Monday, July 30, 2018

How Do You Write A Blog Post? You Just Write A Blog Post.

Syp has an excellent post up about preparing for Blaugust and maintaining an active blogging presence longer-term. He says

"Probably the most difficult and challenging aspect of blogging is keeping the posts coming. It’s a constant, ongoing event, unless you don’t care about building up an audience and want a once-in-a-blue-moon post frequency. Everyone gets excited about writing at first, but consistently churning out posts requires discipline, effort, routine, and — pertinent to this article — strategy".
He goes on to give some really good, solid advice on how you can maximize your output while minimizing your stress levels. If you're the kind of blogger who worries about deadlines, topics or schedules then I highly recommend you read Syp's Tips (hey, that could be a column title!).

But what if you aren't that kind of blogger? Or that kind of person. What if you're the kind whose skin begins to itch at the very thought of opening a spreadsheet or marking a date on a calendar? What if you run on a combination of overexcitement and underpreparation and like it that way?

Let me introduce you to Seat Of The Pants blogging. Hmm, "seat of the pants"; that's a weird phrase, isn't it? We all know what it means but where does it come from? Let's ask Dr. Google.

“When my senses tell me one thing and the little dials on the instrument board tell me another, usually the dials are right. … Next to the instruments, probably the pilot’s safest guide to the position of his ship is the seat of his pants.”

Okay, that was interesting. It was also an example of how SotP blogging works. It's also known as "winging it", which I just bet derives somehow from the aviation industry too, although I'm not going to look that one up.


Here's how I prepare for a blog post. Mostly I do them in the morning, so first I have to wake up. Then I switch on my PC and leave it to grumble while I go have breakfast. In a while I come back with a mug of tea, sit down and go through my email, Feedly and my own blog roll, in that order.

Sometimes I have an idea for a post already. It was probably something that happened while I was playing yesterday, or maybe a piece I read that stuck in my mind. I might have vaguely thought about writing about it at the time and now that I'm looking at a blank screen it's popped back into my mind.

Absent that ( I love that phrase - it's so unecessarily faux-technical) it's more than likely that something I've just read in Feedly or my blog roll will act as a spur for a post. One of the very best things about blogging is that it's a conversation. Think of it as a very long-form Twitter.

On the subject of comments, as well as being a blogger I'm also an inveterate commenter. I was commenting on blogs long before I started a blog of my own. Indeed, as I've said in the past (and never be afraid to repeat yourself - there's another blogging tip) it was when I realized I was routinely dropping comments that were longer than the blog posts I was commenting on that I decided I ought to get my own blog.

I one hundred percent recommend and advise any reader to comment, whether or not they also blog or plan on starting. Comments are the life-blood of blogs. Bloggers love comments and commenting leads to blogging. Do it!

Getting back to the point at hand, as I try to remember what it was, a thing that happens to me quite often is this: I'l be sitting here reading through other peoples' blog posts prior to starting on my own and I'll read one that makes me want to stick my oar in (gosh, I'm all about the metaphorical cliches today, aren't I ?).


I'll start commenting and within a few sentences it will occur to me that a) the comment is going to run long - most likely very long - and b) it would make a perfectly adequate blog post! At this point, out of blogging solidarity and politeness, I usually change the comment to something along the lines of "Great post! I was going to comment but then I realized I ought to make it into a post over at my blog".

I'm not sure if that's what the blogger who sparked the thing off wants to hear but at least I said "Great post", right? Everyone likes to get comments that begin "Great post!". It never gets old, let me tell you!

From there, I'm up and running. I just write the comment I would have written only even more fulsomely, find some arguably relevant screenshots and bingo! Post done!

It takes bloody ages! Compared to a comment, anyway. A comment may be 1000 words long - some of mine certainly are - but I bang a comment out freeform, without revision or editing, and I usually don't even read it back once before hitting the button.

The same comment, turned into a blog post, requires both revision and editing (the two most important parts of writing and publishing, respectively) but it also frequently requires research. I'll say anything off the top of my head in a comment but if I'm going to put it in a post I fact-check first. Always check your facts before committing to print.


An ad hoc blog post at Inventory Full (which is about 90% of all of them) generally runs around 900 - 1500 words (very long) and takes me about two to four hours (waaaaay too long). Of the time taken, maybe 25% - 50% of it is the writing itself. The rest is revising, editing, fact-checking and illustrating. The pictures themselves often take the longest, especially if I have to log into a game and take them specially.

But what if the blogosphere lets you down? What if no-one has said anything thought-provoking overnight? What if there's not a single news squib on your gaming news provider of choice that you give damn one about? What if there's no little niggle in the back of your mind, no annoying little wrinkle of gaming (this is assuming your blog is a gaming blog...) that just irks you so much you need to let everyone else know just how furshlugginer annoying it is?

Screenshots! Screenshots, that's what!

On a slack ideas day I open my screenshot folders and flip through them. Six years in, I have in excess of 12,000 screenshots of GW2 alone. I have hundreds and thousands of shots of all the games I've played, going back about a decade and a half. Before that, tragically, all is lost.

With luck it will only take me a few minutes of folder-flipping before something strikes me. I generally try to avoid all-screenshot posts. Some bloggers absolutely excel at them - Kaozz for one - but if I do a screenshot special I like to have a good reason.

Whether you just like to post your snaps or need them to give you ideas, I recommend taking plenty. Screenshots will get you through times of no inspiration better than inspiration will get you through times of no screenshots. Or something. Not sure that works but let's keep going, maybe no-one will notice...

For a gaming blogger, the other gift that never stops giving (does that even make sense? Geez, once you start to think about cliches they really begin to fall apart sometimes...) is gameplay. There are those who deny, denigrate or simply don't see the point of diary blogging (Hi, Gevlon!). Who wants to hear what quests you did yesterday or which boss you killed?


Well, lots of people, apparently. Or so it seems when the comments roll in. If you write entertainingly on the topic of What I did In My Games Yesterday, lots of people will find it... entertaining! What's more, if you can manage to be insightful about it too, other people with similar experiences may even find it instructive and educational.

Enough. You get the idea. Planning ahead is absolutely fantastic and the exact right thing for them as likes it but there is another way. In fact, there are as many ways to blog as there are bloggers. If you're just starting out you probably don't know yet what's going to work for you. I certainly didn't.

The trick - really the only trick - is to keep plugging away at it. Try it this way, try it that way, try it her way, try it my way. (Oh, the temptation to link...but, no...).

I find blogging easy. I've been writing this sort of stuff since I was a punk in the late 70s. I wrote and published fanzines on music and comics, sent letters of comment to anyone that would print them, then ended up in the apazine scene for a decade and a half until gaming took me in the mid-90s.

I realize it can be intimidating to commit but it's like diving into cold water. You just have to do it and once the shock fades you realize it's not cold at all. In fact, once you get used to it, it couldn't be warmer.

Dive in and swim!

Sunday, July 29, 2018

I, Me , Mine

By now, everyone reading this knows it's Blaugust. Okay, technically it's not Blaugust until Wednesday but this is Blaugust Prep Week, which might as well be Blaugust for Mentors, of which I am one.

Belghast's plan was for everyone who threw their hat (mine's one of those elaborate affairs with a feather) into the mentor ring to come up with some sage advice that might help and encourage the less-experienced, more nervous or possibly completely unprepared among this year's Blaugust intake.

There's been a plethora of posts already, all of which make some excellent points, but there are a couple I would particularly like to endorse, re-iterate and expand upon. This post is also a practical example of both the suggestions in question, so that's neat. There's probably a word for it. Autological recursion, that's the thing!

Wilhelm, who I would pick out as the blogger from whom I have personally learned the most over the years, says

"Don’t worry that somebody else has already posted about a topic if you want to write about it."

Too right! If you sit there, crossing off topics that you feel have been done to death and trying to come up with something new that no-one has thought of before you will literally never post anything at all.

If you do have some amazing insight previously unthought of in the annals of blogging, yay for you! They do exist. I read posts like that every so often and they're amazing. If I had to wait for one of those every time I wanted to read a blog, though, my Feedly would be nothing but tumbleweed for weeks at a time.


There are two great reasons to write a post about something everyone else has already written about (some of them twenty times over). 
  1. You're already thinking about it. That means you're interested in the topic, whatever it is. If you're interested in what you're writing about, your writing will be interesting. Or it could be. That's up to you. You can be as fresh about a stale topic as you can be stale about a fresh one. 

  2. Your potential audience is already thinking about it - and out there actively looking for posts about it. There's a reason the same subjects come up over and over again - they're what matter to people. Plenty of those horses aren't really dead; they're just sleeping. The issues themselves have not been resolved. Just because everyone and their Aunt Ethel already had a thrash doesn't mean you can't get a few licks in as well. Get in there and see if you can't wake the darn thing up!
What's more, if you haven't written about it before then everything you say about is going to be new. And even if you have written about it before, maybe your opinion has changed or you've learned something since the last time.

Aywren, one of the most articulate and insightful bloggers in this quadrant of the blogosphere, has something to add which dovetails perfectly with the point Wilhelm is making. She talks about the importance of finding both your voice and your audience. She says 
"...establishing your blogging voice and knowing who you’re writing for early on makes things easier". 
It really does. Ironically, it can also be a lot harder than you might think. Some writers seem to be born with their own, unique, unmistakeable voice but most of us have to go through the same process as the video games we play.

Your blog probably won't emerge full-blown, first post, in all the glory and splendor of mid-WotLK WoW.  More likely you'll look back on your early efforts as some kind of pre-alpha. Here, take a look at one of mine from just under seven years ago.


At that point I hadn't thought of starting every post with a picture and I hadn't discovered the trick that breaks Blogger's inbuilt width limits. I also thought small spot illustrations akin to those I used to use in apazines were cool and for some insane reason I thought it was a great idea to begin every post on MMORPGs with a link to a music video on YouTube.

And none of those were bad ideas. I could have stuck with them all and maybe made them work. But they weren't my best ideas. They were stages in a process, stations on a journey. Blogging is iterative. Each post builds on the post before. Keep putting up those posts and your voice will emerge. Eventually.

It's one of the things that throws some people off at the beginning, but don't despair. If you stick at it your voice will find you - and so will your audience. Keep writing, keep experimenting. Switch things up a little sometimes. Don't be afraid to try something different.

It won't always come off. Apparently I was the only one who appreciated Furglebin although Milo struck a chord with some. I wonder what Milo and Furglebin are doing now...?

One final thought . I ended up there linking to myself and talking about me. I can do that. This is my blog. I made it to entertain and amuse myself and seven years on that's still the main reason it exists. Your audience is important but never as important as you.

We none of us in this corner of blogdom are doing this for a living. We may be doing it for fun, to meet a creative or emotional need, for attention, for self-improvement, for lack of a better idea but in the end, whatever the reasons, we are doing it because we want to.

See how much I've learned in seven years? No, don't thank me, you're welcome!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Pass The Cheese, Please

UltrViolet is wondering why he's not feeling the same buzz around WoW's upcoming expansion as everyone else. (Alright, not everyone). In reply, Jeromai, another WoW refusenik, describes his own unconvincing introduction to the West's biggest-ever MMORPG:

"I’ve tried WoW, and it’s not for me either. The furthest I’ve gotten is soloing an undead hunter to 60 or so during the Cataclysm era. I’ve blanked out on most of the story/quests. I got speedrun by a friend through a dungeon via him outleveling it and gifted stuff (a faster way to kill my interest in the mode I cannot imagine, to realize that someone can solo cheese their way through something via incrementing numbers rather than through skill, ie. that gifted gear will be valueless in a few levels, so why bother to even group through it properly?)"

