Thursday, June 28, 2018

I'd Tell You, But Then I'd Have To Kill You : GW2

Yesterday I guessed I was about halfway through the current GW2 Living Story episode, Long Live The Lich. I was wrong. Turns out I was more like two thirds of the way in. I finished it this afternoon.

It took me about another ninety minutes, give or take, meaning the whole thing - just the storyline that is - lasts something like three or four hours. Living Story chapters have been clocking in around that length pretty much since the beginning of Season Two, when they moved to the current, instanced format from the open world settings of Season One.

It's no secret that I'm very much in the camp that believes the first season was by far the best. It's not even nostalgia. I offer my many blog posts as evidence that I was invested and involved with the storyline and appreciative of the mechanics at the time they were in play.

Not that Season One didn't have its problems. It had many. Scarlet Briar, who I came to appreciate and even like as I learned more about her and her backstory, was a deeply divisive arch-villain. Even now there are those who spit when they hear her name mentioned.

Extreme Close-Up!

The narrative of the first few weeks and months seemed episodic to put it politely. The pacing could be funereal at times. The open world events frequently started out buggy and didn't always work properly until days after launch. Even when they were up and running smoothly they were open to widespread abuse by players, who swiftly discovered how they could be farmed for profit.

For all that, Season One had a dynamism, a fervor that has never been replicated. The knowledge that most of what arrived with each update would leave with the next, coupled with the much-maligned (not least by me) bi-weekly cadence, gave the whole game an urgency that seems hard to imagine now.

Moving to the current instanced system allowed ANet to monetize the Living World and also to ensure that no GW2 player need miss out on any aspect of the hard (and presumably expensive) work that went into creating it. Many, probably most, players appreciate being able to play the content at a time of their choosing.

One of the biggest complaints about the content of Season One (and again it's a complaint I made often myself) was the complete lack of any new overland maps. Other than the two, small non-combat instances that served as introductions for Rox and Braham, it wasn't until we began to receive Dry Top in instalments that the explorable land mass of the base game increased.

Some Random Fight!

All of that is the past, buried and forgotten. In 2018 our Living World arrives quarterly in tidy packages that always include the same things: a multi-part narrative that takes place mainly in instances, a set of achievements encouraging us to replay those instances, a new map, a new currency, a new vendor with something designed to be worth farming the new currency to buy.

It's indicative of the extremely formulaic, repetitive nature of this process that I now usually feel I've done with the latest Living World update somewhere between a day and a couple of weeks after it arrives. I no longer even bother to open the entire new map, far less complete all the events or spend weeks farming them. I believe I've made these observations in previous posts about other episodes of the Living World but what can you expect? They are all the same.

Part of the reason I'm rehashing history is that, having completed the narrative of the latest update, I find there's almost nothing I can say about it. That doesn't mean there's nothing I want to say about it. Ye gods, no! I have plenty to say. Anyone would, had they seen it. I just can't, because spoilers.

At this stage just about anything I might say would be a spoiler. I took a bunch of screenshots and I can't use most of those because they are all spoilerific too. About all I'm prepared to say about the story is... it's really going to annoy some people - but I'm not one of them.

Irony! Or maybe Sarcasm!

Of course, I long ago gave up expecting consistency or quality from ANet's writing team. That way madness lies. I'll settle for getting a good laugh, a jump scare or something that I wanted to happen. This time I got all three.

I can be a bit more descriptive about the mechanics. This is an area where I've been hyper-critical in the past. I detest ANet's innate belief that the only reason casual players don't love hardcore boss fights is that they aren't exposed to them often enough.

Even more than that I loathe the designers reliance on the Rule of Three (Boss does something weird at 75%, 50% and 25%) and the The Other Rule Of Three (introduce three new gimmicks separately then use all of them at once). Without these two old standbys the Annoying Boss Fights that last 20-30 minutes would last 5-10 minutes instead and I would be done with them that much faster. Who knows, at a quarter of the length I might even enjoy one, once in a while.

Sadly, this episode is not going to be remembered as The One Where Anet Broke The Habit Of A Lifetime. It is, however, one where the gimmicks are more straightforward, easier to grasp, easier to use and less idiotic than usual. Also, I don't think it's a spoiler to confirm that, yes, there is a final boss and yes, you do have to fight them, but it might be if I tell you that the fight in question is less annoying than most of its kind and takes up less of your valuable time than you probably expect.

Title Card!

Other than that, I would only say that the whole production reminded me of one of those Shakespeare plays where there are lots of battles that the audience gets to experience only through various Lords urgently discussing the action while peering into the wings. I'd also say that I've always held that even telling someone there's a surprise ending is a spoiler, no matter that you refrain from telling them what the surprise is.

So, did I enjoy it? Well, yes. I guess so. It was rubbish but so are lots of things I like. I didn't really get any deep emotions poked. Nor too many shallow ones, come to that. Then again, I finished The Banner Saga this week and my main emotional reaction was mild puzzlement. If I had to sum the ending of that one up, "Is that it?" would probably cover it. It might be me, is what I'm saying.

Next, I guess I should go see what's on the new map, do the Hearts, check the vendors and look at the Collection for the Roller Beetle Mount. Or I might just do my dailies and go play something else until September.

I'm not entirely sure that was the reaction ANet were looking for. It certainly wouldn't have happened in Season One.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

This Joko Isn't Funny Any More : GW2

This afternoon, I finally got to play "Long Live the Lich", Episode Three, Season Four of GW2's Living World. Just shy of a full day after it supposedly launched. Along with almost everyone else, I couldn't get stuck into the (no doubt thrilling) storyline right away, due to major bugs.

They supposedly fixed the worst while I was sleeping although as I write there's still a caveat on the forums warning they haven't found, let alone stomped, all of them. Supposedly the disconnection issues that made me go play EQ2 instead had been fixed (it was those pesky Fractals) but the first three times I attempted to log in today - post-fix - the game was still giving me a network error.

Oddly - or perhaps not so oddly - I was able to log in my two accounts that don't have the Path of Fire expansion without any issues. I did my dailies on those. I also went round all ten chests for the repeatable Sunken Treasure Hunter achievement, the first time I've been able to open them for nearly a month.
Most of the new map doesn't look like this. The rest is boring old desert.

