Saturday, April 28, 2018

Putting Out Fire With Gasoline: Daybreak Games

There's only been one MMO story this week - the fiasco surrounding who owns Daybreak Games. Wilhelm has the best summary of the position so far. Massively OP is also worth checking for the ongoing updates to the increasingly convoluted drama.

The one piece of information that hasn't been widely linked is this analysis of the original problem by ShadowInsignus on the Planetside2 reddit. Written by someone who seems to know how these things work it appears to explain that the sanctions in question were unlikely ever to have impacted DBG specifically, regardless of the ownership issue. Even if they do turn out to be among the targeted entities, there should still be options available to apply for exemption or for a license to continue trading.

If true, that makes Daybreak's bizarre behavior all the more difficult to comprehend. The most obvious and simple response to the initial flurry of interest and concern would seem to have been to issue a straightforward PR statement of the kind frequently used to pour sand on a fire. Something along the lines of "We don't believe the impending sanctions will affect the running of our games in any way but if we discover anything to the contrary we'll be sure to inform our customers right away".

That would have dampened interest to nothing more than the familiar mumblings of the usual haters. The troll army would have moved on, looking for new witches to burn. Instead, someone at DBG chose to behave like a clown in a rake factory, running full pelt in random directions, stamping on anything that might fly up and hit them in the face.

Who's driving the boat?

The issue almost instantly ceased to be about whether U.S. Government sanctions over Russia would have an impact on the EverQuest franchise, the H1Z1 PS4 launch, the renewal of the DCUO license or the health of Planetside2. If all that was at stake was the future of those IPs the story would have remained a very local one. While that would have been an impressive line-up of MMOs a few years ago, these days, no-one outside a sliver of the MMO community cares about any of them.

Instead, someone at DBG decided to go full George Orwell on the problem. They tried to rewrite the internet, thereby ensuring that people with no interest in MMOs whatsoever began to sit up and take notice.

Perhaps the weirdest aspect of this whole weird tale is that it's beginning to look as though the current, rewritten narrative could turn out to be the "true" one. Rohan from Blessing of Kings  makes a convincing case in the comments to the TAGN post that the way the sale was handled, as it's now being described, wouldn't even be all that unusual.

The Ars Technica piece is more revealing still and adds further clarification that suggests there may be many more layers to this supposedly done deal yet to be uncovered. A lot seems to rest on the somewhat nebulous term "owner", which, as I originally suspected, does not necessarily mean what a lay person would take it to mean.

I can affirm this from my own tangential experience. In the business where I work, both internal and external PR has referred for years to a specific individual as being "the owner". Recently, when the business was put up for sale, the names of other institutions and entities, none of which most of us working there had ever heard of, began to appear in  ownership roles. This stuff is complicated and frequently obscure, whether intentionally or otherwise.

Nibiru is coming!

Then, as if the ownership issues and wikipedia scandals weren't enough, we had the layoffs. Layoffs, like server merges, are never good news but, frankly, the thing that surprised me most was learning that DBG still had 70 people left to let go.

It seems likely that, rather than being a consequence of - or even a reaction to - the impending sanctions, these layoffs relate more to the collapse of H1Z1 as a profit-driver. That game, which played a John the Baptist role for PUBG and latterly Fortnite, had a good run while it lasted but it appears everyone agrees it's over. It's a shame the zombie depocalypse also had to damage the fortunes of the rest of the portfolio but if it results in a tighter focus on the core franchises it may not be all bad.

In normal circumstances (that's to say when the company appeared to be in the hands of responsible adults rather than teenagers trying to cover up the evidence after a wild party), I wouldn't feel especially concerned by either the layoffs or the ownership confusion. Apart from commiserating with the individuals involved and offering my genuine best wishes for their future careers, there wouldn't be any particular need to get involved even to the point of writing blog posts about it. I may have my preferences and my favorites but game ownership and personnel change all the time. We just smile or frown and log in as usual.

All I really care about is that someone is there, paying the bills and keeping the lights on, so I can log in when the fancy takes me and walk my countless characters around until I get bored. If there's enough money and enough people to bring some new content once in a while then that's a bonus. Even in the depths of the PSS1 debacle, the absolute nadir of the SOE administration, I never threatened to quit.

Portrait of The Owner.

It's when my access to the games themselves feel under threat I get anxious. Over the years I've seen a number of MMOs I felt an emotional connection with go dark: NeoSteam, Rubies of Eventide, City of Steam, Free Realms and, by far the most difficult to accept, Vanguard. None of those would or could have the impact that the simultaneous disappearance of both EverQuest and EQ2 would have. I might never recover.

Consequently the outcome of the current crisis is paramount. I want the games to continue and my characters to persist. If that means a sale to yet another owner (there are rumors) then so be it. I don't want them to change hands because, unlike most of the angry brigade that dominates the discussion, I am on record as believing that the games themselves have been better run, more stable and more fun to play since the sale than throughout most of the time they were owned and operated by Verant and/or SOE. If it's a choice between sunset and a new owner, however, then it's no choice at all.

For those without a wolf in the fight, it must make for a fascinating soap opera. I would absolutely love to know who panicked this week and why. When the easiest thing to do was to do nothing, why did someone instead choose to try to do the impossible?

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.

I'd also like to know why John Smedley is keeping his counsel. It's not like him to stay out of any argument where his input could make things even worse. To be fair, the feisty Smed of a few years back has been conspicuous by his absence since the hacker wars and the demise of Hero's Song. Maybe he's just a changed man. On the other hand, maybe he knows more than he wants to tell.

There may be further revelations and surprises. Regardless of what else does or doesn't come to light, we will all know on June 5th whether the games will continue. With astonishingly bad timing that is also the day I fly to Spain. I'll be gone for almost two weeks and I would normally intend to avoid all gaming news while I'm away. I might have to make an exception this time but I'm keeping my fingers crossed the outcome doesn't spoil my holiday along with everything else.

As for the lay offs, I have yet to see a comprehensive list of the individuals who have left the company or what roles they vacated. Without that it's hard to estimate the impact on specific titles. If the sanction problem goes away, will we still get the promised expansions for EQ and EQ2 later in the year? At this point I'd consider that a luxury but who knows? Maybe Norrath will start to look more important to whatever version of the company remains, once the appeal of all things zombie fades away.

