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.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Legends of Aria : Brief Impressions

When I logged out last night, I was in two minds whether to post about Legends of Aria. After all, I hadn't even been planning on playing it. In fact, I'd forgotten it existed until I happened to tab across to Massively:OP and land on a key giveaway. Never turn down a free beta key, even if it's only good for seven days. Every MMO is worth at least a look.

The registration and installation process was very easy and Character creation is basic so that didn't take long. I went with a female warrior with red hair in a bob, wearing a crafting vest and a maxi-skirt straight out of 1972. No pictures, sadly. I hadn't loaded FRAPS and I failed to find any screenshot function.

There were skills to choose and points to spend. I didn't realize that taking them overwrote the default skills you start with so I ended up with a Warrior who could tame animals but couldn't use a sword... or something. Honestly, I wasn't paying that much attention.

And that's all you're getting!

There was a choice of four starting areas. I picked the worst one. Actually, I can't say for absolute certain it's the worst. I've only seen one of the others. I just can't imagine there's anywhere less appealing than where I ended up that first time.

The town I picked was a port on the edge of a desert. When I arrived the game gave me a perfunctory introduction to the UI and told me how to fight (hit Space, target your enemy and run at it - subtle!). After that I was on my own.

The controls were abominable. WASD kind of worked. Perspective was a strangled three-quarter view. The screen wouldn't turn or rotate. The camera was fixed other than a limited dolly in and out.

I struggled with that for a few minutes until I was on the verge of quitting and uninstalling. It was when I was googling to see if there was a screenshot key (nope) that I found out about the almost invisible cog on the mini-map that opens the Options screen.

Me and my Big Book of Spells.

The limited choices there at least allowed me to enable full WASD and also click-to-move as well as to roatate the screen via the right mouse button. A combination of all those made the game just about playable so I carried on.

There were NPCs but none of them seemed to do much. You could speak to them and they had a line or two of flavor dialog but nothing more. I had at least picked up that Legends of Aria is a full-fat sandbox so I took it that I was supposed to make my own entertainment. I jogged out of town looking for something to kill or gather, that being about the be-all and end-all of entetainment in most sandboxes at the start (apart, obviously, from being ganked by anyone a few sessions ahead of you).

No-one did, in fact, gank me, although there were times when I would have willingly run onto a sword just to have something happen. In the event, once I was a few hundred yards from the gates I never saw another player, presumably because everyone had more sense than to run out of a perfectly good town into a desert filled with snakes.

I spent the next hour or so jogging across one of the most featureless, boring maps I have ever seen in an MMORPG. Sand, sand, sand, sand, snake, snake, snake, snake, turtle, turtle, turtle, turtle, sand, sand, sand, sand.

One of the very rare occasions when my spell didn't fizzle and also hit something I was aiming at.

I killed some turtles. They were easy. I killed some snakes. So were they. Various skills incremented by 0.2. Nothing had any loot but you could get meat from the snakes so I did. There was nothing else to do.

I saw a wolf. I killed that. It was easy. I was beginning to think Warrior might be OP. I saw some camps full of humanoids. A lot of them. I edged close and they turned to look at me. Maybe not that OP. I thought better of it and carried on. After a while I was completely lost.

There was no map. Just a mini-map that told me nothing I couldn't see for myself. I was fed up of running and killing snakes so I thought I'd see what was in my bag. A rolled-up map, that's what. I clicked on it and it opened a big map like you would expect to get in most MMOs if you hit "M".

Old school. I quite liked that. I was less impressed by how much use it was. Not much. I spent a while trying to use the map to get back to where I started but I ended up going in circles. It was all getting too tedious. I logged out and went to bed.

This evening when I came home from work I read Scopique's first impressions post. That did explain things a little. I'd forgotten Legends of Aria was The Game Formerly Known As Shards, which I have a vague memory of trying in some beta or other and disliking. I'd also forgotten it was supposed to be the spiritual successor of Ultima Online, an MMO I played for two weeks in the year 2000 and didn't really like all that much either.

Me recovering some mana. Only took me about ten attempts.