That's how long ANet took to fix that particular bug. There's a sixteen page thread on it on the forums. They also forgot to mention the bug fix in the update notes. If anyone's missing the glory days of SOE's MMOs of a decade and a half ago I strongly urge them to come play GW2. Every patch breaks something and no-one seems all that bothered about fixing most of it.

I'd been stashing the keys, which you could still get from the Kill Ten Krait Daily (it's not called that but that's what it is). I have about twenty on each account now. It took me an hour to go round all the maps using them up just on one account so I might have to pace myself. I'm only doing it because I want the breathing mask that covers your entire head with a huge bubble.

With that out of the way I tried logging in my Path of Fire account and miraculously it worked. That meant it was time for my Druid (One of my five Druids. One of my two Druids on that account. No, I don't know why, either...) to wake up.

GW2 does have pretty interstitials.

He's the Asuran who dresses like a toddler. Watching everyone trying to take him seriously as The Commander makes the dialogue of every Living Story episode seem like comedy even when it's supposed to be tragedy. I use him because when Druids were invented I specced and geared him for maximum healing and he can generally outheal most of the stupid gimmicks they put in LS instances so I don't have to bother learning how they work.

So far this time he hasn't needed to go full firehose with the healing stick. It's far too early to give any details even with a spoiler warning but I will say that up to where I've got so far, which is to the end of the story element of the new map, I'm guessing maybe half-way through the whole thing, it's a lot less annoying than most episodes.

Thus far all the fights have been easy. The first mini-boss didn't seem to have any dumb tricks. The inevitable instance where all your real skills are taken away and you have to use a whole load of new ones that the game tries to teach you in real time isn't infuriating or frustrating. It's actually - whisper it - fun. It's a long time since I've been able to say that.

Extremely minor spoiler: if you go under the deck on the ship after the fight ends you get to hear Joko being unpleasant. You might  want to avoid doing that.

The narrative so far is at least coherent and comprehensible. Original or surprising it very much is not
but you can't have everything. It also has the kind of tonal problems that could only really be solved by splitting the entire thing in two. And then preferably burning the part of the script that has all of Joko's lines in it.

I don't know how Palawa Joko was played in the original Guild Wars but here he seems to be channeling both Mad King Thorne and The Joker at the same time. At one point he sounds so indistinguishable from Mad King Thorne that I wondered if it was the same voice actor. Perhaps it is. It would explain a lot.

Personally, I don't find sadistic psychopaths amusing. When Alan Moore and Brian Bolland redefined and re-invented the character of The Joker in The Killing Joke they were making a point about how unfunny he was,  a point that seems to have been comprehensively lost over the ensuing decades.

I'd go for "Guilty but Insane"

GW2, perhaps more so than any MMORPG I've played, fails to harmonize its registers, leaving them to clash horrifically like some nightmare wind-chime made from sheet iron. It frequently interposes the sadistic with the twee in a manner that suggests, at best, a lack of professional judgment that would put most writers on the unemployment line and at worst a serious psychiatric disorder.

This tendency, always present, seems to be worsening. I'm not at all sure how much longer I'll be prepared to put up with it. I'm damned sure I'm not going to make excuses for it. I'm just hoping we finish Joko off for good and get back to Dragons. You know where you are with a dragon. (On fire, mostly).

My deep antipathy for Joko aside, I found plenty to enjoy in the first few encounters and instances. There's quite a lot of talking and some of it is amusing. I'm warming to Gorrick and Blish, who appeared full-born as Venus from the waves last episode. They seem to be bedding in nicely.

Is there something you'd like to tell us, Tiami?

Gorrick has literally no empathy at all and precious few social skills but he doesn't come across as vicious, which makes his "Did he really say that?" moments more funny than disturbing. Blish, by comparison, is almost a tragic figure in some ways, even though he gets some good gag lines ("Can I have my arm back?"). Taimi's hitherto unsuspected relationship with him (with both of them, really) is more affecting and believable than it has any right to be, given our complete ignorance of their history and the way it was shoe-horned in out of nowhere.

Come off it! If you're a real Lady, I'm a real cat.
Lord Faren is on hand to play the narcissistic fop, an act he carries off so well that I suspect almost no-one believes it any more. The Lore sub-forum has been discussing not so much whether it's an act as what the act is supposed to be concealing.

I'd love to believe the writing team have and have always had deep plans for Faren but I don't. If he turns out to be something other than he seems it will be retcon. As seems to be the case with the sudden and positively mindblowing appearance this episode of a character who has been a mystery for the six full years of the  life of the game. That's it? Really??

I will probably have more to say about that in a while when spoilers are less of an issue. Suffice it to say, if and when we eventually discover the identity of the mysterious E, he'd better not be some fanboy with an autograph book and a selfie stick.

That's as much as I have to say for now. I'm anticipating the usual, tedious Boss fight to come along and spoil the party towards the end but so far, so good. I'm enjoying it. Joko always excepted.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Blue Sky Thinking : EQ2, GW2

I was hoping that the latest GW2 update would drop early today. I wanted to take a quick look and put together some sort of "first impressions" before it was time to go to bed. Well, it did arrive at a reasonable time for me - 5pm in fact - but  unfortunately it also came with a bug that causes disconnection from the server every few seconds

As I write this, nearly two and a half hours later, there's no fix in sight and the increasingly angry thread on the forum has reached six pages. First impressions are on hold until tomorrow. If I get in tonight I'm doing my dailies.

While I wait for my fix, I thought I might pop up a quick post featuring some screenshots I took last night in EQ2's Plane of Magic. Like pretty much every zone added to the game in the last five years or so it's very pretty.

It's no wonder Daybreak are so keen to shepherd newcomers into the newer zones at the earliest possible opportunity. Everything before Chains of Eternity, which arrived in 2012, looks dated but from that point on someone worked out how to use a combination of deep, rich colors and monumental scale to give zone design a facelift.

You still wouldn't mistake the results for modern-day graphics but there's a deliciously overblown, decadent feel to them, layered as they are with fin de siecle filigree and flounce. Everything tends to drip with lace or drift in haze, like a fever-dream or an opium-eater's vision.

That approach works especially well for somewhere like the Plane of Magic. It's a little more out of place, perhaps, in Brokenskull Bay, the byzantine, baroque lair of that drunken ne'er-do-well gang, the Brokenskull Pirates, but I'm prepared to make allowances for the sake of an aesthetic I enjoy.