For now, all we can do is wait and watch. It will all be alright in the end or it won't. Either way, it's a salutory reminder of the impermanence of all things and the uncertainty of most.


Well, not to ruin my own carefully crafted, elegaic coda but after I posted the above I had my tea and then I logged into EverQuest. The news section on the launcher pointed me to "A Note from the EQ Producer Mooncast" which states, among other things, "Though we’re not ready to announce too much yet, both game teams are still gearing up for this year’s expansions, and EverQuest 2’s Game Update #106 is just around the corner with loads of new in-game content ... (stay tuned for news on that very soon!). Plus, on top of all that, we’re already entering the planning stages to make sure that EverQuest’s 20th Anniversary will be an event to remember!"

Onwards and upwards!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Everything You Thought You Knew About Columbus Nova And Daybreak Games Is Wrong!

Well this is intriguing. Massively OP reported today that

"On April 6th, the US Department of the Treasury targeted several Russian oligarchs and froze their assets due to "destabilizing activities" by these figures (including suspected interference in the 2016 U.S. election). One of the oligarchs so punished was  Viktor Vekselberg who owns the Renova Group conglomerate and its subsidiary, Columbus Nova".

Columbus Nova, of course, is the company that bought Daybreak Games from Sony Online Entertainment three years ago. Or so we thought.

MOP went on to speculate that the freezing of "...between $1.5 and $2 billion assets from Vekselberg" could have a real and dire impact on Daybreak Games Company". Well, you'd think so.

This unnerved me somewhat. I would very much like to carry on playing several DBG titles for a good while yet and anything that threatens their continued good health makes me twitchy.

Rather than sit around chewing my nails I went to Google to see what I could find. I read the details of an ongoing billion dollar lawsuit affecting Columbus Nova that has nothing to do with the current focus of the U.S. Government's concerns. That seemed like a potentially bad thing for DBG in its own right.

I also read some more details of the asset freezing. It seems that while Mr. Vekselberg is partly based in Switzerland as well as in Russia, Columbus Nova itself operates out of New York, under the stewardship of
 Mr Vekselberg's cousin, Andrew Intrater, who is a U.S. citizen.

So far so confusing. There's another arm or wing or something called Columbus Nova Technology Partners, also based in the U.S. With a name like that you might think they'd be the section housing DBG but I checked their portfolio and there was no sign of the owlbear's glaring eye.

Eventually, inevitably, I ended up at Wikipedia. The entry on Columbus Nova there is brief but it contains this surprising statement:  

"Former Senior Managing Partner Jason Epstein also owns Daybreak Game Company".

Wait, what? He owns it how? Privately? So I looked up Mr Epstein:

"Jason Epstein is an investor and business executive who is the primary owner and executive chairman of Daybreak Game Company, the online gaming company."
His LinkedIn entry agrees. At this point I was starting think that maybe "owner" is some kind of technical business term that actually means something other than what you'd think. So I googled that. It isn't.

About then some trouble blew up at Hills with Blackgate and I was defending camps and runing yaks for an hour. After that I went and had my tea.

By the time I got back Massively had updated their original piece a couple of times. The story had ceased to be about the imminent threat to DBG from Russian asset freezing. It had moved on to "who the heck owns this damn company anyway?"

DBG had given MOP a statement that basically confirms what I'd found out for myself but was having a hard time believing. Indeed, it went somewhat further into the Twilight Zone:

“Daybreak Game Company has no affiliation with Columbus Nova. Jason Epstein, former member of Columbus Nova, is and has always been the primary owner and executive chairman of Daybreak Game Company (formerly Sony Online Entertainment) which he acquired from Sony in February 2015.”
Not only does Columbus Nova not own DBG - it never did! Jason Epstein, private investor and "angel", owned it outright, all along.

As for the original press release and all the subsequent PR and general chit-chat that mention Columbus Nova in the context of either owning or operating Daybreak Games, to quote MOP quoting DBG, it was all "an error on the part of the company":

“It was current executive chairman Jason Epstein, former senior managing partner of Columbus Nova that acquired Daybreak, not Columbus Nova itself. That distinction was never corrected in the past, so we are correcting that now”
Well, good. I'm glad we got that sorted's only been three years. Amazing no-one noticed before, really.

I suspect there may be more to this than we know so far but at the moment I'm mostly feeling relieved that the company is apparently in private ownership. Suddenly, an awful lot of the stuff that's happened - or hasn't - since the SOE sale makes a lot more sense.

As one of two businesses (Harmonix, the other, also being a Gaming company) owned by one rich guy, who may very likely be personally interested in gaming, DBG looks like a very nice asset indeed, whereas I always thought it sat extremely uncomfortably in the portfolio of a multinational investment group with billions of dollars in any number of non-gaming projects.

I'm also feeling quite pleased with myself for finding most of this out for myself before I read it on Massively, although I'm a bit miffed I didn't do it quickly enough to send them the tip and get the credit! Oh well, that's what I have a blog for.

Where we go from here could be interesting to say the least. Perhaps now this is all out in the open we might even get some statements about what course Mr Epstein plans on charting for the future of Daybreak Games. Seeing as how he owns it outright and all...

Then again, maybe not. Steady as she goes!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Off To The Races

When I checked my Feedly this morning the first thing I saw was this question from Keen:

What’s Your Favorite MMORPG Race and Why?

I immediately thought of the Lunar New Year's race through Divinity's Reach in GW2. I did that over and over and really enjoyed it. Did I enjoy it more than the aerial races organized by EQ2's gnomes for every City Festival, though? Or the many races around Metropolis and Gotham in DCUO? And what about that all-time classic, EverQuest's Naked Gnome Race from Ak'Anon to Freeport?

Then I read Keen's post and realized he didn't mean that kind of race at all. He meant the kind of race you choose at Character Creation. The one that decides whether you're short or tall, hated or admired, a genius or a dimwit. Whether you're covered in fur or scales, have a tail or wings. All that good stuff.

The term "Race", of course, is a bit of a misnomer as it's generally applied in MMORPGs. Sometimes it can be an accurate description, as in Vanguard, which has four "races" with the subtitle "Human", but usually it means Species. Then again, the species boundary gets very blurry in fantasy.