Still, I have the thing for a week. Might as well have another look. So this evening I made a new character, a Mage this time, and started in one of the other towns. That part of the world was a lot less unpleasant to look at , being green and leafy rather than tan and arid. There were also a lot more people around (none of whom ganked me, again).

Other than that it was much the same only a lot harder. As in I died a lot and didn't kill much. Typical old school Mage/Warrior split. Warrior OP at start, Mage pathetic. My spells fizzled a lot and when they didn't the UI was so clunky I couldn't work out how to target and fire them before half my leg was eaten by a wolf. The heal spell made a nice healing sound and a glow but my health didn't seem to improve.

When I died the first time it took me a while to work out how to revive. I found a stone eventually but it seemed like a bit of a faff. I was losing interest and when I got killed, twice, by ramapaging skeletons (first time I pulled one to see how tough it was, second time I think I was trained) I decided life (real life, that is) was too short.

Resurrecting a stone is for losers. Tool tip tells you that. In so many words.

The reason I was in two minds about posting at all is that a) this is a proper beta and b) it takes a lot longer than a couple of hours to give even a fair "first impression" of an MMO. Anything I say would come over as unduly harsh.

On the other hand, there is the argument that as a business, once you start taking money you're fair game for any criticism your customers want to throw at you. I didn't pay but someone did. The cheapest of the beta buy-ins starts at $29.99. It would also be difficult for me to invest the hours necessary to give the thing a fair shake because I cannot cope with the camera angles and perspective - they make me feel trapped and fractious, which is not exactly the leisure experience I'm looking for right now - or ever.

That said, as Scopique points out, the finished version is supposed to allow players to create and host their own rule sets. Someone might make something more to my taste using the tools, I guess. I somehow doubt it but it's not impossible.

Let's give it the benefit of the doubt for now. Open beta is due sometime later this year. I might take another look then. Or I might just skip it. I don't think it's really my sort of thing. Might be someone's, though.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

It's Back! They're All Back! : Blaugust, NBI, DAW

Just a short post today to thank Belghast for once again stepping up to host the traditional posting bonanza that is Blaugust. Even better, this year he's had the brilliant idea to combine Blaugust with two other staples of the blogging calendar that I think we missed last year - the New Blogger Initiative (aka NBI) and Developer Appreciation Week.

Bel has all the details in his opening post over at Tales of the Aggronaut. There's a sign-up form there so he can estimate numbers and also a link to the Blaugust Discord.

Going off on a tangent, I have to confess Discord weirds me out a little. Nothing to do with what it's used for but more the disturbingly conversational way the app itself goes about updating. I get the feeling it's talking to me as though it thinks of me as someone it knows personally but doesn't much like. I also get the impression Discord thinks I'm not very bright because it tends to jolly me along as though I was a small child.

It's probably my age but I'm not keen on software that personalizes itself. I don't allow Cortana to speak or indeed do anything for me and I don't like to address Google out loud as "Google" as my phone asked me to do yesterday. I'm all for AI that works like AI in movies and books but this kind of pretend personality is all a bit uncanny valley as yet.

I'm going to have to get used to it, I guess. Variety (Variety!?) reports SuperData as claiming Discord poses a major threat to Steam.

“Previously, Steam was invaluable not only because of its storefront but because it facilitated social connections between players,” said SuperData research manager Carter Rogers... Now, Discord is where gamers’ main friends lists live, not Steam.”
Valve has noticed the competition and taken steps to do something about it. The new Steam chat UI looks oddly familiar...

So, Discord it is. I imagine I'll get used to it.

I also volunteered as a Mentor. When Syp ran the first NBI he invited me to take that role, which was exceptionally flattering seeing as how I'd been blogging for less than a year at the time. Of course I did have a decade and a half of apazine experience behind me and apazines are just offline blogs, but I don't think Syp knew that...

Anyway, I'm mentoring for Blaugust, not that I have much of an idea what that entails. Looking back at my previous posts on "How to Blog" I suspect it will mostly mean giving out advice that I don't follow myself. When was the last time I backed this blog up, eh? EH??