I recently took my Sage through the crafting line to get him maxed so he can start making spell upgrades for himself, my Inquisitor (already at the cap) and my new Wizard. I was expecting to hit 110 well before the end of the questline but I was surprised when it happened even before the halfway mark. 

As a result, he's benched for now, although he needs to finish the full tradeskill sequence for the excellent rewards. I thought about having him put his pointy Warlock hat on and taking him through the adventure line (and eventually I will) but I was curious to see how well the Wizard performed using only the gear and spells gifted her by the latest free level 100 boost.

Very well indeed is the answer. Especially considering I have no better idea how to play a Wizard in EQ2 than to hit everything that isn't on cooldown until the mob dies or I do. Under the circumstances  it's going exceptionally well although I imagine I'll need to work out what my spells do eventually.

I always thought cloth casters were supposed to be fragile at high levels but apparently that's your grandma's gameplay. I started off using roots and snares or sending the Mercenary to tank (she's an Inquisitor so I didn't expect her to do a great job holding aggro) but it became apparent pretty quickly that such a cautious approach was entirely unnecessary. 

At level 100, every mob in Plane of Magic cons yellow and is at least six levels higher than the Wiz, but with a snare on, most of them die before they even get into melee range. Even so, I don't even bother snaring them any more. Even if they do hit her, she doesn't seem to take any damage.

What with her seemingly inexhaustible mana pool and her 11 million hitpoints, not to mention her own personal healer on tap, it seems she's perfectly capable of face-tanking any solo mob needed for the outdoor quests. To put that in perspective, when when my Berserker did Level 100 on the same mobs, wearing the free starting gear given out with the expansion itself, I believe he had somewhere around 2.5m hit points. He had a much slower time of it until he hit 101.

The Wizard is working on the third of the Plane of Magic factions so most of the content I'm seeing is new to me. It's very similar - kill ten of these, gather ten of those, oh my friend got lost down a hole can you get her out? and so on but at least the dialog is different. 

I need to max all three factions anyway. There's a very good reward for doing so plus an Achievement which flags your account to allow you to spend a currency at vendors who sell gear that's a direct upgrade to the stuff you get from the solo questline and dungeons.

It's all very well thought out. If I was playing EQ2 as my main MMORPG, as I did for a long time, this structure would give me things to do that I would consider worthwhile for a good part of the year. Comparing it to the soul-crushing "end game" of GW2, it's hugely more acessible, manageable and relatable. I'm not a great fan of incremental upgrade mechanics but you have to have some sort of progression to take you from one expansion to the next and EQ2's is sound.

As I play less and less GW2 - or rather as I play GW2 for fewer and fewer hours each week - I'm dotting around between a number of other games. I haven't settled on anything as a "primary secondary" but EQ2 gets a good deal of the available attention.

I already have two max level adventurers and two max level crafters. Given the likely arrival of the next (final?) expansion in November it seems not unlikely that by then I will have four adventure classes at the cap - Bereserker, Inquisitor, Wizard and Warlock. I don't believe that has happened since Guild Wars 2 launched six years ago.

There are three very specific reasons why this is happening now. Firstly, the free Level 100 boosts have jumped several characters directly into starting position. Secondly the ten extra levels that come with the current expansion are much, much easier - and faster - to complete than the previous decile from 90 to 100. Thirdly, the Plane of Magic content has more variety, and therefore replayability for second or third characters, than any expansion for a long time.

Returning to that second point, DBG seems quietly to have dropped SOE's utterly ridiculous practice of splitting levels into fifths by the use of  "Prestige Points". That nasty little ruse effectively turned every 20% into something that took at least as long as a full level to complete. If thay'd used levels in the normal fashion through that period we'd all probably be Level 150 by now.

The takeaway is that EQ2 feels to me to be in a very good place right now when it comes to balance and progression. Plenty of players would disagree I'm sure (it wouldn't be EQ2 if they didn't) but both in game and on the forums the general vibe in this expansion cycle has been noticeably less harsh and hostile than in other years.

It's ironic that the team seems at last to have found some solid ground on which to build at precisely the time the game is most likely entering its final stage. At least it will make maintenance mode as solid and replayable as it can be, if and when it comes.

Along with the similarly robust state of current EverQuest, it also bodes well for whatever new version of Norrath they're working on under wraps. If any. The Smed-led outfit may have had more strut and bluster but this bunch might just actually be able to come up with a finished product that works.

We'll see. Or we won't. If there really is an EQ3 in the works I just hope to live long enough to play it.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Excuse Me While I Scorch The Sky : EQ2

Next Tuesday the latest quarterly instalment (overdue) of The Living Story (World, whatever...) should finally drop for GW2. Handy for me since changes to my work pattern this week put me at home Tuesday through Thursday. Then again, the weather forecast is so good I may not want to stay indoors...

The trailer certainly doesn't encourage me to miss out on the sunshine. It's lackluster in the extreme, especially when compared to the excellent lead-in to the last episode. If I never see or hear Joko again it will be too soon. Everything other people felt about Scarlet goes double for what I feel about this tedious, cliched piece of fan service.

Still, nothing wrong with lowering expectations. Under-promising means anything not terrible feels like a win and something halfway decent knocks it out of the park.

That's a lesson Daybreak Games seems to have taken very much to heart. With restricted resources and reduced ambitions, the small team working on EQ2 has apparently decided to make a virtue out of necessity. They're making a pretty good fist of it, too.

As previously mentioned, despite having one of the more extensive Holiday Calendars in MMOdom, there has always been something of an early summer lull in Norrath. Nothing much happens between Bristlebane Day in April and Tinkerfest in mid-July.

Well, it does now. May is still vacant, other than for the regular, monthly City Festival and Moonlight Enchantments, but June now has the otterly charming Oceansfest and next we get another new Live Event - Scorched Sky Celebration.

It begins on June 28 and runs until July 10, squeezing into the gap before the gnomish carnival arrives on the 19th. Scorched Sky is already up on Test and EQ2 Traders has a breakdown of what to do and where to do it.