We tend to think of Humans, Elves and Orcs as genuinely disparate, separate species but that can hardly be the case when they can interbreed to give us Half-Orcs and Half Elves. Not to mention Half-Giants. The line fades to the point of invisibility when magic comes into the picture with races like EverQuest's Drakkin, "a human race" with "a touch of dragon blood...scaly skin, marking, hair and sometimes horns that mirror the dragon that gifted them their heritage".

Exactly how a dragon  "gifts" such a heritage is - probably wisely - left to the imagination. The more you ponder on all this, the less sense it seems to make. Why are there so many half elves but no "half-humans"? Is that just a naming convention or are the Elven parent's genes always dominant? If Elves and Humans can interbreed successfully, why not Gnomes and Dwarves? Or can they, but they just don't, for cultural reasons?

At first blush MMORPGs - particularly those with a fantasy setting - appear to offer a multiplicity of racial options but they tend to narrow down to a handful once you look at them closely. For a start, almost every Player Race in every MMO is bipedal. Istaria famously lets you play as a (four-legged) dragon, which was the game's primary USP back when it launched as Horizons. Project: Gorgon's Cows are another notable exception, although even there you can't actually roll a cow (!) at character creation. You have to become one by magic in game.

GW2's Charr are highly unusual in that, while bipedal in combat, they drop to all fours when running. It's one of the features that make them so appealing as a racial choice for me even though they are definitely on the larger end of the scale. I do cleave to the smaller races as a rule.

Many Western MMOs have a handful of options that at least attempt to add some variation to the "Short human", "tall human", "human with horns", "human with tail", "human with wings" palette seen in so many imports from the East. WoW has Bulls, Wolves, Goats, Pandas and Undead, all of which walk upright on two legs and look like humans dressed up for Mardi Gras.  

Allods, which modelled a deal of its visual appearance on WoW, took things a stage further with Gibberlings, who come in packs of three and are a lot closer to "animals dressed up as humans" than the other way round. Indeed, Gibberlings probably rest at the cusp of Fantasy and Anime, or Fantasy and Cartoon if you want to be Western about it, which is where the real non-human races come into their own.

There was that one MMO where I played as a rabbit. What was that one called? Eden Eternal, that's it! It's still running, too. There was also the similarly-named and much-missed Earth Eternal, an all-animal MMO I played in beta with some degree of enjoyment. Those animals still stood upright, though, unlike the deer in Endless Forest, a bizarre affair which has, astonishingly, spawned some kind of sub-genre that incudes Meadow and Wolfquest.

Plenty of choice if you cast your MMO net far enough. Closer to home, in the handful of MMOs we all talk about as though they represented the genre, not so much. Which brings me back to Keen's original question. So, what is my favorite MORPG race?

Just for once I can answer that question! In fact, I can list my top ten in order without having to think too hard about it.

1. Raki - Vanguard - Stocky foxes with a great backstory, characterful animations and the happiest faces.

2. Ratonga - EQ2 - Cute rats with another excellent backstory and the most endearing verbal tic in gaming.

3. Gnome - EverQuest - Short, smart, every one kinda likes them and they have the tickingest city in Norrath.

4. Charr - GW2 - Big cats that don't do the "catgirl/catman" thing, run on all fours and have the city Ak'Anon would be if it was a military-industrial complex.

5. Asura - GW2 - They're rats but they won't admit it. Why do you think they're so obsessed with the Skritt (who would totally be on this list if you could play them). Best animations and great voicework, too.

6. Gibberlings - Allods - Three demented gerbils for the price of one. What's not to love?

7. Vah'Shir - EverQuest - Another non-cute cat race. I never really took to the EQ2 version but I played a Vah'Shir Beastlord in EQ for many years and the combination of a tiger-person with a tiger pet is hard to top.

8. Goblin - Warhammer Online - Cowardly, obsequious, disgusting and only they can be the second-best class in any MMO, the Squig-Herder.

9. Dwarf - EverQuest - Just a classic. So solid, so reliable, so predictably gruff. Everything you want a dwarf to be and everything you don't.

 10. Riven - City of Steam - The race I wish I'd played more before the game closed down. Cool, stylish, mysterious, the Riven could have been so much more if only City of Steam had followed its original plan.

Well, that's the top ten today. Ask me tomorrow and it may have changed. Raki is always going to be number one, though. In my heart, anyway.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

A Crow Will Remember Your Face : EQ2

This afternoon I finished A Stitch in Time, the Signature Tradeskill questline from Planes of Prophecy. The entire affair ended up being easier, shorter and more enjoyable than I had expected. I didn't time it but I'd estimate it took me somewhere between six and eight hours, all told. The story made just a tad more sense than the Adventure line, Legacy of Power. I thought the finale was a little more dramatic and scary, even though it didn't involve any combat - or indeed risk.

Speaking as we were of difficulty, it seems to me that whoever worked on the crafting questline took a deal of trouble to make sure it would feel solid, satisfying and sufficiently challenging. At the same time there was a clear and welcome understanding that those who invest the most time in tradeskills aren't necessarily the most digitally dextrous of players, ironic though that may be.

One good example of the care that had obviously been taken to make sure things remained inclusive was the way the quest offered a choice between either jumping across chasms or crafting a device to bridge them. Since it was clear that jumping was going to be faster I tried that first and found that, at least to someone used to GW2's jumping puzzles, the leaps were very easy indeed.

Roll out the red carpet.

What's more, the first chasm had a fall of a mere few feet and a teleport device where you landed to send you back for another go. What happened if you fell after that I can't say because I was as sure-footed as a cat (hem, hem...) but I'm sure there would have been no major penalty beyond a few dings in your armor and a slight delay as you re-oriented yourself back at the start of the zone.

When the final "battle" arrived it had all the chaos and drama of a big set-piece combat event but none of the danger. Even so, I found the whole experience of being yelled at by thirty foot tall gods while their ten foot tall minions barged me out of the way and bounced me from hither to yon quite exciting enough, thank you!