The official start of the festivities is July 25th when the Prep Week starts so I'm a getting a bit ahead of myself but the main reason I'm posting this is for the NBI side of the house, to give anyone who might be thinking of dipping a toe in the blogging waters a bit of a head start. Each previous NBI has turned up a number of new (or new to me) blogs that went on to be some of my most enjoyed and most read and I'm hoping 2018's event will bring out a few more, or bring back a few that have lapsed.

The original NBI was focused on MMO blogging but this time around anything goes. I've been thinking for a long time about starting a second blog, somewhere I could link the huge number of odd and seldom-seen music videos/live clips I find when I'm trawling YouTube. Maybe I'll start that up - it could be quite low maintenance.

If you've ever thought of starting a blog now's the time! And even if you haven't, maybe now's the time anyway!

Monday, July 9, 2018

If All Your Friends Jumped Off A Bridge... : Warframe

I have no reason to be playing Warframe. For starters, it's a space-based shooter, a two-for-one combo that misses me coming and going. And anyway, isn't it five years old or something? I've managed to live without it until now. You'd think I could just carry on the same way.

It's not even as though Warframe had slipped under my radar somehow and I was just now discovering it. Several bloggers I read have mentioned it in passing. One or two have posted on it extensively.

Over the last few years I've skim-read a lot of impenetrable detail on the game, most of which I neither understood nor tried to. I've looked at endless dull screenshots of suits of armor, each indistinguishable from the next. Glanced at pages of incomprehensible statistics, briefly, then moved on.

If you'd asked me, which why would you, since I've never even mentioned the game, I'd have said, vaguely, that I thought it was some niche, indie thing that hadn't found an audience. I'd have been wrong. Often am.

Hi! My name's Generic Alien Overlord #179. You may remember me from, well, pretty much anything.

A week or two ago I read somewhere that Warframe is very popular. Like really popular. It surprised me. Keen apparently read the same thing and it surprised him, too, because yesterday he asked "Why Do People Play Warframe?".

Supposedly they do. It's not Fortnite but it's popular enough to have its own convention, Tennocon. I don't think any MMOs I play do that, not any more.

In the comment thread to Keen's post, several people whose names I know and whose opinions on gaming I respect popped up to praise Warframe. One of them was Jeromai, who also posted on his own blog, Why I Game, to reveal he was up at six a.m. on a Sunday to get a Warframe freebie from Twitch.

So I downloaded the thing. I mean, what the hell, why not? If it's worth waking up at 5.30am for... And anyway, it looked as if it might be a bit like Firefall and I liked Firefall, even if I never really got that far with it. Warframe is F2P, after all. Even if I download It's not like I have to play it.

Making an account was quick and painless. The worst I can say is they did seem a bit over-zealous in getting me to re-enter the password at every opportunity. Well, three times. Maybe it was twice. Okay, probably not worth mentioning.

To quote Darren and Emma, "Look at what you can't have now"

I was surprised to find a full set of Beta terms to sign up to. Five years and still in beta? Is that right? I scanned the text. It seemed okay so I accepted it. Then there was an EULA. Skim-read that. Seemed standard, clicked it.

The download took about twenty-five minutes. I passed the time doing some quests in EQ2. When the PLAY button lit up it was really time I should have been heading to bed but I don't work Mondays so I logged in.

Making a character took a minute, if that. Nothing to do but pick one of three choices as a starting Frame. No appearance to ponder, not even a color scheme. One of the choices was flagged perfect for a new player so I went with that.

From there it was straight into an all-action Tutorial that reminded me very much of the original DCUO introduction. Run through tunnels and rooms with disembodied voices either yelling at you or cajoling you. Click on this, shoot that, crouch, jump, fumble. That last one was just me.

Yeah, y'think so? Or maybe just not bother?

It was one of those tutorials where you can't fail, I think. Or die. I was about as deft on the keys as a gannet playing the clavinet but I got through somehow. It  didn't feel like it took all that long but I didn't enjoy any of it.