I enjoyed Oceanfest so much I thought I'd jump the gun and drop in on rehearsals over on Test. There's a bit more to do this time than just collect gifts. That said, I'm not knocking the otters. They may not have laid on a whole lot of quests or activities but I'm certainly very happy with the gifts their deity, Prexus gave me. I now have my own permanent Othmir celebration on the shores of my Mara Estate home and it looks fabulous.

For Scorched Sky there's actually some fighting to do. Fire elementals spawn all around the celebrations, which take place in nine different zones of varying levels. The mobs aren't agro until you get within melee range, whereupon they stabilize at your character's level to give you a fair fight. Fair for you, that is, not for them. They die very easily.

They also have a slight tendency to flicker in and out of agro status, which may be fixed before they go Live. If not it won't matter. It only happened to me two or three times out of more than eighty kills and it only lasts a few seconds.

Every elemental drops a Coin of Ember (two if you're an All Access subscriber), which is the currency the merchant takes. There's one at every celebrant camp and the stock is very enticing, particularly if you happen to be a decorator. (You can watch a seventeen minute video about that, which gives you more detail than you'll probably ever want).

The pricing is also extremely generous, to the point where I wondered if it had been set low for testing purposes. I bought both the house pets for three coins each and the mount for fifty. That's about fifteen minutes farming for a subscriber. For the first day or two, competition for spawns on Live may slow that down a tad.

I might not have bought the fiery horse had I realized that being ground-bound means it can't be used as the appearance for a flying mount. On the other hand, it only took me about half an hour to collect fifty coins so why not? It looks great!

When I'd killed my way to precisely half the cost of the mount, an Achievement popped up. Killing twenty-five elementals gets you a title - "the Scorched". I love titles. They're one of the few things I'll jump hoops for in a game - titles, pets, mounts and hats, pretty much.

There's also a collection, which follows the newly familiar pattern: a set of three shinies in each of the three level ranges of the nine zones. It makes the collect fair for all levels and encourages people not to stand in one place all day, farming for alts. You have to stand in three places instead.

I completed the collection without any hassles except in The Commonlands, where the very long grass around Dog Trapper Lake made it hard to spot the little purple dots. Got 'em in the end. Unfortunately I  forgot to do the hand-in so I don't have a snapshot of the reward, which according to Naimi Denmother is a tapestry.

The final part of the holiday program is a repeatable quest in the main cities that sends you looking for firework launchers to light up the sky. The quest sneakily doesn't appear at all until you buy a 10 copper sparkler from the vendor, whereupon the guy standing next to him spots you have the wherwithal and pops up a blue feather. I liked that touch.

I liked the whole thing, in fact. A lot. I pottered around for an hour, enjoyed myself, relaxed and came away with some very nice additions to the decor of my Ratonga Bruiser's three-room Freeport suite. I will very definitely be doing it all again when Scorched Sky goes Live, most probably with several characters.

We'll see what happens come Tuesday when the next LW chapter drops for GW2. Maybe something will surprise me there. My expectation, though, is that I'll get more entertainment and more lasting satisifaction from Daybreak's "summer fun" than Anet's raised "quality bar" can provide.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Can I Tempt You To A Little Something?

There was an unusual flurry of interest in accountancy this week as Steam added the ability to tally purchase history by value. Or something. No-one seemed entirely clear about the details.

Isey had a nice post up in which a few people outed themselves as overspenders. I revealed my own Steam Spend in a moment of self-satisfied smugness which, with a singular lack of taste or decorum, I am about to repeat here:

TotalSpend 2018-03-30 20:59:13.053 $57.06

OldSpend 2018-03-30 20:59:13.053 $0.00

PWSpend 2018-03-30 20:59:13.053 $0.00

Time was, I could have demurred entirely, saying even more smugly "I don't do Steam" but those days are long gone. We all fall in the end. Nonetheless, I was a very late adopter, coming to Valve's warehouse of shame long after it ceased to be fashionable, let alone faddish.

By the time I joined even the (in)famous Steam Sales were slipping into self-parody, with blog posts tending towards the jaded or nostalgic as people vied to compete over how little they'd seen to tempt them rather than how full their imaginary bags had been as they exited the store. These days, if anyone even mentions Steam, it's only to bemoan its failings. It's a background hum at best.

Indeed, it's only as I log into Steam to check some things for this post that I find the Steam Summer Sale started two days ago. A few years ago the blogosphere would have been sparking like a summer storm with posts about who'd bought what. This time I haven't seen a single mention.

With no history of wild sale frenzy behind me, I don't have one of those long tail "unplayed games" lists that seem to invoke the weird inverted work ethic that dogs so many bloggers. How it's possible to generate puritanical guilt by not playing video games beats me but for a while it very much seemed to be a thing around here. Even that has faded.

It may be an isotope of Buyer's Remorse, something I don't generally suffer from over anything much, least of all games. Buyer's Irritation, occasionally, when what I get turns out to be not what I wanted, but I think for remorse you need to feel a large degree of responsibility for your actions. I would always rather lay that off on whoever sold the crappy thing to me than take it on myself. I do my research before I buy so I expect to be satisfied.

Still, I have learned rather quickly that money spent on Steam is generally money wasted. Not because of the quality of the product - there may be a vast underbelly of slush but the stuff floating to the top seems quality enough. It's more that it's very hard not to notice that there are a lot of free video games around these days. Why pay for something you can have for nothing?

I do still subscribe somewhat to the old saw that says "you get what you pay for" but I think it's important to factor in a clear consideration of what it is that you wanted in the first place. If it's something substantial, something that's going to look good, play well and keep you fully engaged and entertained for several weeks then yes, you probably do need to pay up front. 

If you're already over-extended on existing games - and anyone still emotionally and intellectually invested in more than one MMORPG is inevitably going to have that problem - then  any yearning for a brief burst of novelty dopamine should be easily satisfied without recourse to a credit card.

Similarly, if you just need to fill a session here and there but you prefer to travel first-class then many full-price games have teasers or intros that can be played for free. In the same way that I find I only need to read the opening paragraphs of most magazine articles or that a couple of pages in the Sunday Supplement of a quality newspaper tells me as much as I want to know about a subject that someone's just written a 300 page book about, I often find those free tasters enough to sate my appetite for a particular game.