As I mentioned in another post, I have found the interactions between my character and the gods that he's grown up either worshipping, fearing or trying to pretend aren't real, to be surprisngly affecting. I only found out Ulkoruuk existed a week ago but I was still sufficiently impressed that when he appeared I found myself exclaiming out loud "Wow, that's Ulkoruuk!".

Yes, I know who that is. It's you I'm not so sure about.

Also I found out Ulkoruuk's not a him. He's a her. The Lady of Insurrection in fact. Saryrn, Mistress of Torment, also showed up to send a shiver down my spine. I already knew her name and gender. I remember her from EverQuest, or, more specificaly, I remember her ravens. I met them in Plane of Torment, one of the handful of second tier Planes I saw when the original PoP expansion was current. They were the first creatures ever to cast silence on my cleric, which was something many groups he was in probably wished they could do.

As for Innoruuk himself, I've been scared of him for twenty years, nigh on, so I really didn't need any of his progeny telling me what a reckless fool I was for bringing him back. Speaking directly to him after I'd restored him to something like his full pomp was one of the creepiest and most disturbing things I've ever done in an MMORPG.

All told, the whole thing did the number on me that it was meant to do. I certainly feel like I've gotten my money's worth out of this expansion and then some.

Will it now? We'll see about that.

Of course there's plenty more to do - mostly a lot of grinding to upgrade gear, combat arts, ascension spells and so on. If EQ2 was my main MMO, getting everything up to standard would most likely keep me occupied until the next expansion arrives.

It isn't, though, so I'll just pick away at things here and there until November. I considered getting an Alchemist up to 110 to make Expert CAs for my Berserker but then I checked the cost of buying them from the broker as against the value of the rares it takes to make them and decided I might as well buy some instead and save myself weeks of effort. So I did.

More player-controlled difficulty there, when you think about it. That's one of the pros of having a balanced and/or stable economy in an MMO. You can divert your effort to things you enjoy and buy your way out of things you don't. Although since I enjoy crafting I'm not sure that logic entirely holds in this case, other than recognizing it's definitely possible to have too much of a quite pleasant thing.

You've heard the expression "A cat can look at a king?" Well this is like that. Only more so.

Now I just have to take my Inquisitor through the rest of the Adventure line and my Warlock/Sage through both and I really will be done. I might, at a push, take my Necro through the Adventure stuff as well, if only to get the extra XP bonus for the account but I think that might be a few repeatable faction quests too far.

With the last one largely behind me, I'm looking forward to some news about this year's expansion, especially since we've had it confirmed already there's going to be one. Druzzil Ro dropped a few ominous hints about the ramifications of what we've done so I'm betting it's going to involve Innoruuk in some fashion.

I just hope he remembers who put him where he is today. Then again, come to think of it, maybe I'm better off if he doesn't...

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Being Difficult

Telwyn's recent post continued a discussion that began on Massively OP concerning so-called "difficulty" in MMOs. It's rare indeed for me to find myself agreeing with anything Eliot Lefebvre says but I do concur with him that the entire concept of "difficulty" in this context is highly subjective.

I also strongly agree with whoever it was who said that gamers these days equate difficulty with time spent. Indeed, more often than not when someone complains that something is "too difficult" what they really mean is it takes longer than they want to spend doing it.

"Too long" can be anything from a few seconds to kill a mob to half an hour to finish a dungeon. The baseline acceptable duration to do just about anything in an MMOs has shriveled over the years from hours to minutes. At the same time developers have used that increased impatience to provide supposed difficulty by padding shortened encounters back up to somewhere closer to where they were before the self-same developers cut them down.

The other very popular form of difficulty - popular with developers and the small subset of players who like to come to forums and tell everyone else to "git gud", that is - is reaction time. When MMOs began you could manage perfectly well with the reflexes of an elderly Colonel in a bathchair. Now you need to be some kind of combination olympic gymnast and concert pianist.

Can't mez giants. Gotta kill 'em.
As has been mentioned here on many occasions, GW2's Living Story is often blighted by both of these sloppy excuses for "difficulty". ANet seem to feel that so long as they throw in a boss or two for each chapter with the hit points of a blue whale and enough AEs to cover at least 98% of the available floor space they've earned their paycheck for the quarter.

I would be lying if I claimed I don't find that kind of content difficult. I do. I find it difficult to respect, difficult to appreciate and above all difficult to enjoy. I don't find it difficult to complete because it invariably allows infinite attempts and can always be overcome by sheer bloody-minded attrition.

On the other hand, if that safety-net - or safety-blanket - isn't provided, as it hasn't been in some  MMOs I've played, it's quite possible for the content to become quite literally "too difficult" for me to complete, leading me to give up playing those MMOs entirely. I'm nearly 60 years old. I was 40 when I started playing EverQuest. I do not have the dexterity in my hands or the flexibility in my joints to match the expectations of designers half my age.

Then there's the kind of difficulty beloved of the developers and fans of The Secret World and its supposedly more accessible reincarnation, Secret World Legends. I enjoyed TSW up to a point, the point being when I could look up everything I needed to know on the internet.

I wish they'd revert the Dire Wolf to the old model. By which I mean the OLD old model.

I am not a fan of logic puzzles and my idea of a pleasant evening's entertainment has never included trying to decipher a cypher let alone taking a crash course in Morse Code. Plus TSW has some bosses that are even more irritating than those in The Living Story.

At this rate it seems I'm going to rule out any kind of difficulty whatsoever. Perhaps, as I have heard so many self-proclaimed hardcore players suggest, I should go play Hello Kitty Online.

Actually, I have played HKO. It was too difficult. And, ironically, it was too difficult in the way I like my MMOs to be difficult: it was mysterious, confusing and bizarre. It was also like listening to Barbie Girl on a loop while being forcefed Haribo, or at least that's how I remember it. That's why I stopped.

Minus the sugar rush, my ideal "difficult" MMORPG is one I can't easily understand. I like things that start in media res and ramp up from there. I like confusing lore, weird dialog and complex, arcane, systems that make no sense. 

The best part of playing a new MMORPG is often that feeling of utter confusion. If the game's good enough it creates a deep desire to make some sense of the whole thing. It feels like the begining of a journey that could last weeks or months.