Several times I had that familiar feeling of anger against the game, where what I most wanted to do was hit Escape, log out and uninstall. I often get that in new games, though, especialy when the controls are unfamiliar. I know to ride it out.

I came closer to quitting for real in the peace and quiet of my own ship. There were precisely two interactable items in the closed and locked craft and I wasn't able to interact with either of them. If I suffered from claustrophobia (as many gamers do) I would have quit there and then. Would have had to.

Instead I tabbed out and googled for a solution. Some results suggested I'd run into a known bug (well, it  is Beta, after all). Nothing suggested an answer to my problem. I tabbed back in and tried again. Still nothing.
If at first you don't succeed, hit it with a hammer.

And then by sheer luck, as I tried the same thing that hadn't worked the last twenty times, I happened to do it differently. When the game says "X Install Segment" in that specific location, apparently it doesn't mean "Press and Hold X", which is what you do earlier in the Tutorial (and as I discovered later in the Missions). Oh no!  It means "Lightly tap X and then get your finger the hell away from the key as fast as possible".

Once I did that it all started happening. With Communications up and running I was able to set out on the next stage of my great adventure. I looked longingly at the planetary options. Jeromai quite correctly surmised I'd have been happier trying the newly-announced "open world" content but one doesn't just stroll into Venus.

Instead I did Missions. Starter Missions. Choice of one. Did that. Then another. Did that. More running through tunnels. More shooting people, more being yelled at.

I ran and got a thing and ran back and stuck it in my ship. I broke a guy out of jail and he gave me a blueprint for another thing and told me to make it. I haven't worked out how to do that yet. There's a lot of plot and it's staggeringly unoriginal but it rocks along. There's a lot of voice acting and it's equally unoriginal but it's also kinda rockin'. Not bad at all. My own character seems flavorless in the extreme but the NPCs have style.

Insert "What a Cat Hears" meme here.
I'm not sure if this is still the Tutorial. I think it must be. It seems almost infinitely forgiving. I still have no idea what I'm doing but I didn't seem to be anywhere close to failing either of the missions. My boss/operator/owner/fan club keeps telling me to do things a certain way - don't get seen, don't trip the alarms - and I ignore her and rush in like a berserk robot and it still seems to go my way. The bad guy keeps threatning me. I ignore him. Ditto.

Thus far I would not say that Warframe isn't fun. It is fun. It isn't my kind of fun but it's the kind of fun I can recognize when I see it. I might even be able to have some fun like that - in very small doses.

I thought Warframe might be a bit like Firefall and it is. Actually it isn't. It's a lot like Firefall. I liked Firefall. Well, I liked some versions of Firefall. The problem with Firefall was that it was never the same game two log-ins running. Red5 kept changing it and mostly they made it worse.

Jeromai says of Warframe "It’s been improved since it first’s gone through a number of layered iterations..." so maybe it's the anti-Firefall. A game that gets better the more the devs work on it? I guess it could happen.

Fade to cyan

Anyway, I haven't unistalled Warframe and I'm not going to. I'm past the "I don't know how to do this and it's frightening me, Mummy, make it stop!" stage. Now I'm in the "I don't know how to do this but I reckon I can wing it" stage. If I keep playing, which is unlikely, I'll eventually hit the "Y'know, I really should learn how you're supposed to do this properly" stage at which point I'll be pretty nearly hooked.

I think what I need is a Frame or a build that lets me use nothing more than WASD, Left/Right Mouse and maybe two other keys, preferably F and X. That's about the limit of my action gaming skills. Okay, maybe Number Keys 1-4 for special attacks provided all they do is extra DPS so I can just hit them randomly in a panic once in a while.

That, in a nutshell, is how I play DCUO. If I could play Warframe that way I might indeed play Warframe. Now and again. Once in a while.

I do quite like it so far...

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Private Goes Public : GW2

Inventory Full doesn't purport to be any kind of journal of record and I frequently decline to acknowledge (or even notice) major events in the MMO world. Still, when something newsworthy happens in the main games I play, or at the companies which make those games, I do make a bit more of an effort to tag it here, if only because this blog is supposed to work primarily as a kind of personal diary.