Then there's the issue of MMORPG habituation. As many MMO players have found, once you go big you can't go back. Single player games just feel odd. They don't seem real, somehow, which, given the innate irreality of video-gaming, is a disconnect too far for me. I find I can invest much more easily and settle more deeply into a bad MMO than a good single-player these days. I think MMOs have re-wired my neural pathways - and that may not even be as fanciful as it sounds.

Best success for me these days certainly doesn't stem from trying to find offline (or, more likely, online-alone) games that replicate MMO gameplay. I thought that would be a path to self-sufficiency but it's not as the virtual dust and cobwebs obscuring the icons on my desktop leading to Tanzia and Yonder confirm.

I'm coming around to the theory that if I'm to play any non-MMOs I need to focus on games that are short, have a definitive end-point and a clear, linear narrative. I finished and enjoyed Dr Langeskov, The Tiger and the Terribly Cursed Emerald which took about an hour. I finished and wasn't especially impressed by A Raven Monologue, which took half that time.

Doki Doki Literature Club I enjoyed most of all and that took several sessions of an hour or two. It's theoretically quite replayable and plenty of people have replayed it many times to tease out all the narrative possibilities. I'm not so keen on doing that, although I understand the theoretical appeal.

My problem with gaming as a delivery platform for narrative comes down to one of efficiency. I'm not convinced that the pay-off from interactivity is commensurate with the extra time and inconvenience. Having to replay games to see different outcomes strikes me as the equivalent of watching a movie or re-reading a novel a dozen times. Few adults are interested in doing that although it's a common practice in childhood (and academia).

It seems to me that both plain text and the moving image do a better job of creating immersion and involvement with character and story than having to manipulate avatars through activities. It's no co-incidence that the most successful narrative experiences in gaming have earned the pejorative generic of  "walking simulators". The less the player has to do, the more the narrative can shine.

Maybe this will change when virtual reality sheds its gadgetry and goes mainstream. I still tend to doubt it. There's a big difference between the Secret Cinema experience or Puzzle Rooms and just watching a movie or reading a thriller. Most people are lazy. I know I am.

All the same, when it comes to playing non-MMOs I am thinking of focusing my attention in that direction. I still have £10 credit on Steam from the IntPiPoMo prize last year and I might spend £3.99 of it on Life Is Strange 1-5, currently on sale at 75% off. Or I might just buy another MMO - The Division is 80% off at £8.39.

Neither of those games is new, of course. The big advantage of falling behind is that there's a lot to fall on. Despite all this talk of Steam, however, it was my Amazon Prime membership that got me out of the MMO groove this last week.

Just after I got back from holiday, someone in my Feedly (shamefully I can't recall who it was and can't now find the post) alerted me to the addition of a monthly gaming offer on Amazon Prime. It actually began a month or two back and the games change from month to month.

This month there were two that interested me - The Banner Saga and The Banner Saga 2. These are both titles I knew about and have occasionally pondered playing. The combination of "free but only for a month" was sufficient to trigger me and I downloaded them both.

I've played the first for several hours and its...okay. It certainly looks good, the plot is moderately involving and I like some of the characters. The combat seems both intrusive and awkward. Mechanically it keeps reminding me of Pirate 101, which works in a very similar way but is far more exciting. Structurally, the fights just get in the way of the narrative.

I was going at it quite hard, playing an hour or two each evening after I'd finished my GW2 dailies, but I missed one night and since then I haven't logged in again. The story isn't that interesting, the much-vaunted writing isn't always as fluid or convincing as it could be and the voice acting is a little off-putting on the sporadic occasions it occurs. I think accents are best avoided, by and large, unless it's comedy value you're after.

I probably will finish it eventually, if only because I've read that the sequel is an improvement in most respects so I'd like to try that. If not, well, it was free and there'll be something else on Prime in a couple of weeks.

Spoilt for choice I guess. Or just spoiled. That's the real problem here and Steam has a lot to answer for or so it's often said.

Still, we wouldn't want to be without it, eh? Would we?

Monday, June 18, 2018

Keeping Myself Occupied : OWW

I am still playing Occupy White Walls. More accurately, I am still playing around with Occupy White Walls. Cautiously. It has that indefinable "just one more" factor that makes for addiction.

It's something I'm quite wary of. Landmark had it in spades and I imagine it's the reason Minecraft is the global success it is. There's something about construction kits...

Even as I was writing this, just tabbing back in to take another screenshot, I found myself buying more art, placing it, framing it and then buying lighting as well. I lost half an hour in a blink.

What happened to the metallic avatar I used to have?
OWW is a curious pastime. It's all about art but the tidal pull for me is the clicking together of pieces. Other building and decorating software I've used has required either a great deal of technical knowledge, considerable creative ability or, more commonly, both. This is much more forgiving.

For a start it comes with the aesthetic baked in. DAISY (now 35% faster and 50% more accurate, apparently) doesn't merely offer thousands upon thousands of artworks (including a fresh consignment of two thousand just in from Washington’s National Gallery of Art). She works with you to give your picks a coherency that will probably surprise you.

The building materials also come conveniently categorized by style - Art Deco, Art Nouveau, Industrial, Baroque and so on. You're on your own to make the right choice, but if you stick to a category or two it's fairly difficult to come up with the kind of clashing mish-mash that's all too easy in other building MMOs.

Never mind. Bought myself this fine brass job instead.

My own first gallery is surprisingly convincing as a space. Well, it surprises me. Considering I began by plonking things down to see how the controls worked and let everything happen from there, it does look oddly like somewhere you might imagine visiting.

It's also getting bigger. When I logged in today I saw a loading screen tip about the option to extend. I already had a staircase that went nowhere so I took the opportunity to build out from that into a small, upper annexe.

That led to my putting in a ceiling, meaning the whole gallery no longer ressembles some crazed alfresco dream thought up by Escher and Dali after a night on the absinthe.  With the ceiling came a floor and my gallery is now two storeys proud.

Surprisingly dark in here, isn't it? Especially given all these windows. I wonder if there's a day/night cycle?

I kept the view although there's nothing much to see except clouds and sky. I have more windows than walls. I wish there were some skylights. It got a little gloomy when I put the ceilings in, compared to the blue skies and sunlight I'd been used to, so I bought a lot of lights. With all the tiled floors the reflections are awesome. And blinding.