Fabled Fippy - definitely too difficult for a near-naked Level 3 Paladin. Note dead merc on ground. Picture taken immediately prior to ignominious run to gate guards.
When, eventually, you begin to see how everything fits together, then to fit it, the very best MMOs give a huge sense of achievement, satisfaction and ownership. At that point, even though you now know enough not to feel lost any more, you also feel you belong. And that's why you stay.

I suspect that many - possibly most - MMOs can achieve this for a genuine first-timer. If you've never played any MMO before then even the simplest is going to feel almost impossibly deep and complex. The more you play, though, the easier they get to parse.

That's why, I think, I had a good little run a couple of years back with several Eastern imports. Black Desert and Blade and Soul particularly used a whole raft of odd systems I hadn't run into before and I thoroughly enjoyed shaking the dust out of them. With each succeeding Western conversion, however, the thrill was increasingly hard to find, to the point that I may not even be able to summon up the enthusiasm to give Bless a try when it finally arrives.

It's not that I want "difficulty" in my MMOs anyway, I guess. It's the word we use but I'm not convinced it's the right one. I want interest and involvement and entertainment and I'd prefer to get that served up to me in comfort rather than have to carve it out of some digital monolith by main force.

Mons Letalis, where I had to FD, then get up and run for the zone line. Who knew Rockhoppers would swarm to fefend Stonegrabbers.
Well, I did, ten years ago...
On the other hand, I frequently find myself doing easy things the difficult way. I'm still hugely enjoying leveling my Necromancer in EverQuest but apart from doing Franklin Teek's daily tasks I find myself actively avoiding the clearly signposted Golden Path.

Today I spent an hour and a half running around what must be the largest open zone not just in EQ but in any MMO I've played. Eastern Wastes is a vast tundra plain with a lot of nothing interspersed with camps of orcs, giants and dwarves.

I went there to hunt Ulthorks, who give mediocre experience and have no useful or valuable loot. To hunt Ulthorks you often have to clear Walruses, who make Ulthorks look like positive loot pinatas by comparison. It took me 90 minutes to get the xp I could have got in half an hour in one of the Serpent Spine zones but I like hunting Ulthorks.

I also hunted them right in the middle of their spawning grounds which meant at times I had three or four walruses mezzed with my 18 second Screaming Terror while I played Ulthork Men of War like yoyos with snares and fear.

It's easy to take screenshots when there's only one.
It occupied my mind and my hands and kept me entertained in a way that chunking through one mob at a time generally doesn't. Of course, these days, with a cleric mercenary to heal and playing a necro who can Feign Death if it all gets too much, the "difficulty" is pretty fake. It wasn't always.

Back when there were no uncomplaining NPCs to chain heal and when I was playing classes that couldn't just fall down and play dead when they bit off more than their pets could chew, that difficulty was much more real. Especially when a level took a whole day, not half an hour, and a bad pull could mean a whole session wasted.

That's the kind of difficulty that used to come baked in to MMORPGs. Now it's gone, for the most part. It might be feasible to retain the accessibility that replaced it while adding back the enjoyable kind of difficulty in acceptable doses but no-one's claiming it's easy and not many are managing to do it convincingly.

At this point the idea of adding a difficulty slider to instanced content always comes up . You could do that. I'm not sure you'd have an MMO at the end of it but you might well have an enjoyable video game.

Until that happens, I think I'll stick to setting my own difficulty levels. After all, it's not that difficult to do.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Tiger, Tiger : EverQuest

I didn't plan on posting tonight but Belghast's observation that he hadn't been able to log in to EverQuest because "the servers went down at 5:00 am EDT on the 18th and did not come back apparently until 2:30 am EDT on the 19th" led me to check the patch notes to see what was going on.

They are extensive to say the least. There's all the usual, expected, ongoing tweaking of content from the 19th Anniversary celebrations and the current expansion, Ring of Scale but there were also some changes that struck me as rather odd:

Tigers across Norrath celebrate by roaring in delight! Reverted tigers in older zones to their original appearance.

The Minotaur Hero will again terrorize the Steamfont Mountains. Newbie gnomes beware!

Handing in the Tome of Order and Discord to a Priest of Discord will again flag the character as Player Versus Player

Hmm. I believe all of those are reversions to changes made at various times over the years that were intended either to modernize the game, make it more accessible, or both. I'm sure I specifically recall The Priest of Discord being disabled to avoid the endless customer service problems caused by newbies handing in their Tomes without understanding the dire and irreversible consequences.

What's more, it was only a few days ago, while I was hunting in Emerald Jungle, that I was admiring the gorgeous tiger models there. I very nearly did a post specifically about them. Those are the models they have removed in favor of older ones. I wish I'd taken some better screenshots now.

I wonder what the older ones look like? I do remember when they changed the Dire Wolf models in Velious from the ones that looked like they came from a Tex Avery cartoon to the inferior ones we have today but I can't recall any goofy, cartoon tigers.

What this presages, I dread to think. There seems to be altogether too much of a "good old days" vibe going on in some parts of DBG. On the other hand, if they feel like reverting Freeport to its former glory they can change every animal model in the game back to 1999 spec and we'll call it even!

Not everything old is deemed gold, however. By far the biggest and potentially most controversial change is this:

Performed additional upgrades to both the client and server to utilize more modern hardware and operating system features.

- - EverQuest will no longer run on Windows Vista or older operating systems.

- - Please refer to the minimum system requirements on our website.
It  was only last week that there was a big discussion in general chat about Windows. The consensus seemed to be that EQ was best played on Windows XP, which was what most of the people expressing an opinion were still using.

EQ players generally do not like change. We'll see how this goes.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

To Be Continued : EQ2

Somehow, I managed to post about finishing the second chapter of EQ2's most recent tradeskill signature quest, A Stitch in Time, then look forward to doing the third and fourth parts to finish it up, all the while remaining blissfully unaware that it is, in point of fact, a five-part questline. Given that a) I read the walkthroughs for all five parts back when it released and b) I had the wiki page open in front of me as I was both doing the quest and writing the post, it suggests either an extreme lack of attention or the onset of some form of age-related mental impairment.

I didn't even realize my mistake as I was working through parts three and four this morning. It took me around three hours and the time positively flew. The quests are perfectly judged for non-combat, managing to retain interest and maintain tension throughout, offering plenty of variety, yet never requiring a crafter to behave out of character.

The dialog is sometimes a little peculiar. EQ2 quest writing has always had a particular tone that sits somewhere between polite formality and casual conversation, not always comfortably. Of late, that balance has tipped slightly towards the informal, as though the current writer is younger and possibly less well-versed in the conservative social etiquette of the 1950s, which has always seemed to me to be Norrath's spiritual touchstone.

No combat doesn't mean no action.

There was even a Facebook joke at one point, albeit indirect. That was unsettling. Mostly, though, the questline was able to pull off that exceptionally difficult sleight of hand whereby your character is able to converse with Gods on something close to equal terms without the whole thing descending into bathos or self-parody.

It's a very difficult trick to master. Most MMO writers struggle with it. I particularly notice the way it paramountly fails to work in GW2, where game design credits each character with every Living Story benchmark anyone on the account has ever hit. For someone who sees all the characters as indiiduals it's jarring to hear every one of them referred to as "Commander" or "Boss" or greeted as old friends by NPCs they're meeting for the first time.

Even though I'm no fan of the "Player Character as Hero" trope, in EQ2 I find the conceit a lot easier to swallow. Because I have played through every stage of the seemingly never-ending soap opera that passes for a narrative throughline on the same character it seems quite reasonable when people I worked with to stave off the apocalypse-before-last credit me with sufficent initiative to make myself useful saving the world one more time. And that they remember my name.

Just one of the Gods.

What's more, because I've been playing versions of EverQuest since the turn of the century, I remember a lot of their names, too. And who they are and why I should be fond or afraid of them. When the plot suggests I might have to bring Inoruuk, the God of Hate, back from whatever well-deserved deific hell his daughter Lanys T'Vyl sent him to in a previous instalment, I don't need Varig Ro to tell me what a bad idea it is. I already know.

In GW2, when Palawa Joko returns from wherever he's been, it doesn't have anything like the same effect. I don't have either the recognition or the feels to support the impact the writers expect. I played some original Guild Wars but not nearly enough for it to matter. Ironically, because I was there for her inception, lived through her rise, her reign of terror and her fall, just the mention of Scarlet Briar's name, let alone any slight hint that she might be coming back, pushes all my buttons.

I'm not a strong supporter of narrative or story for MMORPGs. I'm not opposed to it; it can have a place, but I tend to find it presents more problems than solutions. Lore, however, I believe to be absolutely crucial.

I confess I didn't quite follow this part. I did a lot of work to bring this Phoenix to life and then I just left without intereacting with it in any way. Maybe I missed something...

Where the boundary lies between them is uncertain. The tradeskill quest I'm doing does have a story but it's mostly fluff. Supposedly I'm crafting some device to prevent one of Meldrath's malfuctioning devices having some kind of apocalyptic effect on Norrath. I can't say I've been paying attention. I know it doesn't matter because nothing is going to happen to Norrath even if I never finish the quest.

What I have been paying full attention to is the way the quest elaborates on and opens up the relationships between various members of the Norrathian pantheon. To learn that Varrig Ro has carried a lifelong torch for Errollisi Marr, or that there's an even less desirable contender for the Throne of Hate, going by the even less pronounceable name of Ullkorruuk, adds far more to my appreciation for and understanding of the game than any plotline could hope to do.

I'm not alone in finding the lore far more appealing than the plot. Wilhelmina, the longsuffering European equivalent of Niami Denmother, who was once almost driven from the game by Smed's odious deal with PSS1 but who's now, thankfully, restored to her rightful domain, was sufficiently involved to record the entire dialog for the whole questline.

They also serve who only hide in corners until it's safe then run out and scrape up mephit vomit.

 Wilhelmina's website is in French but the dialogue is available in the English version at EQ2Traders and is well worth a read for anyone interested in the study of Norrathian comparative religion. Even for anyone who's done the questline itself, it's useful to be able to read it all back at lesiure. Some of those conversations took place in circumstances where it may not have been easy to concentrate on the nuance!

It was only as I approached the end of Part 4 that I began to wonder if I'd missed something. It was starting to feel very much like that moment near the end of a book when you realise what you're reading must not be a standalone novel after all but the first volume of a trilogy. Having constructed all my various devices, eavesdropped on the Mistresses of Hate, located Innoruuk's earthly vessel and prevailed on Varrig Ro to change his mind, it was apparent that  I was at least a chapter short of a denoument, and so it proved.

I had been hoping - expecting even - to finish the Stitch in Time questline today but three hours is about my outer limit these days. A closer reading of the wiki revealed that there was indeed a fifth chapter. What's more it looked substantial, as a climax should be. I decided to leave it for another day.

I'm looking forward to coming back to it later in the week, suitably refreshed. The rewards are fantastic but best of all, if the first four parts are anything to go by, it's going to be tremendous fun.

Monday, April 16, 2018

What Does Lisa Like? First Impressions: Auteria

There was a time when I would regularly trawl the dustier corners of the interwebs, looking for MMOs I hadn't tried. I was on a mission to play them all - or at least download them all. Mostly what I'd do would be make a character, walk around the starting area, log off and never return.

I made a list a few years back of all the ones I'd "played" and it came to over a hundred. It's probably over a hundred and fifty now. Even so, there are some major gaps. I've never played EVE, Age of Conan, SWtoR...

While my enthusiasm for the genre continues to burn as brightly as it ever has, my obsessive desire to collect every MMO as though it was a Pokemon (never played Pokemon either...any version) has dimmed considerably. For many years there weren't enough MMOs to satisfy my curiosity but those days are long gone, drowned in an ocean of WoW clones and cheap imported knock-offs.

Only, here's the thing; even those days of plenty are in the past. The tide peaked a while back and now it's receding. As has often been discussed around this corner of the blogosphere, shrunken and withered as it is, the prospects on the horizon are both few and poor.

All of which makes it particularly surprising whenever I happen on an MMORPG I've never even heard of. Yet more so when that MMO turns out to have been up and running for more than a decade.

The MMO in question is Auteria. According to the History section on its website it began development in April 2007. At some point between then and now it entered Open Beta, where, as far as I can tell, it remains. The last time it got an update, according again to the history on the website, was in June 2010 but it's still there and you can still play it.