Even so, there's a good chance I would have skipped over this week's latest firestorm at GW2, had it not finally gone supernova and burned itself out in spectacular and somewhat unexpected style yesterday. In reporting the events here, I find a satisfying synergy that signifies, to me at least, that blogging is very much not dead: were it not for bloggers I follow, I might not even have known about the whole sorry farrago until it was over.

I don't propose to rehash the entire saga in excruciating detail. I first heard about it via Jeromai, whose post has a link to a reddit thread that includes, close to the start, a reposting of the Twitter exchange that set the whole thing in motion. The surprising - and to me surprisingly encouraging - conclusion of the affair is covered in some depth in a post and comment thread at Endgame Viable.

I'm particularly grateful for the coverage given by those blogs because my regular news source, MassivelyOP, once again chose to preface their report with a gloss so nuanced and slippery that for the hundredth time I found myself considering my options on where I might find a reliable and comprehensive source for MMO news that didn't come with so much baggage.

For anyone who hasn't followed events as they happened and who doesn't care to click the links, the gist is this: one of the GW2 writers posted a lengthy series of tweets on her personal Twitter account, going into some considerable detail about the difficulties of writing for a protagonist (The Commander) who represents the player character in the narrative. It was an interesting read.

Did she really say that?
A GW2 player, who is also very well known and respected in the GW2 community as (to use the somewhat uncomfortable current buzzwords) an Influencer and Content Creator, tweeted a polite, intelligent and entirely innoffensive reply. The ANet employee (my deliberate and highly relevant choice of descriptor) responded sarcastically and dismissively, whereupon the Influencer acknowledged the response and withdrew, gracefully.

Had it ended there, so much, so little. But it didn't. The discussion spiralled out of control, dragging in gender politics and descending into exchanges of insults between, on one side, the ANet dev and another ANet employee who chimed in to support her and on the other... the whole of the internet.

Reddit gets a lot of stick for stirring things up but reading the linked thread above what I see is measured, intelligent discussion. Also, and more importantly, a much-needed collective defence and support network for an entirely innocent internet user who, out of nowhere, became the focus of attention for someone who perceived they had an authority to which they were not, in fact, entitled.

There have been some attempts to flip this narrative to portray the developer as the prey of a baying internet mob and I'm sure there are vast quantities of repulsive comments swilling around the periphery from the usual suspects, who jump any bandwagon rolling to wave their tatty, tattered flags. The thread I linked doesn't do that. 

Instead, as the person who started it concludes in a short summary at the top, "we stood up together as a community to defend two innocent people from hateful words". Well, I didn't. I don't have a reddit account. After this, though, I feel perhaps I should.

All this arguing just makes me tired.
There is always a tendency for an "us and them" attitude to develop between customer and supplier, audience and artist. In all walks of life people who feel themselves to be on the inside refer to those on the outside as "civilians" as though holding a job in  sales or accounting was akin to being in the armed forces. Bad things are said between work colleagues about those they work for all the time.

That's accepted as inevitable, even if not approved. (I personally don't approve it or participate in it in my own workplace, or not at least as a matter of course. There can be moments of frustration that need and deserve a venting but if it becomes a habit then you're probably in the wrong line of work.)

What everyone knows - or should know - is that, as an employee, you do not express these feelings and opinions directly to the customer or client. You very definitely don't express them volubly and vituperatively in a public forum visible to the entire world. And, crucially, when you choose to preface your opening comments with a statement that specifically identifies you as the employee of a company, which you name, everything you say thereafter can and will be taken to represent that company.

If you want to keep your thoughts and opinions private, don't put them on Twitter. Or reddit. Or, indeed, in a blog that someone other than you can read. You certainly do not choose to use one or more of these platforms to describe someone as a "rando asshat", when that person is not only well-known in the community that surrounds the primary product of the company for which you work, but has been specifically picked out for praise and reward by your own work colleagues (the Influencer in question has an NPC in-game named after him for the sterling work the Fractal Team felt he'd done to promote that aspect of the game).