The decor is so powerful it doesn't really leave a lot of attention for the art. And so much of the art is...well, tiny. Miniscule. The pictures come in - presumably - the correct relative scale to their real-life versions and there doesn't seem to be an option to scale them. Most of mine look like postcards stuck to the walls.

There are also bugs. It's only alpha after all. I managed to make two of my small end-rooms upstairs inaccessible. I think it happened when I deleted some doors. Nothing seems to fix it but I can jump over the railing from the top of the stairs to get in if I really want to.

Think the tiles could maybe be a tad bit busy?

The controls are going to need some fine-tuning. It's clunky to have to delete things every time you place them incorrectly. And expensive. It would be a lot better to be able to move them properly before you place them and to be able to pick them up and re-position them without having to destroy and re-buy them.

Even so, for such early days there's a huge amount of playability. And playing is the goal here, it seems. A recentish interview at Rock, Paper, Shotgun implies that the finished product will very much be a game, not just an educational toy or a shop-window.

I do love me a little Mondrian. Goes with the flooring, too.

I hadn't realized until I read that interview that players will be able to upload their own art into the game. That does begin to make things sound disturbingly like some kind of unholy hybrid of Second Life and Deviant Art. When asked, repeatedly, about the software's possibilities as a marketplace and marketing tool for living artists, the StikiPixels representative was reassuringly definite:

We don’t want the game to become a marketplace at this stage. We want to be more of a game than Minecraft... We’re not in the business of selling art and we don’t want to take any commission from art sales. We’ll do what we’re best at, making games!

"More of a game than Minecraft" might be a bit of an ask. More of a game than Landmark, though? I think they're there already.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Classic Progression: Beating The Drums Of War For WoW

As a somewhat casual, uncommitted, occasional WoW player I haven't been paying the closest of attention to Blizzard's ongoing discussion with their extended community over whether, when and how to meet the demand for a rerun of the "classic" World of Warcraft experience. I read the various news items and blog posts about it that pop up in my feed but I don't follow on with the kind of primary research I'd do if this were a Daybreak project.

I do, vaguely, recall writing something, at some point, about the way Blizzard might have adapted EverQuest's Progression Server model to their own ends but that would have been back when Blizz were still in denial about the validity or value of doing anything at all. Once they abandoned the increasingly untenable position of "you say you want this but really you don't" and moved to "okay, fine, have the damn thing, then" I mostly stopped thinking about the what and moved on to the when.

With a WoW expansion imminent it seemed unlikely we'd see much movement on WoW Classic this year. Blizzard has historically had something of a hammock problem with WoW. Subscriber numbers, which they don't tell us any more, slump between the tentpoles of expansions.

That's been a consideration for a lot longer than I realized, as I discovered when I googled "WoW expansion cadence". As far back as 2013 Blizzard was talking about moving to an expansion every year. Greg Street aka Ghostcrawler expressed that desire very clearly when he said

"We find that expansions are what bring players back to World of Warcraft. Really good patches will keep them, but they aren't as good at bringing players back to the game. We really want to get to a cadence where we can release expansions more quickly. Once a year I think would be a good rate".

That never happened and the problem of account retention remains. This being an expansion year, and with WoW expansions still generally appearing bi-annually, it would clearly be handy to slot the one-off project into an off-year.

To this end, work has to be done, not least in nailing down what the end product is going to look like. It has, after all, been a bit vague up to now. Not Star Citizen vague, for sure, but still more than a bit misty around the edges.

Significant clarity arrived yesterday with a decision on exactly what "Vanilla" means in the context of this project. Wilhelm reported that the Classic Server will specifically replicate the WoW experience as it stood on the day Patch 1.12: Drums of War went live in August 2006.

Which is interesting for a number of reasons, not least, as we all know, that no two people can ever agree on what constitutes the "Classic" period of any MMORPG. Deciding to bore down on a point as specific as this risks being seen as both arbitrary and partial.

It also strongly suggests that the WoW Classic server is going to be a timeslice. MattH in the comment thread at TAGN (actually it's the only comment as I write this...) makes it plain: "It’s certainly not a progressive one within classic/vanilla, which indicates that they are probably aiming for a “get done and get out” experience".

I'm so used to "Classic" servers actually being "Progression" servers it hadn't really occurred to me that Blizzard might be planning on a frozen slice of time that never changes. If that's always been their conception of the demand then their longtime position - "you think you want it but you really don't" - makes a lot more sense.

Progression servers, particularly the first time they appear in an MMO, have dynamism. They go some way to scratching the itch we all have to go back to the good times in our past but they also offer a clear and present path to the future. Not only do they offer the greatest chance of hitting everyone's individual Golden Age at some point during the run but they provide a number of jump-on points, each of which is a potential surge in membership and revenue.

A server that simply locks at a specific snapshot of the game risks stagnation. There is a market for an unchanging experience as can be seen by the number of "maintenance mode" MMOs that still hold some kind of population but it's easy to see why a company as large and successful as Blizzard might not consider that audience sufficiently large or profitable to encourage.

There is precedent, of course. As mattH says, "the most popular private servers are vanilla". And the most popular EverQuest private server is Project99. Some people want what they want. It also makes the Official Classic WoW server very much easier to maintain and operate. All the work is upfront. Once it's done Blizzard could literally say "there you go - enjoy!" and walk away, never touching the thing again except to make sure the server stays up.

What I expect might happen is this: the Classic server will run as a sop for the "Vanilla was best" crowd. You want Vanilla? You got Vanilla. Go play it and stop bothering us. At the same time it will provide a testbed for demand. If it makes money and holds a significant population, future calls - and there will be plenty of them - for a version of Classic WoW that doesn't just remain static but progresses, will be heard with sympathy.

WoW has always had a very competetive playerbase. The concept of Server and World Firsts, both individually and for guilds, is deeply embedded there. The game has possibly the best structure to support "race to the top" competitive play of any PvE MMORPG. With the base game and six expansions it has a progression ladder that could very comfortably be tweaked to run for two or three years, long enough for interest to accrue to allow the whole thing to begin all over again.

WoW was made for Progression Servers. Almost literally. If Classic is a success - and it will be, commercially at least - we will come to see it as the dry run for what will become a major - perhaps the major - income stream for the aging MMO in the 2020s.

So long as Blizzard can continue to swallow their pride and think of the dollars, that is. 

