far but I'd happily play either of them right now on the evidence I've seen.

Most importantly to me I spotted something in the recent AoC video that I've looked for in earlier footage and failed to see - evidence that the game uses standard MMORPG controls. I hadn't until now been able to ascertain for certain whether the game was going to go with old school, tab-targeting and hotbars or the supposedly more widely accepted ARPG route.

While I can and do play MMOs that hide the cursor and lock the mouse for combat only, it's very much not my preference. I find it awkward and cumbersome even when, as in DCUO or Black Desert, it's done well. Mrs Bhagpuss, who can also use that system if she has to, dislikes it more than I do. She would have to be incredibly interested in a particular game to make the necessary effort.

Watching the developers playing their own game this time there were plenty of moments where I could clearly see the mouse cursor moving purposefully across the screen while the characters were traveling. Several times I thought I saw someone select an enemy with the mouse pointer and that enemy's nameplate window appear on screen as a result.

I don't think you can see the pointer in this shot but he did just use it to target that flower.

That was reassuring indeed but the best part was a moment late in the video when I clearly saw the mouse pointer move to one of the icons on the hotbar and click it to fire off an attack. It had long been my hope that the visual presence of the hotbar indicated it had a use in combat but naturally no developer is going to be a clicker like me. Except this one time, so thanks for that, GM Steven!

Of course, it may be that there's an invisible GM/Dev overlay in use - it looks that way quite often in the video. Also this is pre-alpha - anything can change and most things probably will. Nothing is proven until I can actually play it myself.

In an attempt to nail this one down I went and did a bit of research. Unsurprisingly at this stage everything is still somewhat vague. There's also a good deal of the familiar hand-waving you always get in conversations with developers of MMOs that almost no player can actually play yet, wherein everything is going to be amazing and all the systems will be innovative and nothing like anything you may ever have played before.

With those caveats, the basic plan appears to be a form of tab-targeting with control of the mouse left open. There will be telegraphs and dodging and it all sounds a lot like GW2, which would be wonderful.

We'll see. Eventually. I remain hopeful that Ashes of Creation might end up an MMORPG in the grand tradition, not just yet another ARPG with pretensions. I hope so, anyway.

And with that I think I'll forget about it for another year or two.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Everything Is Everything Else

As David Byrne once said, well... how did I get here?

I remember I was doing what I do most nights, right before I go to sleep. Typing semi-random words into YouTube. Following whichever link looks interesting. The name of a band. A song title. Something I've never heard. Or heard of.

Nothing like Transvision Vamp. I have heard of Transvision Vamp. I have heard Transvision Vamp. Of course I have. I remember them very well. Early 90s outfit. Fronted by shockheaded blonde Wendy James. Made a thinnish glam racket. Had a couple of minor hits. Media loved to love to hate them.

I never thought much of them at the time. Hadn't thought about them at all in at least twenty years. Still, I clicked, out of some dim nostalgic curiosity.

A couple of things happened.

They were a lot better than I remembered. That thin sound had filled out. It aged well. I watched a few live performances. Wendy James seemed fierce and funny. A good deal more self-aware than I imagined. And then, among the titles that filtered down the right of the screen, one leaped right out and smacked me in the heart.  

Where did she go? Out. What did she do? Everything
There is, sadly, no live take of Hanging Out With Halo Jones on YouTube or anywhere else. As others have said, this will have to do.

Halo Jones is possibly my favorite British comic series of all time. If it's not Alan Moore's best work ever it's damn close and Ian Gibson certainly never drew better. I have the originals in my piles of 2000AD up in the loft and I have the three graphic novels somewhere closer to hand. I'm going to read the whole sequence again although it scares me a little to think about doing it.

So, anyway, here I am at Halo Jones via Transvision Vamp and I'm reading the comments because yes, I am one of the people who not only reads the comments on YouTube but finds them interesting and often revealing.

There aren't many but in the last one someone says "There was a Halo Jones play too." There was? Did I know that? The faintest bell chiming somewhere far away...