I did get a bit further than that my first time through, although not much. I think I topped out in the early 70s, back in mid-WotLK, when the level cap was 80. It took me six months to get that far.

I was playing WoW as my main MMO at that time and from memory I would probably have put in around 25-30 hours most weeks, which suggests leveling must have been a much slower process than it is today. Of course, I did play a lot of other characters and I recall doing an inordinate amount of PvP in Battlegrounds, which maybe didn't give leveling xp. I can't recall.

At the time I knew no-one who was playing WoW, except Mrs Bhagpuss, who started at the same time I did. I knew of people who played but I wasn't blogging then so I didn't even have that shared experience to draw on. Consequently I didn't have the problem of over-zealous friends trying to give me an unwanted leg-up.

It is something I've run into in other MMOs. It's something I've done myself. When you know and love a game and you see someone not quite getting it there can be a huge temptation to jump in and carry some of the weight, just to get them over the hump. Or maybe you think the real game begins at the end and everything that comes before is just an annoyance, to be disposed of as fast as possible. Or perhaps you just get a kick out of playing the all-knowing, all-powerful superhero. There are as many reasons to jump in and lead the way as there are players to be led.

Always keep an eye on the horizon.

Sometimes it works but often it has the effect Jeromai describes. Instead of connecting someone with the game it alienates them from it. Even so, it always puzzles me when someone comes to the conclusion that because a higher-level, better geared, more experienced player can trivialize lower-level content that content is by definition trivial.

This seems to me on a par with believing that because you can read the precis of the plot of a mystery novel on Wikipedia there's no point or purpose in reading the book. Yes, you could turn to the last page, solve the mystery and be done in a moment. You wouldn't, though.

If you did, you'd not have read the book. You would have no feeling for the language, no understanding of the characters, no sense of the author's purpose. You'd have gained nothing, learned nothing and felt nothing. Oh, you'd know who did it. There's that.

Anyone who reads mystery novels  - any novel, really - knows they could turn to the end to see how it all turns out but they don't. Knowing doesn't void the experience of doing. The content is the content. This is similar to but different from the journey being its own reward.

MMOS are all about the content. A traditional MMORPG is a portmanteau and a palimpsest. The leveling game hasn't been the be-all and end-all for a very long time. Story, plot, narrative, they form only a small part of what there is to do. You don't have to focus on any one aspect and you don't have to buy in to all the expectations. You can pick and choose.

Even with that freedom of choice, in all MMORPGs with vertical progression, which is almost all of them, you have to accept impermanence. Yes, your Best-in-Slot weapon will be time-expired the day the new expansion drops. Yes, the Tier 1 armor set that took a month of grinding will serve as the bare minimum for your next month as you grind for T2. So what?

That's the process. If it seems hollow then congratulations, you've seen through the trick. Magic happens because you choose to believe in magic not because magic's real.

If we keep the lights low enough no-one will see the wires.

Some people like to know how magic tricks are done. For them, understanding the mechanics make the whole thing more fascinating, not less. For most, though, once a trick's explained, it's dead. Explain enough tricks and all of magic dies.

Which is why you need to be careful and cautious when showing someone around the back of the set. If you reveal all the trapdoors and uncover all the mirrors there's nothing much left but dusty boards and flat canvas. At least let the newbie see the trick done properly, once.

I love cheesing dungeons. I love outleveling content and sueprheroing through it. I love soloing bosses meant to challenge two dozen mighty heroes of yester-year. I love doing it because I did it the hard way the first time and now it's payback. Or because I never could, then, and now I can.

Blizzard clearly understand that mindset. They are building it into the structure of their benchmark MMO. You can go back and cheese WoW's dungeons and Blizzard will make sure you get all the drops you would have gotten with friends, at level, back in the day.

You did do those dungeons with friends, at level, back in the day, didn't you?

Even when I played WoW a decade ago, when my highest level characters were in the fifties or sixties, I went back and soloed The Deadmines for fun. Because I could. Because it was profitable and because it was satisfying. It might only have been a few weeks since I struggled through those caves, dying often, but already it was history. My history.

In EQ, there was a genuine, visceral thrill in going back, years later, to romp around the Gates of Discord zones. They'd terrified me at launch and broken my guild along with many others. I had, quite literally, my most terrifying times in MMOs ever there. Now I owned them. It was glorious.

It also works when you level up to see content that you couldn't even get to first time around. In EverQuest some of the most fun I ever had was in a duo with Mrs Bhagpuss, clearing the Planes in the Planes of Power expansion . We were half a decade behind the curve and twenty levels over par but who was counting? We came late to Castle Mistmoore in EQ2 as well, but by the time we were able to duo it it was a fun riot.

How many pairs of pants does the average character get through in 120 levels anyway?

The thing about all of these experiences is that they were aspirational. In every case I was doing something I'd always wanted to do but never could until then. That aspiration needed space to grow and time. Doing those dungeons, those zones, that content, attritionally or awkwardly, slowly, painfully or arduously, at level, built that desire. So did being locked out, left out, denied. Or trying and failing.

It's all a mind game. You know none of it matters yet it does. It matters because you make it matter. Yes, that again. It's the trick that works until it doesn't.

It's also a trick that comes easily to me. I can believe two contradictory things at the same time. Always could. Understanding that something both matters and doesn't matter is second nature.

I have a lot more trouble with the other part of Jeromai's assessment, that things would be different (better) if there was skill involved. Treating the intellectual, emotional, psychological and physical cost of acquiring high-level skill in a specific video game, let alone a specific encounter, as an appropriate use of my finite personal resources is a step too far for my suspension of disbelief.

It's around that point where pragmatism pitches in. If I find myself up against a skill wall in a video game my response generally isn't to git gud. It's to get out. If it's going to take that much effort there's plenty of work around the house that needs doing. Or if we're talking skills, maybe I could learn to speak another language or to play a musical instrument...

Which is not to denigrate the efforts of those who worship skill in video games or the satisfaction they get from their successes. Everything is worth precisely what it's worth - to you. I don't deny the value, I just can't share it. Instead, when people start discussing the need for "skill", I find myself questioning my sense of belonging, just like UltrViolet.

It's all about finding your tribe. And my tribe likes cheese.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Winds Of Change : GW2

As promised, The Festival of the Four Winds begins today. The gantries and ropewalks, the silk banners and paper kites, the cries of the hawkers and vendors... how much have I missed all this?

All aboard The Skylark!

The weeks and months either side of the original Bazaar of the Four Winds were arguably GW2's creative peak. With everything that's happened since, it's been all too easy to forget.  Everything we complained about back then gleams like true riches right now. Spoiled. We were spoiled. And we cried like brats.

The colors, man...
The colors. So rich. Psychedelic. The depth and complexity of the structures. Overwhelming. This is possibly the finest map ANet's exemplary Art Department ever produced. Why was it lost for all those years?

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No its... actually, what is that thing?

It's here now, at least. We have three weeks to savor it. I feel particularly blessed with three accounts, one with all expansions enabled, one with only Heart of Thorns, one with neither. 

Sitting in  chairs. All the cool kids are doing it.
It means I can enjoy the Labyrinthine Cliffs in three very different ways: as they were intended, using only the zephrite movement crystals; with the glorious freedom of the glider; in easy mode, mounted.

Mirror glass seas and mother of pearl skies. It's not about drugs, honest.

There's so much to do here. Griffin and Skimmer races, crystal collections, a meta. I've come away to write this too soon to have seen more than a glimpse and done more than a fraction.

"I was looking out the window and a witch flew by" : Source

I came by ship. Something so special about traveling by sea, even if the trip itself is reduced to nothing more than a postcard. Hot air balloons too, for the ride to The Crown Pavilion, but that's another tale entirely.

How did I get up here? Rabbits may have been involved.

It seems plenty of work has been done to bring the festival grounds up to date, to include everyone. Giant frogs from the deep Maguuma jungles wander the waterline. Charr from the recently-discovered Olmakhan tribes struggle to adjust as they wander the walkways, bartering with the merchants.

No-one over four metres tall allowed on upper decks for safety reasons.
 The whole place is a melting pot, roiling, chaotic and alive. It was like this all those years ago and now it is again. We have travelled so far but we have come home at last.

I smell a mystery. Or maybe there's dried fish in these barrels.
All but the Zephrites. I wonder if their story has ended or whether, exploring, more might be revealed. Let's go find out.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Get Real

After I got home from work last night (yes, on a Sunday. Poor me, eh?) I had my tea and logged on to GW2 to do my dailies. Three hours later I logged off, having done nothing but World vs World from the moment I logged in. This morning, just after ten, I logged into GW2 to do my dailies. Four hours later I logged off to have lunch, having done nothing but WvW from the moment I logged in.

World vs World isn't in a good place right now. Balance, as usual, is all to hell. Population across the board is at an all-time low, reflecting the general interest - or rather lack thereof - in the game mode. Among the people who are still playing there's a sense of fin-de-siecle recklessness. Everyone knows we're living in the end days. We just don't know the exact moment of our demise.

While we wait for ANet to iterate and reiterate on the Alliance proposal, grinding it down until they abrade every last shard of interest and enthusiasm from its imagined sheen, preparing the dull, inert husk we'll be expected to inhabit thereafter and forever, the more excitable, self-appointed community cheerleaders are running their own unofficial pre-alliance beta, stacking servers and gutting guilds as they go, leaving a trail of chaos and tears in their wake.

Matches mean nothing and haven't for months. Many would say years. World vs world has descended into self-parody, or possibly ascended into archetype. Those NPCs who talk about the endless wars in the Mists, the battles without purpose or glory or end, the eternal Valhalla of the not-yet dead? It turns out they were on the money all along.

Conversations with people you don't know about things you don't understand. #VirtuallLife.

As I was driving back from the shops before I started playing this morning I heard a brief snatch of a radio program angsting over screen-time for children. An Expert opined that parents need to provide exciting alternatives to convince their addicted offspring that there are more exciting prospects in gaming (yes, in gaming - the goal was merely to move to more rewarding gaming options, not away from the games themselves, let alone the screens) than winning another battle royale in Fortnite.

Are there, though? Really? Are you sure about that?

Raph Koster, someone who gives every indication of being exhausted by the way the world has turned, is quoted by Massively:OP as saying (on Twitter, naturally, because where else does one go for philosophical insight these days?)

“Certainly no one has ever accused me of being non-passionate about online worlds or non-innovative with MMOs… and yet I don’t enjoy most of them these days. My inspirations for better ones mostly comes from outside what has become a stagnant field…”
 M:OP spins that into a discussion document. I did comment. I said I liked MMOs, still like them, can't see why I shouldn't. I didn't add that I wished people who didn't like them would just bugger off and find something they do like instead. But I thought it.

Zubon, in a much more thought-provoking post, which will see far less attention, takes aim at permanence. Waxing unusually poetic, he concludes:

"Your parents tell you to be careful what you post online, because the internet is forever. Maybe some of your data is archived forever, but much of it is as lasting as a fallen leaf. It grew. It changed colors. It feel beautifully and perhaps unseen. In the spring it was dust, new mulch for new growth."

I commented there, too. "Same as everything else, then", I said.

Really, what do people expect? This is Existentialsm 101, isn't it? We're here, we do stuff, we die. Nothing matters except that we make it matter. Our experience defines us and we define it.

Existentialism is a little out of fashion, you'd think. That was the 1950s, wasn't it? The 1960s. It helped if you were French. Sartre, de Beauvoir, la Nouvelle Vague...

Everyone needs a purpose in life.

Then, authenticity is the defining trope of existentialism, isn't it? And what's the defining trope of the foremost philosophy in popular culture (Western) of the last decade? (That's Hipsterism in case you don't have your schedule to hand). Why, Authenticity. Of course it is.

Can the virtual be authentic? Is your online experience as experiential as your offline? Are your Facebook friends real friends? These are the burning questions of the day.

How much does it matter that things matter for it to matter that they matter to you? If Stonemist Castle changes hands outside your time zone does it make a sound? If I spend two hours building arrowcarts and escorting yaks to take our spare Hills (the one we keep on on SBI's borderland) to T3, then log off and never think of it again, have I been dilligent and productive or self-indulgent and childish?

I dunno. Don't look at me, I majored in English not Ethics. I just know that I did what I wanted to do and I don't regret a minute of it.

When the time comes - and let's hope it doesn't come any time soon - I hope I can say with my last breath "I wish I'd played more video games". Maybe "I wish I'd played more world vs world".

Saturday, July 21, 2018

BFA Fever : WoW

I thought about calling this post "If All Your Friends Jumped Off Another Bridge...".  It's been a long time since I last played World of Warcraft but today I patched up and logged in again, all because every blogger in blogdom is doing the same.

And why? Expansion!

Never mind that I got Legion for my birthday two years ago, registered the code and promptly forgot about it. Never mind that I never even set foot on The Broken Isles let alone leveled up there. Never mind that I never even saw an Artifact Weapon or a Demon Hunter...

Actually, why stop there? All I ever saw of Warlords of Draenor was a handful of starter quests and maybe two percent of the first zone. Never even got a glimpse of my Garrison. Mists of Pandaria? I have a level four panda somewhere, I think.

I did see a few of the changes wrought by the Cataclysm, mostly because a good deal of that much-maligned expansion falls within the remit of the F2P Starter Edition. Oddly, Cataclysm is the content that most interests me because I can remember the original zones reasonably well and seeing how they've changed piques my curiosity. Also, low level play...

It's usually relatively simple to return to WoW. Not as easy as coming back to GW2, which is virtually seamless, but not too annoying. This time was no different although there were a few hiccups.

First there was a Battlenet update of some kind  That took mere seconds. After that came a huge patch for WoW itself - over 13GB. The launcher claimed the game was "playable" almost immediately but I waited for Optimal before hitting Play. That took me straight into one of Blizzard's epic cinematics.

Even with my minimal knowledge of WoW Lore I could sort of follow some of it although I have no idea of the names of any of the featured players. It was quite impressive to watch although 90% of it was just sound effects and explosions.

It occurred to me after a while that these cinematics are what two five-year olds see in their heads when they smash their plastic action figures together and shout at each other. The parts where someone yells "For the Horde!" and "For the Alliance!" really bring that home.

Once the excitement died down it was on to a list of servers. Quite a few of them were Offline including, naturally, the one on which most of my characters sleep. Rather than wait for whatever was going on to be fixed I logged on someone on a server that was working.

That's how it's meant to look.
It turned out to be a Level 1 Dwarf I'd never played (clearly, what with him being Level 1 and all...). The game treated me to another cinematic, this time just a fly-by using existing assets with a voiceover, something about some political intrigue in Ironforge. I'm guessing it had something to do with the new Dwarven racial option, the Dark Iron mob, who were enemies last I remember but who seem to have been brought into the fold at least somewhat.

I had no wish to play yet another dwarf so all I did with this one was use him to get my Add Ons working. Not that I use many. The only one flagged as out of date was the GW2 UI mod, without which I can no longer imagine playing WoW at all. (Okay, I guess I'd acclimatize if I had to but it really is so much better...).

There was already an updated version available (and indeed a beta of a still-newer version). I installed it manually and it didn't work so I fired up Twitch, which acquired the old Curse auto-updater for Add-Ons that everyone used to use. I am getting more use out of Twitch than Steam these days...

That worked flawlessly, almost instantly. I dropped the dwarf and checked to see if my regular server was back up. It wasn't but at least now there was a pop-up saying Blizzard was doing something about it.

He's small but he packs a punch! And so do I.
I still wanted to have a run around, get back in the Azeroth groove, so I swapped to my old Free to Play account. I made it before the current version of F2P, the one that lets you play any character up to level 20. 

Remarkably I was able to find the old log-in details. Before I could reacquaint myself with my old friends I had to reassure Blizzard I wasn't being  hacked by replying to an email; before I could do that, I had to reassure my email provider I was who I said I was. These things happen when you go a few years between log-ins. I'm just happy any of it still works.

Finally I was able to log in my good old Goblin Warlock. She's a great character. I took her all through the extremely detailed and enjoyable Goblin starter zones and blogged about it way back when. 2013 in fact. Five years ago. Blimey, Charlie!

For some reason she was in the Tauren homeland of Mulgore, which is one of the most attractive parts of Azeroth. If you're going to get abandoned anywhere it's a better option than most. At level 14 I don't imagine many of the recent changes have affected her much but I did notice she only had one spell on her hot bar.

"What kind of creature bore you? Was it some kind of bat?" NSFW link to source.

It takes quite awhile to kill something with just the default attack and you don't get a huge amount of xp for doing it, either. Once I'd put all her spells back, time-to-kill improved although xp remained charmingly sparse.

I seem to remember there was a time when leveling in the teens was so ridiculously fast it made the whole thing feel pointless. This time, even when I started doing some quests, the pace felt reasonable. Still brisk enough at maybe forty-five minutes to finish level 14 but not so speedy I felt disconnected.

I'm not sure if the basic spells have changed. I was using Demonology and summoning imps with a meteor, having my Felguard (?) to tank and throwing in some kind of demonic wolf now and then as well. It was fun. Reminded me somewhat of being a Minion Master Necromancer in GW2.

There was some to and fro on the weird batwinged griffins the Horde use as air taxis. It always surprises me how much time in WoW is spent just sitting on things watching the scenery. That does feel old-fashioned. 

I carried on until the Warlock dinged and then I called it a day. I'm back, kind of. When my regular server recovers I'll have to decide whether or not to re-sub. I probaly will for August, if for no other reason than it'll give me something to post about for Blaugust.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Something Changed : Wizard 101

Wizard 101 received a major update yesterday. As the extensive patch notes reveal there were upgrades to Monstrology and Fishing but the centerpiece was the much-teased graphical revamp to Wizard City.

Updating the graphics for an aging MMORPG is a risky undertaking. Sometimes the changes can be almost too subtle to see, as in Guild Wars recent refurbishment. Sometimes they can be eye-popping, as in EverQuest's infamous Freeport rebuild. Mostly they don't make an awful lot of difference, failing to convince potential new players that anything much has changed while mildly irritating veterans, who grumble a little but then carry on as though nothing had happened.

KingsIsle, who seem to have a better grasp on how to curate an MMO than most developers, have neatly sidestepped most of the potential pitfalls by simply adding a toggle to options:

"For those who prefer nostalgia or less graphic-intensive visuals, we’ve also instituted “Classic-Mode” so you can return these areas of the game to their original look. We know you might sometimes miss the old Wizard City, so we wanted to provide a way for you to return the game to its original settings."

Now, really, how hard was that? It also allows me to post some "Before" and "After" shots.





The new graphics are very evidently cleaner, sharper and smoother. Whether they look more up-to-date is less obvious. It's also slightly unnerving to see the old cobblestone bridge replaced with wooden planks. That would be seen as a downgrade if it happened in real life, wouldn't it?

Given that, for once, there's a choice, the definitive judgment on whether the revamp has been successful lies in which version you decide to use. I'm going with the new one. It's not radically different but it's different enough to make the old zones look and feel fresh.

The update also came with something that more MMOs could do with - a lore-appropriate, in-game mechanism for taking screenshots. In keeping with the theme of the game we now have Photomancy as an option. 

Just exactly how old do you need to be to get the joke here?

There's a new NPC, Annie Shutterbug, ready and waiting with a short series of  introductory quests. I ran around doing those, last night. It took no more than a few minutes and gave me the opportunity to check out the graphical changes in several zones.

Unfortunately, although all the quests completed just fine, when I came to look at the shots I'd taken my album was empty. It's entirely possible this is because I'm doing something wrong. Or maybe my shutter is bugged.

Darn! None of them came out!

I'll give it a day or two to shake out then try again. I hope it works then because it's a super-useful facility to have, being able to open your screenshot folder within the game. I seem to remember Black Desert having something similar. I wish every MMO did.

As if all that wasn't enough, the update also added a Magic Mirror that allows you to "change your hair, hair color, face, skin, and eye color" and access "new hairstyles, new hair colors (including rainbow), new skin tones, and new faces (including ones with glasses) that aren’t available in character creation". All of that comes with a fee attached but the patch notes go on to say "We have made a few of the new hairstyles available for free in character creation as well."

I didn't try the Mirror, which also offers face painting, mostly because I forgot about it, but I did make a new character. It's so long since I last visited Character Creation in W101 that I couldn't even begin to guess which of the options were new.

The whole thing looked sparklier and flashier than I remembered. I made a female wizard for the first time. For some reason, even though I've been playing cross-gender in MMORPGs for the best part of twenty years and never really had any issues with it, for reasons I'd struggle to articulate let alone explain, I've always found myself cleaving towards playing my own gender in games aimed primarily at kids. I only played males in Free Realms and so far both my W101 and Pirate 101 characters have been boys.

It is 2018, though, isn't it? I should be able to be anything I want online, right? And let's be honest, it's not like I ever talk to anyone when I play either of KingsIsle's titles. I actively avoid other people most of the time because I've always found it generally slows things down if you group there. I already get a ton of Friend invites playing a boy, all of which I decline unanswered, so the chances of any awkward conversations are minimal.

Well, let's hope so, because I went ahead and rolled a girl. The character I ended up with looked a lot better than any of my males, wizards or pirates. Most of them look dippy, drippy or dull. On boys, the robes tend to look like dressing gowns and the pirate outfits like pajamas, whereas the girls look relatively well turned-out, as I think the following team photograph amply demonstrates:

Don't even think about asking me to the prom, losers!

There was some other impressive stuff in the update too, like some nice UI tweaks, particularly to sound, which I noticed and appreciated immediately. Not sure it's likely to get me playing again, mainly because there's just too much else going on right now, but it's very heartening to see a ten-year old MMO still getting such solid and worthwhile attention.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Christmas In July : GW2

Hands up who saw this coming? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Here's the press release.

It's tempting to be ultra-cynical and say ANet really needed a crowd-pleaser about now but surely they can't have thrown this all together in a week? Can they?

Then again, people have been asking for the return of The Festival of Four Winds, Boss Blitz and The Crown Pavilion for years now with absolutely no sign that anyone was listening. Now here they all are at once. Coincidence?

Whatever. I'll take it. I've lost count of the number of times I've said GW2 needs more in-game holidays. I never understood why Four Winds wasn't an annual event in the first place. There was never a lore reason against it that I could see, even after the destruction of most of the Zephrite fleet. The festival grounds were mainly earthbound or entirely separate from the airships after all.

As for The Crown Pavilion and Boss Blitz, it always seemed they were dropped because they were too popular, if anything. No-one really did anything else when they were running.

It all kicks off in just seven days! Doesn't say how long it lasts but I would guess two weeks.

Bring it on!

Monday, July 16, 2018

Rolling Along : GW2

In a little less than six weeks GW2 will be six years old. It's very difficult to say what that means. I have a memory of an interview John Smedley gave to an industry website back around the turn of the century where he said that the expected life of EverQuest was around three years but with luck they might stretch that to five.

Sadly that interview is lost to time or at least my google-fu isn't strong enough to conjure it. It's not true that everything posted on the Internet lives forever. I'm reasonably sure I'm not misremembering, however, if only because that estimate does tie in precisely with the development and release of EQ2 and also explains both why SOE would have believed they'd need a new EQ product around five years in and why they'd have been confident that EQ players would migrate to it.

Smed, as he has been on so many things, was wrong. MMORPGs have turned out to be much more long-lived than he or probably anyone at that time imagined. Ultima Online will be twenty-one years old this September. Come next spring, EverQuest will have been running for two full decades. They are far from alone in achieving scales of longevity their creators surely never envisaged.

Come on, you can tell me. Your four-year old came up with this one, right?
For a mainstream, moderately successful MMORPG, six years isn't much. It's not nothing - some have faded a lot faster than that - but a six-year stretch isn't remotely unusual. Even so, and even though the genre has yet to set anything like a benchmark for how long an MMO should expect to last, six years in an MMO does start to feel a little middle-aged.

Going into the second half of the first decade, things have begun to settle. Most people who are going to play have most likely already played. There will always be a trickle of fresh blood but it's going to get harder and harder to present the game as "new". Most potential customers will direct their gaze elsewhere.

It's why we see MMO houses devote so much attention and PR spend towards bringing lapsed customers back to the fold. Here, GW2 is in both a very a good and a very bad place. Clever game design from the outset means barriers to re-entry are almost non-existent. Conversely, reasons to stick around long-term can be hard to find.

Are you here for the beetle drop? Me too!

Perhaps the hardest part is getting anyone to notice your aging game at all. As the recent furore around the Twitter/reddit storms that led to the sacking of two writers might suggest, not all publicity is good publicity. Or maybe it is. Only ANet's sales department can say for certain. Watch for a dip or a spike in NCSoft's future quarterlies.

What I do think has been highlighted by the whole sorry affair is the unwieldy and disproportionate emphasis placed on narrative and story, specifically in GW2. Had the participants in the initial exchanges not been so invested in the import of what they were discussing, maybe tempers would have been cooler but when it comes to stories some people do get excited.

That seems to have been the thinking back in 2012, or even more so in the years before that, when GW2 was in development. Story was a Big Thing in MMOs then. We'd had BioWare making sweeping statements about the "fourth pillar" for years and even if SW:tOR had launched to a less than stellar reception a year earlier, the orthodoxy that narrative was paramount still held sway.

And the prize for Most Ridiculous Ride goes to...
GW2 pegged much of its structure and a good deal of its PR push on the Personal Story. With no formal questing, no long-term vertical progression and a slew of unfamiliar mechanics centered around hot-join social activities, the directed, linear experience provided by the Personal Story threw out a lifeline to many players, who felt they were drowning in an ocean of choices.

Six years, three and a half "Living Stories" and two expansions later, who still cares about the plot? As evidenced in last week's exchanges, the writing team retains a sense of importance that I fear may not be shared by their audience.

A few years back map and guild chat would frequently, even routinely, buzz with speculation about the twists and turns of the storyline. Many players loathed Scarlet Briar and ridiculed the way the plot around her played out but they never stopped talking - and caring - about it.

These days it's relatively rare to hear anyone even mention the story. There's a brief flurry on the day a new LS chapter arrives but even then most of the chatter revolves around whether the new meta is any good and where to get whatever new shiny came with the update.

A recent post by Jeromai compares the central story line in Warframe to GW2's ongoing narrative. I'm nowhere near far enough along in Warframe to make a judgment on its story but I do know that GW2 makes little sense in narrative terms and hasn't for a very long while. I don't know whether the recent events at ANet will impact that favorably or otherwise but my feeling is that the shake-up can't really make things any worse. We'll see in three months, I guess.

No spitting in the trench, please!

If story can't carry the weight of expectation and interest in an aging MMORPG, what might? Usually it would be some form of vertical or linear progression - new levels, more powerful gear - but GW2 has opted out of those old standbys.

What's left is a series of fortunate events. Discrete, attractive, lapidary attractions, strewn like so many sparkling gems across a sweeping backcloth. ANet's designers and developers have learned to specialize in crafting Collections and Achievements that take a while to do and send players off on journeys across maps that might otherwise be forgotten, the way old zones in MMOs tend to be.

The recent update added a sprawling Achievement - The Tyrian Service Medal - that sends players to kill more than half a dozen of the game's original World Bosses. If that wasn't enough, the achievement also asks you to complete all five of the Orr Temple events. That's a grand tour of Old Tyria if ever there was one. I will be working on that, on and off, for quite a while.

Soon have these weeds whacked.

And then there's the linked series of collections for the Roller Beetle mount. I completed the third and final step yesterday. I didn't particularly want the ridiculous-looking beetle, although it turned out to be more amusing to ride than I expected. It's a motorcycle, basically. Or possibly a souped-up, ride-on mower.

No, I did the collection because it was enjoyable, well-paced and satisfying. The Griffin achievement/collection/quest was the highlight of the last expansion for me. Cadalbolg was the best thing in LS3 - even if technically it wasn't even in LS3. Scavenger hunts aren't anything original in MMOs but they're something ANet does very well indeed, better than most.

Whether it's sustainable, long term, to scaffold player retention on a mosaic of discrete, short-term platforms like this, combined with a supporting framework of very lengthy, repetitive grinds such as those required to obtain Legendary weapons and armor remains to be seen. Probably, it is.

As a business model and a creative plan for an enjoyable and long-lasting MMORPG, I think it has a lot more going for it than an inconsistent and barely coherent narrative, dished out in two or three hour helpings every third month. If I was a lapsed player I imagine I'd be alot more likely to log back in to get a Roller Beetle than I would be to find out which god was pretending to be which villain this time around.

Of course, you do have to do at least some of the story just to get the starter for the beetle so bets are being hedged. Or maybe those are synergies. Either way, the collection was more fun than the story behind it. And I might even ride the thing once in a while. It does go fast.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Weird Science (Fiction) : Warframe

Warframe is weird. I don't think that will come as much of a surprise, especially to anyone who read Jeromai's fishing stories earlier this week. You don't really expect to go fishing in a space shooter. Or maybe you do and I'm just being space-shooterist. It's not like I've played that many.

I haven't found an awful lot of time to play this one either but I gave it an hour or so last night. I began by fiddling around with the UI, where I spotted a series of social settings that appear to toggle the game between co-op, multiplayer and solo.

The default appears to be multi, which explains how I kept getting auto-grouped for missions. I swapped to Solo, where I could  make my own mistakes and go at my own pace and without getting summarily dragged along by someone else's much faster progress.

That seemed to work quite nicely. For a while. I finished up a mission to get the Nav segment that allowed me to locate the Alien Overlord, the one who set the Ascaris mindworm burrowing into my brain. I'd already done the missions to stop it doing that but apparently now it was going to explode. Or something.  I'm vague on the details, as usual. Anyway, nothing would serve but I go find the guy who put it in and kill him.

So I went looking for him and found him. It didn't seem like he was doing so well. My handler told me he didn't have his Elite guards any more, which was nice. Well, it was nice for me. He seemed a bit miffed about it. He mithered on a bit about the trouble I'd gotten him into and I got the impression he'd been demoted. Possibly fired. Maybe run out of space-town on a rail.

Honestly, I didn't really follow the plot all that closely. I find it hard to read, listen, roll, jump, shoot, loot, reload and generally not die all at the same time. I am becoming increasingly certain that action gaming is not the ideal medium for narrative. Odd, that.

There was a boss fight with Vor. That's the Overlord's name although since he was only the Overlord of the tutorial I am now more inclined to think of him as the Alien Janitor. Like all Tutorial bosses, if you can be defeated by a noob in starter gear, how Boss can you really be?

Not that he didn't give me a tussle. He warped about a lot, summoned plenty of guards and seemed to have the health pool of any fifty grunts in the game to date. My tactics of running at things with the trigger on my automatic rifle held down sort of worked. I died a couple of times but at this stage  Warframe appears to be one of those infinite revive games, where you just pop back up at full health next to the guy that killed you while he stays at whatever diminished state you put him in before you went down. GW2 works that way so I'm used to it.

No, let's be fair. It's not exactly the GW2 Duracell Bunny method. There's a resource of some kind associated with reviving. You spend an amount of it from a pool. I guess you could, theoretically, run out. I have no idea how I got mine (and I can't remember what it's called) but I had plenty of it. About ten times what I needed.

After the fight I wasn't clear whether Vor was dead or just defeated for now, ready to come back and haunt my psyche-space another day. I was too busy with A Moral Conundrum to think about him. Suddenly everything was all about whether I should go do something to stop the ship destroying a Colony or just get the hell out of there. My handler advised me to leg it and forget about saving the colonists.

I really hate being asked to make moral choices in games. I don't play for that kind of self-torture. I would have done the right thing and been irritated by being asked to make the decision but in the event the choice was made for me. I find the mapping in Warframe unnutterably confusing and in running around trying to find the Bridge, or wherever I was supposed to be going to stop the ship, I ran across the trigger point for Extraction, got sucked through a portal back to my ship and the Mission ended. Go serendipity!

Back on my own ship I got a short lecture from Lotus (That's the handler's name. I believe people call her Space Mom and I can see why). She told me I was a big boy now and I could choose my own missions from now on. I guess that means I'm finally out of the tutorial.

Jeromai reccommended I head for the Plains of Eidolon, which is supposedly a quasi-open world area. The location was on my world map but to get there I had to go through Cetus.

Cetus was... unexpected. Wareframe is weird.

If I was designing a space opera style, high-tech shooter with heavy emphasis on military hardware and cyborg battle suits I don't think I'd choose to put the main trading area in a desert souk. Okay, there is plenty of precedent, from Tattooine to Arrakis, but that's more of a reason to avoid the trope, rather than double down on it, I'd have thought.

Wandering around Cetus reminded me of nothing so much as being in Vanguard's Qalia. The music, the snatches of incidental dialog, the color palette, the vibe. I spent quite a while exploring, talking to vendors, checking their stock. I felt oddly at home.

And yet strangely lost. Warframe gives you a huge amount of detailed information and explains what almost none of it means. It's either invigorating or ennervating depending on your mood. Take the pet shop. I wanted to get a caged rodent to keep me company in my ship - because who wouldn't? - but I couldn't work out if the listed items (15 goopolla spleen, 11 mawfish bones) were the price the vendor was asking, the mats I needed to make it or what I was meant to feed it when I got it home.

And what kind of space shooter has a pet shop anyway? This game is weird.

Eventually I managed to tear myself away from the market stalls to look for the gateway to the Plains. I thought I'd seen that I had to talk to someone first and I was expecting to have to complete another mission to gain access but in the event I just clicked on the really big, really obvious door and there I was, outside.

Plains of Eidolon does indeed feel somewhat like the average desert zone of an MMO. Hot sun, baking rocks, looming towers, all of that. I wandered about exploring for a while without seeing any wildlife. Fragged a few rocks for mats. Wondered what to do.

Then something popped on the HUD, some kind of timed event. I headed in the direction of the marker and next thing there were dropships and bad guys and running firefights. I took a bunch out, died a couple of times, didn't seem to be making much progress.

The third time I died I stayed dead. I cancelled the mission, which gave me limited rewards but at least something, which I thought was sound design. I spent a while looking at my gear, auto-upgraded my mods and then I quit for the night.

I had fun. Warframe is good, I think. Definitely not my kind of thing but not not my kind of thing either. It would clearly require research and dedication to progress much further. Magson (aka pkude99) very kindly offered to walk me through the learning process and I may end up taking him up on it later but for now I think I'll just potter along, absorbing the strange atmosphere and letting myself be surprised by happenstance.

I might have to start reading the wiki though. I should at least find out how to buy myself a pet.
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