Friday, June 15, 2018

World In Your Pocket

Apologies for the abrupt loss of signal. I did mention a few times, in passing, that we were going away, but I neglected to put up a Service Interrupted message. Always bad form to go afk without warning.

Mrs Bhagpuss and I got back yesterday, around tea-time, having thoroughly enjoyed another excellent holiday. While we were away we had a number of lengthy philosophical discussions  - long drives will do that - about the way the world has changed in our lifetimes. Getting older will do that, too.

One particular observation occurred to me as we were traveling that seems almost emblematic of where the culture finds itself now. It's is not anywhere I - or most people, probably - expected it would be. We all grew up expecting a science-fiction future but who expected to go on holiday carrying no fewer than five computers, any and all of them probably more powerful than the mainframes that filled rooms when I was in college?

I took my new 6" Android phablet, my elderly iPod Touch and my dual-OS 10" tablet. Mrs Bhagpuss had her Kindle Fire and her iPhone. This seemed normal. It probably is normal.

That surprises me almost more than anything. It was only a few years ago that I was pontificating on the way digital ecosystems would compete with and devour each other, the way previous technological revolutions had taught us they should.

We drove deep into the country to see the Chufin Cave. It was closed. We never saw a single Chufin.
I found it difficult back then to imagine why anyone would want to own - far less carry - a variety of separate devices, when a single machine could do the work of all them. I thought tablets would eat laptops, mobile would consume desktop and who would want to bother lugging around a dedicated device that just read books or only played music?

Plenty of people, apparently. The death of the laptop, which was widely predicted by far more widely-read pundits than I, seems further away than ever. The airports were filled with folk nestling clamshells on their actual laps, most of them branded Apple. Every child had its own device playing Peppa Pig or Postman Pat. I also saw plenty of people reading text from screens although, speaking as someone whose livelihood depends on it, a comforting number of people were reading actual paper books.

Scanning through the many hundreds of unread posts in my Feedly feed last night, it appears that another technological extinction, widely predicted a few years back, has failed to arrive on schedule. I remember reading any number of reports in the quality press not so long ago, predicting the then-current generation of Gaming Consoles would be the last. Gaming would thrive but the specific devices associated with it would not.

Then again, if this is the size of a Chufin egg, it's probably just as well.
Hasn't happened and, if the reports coming out of E3 are to be believed, it's not about to happen any time soon. The success of The Switch seems to confirm that hardware designed specifically to play games is still in demand and console technology appears determined to keep up with increased audience expectations.

I certainly wasn't alone in believing the technological future was going to be more streamlined, more minimal and in some ways it is. The days of traveling with two suitcases per person are gone. We both managed happily for almost two weeks with a bag each not much larger than the one I used to carry to school every day in the 1970s. The devices themselves get smaller and thinner and lighter, their physical footprint dictated only by the size of screen you prefer to watch.

We travel the world with a freedom that would have seemed dreamlike even in the 1950s, when mass tourism was getting started but, more than that, the world travels with  us everywhere we go. It's still possible to leave it all behind but to do so takes a concerted effort these days.

Every hotel and cafe has wifi and usually it even works. Many cities pipe free connectivity into the air. Vehicles come with charging points for your devices built in and the mobile signal carries almost everywhere. It's an opt-out life we live now, not opt-in.

Who would win in a fight between a Lion and an Eagle? Unless that's a Chufin...
And for a short time I did indeed opt out, if only partially. I gave myself a complete break from the kind of thing I do every day at home, at least. I declined to check Feedly or post on my own blog. I had MMOs on two devices but I played none. I didn't watch YouTube or read Pitchfork or even listen to music on my iPod.

What I did do was use the phablet or tablet every day to check the weather, book hotels and plan the route for that day's drive. Oh, and I started reading an eBook on the last day. I didn't consciously decide to avoid anything non-traditionally holiday related - mostly doing anything like that just didn't occur to me.

Mrs Bhagpuss stayed more connected. She managed her business via her iPhone, taking bookings by SMS and email, giving me the tremors every time she held it out over a bridge or a sea wall to take a photograph. She also used her Kindle Fire to play various games of the Candy Crush variety and we played Eggheads together on my phablet most evenings, just like a regular late-middle-aged couple.

I certainly don't eschew the concept of playing games when I'm away. Gaming has always been a part of going on holiday.  We used to take cards or dominoes or travel board games but with the streamlined luggage, gaming on the phone makes more sense.

When you pay two Euros to see inside a small castle in a small village in the mountains you don't expect something like this. Chanting, lights going out, screams, 1930s radios playing torch songs, rocking chairs, faded newspapers, mysterious men in black... I wasn't sure whether we'd time-slipped into a 1970s Hammer Horror or portalled into The Secret World...
Sticking to games I never play at home maintains the break in continuity and that separation is essential, I think. Or, at least, it is while I'm still working. When I retire and we can - all being well - go away for longer periods and more often, maybe that particular firewall can come down. Then, I can imagine taking a laptop and both playing MMOs and blogging about them in the long evenings.

Ironically, having read - or at least glanced at - something like three hundred news items and blog posts since I got back, I'm not entirely sure I'd be able to find enough to write about anyway. Not a lot seems to have happened. I certainly don't feel I've missed much.

I notice Daybreak Games hasn't gone dark with the coming of sanctions so I guess that was all a storm in a samovar after all. ANet has fallen even further behind on their self-imposed schedule for The Living Story. There was some gimmicky special week in WvW to take our minds off the absence of new content. Glad to have missed that. There was the Steam thing...

Anything else? Don't think so. Given the choice I'd rather have stayed on holiday but failing that I guess I'll just log in and slip back into the old routine. Roll on retirement!

Monday, June 4, 2018

Attention To Detail : EQ2

When Daybreak Games decided to offer everyone yet another free Level 100 character in EQ2, Wilhelm voiced what were no doubt the thoughts of many. He wondered just how effective such offers are. The answer would seem to be... quite effective.

Wilhelm also kinda, sorta answered his own question by making a new Level 100 Shadow Knight and actually playing him. I made a free Level 100 on the couple of accounts that turned out to have a character slot left. I even paid for an extra slot on my currently subbed account. The rest that were full I left. For now. No doubt there'll be another offer along in a while.

These offers do work - at least to a degree. There were plenty of people on fresh hundreds, asking questions in general chat, commenting that they hadn't played for a while/ages/in forever. It was the chance of a free high level character that drew them in.

I hadn't been playing EQ2 much recently. Not by intention. I got distracted, first by Wizard 101, then Pirate 101 and the KingsIsle pair pushed EQ2 onto the back burner. The free 100 dragged me back, not so much because it was a chance to skip the levels but because I was curious to see how good the offer was.

Very good. Very good indeed. The gear provided is, for once, more than powerful enough to make the experience of playing in the latest content a pleasure rather than a pain for the uninitiated and inexperienced. And, indeed, for those of us who have been around the park before.

I took my new Wizard out for a stroll around Plane of Magic the other night and as a brand new Level 100 in the gifted gear she seemed about as effective as my Berserker had been at 105 or so. It will certainly make the first few dozen quests a heck of a lot less hard work than they were back in the Autumn, when the expansion was new.

That said, a lot seems to have changed, both incrementally as the expansion beds in and suddenly with GU106. All of it for the better, at least  to my way of thinking. As well as the quality of life improvements they announced, I wonder if they've tinkered with the xp curve?

My Inquisitor has been hanging around for weeks, tapping her fingers and twiddling her thumbs, waiting for me to get on with finishing her last four levels. I took her out the other day to get the final faction she needed to complete the first section of the Signature Line, which in turn opened the first Solo Dungeon in Plane of Innovation.

I remember doing that as soon as it became available with my Berserker. It wasn't particularly hard, but Telwyn, who has been doing the same thing on her Inquisitor, reported a lot more difficulty than I'd had. Still, I wasn't expecting much trouble when I took my own Inq into the instance for the first time. At Level 106 she was higher than the Berserker had been and better equipped, not least because she was wearing some of his spare armor.

She died on the first pull. It wasn't even a fight. I think the mob hit her twice. Clearly something was wrong. I tried once more to make sure it wasn't some glitch . It wasn't. So I went and did some research.

A lot of research as it turned out. I read all kinds of advice on all kinds of forums and websites. I tried a few things but nothing helped much. Without going into too many details, the "solo" dungeons in this expansion work by means of a buff, which is intended to let a single player plus an NPC Mercenary handle the same mobs as a full group.

If the buff is working, you should have over 100k Potency and over 20 million hit points. My Inq had the potency but her HPs were stuck at around 3-4 million and nothing I could do would shift them beyond that. Even grinding a few more repeatable faction quests to hit 107 didn't help.

Eventually I found out what the problem was, from the twelfth post in this thread on the official forums. I hadn't maxed Enhanced Vigor in the Prestige AA line. Actually I hadn't set any Prestige AAs, but that's the one that matters. A lot. With that done my HPs went to just over 20m and instead of me dying it was the mobs who fell over.

Telwyn, to whom I commented about my discovery, confirms that it did the same for his Inquisitor. Just in case anyone else is struggling, or if anyone has made a new Level 100 and wonders why someone seems to have built a wall between Level 105 and 106, this is the reason.


Ahem. Anyway, with that done the rest of the instance was a breeze. So was the second part.

Another design feature of the expansion is that almost all xp comes from quests, meaning you don't really see the fruits of your labor until you exit the instance, go find whoever sent you there (usually Druzil Ro) and tell her you've done the business.

Based on my previous run as a Berserker I knew I'd get a fair chunk of xp. I know he hit 110 before he'd done all the instanced dungeons in the Sig.line. He did not, however, hit 110 after he finished the first of them.

My Inquisitor did. She went from 107 to 110 in a single hand-in. I couldn't believe it. At first I thought it must be because of the double XP event but that had ended days before. I checked. What I did have was full vitality (110% bonus) and a 20% Veteran Bonus from the 'Zerker having hit max level.

That should not have turned a single quest into three full levels (I'd barely started 107) but it did. Something's up but I'm not complaining.

The way EQ2 works now, max level is only the start. As well as your AAs, which you probably have alreeady, you need your Ascension Levels. The xp that would have gone to Adventure Levels transfers directly to Ascension instead, although there's a convoluted gating process to make sure you keep at it most of the year until the next XPack arrives.

My Berserker has been slacking on Ascension so I thought I might try the new Solo version of Shard of Hate that came with GU106. He could do with the gear, which would be sure to be upgrades or else why would anyone bother? Even if he didn't get anything good, the xp would be useful.

It was a mixed experience. The Solo Shard of Hate is brilliantly designed. There are two dozen Named mobs, split into several groups, each with a method to spawn them. Every time you create a new instance you get a subset of the total. It differs each time, which strongly enhances replayability.

All of this is explained on this wiki page...which hadn't been written the first time I went in. I went in blind, floundered about, found a Named near the start and killed it after a very long fight which ended with me flat out of power. I autoattacked it to death!

Emboldened, I pushed further in until I ran up against a cleric mob that I simply could not kill. It was only a regular mob, not any kind of boss or sub-boss, but it easily outhealed what I had thought was my respectable solo DPS. Eventually I gave up and left.

On my second run I had the wiki to work from. I killed the Mimic-style chests and spawned the Trapped Bellhop. Then he killed me. It was a DPS issue again. That and he has fiddly mechanics that meant I wasn't even doing any DPS half the time.

I didn't give up. I was pulling regular mobs by the roomful and AEing them to death in short order and the xp was coming in so I carried on. I picked another Named to spawn - this time the Anarchic Obscenity. I killed a load of what looked like skeletal spiders and he spawned. And I killed him.

I ran out of Power again but for once I had the presence of mind to drink a potion to restore it. I never remember there are potions in EQ2. It took two full bars of Power and I was flat out at the end but the Obscenity was on 1% health and again I auto-attacked him to death. I clearly have a lot more work to do on improving my DPS. And my Power. And my Health pool. And my resistances.

Two nameds out of three down, though, and each dropped an upgrade, so that's a start. It was hard work, I died a few times, and reading the strats suggests most of the Nameds will take more effort than I'm likely to want to put in, but I have to say this is an excellent piece of solo content. I look forward to picking away at it until the inevitable day when power creep means I can waltz in on a whim and kick the backsides of the lot of them.

If the next EQ2 expansion really is the last, as the rumor has it, it's a shame. The quality is still top-notch. Oh well, enjoy it while it lasts...
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