Which is how I came across this piece of pure magic:

Eight and a half minutes of utter genius. When I saw it was a fringe performance I didn't expect much. How wrong I was. I just wish someone would post the entire thing. I just wish I'd been there.

I looked for more but that's all there is. Oh, and a few scraps of another production at the Leeds Thought Bubble. They don't have anything of the power of this performance.

And what does this have to do with MMORPGs, anyone still reading may well be asking themselves? Patience. I'm getting there.

I'm getting there but I can't tell you how. All I know is that somehow, from  Transvision Vamp and Halo Jones I found my way to what was lost, by way of the  latest Game Archeologist piece on MassivelyOP. Although it turns out I could just have checked my own back pages...

Syp's piece has absolutely nothing to do with any of this except as a catalyst. It's all about BBS gaming. I never saw a Bulletin Board in my life, much less played a game on one. As I read, though, my mind slipped to which forgotten MMOs might still be out there, waiting for Syp to (dis)cover them.

My list of most fondly-rememberd MMOs includes several that are no longer running. Vanguard and Free Realms, obviously. Rubies of Eventide, which I often mention. Endless Ages, which was there so early on and broke so much ground (and which appears still to exist in some form or another...I'm on that right now...but one thing at a time).

There's also one that Mrs Bhagpuss and I played in beta and liked a lot for no very good reason. I was under the impression that it never launched. I seem to remember the client just stopped connecting to the server one day and I thought I'd read that whoever was behind it decided not to release it in the West after all.

I haven't been able to come up with the name for a long time. I don't have it in my old log-in records. No-one ever mentions it anywhere to jog my memory. And this is where the chain breaks yet holds.

Somewhere along the way, reading about BBS games, listening to Transvision Vamp, watching Halo Jones, all the  while thinking about dead MMOs and googling all of it, I came across a mention of the Ferengi, those gnomelike aliens from Star Trek. It wasn't even anything about them, really. Just a play or a song that used their name.

I have no clue where or what it was even though it was only a day or two ago. Whatever it was triggered a flash of insight that blanked everything else. The name of the forgotten MMO was Ferentus

All the many other times I've seen the Ferengi mentioned, that never happened. It took that particular set of circumstances to create the necessary neural connections. So it seems.

It turns out that Ferentus never did launch but it lived long enough in open beta to develop quite a following all the same. It was known under three different names. Ferentus in North America, Herrcot in Germany and Xiones in South Korea. Even now there are people hoping for an emulator. That's never going to happen but someone has come up with a text-based homage. I played it. It works.

All of which just proves what a wonderful new world it is that we all live in. Any day we can wake up and ask ourselves how we got here and have no idea and it's still all good. As Rodice says, "No matter how far you get, they'll fetch you back here and bust you to pieces".

Pieces are all we're made of. But what pieces!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Love In A Cold Climate : DCUO

Until I picked up playing again last year I had no idea DCUO had so many special events. There seems to be a new one every few weeks. This month there are two!

February puts rings around a couple of dates on the Earth-1 calendar. As a close analog of our own world, naturally Valentine's Day falls on the 14th but I was unaware that the 11th is also Flash Appreciation Day. Yes, really.

No, seriously, it is! I googled it and it's an actual thing! Look, if you'd been at the Cahuenga Library on Santa Monica Boulevard in Los Angeles at lunchtime yesterday you could have celebrated Flash Appreciation Day with a screening of the animated film "Justice League: Flashpoint Paradox" and some coloring-in. If that doesn't make it a genuine real-world holiday then I don't what to say.

As the website Nothing But Comics explains, the celebration originated in a 2006 episode of Justice League Unlimited. The idea was taken up by fans and has been running ever since - much like The Flash himself. You do have to wonder if some people have too much time on their hands...

There's not a lot to the event in-game this year but it does come with a free Enhanced Speed-Force Spectrum Suit, which in my opinion makes you look like some kind of unholy don't-cross-the-streams hybrid of Flash and Iron Man. Still, free stuff...

Flash Appreciation Day is today but the freebie and the Flash Sale (see what they did there?) run (see, I already did that joke) until the 14th. You might think it would be leaving to make way for the Valentine's event, Love Conquers All, but that's already begun.

A considerably more substantial affair (see what...oh, never mind), Love Conquers All comes with the usual trimmings. There's an open world event with quests and a four person Alert. You can earn another unique currency (Hearts, of course) to spend at a special vendor.

I jumped straight in after I'd grabbed my Flash suit. The message from... hang on, it'll come to me..oh yes, the Hal Jordan version of Green Lantern (always the real GL for those of us of a certain age, I think) gave clear directions for once. I headed to the East Gotham Police Station and it was a matter of moments before I was talking to...Mera.

Wait...what? How did she get into this? I was just about following the plot with the Star Sapphires and Mr Freeze and then out of the blue I'm chatting with Aquaman's wife?

It turns out she's come ashore to offer up her own romance with Aquaman (I'm sorry, I just can't call him "Arthur" and keep a straight face) as a paradigm of the perfect relationship. By way of a scavenger hunt. Naturally.

It's a very good scavenger hunt, too. I originally started looking riverside, using the logic that that's where Mera would have been most comfortable. I did find a couple of updates there but I would have struggled without the wiki. The seahorse statues you have to find don't light up until you get quite close and some of them are on ledges and roofs high above the river. I guess Mera called on one of her many flying friends to put them up there for her.

Each statue comes with a rather good voiceover by either Mera or Aquaman, highlighting aspects of their relationship and incidents from their life together. The vignettes are decently written and the voice acting is solid. I particularly enjoyed the way the anecdotes sometimes presented the same event first from one partner's perspective, then the other. I have a soft spot for Aquaman and Mera anyway, ever since the great Nick Cardy issues of the 60s.

Before I eavesdropped on the Aqua-couple I did the Alert. It was extremely simple for which I was very grateful. I barely know what I'm doing in DCUO at the best of times. A round of straight-up baddie punching is just about my speed.

So forgiving was this particular Alert that the four of us were able to complete it by battering Mr Freeze from the get-go. I think we were supposed to disable two of his machines first but one of them was still untouched when he fell down and the loot pinata popped. A couple of us stayed on and wrecked the remaining machine for a little extra xp but it was very much after the Lord Mayor's Show by then.

As well as the holiday content the new update also brings a revamp of the Leaderboard that pops when you finish an instance. I like to look at that to see just how badly I've done and how much of a dead weight I've been. This time I seemed to be fairly solidly in the middle so I can only assume no-one else was a regular either.

The new leaderboard is an improvement, even if my sound placing on it may be a fluke. There's also a useful auto-sort addition to the inventory that I tried and approved.

All in all a jolly good update. I must find time to go see what the valentine's vendor sells. I can always use more furniture for my base - although whether I want to come home after a hard day's crimefighting to a statue of Aquaman and Mera canoodling in the corner I'm not so sure.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Where Do We Go From Here?

As I slog through the grim, last days of Winter, eyes fixed yearningly on the slender promise of Spring, it would be nice to sense some stirring of excitement for the future. After all, everyone else seems to be enjoying some kind of frisson.

My Feedly and blog roll are alive with the thrill of the new as people lay out their plans or share their adventures in fresh worlds, hunting monsters or saving the world. Me, I'm just not feeling it.

I had all week off work. I had a few gaming plans but none of them involved anything I hadn't done before. There wasn't a single new title I could think of that I wanted to try, although there are plenty of them out there, in Early Access, alpha or beta, unfinished but available.

Looking sideways, I was going to re-subscribe to WoW because apparently all it takes to get me back is a bit of extra free time and the hint of something just a little more solid and satisfying in the leveling game. Then there was Rift. I had some idea of poking around Telon so I could get my disappointment in early before the rush.

I considered a return to LotRO or FFXIV, since I have established characters in both that i can play for nothing and I like the early levels in each of them. There's Project: Gorgon, flirting with that Steam launch yet again. I believe still haven't sorted out my account to register my Kickstarter credentials. I thought I might do that but it seems like work and I'm not at all sure I'm interested enough in P:G any more to make the effort.

Every time anyone mentions Black Desert I remember how much I enjoyed my time there. I'd give it another go but it's somewhere on a hard drive I took out of my old PC and I'd have to find which one and put it in an enclosure. Same applies to Blade and Soul and Dragon's Nest and...oh I just can't be bothered.

And on it goes. I could list a dozen more MMORPGs that flit through my mind most days, a brief flurry of curiosity that fades to gray the moment I consider what I'd need to do just to log in. All those usernames and passwords to find, the updates to install, and for what?

Disorientation, confusion, a sense of rising panic. That's what. An apprehension that none of these "games" are pick up and play. A growing understanding that each and every one of them has a learning curve that's not dissimilar to learning a new language or starting a new job.

Is that fun? It used to be fun. It guess it still would be - if I thought I was going to commit. It's clear from all the neophyte Monster Hunters turning journeymen out there that once those claws catch they hook. I could be caught that way again, I'm sure, only by what?

Looking ahead I have a desultory interest in Crowfall. I'm guessing it will be a disaster but an interesting one. I'm very far from sure I want to pay $50 to be there when it happens but I don't rule it out. They hope to make Soft Launch "as early in 2018 as we can". I have another week off work in March...

Oh, who am I kidding? Crowfall isn't going to launch in March this year, "soft" or otherwise. Neither is anything else that interests me. I'll be here in a month doing just the same thing I'm doing now - shuttling between three or four MMOs I've played for five, ten, fifteen or twenty years already.

If I somehow find any extra energy and manage to make the effort I might throw in a few more of similar vintage. If I do, all it will be is a quick nostalgia trip followed by a swift retreat as the prospect of the sheer commitment required to make  meaningful progress sinks in.

All of which sounds like I'm in something of a gaming funk, that I'm suffering from the notorious MMO malaise, but really I'm not. I spent most of my week off playing MMOs, just as I planned and wanted - it's just that the only MMOs I played were the same MMOs I'd have played had I been working.

I'm writing this almost as an apology to myself, some kind of penance for sins of omission. I feel kinda sorta guilty that I didn't use the time "better", somehow. But what, really, would "better" look like? If I'd dabbled around in a dozen different games, would I have had anything much to show for it? Anything more than I have?

Well, I'd have a few more blog posts, for sure. Maybe less introspective and solipsistic ones, at that. A bunch of screenshots and some memories. But isn't that a tail wagging a dog? Best hope, I'd have some fresh ideas, a new gaming crush.

Didn't happen. Not going to happen.

Instead I played many, many hours of GW2. I added a whole bunch of ranks to my main account as I spent hours and hours in World vs World, pointlessly trying to defend or recapture doomed keeps against overwhelming opposition in an utterly meaningless match, which our team wanted to lose anyway.

I ran race after race around Divinity's Reach for no better reason than an NPC announced there were races to be run. I did The Maw and Claw of Jormag for the ten thousandth time for loot I don't need or want. I opened Lucky Envelopes and set off fireworks and generally hung out with the crowds, wherever the crowds were, doing whatever the crowds were doing.

And when I wasn't doing that I was in EQ2, adding more homes to my housing network and more materials to my storage depots. I spent most of a session ferrying in house pets and setting up a duck pond.

Then for a change of pace I put ten levels on my Bruiser in Sinking Sands, a zone where I have probably spent more time than all my holidays from the last five years added together and I enjoyed every minute of all of it. I still have three days left before I go back to work and I'm going to spend much of it doing more of what I already did. And then when I'm back at work I'm going to do it some more again.

Does the WHO maybe have a point, d'you think? Or maybe it's just that I'm very, very lazy and very easily amused?

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Everything But The Kill : EQ2

As Telwyn posted yesterday, the signature crafting questline that wasn't ready for prime time when the Planes of Prophecy expansion launched last year is coming to EQ2 next week as the center-piece of GU105. With Domino long gone back to Canada and Daybreak evidently operating on reduced resources all round, I wouldn't presume to comment on the overlap between what you might argue would once have been discrete expansion and live content. I'm just glad we're getting a full tradeskill questline at all.

The quest is currently available on Test, where the invaluable and astonishingly dedicated Naimi Denmother of EQ2Traders is among the selfless players slogging through buggy, undocumented content so the rest of us can whine and complain when we coast along on their coat-tails in a week or two. That she's doing so while quite seriously unwell says volumes. Thanks, Mom!

I read her first post on the work in progress with some fascination. What she says is revealing; what I read between the lines even more so.

It's likely that when most people think of crafting they imagine a rather staid, static activity with characters standing at crafting stations performing the same rote actions over and over. Indeed, in many MMORPGs, crafting consists of little more than making sure you have all the correct materials then pressing a single key and watching a progress bar fill.

Tradeskilling in EQ2 has always required a very great deal more interaction and attention than that but under Domino's influence questing for crafters became indistinguishable from questing for adventurers. Perhaps the only difference was that crafters weren't required to fight anything.

The passing of the mantle from a tradeskill specialist to the shoulders of developers more used to making content for adventurers has narrowed the gap yet further. You still don't need to equip a weapon but you can forget any ideas you had about relaxing with something light and fluffy.

You have no idea what you're in for, do you?

Reading Naimi Denmother's detailed first quest walkthrough just about brought me out in a cold sweat. Fortunately, I know from long experience that most EQ2 quests look more daunting on paper than they turn out to be in game. Even so...

A timed instance that boots you if you fail to complete your tasks in time. Epic mobs that have to be avoided or stunned with crafted bombs - and lots of them. Multiple stages. Puzzles. And as for the crafting itself, many combines that take a skilled crafter using a progress potion over two minutes each to finish...

That is not for the faint-hearted. And it's only the opening quest in a run of five. What have they saved for the finale? I'd say I'm looking forward to finding out but I'm not sure I want to know!

So much for the content. There's also the timescale involved in bringing it to us. Naimi says that devs Gninja, Caith and the rest are "swamped" and that "It is beyond insane right now and we have such a tiny window of time to test this in that it is already stressful." It would seem that DBG's diminished resources are stretched almost to breaking point trying to get this done in time to include it in the Update.

All of which makes it even more impressive that they're doing it anyway. Yes, there will be bitter complaints when everything doesn't work perfectly. Yes, there have been moans for months that the questline should have been in the expansion in the first place. But it was ever thus.

In the entire time I've played EQ2, which is as long as there's been an EQ2, nothing the devs have done has ever been good enough for some people and too often those people have the loudest voices. Back when they had Sony's money to throw around and the dev team was who knows how many sizes larger, the forums still rang with complaints - too late, too little, too buggy.

We'll have none of this kind of behavior, thank you!

What's more, much of the ire will spill over to the volunteers on Test, who are clearly all just lazy moochers only there for the easy ride and the accelerated xp. People who would never spare a moment of their own exceptionally valuable time to test anything at all seem to have no trouble finding hours to spend on the forums blasting those who did. Even the few who pop in for just long enough to find out it requires some effort before logging out in a huff are more interested in telling DBG how they could organize their testing better than, y'know, doing some testing.

Not that I'm selfless enough these days to test much myself but at least I'm not about to slap the hand that's trying to help make my life easier. Especially when someone who's working the hardest to make my live experience as good as it could be is doing it while she's "sick, stressed, sleep-impaired, and upset."

I promise right here and right now not to complain about the implementation of the PoP Signature Crafting Questline; not to moan if it's buggy or whine that it should have been here months ago. I do reserve the right to critique its content and approach, to say what I do and don't like about it and to make suggestions about how it could be improved.

I'm not giving DBG a pass on the quality, style or appropriateness of the content they produce but I am cutting them some slack on when and how it makes it into the game because I am just happy they're still in there pitching. And honestly, I feel they're doing a fantastic job. When there were more of them with more money it wasn't always any better than this. Sometimes it was a lot worse.

And as for Niami Denmother - look after yourself! We don't have Domino any more - we can hardly afford to lose you too! If I see you online I'll be sure not to say hi!
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