Think happy thoughts.
Neither do you blithely state that you don't have to pretend to like customers when you're not at work as though that permits you to openly dislike them to their faces when you are self-identifying to them as an employee of that company in order to add weight to an argument you are making about the work you do for that company. Well, not if you want to go on working for that company. Which you pretty soon won't.

All in all, an object lesson in how not to be a professional writer - when the nature of your professional status is reliant on a paycheck from a named employer. J.K. Rowling can have all the Twitter spats she likes. Her views are hers alone and if her publisher doesn't like them they know what they can do. That's a different kind of professional writer entirely. You want that kind of power, go create the next Harry Potter.

In terms of freedom of action and self-expression, working as a writer for a video game gives a person no more leeway than working in the customer service department or the mail room. You will have signed up to the same company standards of service and you will be expected to abide by them in the same way.

If you don't like that, start your own video game company and make your own rules. Be your own Derek Smart and see where that takes you...

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

I Am Always Touched By Your Presents, Dear : EQ, EQ2, DCUO

SOE made a practice of recognizing real-world (mostly American) holidays with in-game bonuses, giveaways and general merriment. Daybreak Games have been doing their best to carry on that tradition. The upcoming July 4th celebrations offer good reasons for current and lapsed players to log into all of DBG's MMOs.

EverQuest has a 76% bonus both XP and faction and rare mobs have a 76% higher chance to spawn. See what they did there?

EQ2 has double XP and double currency, specifically the Ethereal coins that send all active players into a summer frenzy every year. (Incidentally, don't ask me why that link goes to the French version of the EQ2 website. It just does!)

Those bonuses apply to all players, free to play and All Access alike, but AA Members also get the benefit of a 25% reduction on everything in the cash shop. I already splurged on tracking scrolls.

Double XP weekends are relatively common but these both do a bit better than that, although weirdly not quite as well as each other. The EverQuest offer runs from 12:00 PM PT on Saturday, June 30, 2018 until 12:00 PM PT on Thursday, July 5, 2018, which I wish I'd noticed sooner. The EQ2 version started and finishes later, 12:01 AM PT on Monday, July 2, 2018 until 11:59 PM PT on Sunday, July 8, 2018.

For DCUO Daybreak have chosen to focus on paying customers. There's nothing, so far as I can see, for F2P players but July 2-8 is something they're calling Member Appreciation Week. Maybe it's the Bizarro World version of Developer Appreciation Week, which I don't believe has happened this year, or at least not yet.

Whatever it is, it comes with a very attractive giveaway, a free CR 170 Character. If you wanted to buy a CR170 in the store it would cost you $45, apparently. I don't claim to be fully up to speed with DCUO's combat rating system but I believe that's akin to the recent giveaway of  Level 100 characters in EQ2.

What's more, you can apply the boost either to an existing character or a brand new one. I made a new one. I tried to call her Atomic Kitten but of course that was taken.

This has been a public service announcement. We now return you to your normal scheduled programming.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Roll Your Own: GW2

After all that moaning yesterday, naturally I spent much of today on the new map, Domain of Kourna. What's more, having roundly disparaged the new Roller Beetle mount, what else would I do but decide to go get one for myself?

I don't want the mount but I do like a good scavenger hunt, especially when I know exactly where to go and to get the beetle you have to do not one, not two but three collections. The in-game directions aren't bad but Dulfy has the full spec, with pictures.

I was hoping to get the lot done in time to take a screenshot or two of my cat-hatted druid clinging on for dear life to the saddle of his new, nonsensical ride. It turned out to be more time-consuming than I expected, not least because I also got sidetracked a few times by events. In the end I only managed the first two sets before the ticking clock told me I had time to finish or write about it but not both.

The first collection is very straightforward. All you have to do is find nine "Secret Caches" scattered around the new map. I barely needed to refer to Dulfy's diagrams. They are mostly easy to spot from a good distance away, particularly from the air, should you cruise past on a griffin, as I did.

That took maybe fifteen or twenty minutes. Or it would have if I hadn't stopped to help one Asuran "scientist" who wanted me to dance with some Choya and another who had some half-baked device for tracking mutated rats he needed testing.