I ran across Auteria entirely by chance when I was reading a Reddit thread about obscure MMOs. I'd found myself on reddit because I'd been googling "Mimesis", another obscure MMO that never made it out of beta. I was googling that because I'd just found an old log-in and password for it and I couldn't recall whether I'd ever actually played the game.

Most of the obscure MMOs the redditors came up with I'd played at some point, or at least heard of, but there were a few that were new to me. I checked them out and they were either long gone or those 2D sprite things that look like someone knocked them up on a ZX Spectrum in 1985. I don't count those as MMOs.

Auteria, however, had a proper, functioning website and the screenshots showed a genuine 3D MMO. One that looked quite interesting. The in-game shots looked not unattractive and the captions were...odd.

I downloaded and installed it, which took about thirty seconds. Then I let it patch itself up to date, which took maybe another five minutes. I hit Play and found myself at Character Creation, which was where I made a crucial error.

In most MMOs I've ever played the process of making your account is separate from that of making your character. Not so in Auteria. I filled in my email address (well, an email address...), made up a User Name and password and hit Enter.

Next thing I knew I was standing in the world, looking at the back of my head. The "User Name" turned out to be my character name, which is a shame because the name really doesn't fit the default character from the character creation screen, which unusually happens to be female.

It matters less than it might because I couldn't find any way to move the camera so as to see my character from the front. That trope, where it doesn't matter how long you spend getting your character to look just so because you'll spend the entirety of your game time staring at the back of their head? It's literally true here.

When I arrived in Tergratia (that's the name of the country where you begin) it was nighttime. Night in Auteria is dark. Very, very dark. And long. I ran around a little before realizing I was going to get lost pretty fast in the darkness. 

I stood next to the fire where I could see at least a little way and spent ten or fifteen minutes familiarizing myself with the controls. They are, shall we say, non-standard. Movement is WASD but almost everything else is not what you'd expect. Hitting "M", for example, doesn't open a map. It opens the crafting interface.

Hitting "I" doesn't open your inventory and nor does "B". That's because you don't have one. Yep, this may be the first MMO I have ever played where your character has no bag-type inventory at all. She does, however, have Storage in a hut. And things she loots (by running over a bag that drops on the ground - took me a while to figure that out) go straight onto one of the ten slots on her hot bar.

I futzed around for a while with all that then I set out to explore - darkness be darned! I found a big bridge and crossed it. There was a boat on the far side marked "Teleport" so I clicked on that and ported myself to the nearby town. It was still dark although they had some nice streetlights. In fact, the lighting effects were the best part of the game so far.

At this point I decided to log off and come back when it got light. While I appreciate the attraction of having recognizeable "Night" and "Day" in your MMO, I have always thought that making night so awkward that players log off to avoid it is a design error.

When I logged in again a few hours later it was 9am in game. I knew because there's a handy on-screen clock. I could see what I was doing at last, so I set about the life's work of the newbie - talking to anyone who'll talk back and doing anything they ask you to do.

In this case there's not much choice: you can talk to Lisa, a young woman who looks like she's about to go for a nice dinner at a fashionable beach-side restaurant sometime in 1986, or to her pet, a talking bear cub called Little Paw. Little Paw wants you to announce yourself to all and sundry in General Chat.

You might think that, in an eleven year old, semi-abandoned MMO so obscure that Massively OP doesn't even have an entry for it, speaking in chat would be safe enough. No-one's going to hear you, are they? Oh yes they are! There was a lively conversation going on when I logged in and during the time I played I must have seen half a dozen players speak. Someone plays this game.

I kept my own counsel and declined the bear's attempts to get me to socialize. Instead I completed a series of tasks for Lisa, every one of which required me to run somewhere then run back to her. I ran to three signposts, her garden, the nearby town, two of her friends and a dragon.

The dragon let me ride on his back for a sightseeing tour of the area. I don't generally suffer from motion sickness in games but this was one of the most emetic experiences I have ever had in an MMO. I was reduced to looking away from the screen, glancing back occasionally to see if it had stopped.

On the way to the second signpost I encountered an ant, which attacked me. It was a big ant. There's a joke there but I'm ignoring it. I couldn't work out how to fight back and the ant killed me. Death by ant is an ignominious beginning (or end) to any would-be adventurer's career. I respawned in the starting village, the appropriately named "Hometown", where I had to stand for a moment in the Healing Hut to recover.

That seems to be how you get your hit points back. A bit like going to an Altar in Neverwinter, if I'm remembering that correctly. I did find out later that mobs drop Healing Potions so there's a way to keep going without having to run to the hut every other fight but I didn't kill the ant so no potions for me.

I'd already been to the town when I found the teleport boat in the night so when Lisa told me to run there I cheated. Then, naturally, I needed to go back and tell her I'd done what she asked (even though I really hadn't), which meant running back - only I didn't know the way - because I'd cheated. Cheaters never prosper.

I got around that by cheating again. I ran into the countryside until I found something to kill me. Ranger Gate we used to call it, back in EQ. In Hometown once more, Lisa sent me to see her pal in a little hut outside the village and he finally - after about an hour of entirely non-combat gameplay - gave me my first combat quest: kill ten "little beasts". Why? For two very good reasons; they're "annoying" and "Lisa doesn't like them".

So I  did that. It took me a long time. Combat in Auteria is basic to say the least. The controls are very odd for an MMO from 2007. Attack is entirely by use of the left mouse button. You have to press "Q" to go in and out of combat mode, then either keep pressing LMB or hit "F", which autoattacks.

After the first couple of little beasts (pretty sure they were spiders) I took to tabbing out and reading the website. When my character's squeals and the beast's grunts stopped I tabbed back in, checked if I needed to use a potion or visit the Healing Hut, targetted another beast and did the same again.

By the time I'd killed ten and gone back to Lisa's friend I'd had enough excitement for one evening. I'm not sure whether I'll be visiting Lisa again. There are surely better ways I could be spending my time.

That said, like a few less-celebrated MMORPGs I could name, Auteria has...something. Graphically it looks like a game from much further back than the late 2000s. Visually, it reminded me quite a lot of Istaria (nee Horizons), which launched in 2003.

The scenery is sparse but not unappealing; the skybox is striking and attractive and as I said the lighting effects are delightful. The interiors of some of the buildings are bizarre. One room I saw looked as though actual fabric designs from a homeware catalogue had been overlayed onto some basic furniture shapes.

The way the characters are dressed in smart casuals that wouldn't look out of place at a suburban dinner party is weirdly endearing, too. According to the useful Help section on the website there are armor quests but I have no clue how you woiuld even equip armor and in any case I quite like the idea of fighting evil in blue jeans and a skintight blouse.

The whole game has the sweetly idiosyncratic sense of being someone's passion project. It wasn't much of a surprise, digging into the depths of the web page, to find that, like Project: Gorgon, Auteria is the result of the hard work of a real-life couple, Thomas and Elke. As they put it, "We both like to play computer games, and Tom to develop software especially games, thats how Auteria was born."

I doubt that Auteria would have changed anyone's life even ten years ago and it certainly won't now, when development on it has long ceased, but I'm glad I found it and I hope it hangs around a while longer.

I may well be back, if only for some sweet Ant Revenge.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Slow Club : EQ2

Since I seem to be incapable of playing more than two MMORPGs in rotation these days, my unexpected return to EverQuest pushed EQ2 off the wheel. Prior to that I had at least been harvesting my two shrubberies for mats and rares every day and keeping up with the basic requirements of the simple daily that funds the purchase of veteran rewards for characters who haven't been around long enough to earn them the slow way.

I was also - slowly - leveling up my Inquisitor towards the level cap by way of the Signature quest line from the last expansion. Last time I saw her she was Level 106 and facing a shortish grind on repeatable quests to max her Sphinx faction. Not something I was looking forward to, although it would only take an hour or so.

The main thing I was supposed to be doing was the Tradeskill Signature line. It wasn't ready when the expansion launched. It got patched in earlier this year and I waited a while before starting it back in the middle of March.

The god Karana, looking like your grandad on a weekend when Grandma's gone to visit her sister.
It comes in four parts. All the walkthroughs make a big deal of how long it takes, suggesting you allow several hours to do the whole thing. They go on about how much running around there is, how you might die to the Heroic or Raid level mobs that you're required to sneak past and how very lengthy and slow the combines are. Part of the reason I waited so long to begin was because the walkthroughs made it sound like a nightmare.

I suspect that some of the caveats derive from the experiences of the guide-writers as they plowed through the quests on the Test Server. I know from long and bitter experience that guinea-pigging any new content on Test can be like tap dancing in snowshoes compared to the eventual, tuned, debugged and eventually nerfed-for-convenience Live version.

Part One went fairly smoothly. I made a couple of elementary errors that got me killed but really the only thing that made it occasionally seem a little slow was the way I insisted on tabbing out to read the walkthrough, just to be sure I didn't take longer than I needed to. Yes, I know...

Please stand well back from the wyvern when it breathes fire on solidified lightning. It's only common sense.
I would have carried on from there but the very next day I started messing around on the Vox server over in EQ and bang! There went a month. Yesterday I finally got around to Part Two. Once again there were all kinds of warnings on the wiki about how long it was going to take me:

"The combines for this timeline are VERY long. Without potions they are taking 3-5 minutes EACH. Plan accordingly. There is a LOT of running on the quest. Bring as many evac items as you can manage. A floaty cloak is also useful to save time getting down from the towers".

Well, not really. The combines seemed to me to take a lot nearer three minutes than five, although I didn't actually time them. The thing is, I don't think three minutes is all that long for a combine. I'm sure I've done many longer ones over the life of the game and I seem to recall there was a time when three minutes wouldn't have seemed particularly unusual for a regular combine you might do while leveling up a tradeskill.

I certainly never felt the need to blow a potion on any of them. It was a pleasant, relaxing little crafting session. As for the running around, I do more of that every single day in WvW.

Thank you, Captain Obvious. Is it any wonder Voonark gets snarky?
In point of fact, I've probably done more running between writing paragraphs of this post, chasing across the map to defend Air Keep then back to our spare Bay, the one we're holding on Sea of Sorrows Borderland, to fend off attacks there. Not to mention that it often takes me longer than either of those to run from Plane of Knowledge to wherever it is I'm going to hunt that day, pretty much any time I play EQ.

It depends what you're used to, I guess. Whoever wrote the walkthrough clearly values his gaming "downtime" more than I value mine. I do seem to spend an inordinate amount of it just moving from one place to another or watching a progress bar fill. Or moving stuff from bags to boxes and back.

I did dig out my "floaty cloak" and put it on though. And swapped into my crafting gear. It's not like I want to go slowly for the sake of it. More like my idea of slow is stuck somewhere back in the late 20th Century, when "slow" meant "probably going to take a week or two".

Far from being slow on any terms, this tradeskill quest so far has been a lot of fun. It's an exemplary erm... example...of how to design an active, involving, exciting quest without combat. There's also minimal use of puzzles and no platforming, so it doesn't lean heavily on other genres. 

Dinging three levels at once was so loud it made me jump and I messed up the screenshot.
Mostly it sticks to gathering, crafting and not getting killed, which is quite enough to keep my interest and attention engaged.There's also a generous helping of utterly nonsensical plot, some incomprehensible and confusing lore and a hefty portion of snarky NPC chat - so EQ2 questing as we have come to know and love it, really.

I did worry a little that, with Domino gone, tradeskill quests would either fade away or begin to ressemble reskinned adventure quests but this one seems both substantial and authentically crafty.It also gives a humungous amount of xp. Granted there was a double crafting xp weekend running and I used my Veteran's hammer to refill my tradeskill vitality but even so to do six levels in an hour seems extreme.

As a result my weaponsmith is now maxed at 110 with half the signature line to go. Still, despite having capped out half way through, even if I wasn't enjoying the quest itself, which I very much am, there's plenty of incentive to finish it. The next step unlocks Guild Harvesting Missions, which I had no idea were even a thing, and gives my gathering pony a couple of new tricks, while the final stage puts two extremely powerful recipes in my book.

I think I might give part three a go tomorrow.

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