Those felt quite like the kind of events GW2 built its original reputation on - daft, inconsequential, amusing. If you avoid the metas there are often a few little amuse-bouche like that scattered around.

Speaking of the meta, I did some of that while I was working on the second collection. Lognodo in the comments to yesterday's post said the new map meta felt incomplete and I agree it certainly seemed on the short  side for a meta. More like a short chain.

It'd be a lot more secret without the glaring yellow text.

The three collections are thematically coherent. The first has you finding medicines and drugs - some legal, some not so much - to fix the ailing Petey (a beetle). The second sees you collecting parts to make a saddle to ride him.

I don't really want to think about how the saddle attaches to the beetle but if that makes no sense at least all the bits that go to make it seem logical. Bits of golems, kit liberated from the Inquest, power sources from the energy-rich anomalies...

It also means a good deal of traveling, most of it in a crowd. There were so many people at Golem Mk II that my frame rate dropped to a slide show, something that hasn't happened to me at a World Boss event for years. As for the Anomaly, those events have been deserted for what seems like forever but in Gendarran Fields this afternoon there were three Commander tags and something like fifty people.

I was expecting this to be a problem but the only problem was getting there before it died.

One thing that GW2 manages better than most other MMOs is keeping elderly maps alive. It would be so easy to keep all new content in maps attached to the current expansion (and for commercial reasons most new content does require access to Path of Fire) but ANet routinely thread some of that content back through the older maps as well.

Oddly, it wasn't the older events that posed a problem. They were heaving. The one thing that slowed me down was finding anyone doing a Bounty in the new map. I hung around by the Bounty Board for the best part of an hour, on and off. I checked LFG regularly. Nothing.

I tried taking a bounty and starting it to see if people would join in but the one I chose was up on a mesa and no-one passed by. I was seriously considering popping my Commander tag and starting my own LFG squad but I wasn't keen to exhibit my complete ignorance of the mobs and their tactics, never having even seen one in action.

By contrast, a very poor turnout for the bounty. I was just happy to get it done.
In the end I went to World vs World to sell and clear my bags and when I came back there was a small squad doing the Bounty Daily. I flapped over to them on my griff and got there just in time for the kill.

With all the various parts for the saddle stuffed in my packs all I had to do was check in with Blish and Gorrick. Much to Gorrick's amusement, Petey the Beetle was having none of it. Now I have to run all over Tyria scraping up scraps to make a beetle banquet to bribe the blasted bug.

One of those delicacies comes from the Toxic Spider Queen in Kessex Hills, a vicious Champion mob left over from the Scarlet era. People have giving that thing a wide birth for years. That's absolutely going to need a good turnout.

Another is a new mob, the Alpha Beetle, deep in The Silverwastes. Dulfy warns " vigilant as the beetle has very little HP and dies quickly" but that was before the latest patch-to-the-patch "Updated the “Kill the alpha beetle” event to be a champion group event".

Even the sky is uninspiring.
All fine and dandy right now, when people are falling over themselves to grab the shiny, new mount, but perhaps not so much in a few months time for the late starters. Oh well, it's been tweaked once, it can be tweaked again. Not sure when I'll get around to finishing up the final part but I'll be sure not to leave it too long, just in case.

As for the new map itself, I can't say I was very taken with it. It's a scrubby tract of desert with a lot of grey rock. There are some striking orange sands and a few lush, green oases but overall it's not the kind of place I can imagine wanting to spend more time in than I had to.

I'll be very glad when we're done with the desert altogether. Ironically, I wanted to go in the direction of Crystal Desert after Heart of Thorns but I've had more than enough of sand and rock now.

I hope when we're done doing whatever it is we're going to do to Kralkatorrik we head off to the Far Shiverpeaks to sort out Jormag. Or, after the recent revamp of underwater water weapons, maybe we could go hunting for Steve the Sea Dragon. I could go for a subsea expansion.

Just please don't let's go underground into the magma tunnels looking for Primordus. I've seen enough lava to last a lifetime.

Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide