Monday, June 17, 2019

Now We All Got Crowns. (Ok, Bunnies...) : EverQuest, EQII

EQ Executive Producer Holly "Windstalker" Longdale popped up today with not one but two Producer's Letters for the EverQuest franchise, one for the original game and another for EverQuest II. She really seems to have settled in as the public face of the franchise. I find her tone both professional and friendly, in marked contrast to some of the previous incumbents.

What she has to say is also pleasantly reassuring to those of us who, only this time last year, suspected the active development of both games might be drawing to a close. In recent times EverQuest and EQII have each established a familiar pattern for the summer months. This year promises more of the same.

EverQuest has the usual sequence of extra-tough dungeon makeovers, now trading under the title "Hardcore Heritage". The first phase is already under way - in fact it's just about to end. The final day for "higher difficulty and better rewards in Blackburrow, Cazic Thule, Ruins of Old Guk, and Unrest" is this Tuesday, June 18.

I wouldn't have bothered with it in any case. I think my "serious" EQ days are finally behind me and I doubt many PUGs would want my badly-geared, badly-played Level 93 Magician tagging along. There might have been some upgrades I could have used but most of them are probably tradeable so I could buy them in The Bazaar - if I could afford them.

The second phase begins on Wednesday, June 19 and includes Crushbone, Permafrost, Castle Mistmoore, and Nagafen’s Lair, all of which come at an even higher level of difficulty. For some arcane reason, Sebilis, which is already in play, straddles both phases, continuing until July 2.

July brings something called Death, Death, Death!, which takes place in Great Divide and involves the Coldain Dwarves. From bitter experience I have learned to distrust, deeply, any war effort involving those blue-skinned psychopaths so I'd be giving that one a wide berth if I was playing, which I'm not.

I am still playing EQII regularly and the prospects there look considerably more enticing. Summer is the Ethereal season in new Norrath and there would be rioting in the streets of Freeport and Qeynos if people couldn't farm their drops. Every year I think about joining them - I am probably just barely competent and geared enough to scrape a place in a public-spirited or desperate PUG  - but in the end I'll most likely forget.

I might very well manage to make it to a few of the upcoming Chaos Descending Public Quests, something we're getting as part of tomorrow's Game Update. Holly is deliberately vague about these in the letter so I can't say whether it means new drops for the existing PQs or new PQs altogether. Either way, the lure is "some best-in-slot items", which guarantees whatever we get will be extremely well-attended, at least for a while.

As I mentioned a few days ago, we're also getting the Scorched Sky holiday event. It starts on June 26 and runs until July 8. The second "Season" on new PvP server Nagafen starts on July 16, which may conceivably be of interest to someone. By all accounts I've heard, the first was a shambles so let's hope the promised "changes and tweaks" improve matters this time around.

That's it for game-specific content but there's one very welcome addition to the Cash Shop, available in both EQ and EQII: Pride Bunnies. These aren't rabbits that roam in lion-like packs, although anyone who's encountered the fanged and ferocious holiday version would be forgiven for thinking so. They're rainbow rabbits celebrating Pride Month and they're free from the in-game store between June 21 and July 31.

In the nearly twenty years I've been playing EverQuest games, attitudes in MMORPGs to what we now call the LGBTQ+ community have changed almost out of recognition. The days when a single /ooc recruiting call for a "gay and lesbian friendly" guild would result in a torrent of abuse seem like something from deep history, thank the gods.

These days, in most of the games I play, well-established LGBTQ+ guilds advertise freely without it seeming in any way extraordinary and any rare homophobic response is quickly and roundly talked down by a chorus of objecting voices. I don't take these hard-won freedoms for granted, not at all, but I do recognize progress where and when I see it.

I'll be getting my "Pride-themed bunny familiars" for every character that's eligible. I don't know if there are any restrictions in level or limits per account. If there are I'll try and report back.

Both of Windstalker's letters drop some very faint hints about the expansions for each game, due much later in the year. The solid news from both is that there will be level cap increases all round: ten levels for EQII, five for EverQuest.

For me, that's a mixed blessing. I love levels and leveling and I always feel an expansion is more "real" if it raises the cap. On the other hand, the way EQII works these days means that a level increase almost completely invalidates all previous content for any characters at the top. Not only is all the gear no longer worth wearing but as of the past year or two you can't even get meaningful xp in any content but the new ten-level range.

Also, and perhaps most painful of all to me, a level cap increase means the loss of the substantial account bonus to XP that comes with having max level characters. I currently have a 120% XP bonus on my subbed account for having half a dozen capped characters. Losing that is really going to hurt on the ones I'm still leveling. Perhaps I'd better follow Windstalker's advice and "level up [my] characters over summer and fall with our leveling-up events".

As for where the expansions will takes us, she's not giving much away. I couldn't make anything of her hint for EQ, "it will be unfamiliarly familiar". Maybe familiars come from some specific place in the lore? The EQII hint is more straightforward: "'s a familiar one if you know EQ". Although, now I type it out, I realize that uses the "familiar" word, too. Hmm...

Last but by no means least there's some mention of the mooted "fan event", the idea of which was originally floated in the run-up to EverQuest's 20th. It hasn't been forgotten but clearly it's taking more organizing than expected: "We are still working on planning a fan event (now probably next year to give EverQuest and EverQuest II fans and guilds time to prepare and plan)."

Even as the timeframe stretches, the shape of the event is becoming more defined, into "a weekend fan event... with Q&As, roundtables, and activities for gamers and roleplayers". I have to say that does sound almost like the old SOE Fan Fare, if not the overblown SOE Live that replaced it.

All of which bodes very well for the future, I think. It could fall apart at any moment, as could any MMORPG from any developer, but at least we're talking as though the future exists. I'll take that as a win.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

I Can Fly : Riders of Icarus

Before I went on holiday I had a mild disagreement with Jeromai over flying mounts in the comments on his post about Guild Wars 2's Skyscale. The gist is this: I like mounts that operate exactly as though I'm controlling my character directly. I don't like mounts that feel as if I'm controlling my character, while they control another character, one who has independent movement.

Put more simply, I like an extremely gamified version of flying, one with no hint of simulation. I feel the same about all mounts and vehicles in MMORPGs. My feeling is that if I wanted to play a driving game or a flight simulator I'd be playing one, not playing an MMORPG.

That said, I purely love flying mounts. I was very dubious about them before I'd ever tried one. I tended to endorse the idea that free flight would trivialize the worldliness of the setting and lead to shortcuts and exploits that would allow people to avoid conflict.

When I got to fly for the first time, which my ever-unreliable memory tells me would have been in Vanguard, those fears proved to be both true and untrue. Far from trivializing the worlds, flying freely high above them has much the same effect on me as Yann Arthus Bertrand's famous aerial photographs or even the iconic Earthrise.

Seeing the world from above renders it more real, not less. It has the exact opposite effect of trivializing what I see; it adds gravitas. Conversely and paradoxically, my second concern turned out to be both true and no concern at all.

Being able to fly over and thereby avoid conflict in which you would prefer not to engage is liberating. It makes everything about the experience of traveling through a virtual world better. It may harm the game as a game but it enhances and expands the conceit that it's the journey that matters.

With all this in mind, it's perhaps surprising that I haven't paid much attention to those MMORPGs that put flying at the very heart of their worlds. Long, long ago I played Flyff, whose very name is an acronym for "Fly For Fun". I wouldn't know how accurate that acronym is because, as with my run in the later and better-known Aion, another game predicated on flight, I didn't last long enough to get my wings.

I've never felt any desire to try Flyff again. Aion got a fairly recent makeover, which did make me consider returning, but the urge soon passed. But there is one other flight-centric MMORPG I once tried that still lurks in the back of my mind: Riders of Icarus.

I first played Riders of Icarus back in July 2016. I wasn't impressed. I posted about it just once, summing up the experience by comparing it unfavorably to another Eastern import, Dragomon Hunter, concluding "Riders of Icarus is flashier and takes itself more seriously but feels a lot more corporate and bland. Most importantly, though, I actively like my DH character whereas my RoI avatar is a cipher."

Dragomon Hunter lasted a mere seventeen months before closing. Riders of Icarus will be three years old next month. You can play it via Steam, where it has three stars out of five and a 65% favorable rating from over 8000 reviews.

When I posted a list of the MMORPGs I currently have installed on my hard drive(s) a couple of weeks ago, Riders of Icarus was one of them. I annotated the entry with a gnomic observation: "Never underestimate the power of a plush wolf with stars on".

This was a reference to a screenshot at The MMOist. I am highly susceptible to promotions in MMORPGs that appear to have been designed to appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of a six-year old. If it has sparkles, stars or rainbows, I want it. If it closely ressembles a cuddly toy, I really want it.

Since very, very few six-year olds must actually play any of the MMORPGs in which these promotions appear, I can only assume my predelictions are more commonplace than might be imagined. Most games, even those with 12 or higher PEGI ratings, seem to work on the general principle that a significant proportion of their audience consists of would-be Disney Princesses.

In this case, the plush wolf seems to have been part of a limited-time login event in February, one which also came with several highly-desirable cats. I'm sorry I missed it. As with all good MMORPGs, however, no sooner does one limited-time event end than another begins.

The current RoI initiative involves Cherry Blossom, always popular in games of Eastern origin (cf Black Desert). There don't seem to be any special mounts or pets although the event vendor is a rabbit in a hat.

I picked up a few cherry blossom petals as I wandered around the impressive capital, Hakanas. I'd flown there on my brilliantly-colored parrot, a seven-day, limited duration mount gifted me for... well, for finding my way to the big city, I think.

In the aforementioned list, Riders of Icarus fell into the "Been meaning to play these again for ages" category. When I wrote that I had a strong feeling it would be sooner rather than later and so it proved.

I patched the game up via Steam yesterday, logged in to find my only character idling in a quest hub not far from the starting area. Within a few moments I was questing mindlessly and enjoying it considerably more than I expected. 

The controls felt familiar. Combat, at low levels at least, seemed extraordinarly straightforward. The scenery was attractive, the wildlife was curious, the experience ticked over. I dinged eight, following the questlines without really following them.

A couple of solo instances flicked past. Some NPC gave me a ride on his griffin. Another lent me a parrot. And then I was flying.

It took me a moment to acclimatize to the controls and then I was home, free in the sky. Hakanas looked impressive enough from the ground but from the air it was laid out beneath me like a fascinating puzzle. I swooped and soared and landed and ran. I took breadcrumb quest after breadcrumb quest until I knew every major square and landmark. I met the King. Somewhere along the way I dinged nine.

Two hours had passed. I hadn't tabbed out once. My mind hadn't wandered. I realised I was thirsty and a little stiff from sitting so long in the same position.

Two years ago I summed the game up like this: "Riders of Icarus is by no means a bad game or a bad MMO but with so many others to choose from I'd struggle to come up with a good reason to play it rather than something with a bit more soul". Nothing I saw or did yesterday changes that fundamental impression, only sometimes "more soul" isn't exactly what I need.

Sometimes I just want to fly.

Saturday, June 15, 2019

I Am The Fox : WoW, New World

Massively OP may have struggled to come up with half a dozen topics I cared about over the ten days I was away but they made up for it this morning with a 33% hit rate on the overnights. I woke up to two items of interest: Amazon Games is apparently retrenching already, despite not even having a single game in production, while World of Warcraft might be adding foxes to the roster of playable races.

I'd like to avoid MOP-bashing at this point. The site is what it is.As with late-period capitalism, which it uncannily resembles, there's little point in wailing and whining. It's what we have so we're just going to have to make the best of it. Even so, the way positives so routinely turn into negatives, if not in the headlines or the body of the pieces, then in the comments is depressing.

When we hear about game studios dropping staff, closing departments and shuttering games it almost always reflects difficulties with the finances. In the case of Amazon I would think we could safely discard any such concerns. If the press release states

"These moves are the result of regular business planning cycles where we align resources to match evolving, long-range priorities"

then I think we can take it at face value. When they go on to say the moves will

"...allow us to prioritize development of New World, Crucible, and new unannounced projects"
 we should probably feel re-assured, optimistic, even excited, rather than piling on the doom and gloom.

So far, Amazon seem to have been following an exemplary path in their foray into game development. They aren't rushing unfinished games to market. They aren't asking anyone to pay to test their experiments. They would appear to be running a professional operation, adequately funded for the medium and long term, operating under solid project management.

If they have slipped at all, I would say it might be in the tightness of New World's NDA. My feeling is that, had alpha testers been allowed to express an opinion of the lengthy alpha process and share some of their experiences - and screenshots - the general level of anticipation for the game would be very high indeed.

I'm still by no means sure that New World will be a game I, personally, want to play long-term but I feel fairly confident that, when it finally comes to market, it will be polished, professional and coherent in a way few other major releases have been in the last few years. That it has been taken back behind closed doors for more intense work by a re-focused team seems to me to make that outcome even more likely.

Blizzard used to be a byword for the same level of well-funded professionalism in the gaming industry. That crown has slipped a little in recent times following a number of mis-steps and muddled decisions.  

WoW isn't the be-all and end-all of the Blizzard empire, of course, but even diminished as it is, it remains a behemoth, both in the genre and in the company's portfolio. The late-summer launch of Classic will see WoW back at the very top of the news cycle and, most likely, the sales charts. Meanwhile, over in the Live game, something is stirring.

There was a leak yesterday concerning the rumored "Level Squish". A poll went out by email to some subscribers. It included the question
“Are you aware that the maximum level of 120 will be reduced in the future (ie Level Squish)?”
Wilhelm, considering the possibility well before the recent leak, judged that "we won’t see a level squish" because "it just changes too much for too little benefit". He also included the eternal issue of Levels in general in in his shortlist of "problems MMORPGs are never going to solve".

Kaylriene, however, discussing a possibility that now seems more like a probability, concluded that, while polls do not indicate something definitely will happen, "...Blizzard has committed to a decision one way or the other by now, as the expansion development for 9.0 has to be well underway". He also pointed out that  "Blizzard inherently sells expansions on the value of the leveling experience and has always made a bullet-point in their expansion presentations about the new levels to achieve".

Still, they seem determined to go ahead with it, just as they went ahead with removing flying from the game going forward, a decision that was received extremely poorly by large sections of the audience and which has been subject to considerable refinement and re-evaluation ever since. Since I love both leveling and flying, these would seem to be strong disincentives to my chances of re-subscribing to the Live game in the future.

Not, however, strong enough to suppress the thrill of excitement that swept over me on reading the news that Azeroth may become the next virtual world to fall under the thrall of the mighty fox!

I have to confess I had no idea WoW even had fox-people NPCs.  I don't believe I've ever heard of the Vulpera, who seem first to have appeared only as recently as the latest expansion, Battle for Azeroth. I've read a lot of blog posts about BoA but if anyone mentioned foxes I must have missed it.

Since Vanguard introduced me to the joys of  the fox life with the incomparable Raki, my favorite MMORPG playable race of all time, I have had the strongest of joneses for the race. It's not impossible that, had I known there were talking foxes in BOA I might have bought the blasted thing just to see them.

If Blizzard does go ahead and add the Vulpera as a playable race, complete with their own starting area, concomitant quests and lore, I will pretty much have to re-subscribe to try them out. Even if it also means buying the current expansion, though I have yet to set foot in Legion, which I already own. And I don't think I'd be the only one.

Of course, since a subscription is required to access Classic, which I almost certainly won't want to miss, at least for the opening frenzy, all may come together in a harmonious synchronicity towards the end of the summer. It's something to look forward to, at least. It's going to be a much longer wait before we see the fruits of Amazon's labor, I fear.

Some images borrowed from the Interwebs. As always, if one is yours and you'd rather it wasn't here, let me know and I'll remove it.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Down By The Sea: EQ2

When I got home from the airport yesterday afternoon, one of the first things I did was fire up the PC to check Feedly, which I hadn't looked at for more than a week. The "Latest News" from Pitchfork led the backlog. I checked to see who'd died while I was away. Just Dr. John, of people I've ever heard of, if not actually bought a record by. Also M.I.A, late of this parish, got an MBE, which was nice for her mum.

Next by volume came MassivelyOP, where I found more than a hundred and seventy five news items waiting for me. Scanning the headlines I felt the urge to open fewer than half a dozen, which must say something about the current state of the genre, my involvement, or MOP's editorial policy. Probably all three.

Of the handful of articles I looked at, the only one that really interested me was this, a brief re-phrasing of a Daybreak press release alerting readers to the return of EverQuest II's Oceansfull festival. The MOP piece didn't tell me much but I found a lot more detail at the official website and a full breakdown of all the available activities and rewards at EQ2 Traders.

The latter was linked directly from the EQ2 website itself, something that has become standard procedure of late. The Daybreak post also linked to EQ2 Furniture, a self-explanatory enterprise I haven't had cause to visit before.

The MMORPG genre has always had a touch of the co-operative movement about it, although at times the relationship has fallen considerably short of those high mutualist ideals, and the practice of calling attention to fan sites is far from novel. Still, in these late days, with shrinking audiences and resources, it has never seemed more necessary or welcome.

Oceansfull is a very new festival on Norrath's crowded calendar. It began last year as a very low-key event, "timed to fill that uncomfortable gap between the final flurry of festivals in late Spring and the arrival of Tinkerfest in mid-summer".

This year brings several new additions to the schedule, including a couple of quests, both of which involve a small amount of fighting, presumably so adventurers feel included. I did them both for the first time last night, largely without the aid of out-of-game instructions, although I'm not sure I'd have found one of the two at all if I hadn't spotted the starting location on EQ2 Traders.

The Nursery in Greater Faydark certainly isn't the first place that comes to mind when you imagine beachfront property in Norrath. It's the hidden starting area for new characters that came with 2006's Echoes of Faydwer expansion and if you'd asked me I'd have said it was landlocked. There's never been much of a reason to go there if you aren't a Level One elf or fae and I'd completely forgotten it had a seafront at all.

It does, though, and somehow the Othmir managed to find it. They set up their altars and set off their fireworks in celebration of the Ocean God Prexus but then their arch enemies, the Ulthorks, turned up, which is where we, the players, come in.

I'm always up for some Ulthork bashing. I happily clattered eight of the aggressive walrus-men then fixed three of the altars they'd broken before returning to Kippy for my reward, a choice of scallop shells.

The other quest, much easier to run into by accident, starts at the Commonlands dock. For this one I had to find a missing Othmir and encourage him to return to safety, while I took over his shell-gathering duties and dealt with the mysterious threat he'd glimpsed lurking in the dark waters.

That threat turned out to be some sort of octopoid, although for a while I thought it might be nothing more than a trick of the light. There's a chance for the vicious eight-armed beasts to spawn whenever you pluck one of the sparkling conch shells from the sand but nothing jumped me until I was putting shell number seven into my waterproof backpack.

I only needed eight to complete the quest. As a reward Binn, the worried othmir who'd sent me to look for his friend, gave me three of the golden conches back.

Almost all the rewards for Oceansfull are house items. There are also a couple of appearance weapons - a shield and a staff - and a pet crab. There's also a cloak from the collection, which returns from last year.

The quality and variety of the house items is quite extraordinary. Several have spectacular particle effects and all are worth having. Other than the quest rewards, they're all waiting to be found in personalized black pearls, enclosed in clams beneath the waves, in eleven different locations covering all level ranges.

Although the contents of each pearl is random you can open one every ten seconds or so for the duration of the event, ensuring that, with just a modicum of patience, you should be able to find everything you want. Only five of last year's extensive range have returned for an encore. The rest have been replaced by seventeen brand new options, many of which are real must-haves.

I was particularly taken with the Aqueous Sentinel Plushie, a watery golem inside which fish swim as though encased in a tank. The other plushies are impressive, too. The Marid hunters look particularly good in my Mara Estate home, which is where I'm placing most of my Oceansfull goodies.

Oceansfull began, as it did last year, while I was away on holiday, making this a very late notification. There are still several days left before the Othmir pack up their trappings and start the trek back to Velious.

The festival ends at midnight on June 18, more than enough time to complete all the activities and find all the things you might fancy. I plan on grabbing a few dozen more pearls on characters on two other servers and possibly even on another account.

Sadly, my character on Kaladim will have to miss out once again as the TLE servers don't get the event at all, presumably because neither Othmir nor Ulthorks have yet been discovered there. Given the rewards are all cosmetic that seems a tad unfair but I guess if you choose to wallow in a bed of nostalgia you have to lie in it, too.

As I was playing last night I was also following a discussion in the Test channel, where several people playing on the Test server were linking items from the Scorched Sky festival. It's currently in testing, due to follow Oceansfull on Live later this month. Judging by what I saw, we can expect another impressive holiday upgrade when it arrives.

I'd say "keep up the good work, DBG", but they obviously already are.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Car's Outside, Engine's Running

It's going to be quiet around here for a week or so while Mrs Bhagpuss and I go exploring in real life. If you call driving a hire car from comfortable hotel to comfortable hotel "exploring", that is. Which I do, at least when it involves going to places I haven't been to before and seeing things I haven't already seen .

Of course, these days I often have seen places I'm going to even before I've been there. The main reason there haven't been many posts on actual gaming this last week or so is that I've been roaming around backwater towns and villages on Google Maps and Street View. That's taken up almost all the time I would normally devote to playing games.

I once left a comment on SynCaine's blog suggesting that Google Street view would offer a perfectly acceptable alternative to MMOs for explorer types. I can't recall the context but I do remember he wasn't impressed.

These days I'd go further. I think that, with the addition of a few million P.O.I.s and an experience system, Google Maps could be turned into an actual game. Throw in an Achievements and levels and it would make a pretty ARG along the lines of Pokemon Go or Ingress, without the nuisance of actually having to leave the house.

Anyway, when I get back I won't be doing any more of that for a while - not until the Autumn, anyway - so things here should get back to what passes for normal. There's an outside chance I might post something while I'm away but the weather forecast is excellent and it's light until after 10pm this time of year so I don't expect to be indoors fiddling with my tablet any more than I have to.

Have fun and try not to break anything while I'm gone!

Monday, June 3, 2019

Down The Rabbit Hole

Mia at The MMOist posted a couple of shots from Riders of Icarus yesterday. That's an MMORPG I'd all but forgotten. It prompted me to ponder which of the three dozen similar icons on my desktop might ever see action again:

Absolutely no doubt.

Guild Wars 2 
Sleeping in the spare room but we're still talking.
Never gonna give you up.
EverQuest II  
Never gonna let you down.
Star Wars: The Old Republic  
New car smell.
Vanguard (emu) 
Afterlife is sweet.

Extremely likely. 

Occupy White Walls 
Scratches an itch.
World of Warcraft     
Does Classic count?
City of Heroes (emu) 
See Vanguard. Also, see SW:TOR, confusingly.

In with a very good chance.

Wizard 101  
Mid-table trier, always there or thereabouts.
Pirate 101   
Lord of the Rings Online  
You kind of have to, sometimes, don't you?
DC Universe Online  
Now that's what I call flying.
We fell out but we made up. Can't hold a grudge. Who knows how long we have left?

Been meaning to play these again for ages.

Dragon Nest
Hanging by a thread on PC but alive and well on Android. 
Twin Saga     
Stuck on a hump. Love to get over it. 
Elder Scrolls Online
There's so much of it.
Villagers and Heroes
Have they fixed the account issues yet? I really should check. 
Riders of Icarus 
Never underestimate the power of a plush wolf with stars on.
Project Gorgon  
Don't guilt trip me! I backed you, didn't I? Don't ask me to play, too!

Always good for a quick runaround.

Guild Wars
Makes no difference if it's in maintenance mode. It was always a single player game. 
Fallen Earth
I was subbed to this once, you know... 
Black Desert Online
Looks amazing but requires effort. Too much effort. 
Secret World Legends
Be nice to finish the story before it shuts down. Also, best clothes in MMOs.
Not quite as much fun now I've stopped drinking. 

Maybe one day.

I'd have to start drinking again to play this.
Neverwinter Online 
Talk to LotRO about bags if you want to see me again, NWO. You both have a problem.
Proper old school. And looks it. 
Have they fixed this yet? I suppose I should go find out. 
Return of Reckoning (Warhammer emu)
When you get the urge to herd a squig, where else are you going to go?

Maybe Never.

The Hammers End 
Want to buy an apostrophe.
AdventureQuest 3D
Makes me feel tired just thinking about it. 
There's no there there. 
EQ P2002 (EverQuest emu)
Got my screenshots. I'm out.
Star Trek Online
Altogether too close to the tv shows. 
Checked the dictionary. Found it under "Thing, not my". 
They did something to this, didn't they? Not sure I care enough to find out what.
Aw, Bless.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Temporal Bandwidth

2019 feels like a lively time for blogging. In my working life, as I commented in response to Tobold's gloom-mongering, I deal every day with the by-products of blogs as they continue to provide a lead-in to both fame and fortune for all kinds of creatives. Just not for gamers.

The biggest phenomenon in British bookselling this year so far is the cookery book "Pinch of Nom", which broke all records to become the U.K.'s fastest-selling non-fiction book ever. The book's success burst out of the co-authors' eponymous blog, powered by an established fanbase, reportedly something like three-quarters of a million followers prior to publication.

There is, of course, a question over what people mean when they use the word "blog", something both the BBC journalist and Pinch of Nom's authors do, repeatedly, in the linked news item. These days - for years, really - it's been a term interchangeable with the hard-to-pronounce vlog. Sometimes it even elides with streaming.

Even if there's some nuance around the periphery, it's inarguable that numerous British publishing success stories over the last few years, from Reni Eddo-Lodge to Jack Monroe, all began as actual words-and-pictures blogs. Such is the enduring power of the written word that social media stars, less prone to put their thoughts, feelings and recipes into long form, still find it prudent to retro-fit a blog into their media portfolio once the publishing deal comes through.

It does sometimes seem surprising that people still like to read. And to write. But they do.

There are reasons. Reading is often faster and more efficient than watching or listening. It feels different, too. Most importantly, perhaps, it's a socially acceptable habit and one that most literate people can't help but acquire, at least to a degree.

Whether it's a habit that can survive the coming generations, who'll be the first for millennia to grow up with genuine alternatives to the written word, remains to be seen, although probably not by me. If reading does eventually fade to become nothing more than a quirk, an eccentricity and a collective memory, it's not going to happen in my lifetime.

The reason I started thinking about this, apart from being irked by Tobold, a far from unfamiliar experience, was the churn and roil I've noticed of late around my own Blog Roll, thanks to the invaluable Blogger widget that floats the most recent posts to the top. That and something Belghast said, namely

"I have not forgotten about Blaugust and will begin talking about this years running shortly over on the Discord"
Last year I added every new Blaugust blog to my roll. I also added a "Class of '18" link including everyone, old and new, which I unhelpfully labelled "The Crew".

It could have been worse. I was originally planning to use Thomas Pynchon's magnificent "The Whole Sick Crew" from "V", which was also how I used to refer to my extended friends network in the 1980s. I only changed it at the last minute when it occured to me that not everyone might get the reference and unfortunate inferences might be drawn.

When this year's event rolls around, which won't be long now, I will change the link to "Class of '18" and add a new one for this year. The 2018 list has eighty-eight names on it, more than thirty of which still post at least weekly and some of them a lot more often than that.

Depending on how many new starters we get this time around, I'm going to have to the usual debate with myself over whether or not to cull the herd. The aforementioned Blogger float means the old wood doesn't block the new saplings' light but there's a limit to how far down I want to let my tail hang. 

Fortunately, that limit is "the end of the last displayed blog post" and we're a long way from there. I may hit Blogger's own limit first, assuming it even has one.

Someone say something about a long tail?
It's true that some of the names at the foot of the list haven't posted in five years but you never know when one of them will judder back to life to shuffle around like a badly-reanimated corpse for a few posts before slumping back into silence. If that happens, I don't want to miss it.

Only last week one of my favorite blogs of all time, West Karana, inactive for far too long, suddenly leapt to the top of the stack. I was as excited to click the link as I have been to log in to any MMORPG for years but you'll notice there's no link to it here.

Sadly, all I found when I opened it up was a two word "Hello World" post (it literally said "Hello World") under a name I didn't recognize. A day or two later a pre-packaged advertorial for some baseball park somewhere or other appeared, leading to a desultory exchange of emails between myself and Wilhelm, in which we bemoaned the state of the world and the transience of all things.

I culled the link from my blog roll but left it in my Feedly. Worse was to come. The third post at the new West Karana (I read it so you don't have to: you can thank me later) was a borderline sex advert. Since then only silence.

Even so, I'd rather know than not know. It did at least prompt me to check Tipa's Twitter feed to confirm she's still alive and well. Which she is. Hi, Tipa!

The only people who still say the internet is forever must be people who don't use it much. It changes as fast as anything else. Whole sections go dark or stop working. Links die.

Ever thought of adding your artwork to OWW, Justine? Those abstracts would look amazing in my gallery.

This morning I was reading an excellent piece on Pitchfork that drew connections between Elastica's sophomore effort (as no-one who doesn't want a punch in the mouth ever would call it) "The Menace", and M.I.A. I learned a lot. For instance:
  • Elastica made a second album! I need to listen to it. It's free for members on Amazon Prime so there's no excuse not to, not for me nor for Tobold (him again). I'd be surprised if it was his kind of thing, to be honest.
  • I appear to have misunderstood who and what M.I.A. is. Careless! I should have payed more attention when YouTube recommended her work to me, as it has done, many times. YouTube recommends are generally reliable, although YT's Joan Jett obsession is worrying. I mean I like her and all but not every day of my life. It's not like it was Joan who wore my beret for two numbers back in 1976, after all.
  • I need to remember at all times that Elefant is a great record label
  • Also that Spain loves tweepop even more than I do. Although probably not more than I love Spain. (That's the country, not Spain, who I never really got on with.)
Those last two bullets illustrate the entire point and purpose of link love. Also of the World Wide Web, which we all call the Internet nowadays, although may be we shouldn't because it's confusing

From Pavement's last album to Justine Frischman's abstracts to Juniper Moon  in a matter of minutes and I never meant to go near any of them. Sunday morning with the supplements was never like this.

I'm old enough to remember when hyperlinks were the future. Now the cracks in the Web are showing as parts of the whole, ricketty edifice slip into the past. Even a major website like Pitchfork has dead links but then, when Google cheerfully shutters major projects like G+ and rumors abound that iTunes is about to follow it into the great forgetting, who can expect anything good to last?

None of which is going to stop me stuffing every post with pink links. And green ones. (The colors mean something, you know. I don't just make this stuff up. Well, I do, but...).

The popularity of blogging may wax and wane - mostly wane if we're talking about games - and one day there may be no-one left who can read the scattered posts that survive, but the one of the benefits of getting old is I don't have to worry about any of that. It'll see me out.

Now, if you'll excuse me. I think I'd better go back up my blog.

This post uses various images stolen from the ether. And doctored, some of them. All rights to respective owners. If that's you and you don't like it, let me know and I'll cut it out and leave a gaping hole, which will be kinda meta if you think about it...

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Those Endless Days

Sandrian at Aeternus Gaming has a post up entitled "Gaming Irony", in which he observes "I want to game more when I have less time but when I have more time I game less." In all the time I've been playing MMORPGs, twenty years this November, I've never really had that problem - until now.

Over the course of those two decades I've always been employed, although my hours have varied a lot, from "full time" (five days a week, ten hours a day, including travel time) to as little as half that. For the last few years I've been working a steady four-day week. It gives me a good deal of free time but for playing games and writing about them, I've never really felt it was enough.

This year, though, for one reason or another, I've had more time at home than I can remember having for a very long time. Even though I'm back at work now, I'm only working half days and I've already been pencilled out for the entire summer in anticipation of time I may (or may not) need to take off for health reasons.

The thing is, although the cause of my absence from work is serious, I've actually felt pretty well in myself. There's certainly been nothing to stop me playing video games as much as I want for the entire time I've been at home, or writing about them.

It was unfortunate, then, that for wholly unconnected reasons, my interest in Guild Wars 2,  the game I've been playing solidly for the last seven years, hit its lowest ebb at much the same time I found myself with the most time to play. A number of factors influenced my declining enthusiasm but the overriding reason is simple: GW2 bears very little ressemblence these days to the game I rated so highly and enjoyed so much during the years between launch all the way to the release of the second expansion, Path of Fire.

Still, while I was working my regular hours, my decreasing enthusiasm for the game didn't present too much of an issue. It fitted into a routine that suited me. Depending on my start and finish times, which vary by several hours on different days, I'd either do as many of the dailies on my three accounts as I could before going to work in the morning or I'd do them first thing after my evening meal when I got home.

If I did the dailies in the morning I might well not log in again that day. I'd often play EverQuest 2 instead or dabble with various other MMORPGs as the mood took me. If I did the dailies in the evening I'd sometimes get involved in World vs World or some PvE meta and find myself playing GW2 until bedtime.

All the fun you can bear.
 My decision on what to play was also affected by Mrs Bhagpuss's choices. The sad decline of WvW, these days an embarrassing parody of the compulsive, competitive, co-operative game-mode it once was, had already drained much of the limited interest she retained in GW2. She disliked Path of Fire even more than I did, not least because she can't use any of the mounts without getting severe motion sickness.

That problem largely put paid to her completing most of the Living World content, for which mounts are increasingly required, but she'd already lost interest in the story even before the lurching monstrosities appeared. I don't believe she's cared about the increasingly byzantine and ludicrous plot for at least three years, which probably puts her bang, smack in the middle of mainstream opinion on the subject, if public feedback is to be believed.

With my routine disrupted, leaving me free to log in and do my dailies at any old time of day, and Mrs Bhagpuss playing sporadically, then not at all, I found my own desire to play GW2 all but disappeared. Even the dailies ceased to be satisfying slivers of entertainment slotted into a busy schedule. They began to feel like something I was doing because doing them was something I did.

Thankfully, I haven't suffered anything like the same degree of ennui or disillusionment with EQ2. I can still play that game with every bit as much pleasure as I could five or ten years ago. The same, with varying intensity, could be said about any number of other games whose icons sit on my desktop, hoping I'll pick them. Had I fallen out love with GW2 while my work routine remained unchanged there would have been plenty of candidates fit to plug the gap.

Instead I found myself anticipating anything up to six weeks of free time, to be spent at home at home doing nothing too strenuous. Playing video games and writing about it looked like an excellent fit for all those extra free hours.

And so it was, once I realised I needed to find a new game to hold my attention. As I mentioned at the time, I'd been holding one or two MMORPGs in reserve for just such an occasion (although I'd been thinking more in terms of a gaming slump than surgery). I picked Star Wars: The Old Republic and it turned out to be a very good choice because I both enjoyed it much more than I expected and found it to be a great source of material.

We have to talk. We have to talk.

There was just one problem. TOR is a particular kind of game. Try as I might to play it like a regular MMORPG, there's a lot of listening and watching to get through. And, as Sandrian says about a game he's playing, having to watch a lot of cut scenes does take a chunk out of your day.

Which is fine. Passing time is one of the reasons I play MMORPGs in the first place, after all. But all those cut scenes have a curious effect. Not only do they make me more likely to play shorter sessions due to the amount of story I'm expected to consume, they also make me think that if I'm going to sit back and watch, I might as well sit back and watch something better.

As a result, I've made some significant inroads into my unwatched DVD collection these last few weeks and my Amazon Prime account has seen some extra use. I don't think I've watched this many TV shows and movies since I discovered EverQuest back in 1999.

It's not just gaming that's taken a hit. I've also read less these last few weeks than I have for... well, forever. I read two books in the five days I was in hospital but when I came home it took me a whole month to finish the next one I picked up. I can't remember that ever happening before.

Next week I go on holiday. When I come back I might possibly find myself spending the entire summer at home. I can't predict how good or bad I'll be feeling but I'm reasonably sure that for most of the time I'll at least be up to playing video games and writing about them. Whether I'll want to, though, is harder to predict.

One thing I'm interested in evaluating is how much of my slight disconnection from gaming derives from the lack of a fixed routine, how much from having a lot more available time to play and how much from a dearth of compelling, fresh content.

Can I be blue for you?
I do suspect the lack of really exciting new MMORPGs to try has more to do with it than anything. Playing old favorites works very well for me when I have both limited playtime and the need for something relaxing to do. Not so much, it seems, when the days stretch out ahead and I'm eager for something interesting to fill them.

 I've long been of the opinion that novelty is overrated but circumstances change. Right now I could use something that feels both familiar and new. I would be willing to bet a significant amount of money that, should Brad McQuaid's Pantheon go into some kind of early access alpha this summer (at a more reasonable buy-in than the current $1000), I'd suddenly find there weren't enough hours in the day.

Whether World of Warcraft Classic can fill that bill I'm not sure. I know WoW well enough for it to count as familiar and I never played Vanilla so maybe that qualifies as novel. It seems very likely I'll be finding out, come the time. I'm not sure there's all that much on the horizon for the summer, so why not?

In the meantime I'll just keep on as I am. I'm not even sure I'm playing all that much less than would be if I was workng regular hours. It's more that I'm not using the extra time I have to play more. That has surprised me, a little.

If I don't play as much I have less to blog about, which is another irony, because, of course, I have a lot more time to spend on writing. One thing I'm considering is expanding the range of topics I write about here. I've been very strict about this being an MMORPG blog but I have quite a few other interests I'd like to mouth off about now and then. I've often considered starting another blog or two to cover them but Wilhelm's excellent post on Catch 22 the other day made me think I might just feed the odd non-MMO post in here, once in a while.

We shall see. I'll think about it in the weeks after I get back from Spain, when I find out how the next phase of treatment takes me. For now, though, it will be business as usual, which means I'd better get on and play some MMORPGs so I have something to write about!

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Instructions Not Included : SW:TOR

A month into playing Star Wars: The Old Republic, I feel I know almost as little about the game as when I began. It's been a while since I started a new-to-me, Western-made MMORPG so I may be misremembering, but I'm pretty sure it didn't used to take me this long to get the basics down.

It's true that I haven't been playing the heck of out it the way I did Guild Wars 2 or even The Secret World, which were quite possibly the last similar properties I tried. That's a terrifying thought, isn't it? Has it really been seven years since the last major Western themepark MMORPG? I suppose there was WildStar...

Even so, I've put in around a hundred hours so far, taking one character to Level 57 and another to 35. You'd think I'd be up to speed with the leveling part of the game, at least, by now. Well, I'm not, or at least not so you'd notice.

Some of that could be down to the very easy gameplay. As PKDude99 observed on his return to both TOR and blogging, "...there’s no challenge in the leveling game.  If anything it’s even easier now than it was before".

Don't hassle me, Corso, I know what I'm doing.
Like him, I also "play to relax not really to have a challenge" although unlike him I don't find TOR's basic gameplay boring. There is indeed one holy heck of a lot of running to and fro but I like it. I find it puts me into something of a zen trance.

It's possible the overall ease of play may mitigate against the need, even the desire to learn, something that would normally force itself upon a new player in fairly short order. In most Western MMORPGs, once you climb about a third of the rungs on the leveling ladder, you tend to find that winging it no longer works. That was true of even GW2 and TSW when they were new, although not so much these days.

While I'm not strugggling in the slightest when it comes to notching up levels, I think I may have the least idea of what's going on around me I've ever had in any game. It was only yesterday, for example, that I found the Auction House for the first time.

I can't recall anything that ever suggested there was such a thing. I only found out about it because I was having a major clean-out of my Stronghold and Ship storage, which was full to bursting with gear I thought I might want to use for appearances some day.

Damn! It came up empty again! If you say a word you can walk home.
TOR has possibly the worst appearance system I've come across. No, actually, World of Warcraft's is worse, at least in that, so far, I've never been able to understand how it works at all. TOR's system is reasonably easy to follow. It just fails completely on one of the most basic requirements of an Appearance system: you cannot lock in the look of items individually, only as part of a set.

That, however, is a topic for a post of its own. The reason I mentioned it is that while I was cleaning house I googled to see if there was any way to salvage/deconstruct/dismantle old gear and in the course of my investigations I discovered the existence of the Galactic Trade Network, the game's Auction House.

It took me a while to find out where to go to access the GTN. After I'd found a terminal and spent ten or fifteen minutes familiarizing myself with the search functions, I posted a couple of pieces to test the demand and they duly popped back into my mail box a day later, unsold, making me very glad I hadn't laboriously added the lot.

In the meantime I sorted the many dozens of gloves and boots and belts and bracers into piles to Keep or Throw. That meant looking at every blasted one in the Dressing Room, leading me to the opinion that almost all the gear in TOR is hideous.

At least that meant I didn't have to worry about keeping it to use later. I sold about three-quarters of it and stashed the pieces I could just about bear to look at, then I started on the crafting mats.

Crafting is another major plank of basic gameplay I know sod all about yet. In almost every other MMORPG since the turn of the century, a month in I would have several crafters beavering away in a doomed bid for self-sufficiency. In TOR, not only have I yet to craft a single item, I have yet to learn the names of the crafting professions.

It's not even as if I'm catching up. After this weekend, when I played quite a bit, I feel I've fallen further behind. I went back to several planets I thought I was done with - Ord Mantell, Coruscant, Taris, intending to knock out a bunch of Heroic Missions to make some credits and instead I found myself taking new Side Missions I could swear weren't there before.

Here, you think?
What's more, whole new species of Missions kept popping up, making new categories for themselves in my Journal. Whether their appearance is tied to my Smuggler's level or some trigger in the story I have no idea. They just appeared, handed out by droids on street corners or at vending machines.

My ever-lengthening To Do list now includes not just the expected Class and Planetary Missions but sections headed Galactic Solutions Industries, Macrobinoculars and Seeker Droid.  The last two involve actual in-game gizmos I have to employ to search for hidden items, something that involves learning a whole new set of mechanics.

I would say that nothing in the game explains what these mechanics might be, but that's not entirely true. As well as a few cryptic hints in the Mission Journal I was astonished to receive a very lengthy transmission by mail from GSI on the correct use of the Seeker Droid.

TOR's use of in-game mail to communicate salient facts seems to go well beyond anything I've seen elsewhere in the genre. EverQuest II and GW2 both make use of the post on occasion but this is taking it to another level altogether.

Not that it helped much. I'd already managed to work out how to use the both the binoculars and the droid by trial and error - mostly error - but even with the manual I still haven't succeeded in digging anything out of the Tatooine sand.

Which is fine. I like feeling there's more going on than I can follow. I very much enjoy having new mechanics and gimmicks thrown at me in the expectation that I'll cope, somehow. Unlike, say, GW2, where this sort of thing only tends to happen at the same time someone is trying to rip my head off, in TOR I feel I have all the time I need to study the instructions, such as they are, and experiment.

Meanwhile, the storylines I was supposed to be following are receding into the distance. I've all but lost track of the plot on both characters, so when I do push on and speak to someone new I barely know whether it's part of the Class story, a Planetary Arc or just some random sequence I picked up somewhere out in the boondocks.

What about here?

I keep meaning to knuckle down and follow the Smuggler and Agent stories so I can at least get to the end of the first chapter in one of them. That's how I finally made it as far as Tatooine today.

Which would have been fine if only I hadn't picked up five GSI quests (four Dailies and a Weekly) plus a message from my Seeker Droid saying it had found something. The upshot of all that was an awful lot of triangulating and digging and no progress on Story at all.

Eventually, I'm sure, I'll understand, mostly, what I'm doing. Might take another month. Maybe more. That may well be the point when I start to agree with PKDude99 that "I just want to be done."

For now, though, I'm enjoying the confusion. Here's to more of it.

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Up On The Roof : SW:TOR

My subscription to Star Wars: The Old Republic is due to expire in a couple of days. I'm still playing regularly, so I'd probably have renewed for another month if it wasn't that I'm going to be away for the first two weeks of June, driving around Andalusia and Extremadura, drinking wine and looking at castles.

I'll almost certainly re-sub as soon as I get back. I'll be starting a twelve-week course of chemotherapy then, a follow-up to my surgery earlier in the year, and it's very likely I'll be off work for much of that so, depending on how well I tolerate the drugs, I could find myself with quite a lot of time to play and blog about MMORPGs.

That's what I call a picture window.
It occurred to me yesterday that before any of that happened - specifically, before the sub lapsed - there was one thing I ought to do. Spend my credits.

Perhaps the most obtrusive and potentially frustrating of all the restrictions placed on Free to Play accounts in the hope of persuading tight-fisted customers to open their wallets is the currency limit. F2P players can only hold 200k. Preferred status raises it to 350k.

Is it that a lot? It sounds like a lot. Until you play you can't really be sure and even then it takes a while to judge. The income stream you see at low level tells you next to nothing about your future earning capacity..

Reckon we could fix a bungee rope here, Corso? I'll let you be the first to test it.

All MMORPGs end up feeding more cash at higher levels but the degree to which it changes varies hugely from one game to another. In Guild Wars 2, for example,the cash you get from mob drops and "quest" rewards does improve over time but any increase is functionally meaningless, going from a few copper to a few silver in a game whose economy runs on gold.

If you want to make money in GW2 you have to go out and grind for mats to sell to other players, or play the Auction House flipping game. There's no direct route to a fortune. In EverQuest, on the other hand, the monetary value of quest rewards increases very significantly as you level up and NPCs will pay hundreds of platinum pieces for commonplace, higher level drops. You can make bank doing nothing but adventuring.

TOR is very definitely at the EQ end of that scale. Last night I decided I wanted to reach one million credits on my Smuggler before my subscription ended. I'd already passed a couple of hundred grand to my Agent but that still left the Smuggler sitting on just over 600k.

Hmm. I didn't think it would actually let me jump down here...

It took me no more than a couple of hours running Heroic Missions to make the extra 400k I needed. That really puts the 350k Preferred Currency Limit in perspective. It's about one session's income at Level 50, which does seem astonishingly mean-spirited.

The reason I wanted to hit a million was housing. Of course it was. Housing is the one thing guaranteed to make me dig into my savings in any MMORPG.

TOR's housing is not at all bad. Yes, it is a hook system, automatically rendering it inherently inferior to all free placement systems, regardless of any other factor, but as hook systems go it's a good one. In this case, though, my desires had nothing to do with decoration and everything to do with living space.

First time I've ever seen anyone make a feature of lack of safety protocols.

My Smuggler has the Coruscant Stronghold and the Agent has the corresponding version in Dromund Kaas. Both begin with three rooms. Those alone would probably be enough for most casual players, were it not for the many tempting, locked doors. And the view.

OMG the view! In the Coruscant apartment, as you gaze through the huge, panoramic windows at the sky, you see the traffic streaming past, the cranes silhouetted against the horizon, the skyscrapers and the clouds. In Dromund Kaas you see the endless rain pouring down the glass, the city outside blue with possibility and longing.

And you see your balcony. Each home has a huge, curving expanse of flat plasteel just waiting for you to come outside and enjoy. There's a pad fit to land a speeder and the low walls above the fatal drop speak volumes about health and safety regulations in a galaxy where life is cheap.

Can you run inside and fetch me a cushion?

Opening each extra room in your Stronghold costs money, either Credits or Cartel Coins. Most of the unlocks are very reasonable. I'd already bought my way to the upper floors and opened most of the rooms in Coruscant even before I subbed, just as a way of staying under the miserly 200k cap.

Opening two stairways and five rooms had cost me less than 200k in total. All that was left was the Garage at 250k and the Balcony. The Balcony costs a million, twice as much as all the other rooms added together. And it's worth it.

I was in two minds whether to open Coruscant or Dromund Kaas. It would be very helpful if you could wander around an empty apartment before buying, as you can in EQ2. Maybe you can but if so I don't know how to do it.

I do know how to google though. I searched for "SWTOR Strongholds" and found a website of that exact name. And they have video tours. Here's the one for Coruscant. The part that shows the balcony begins just after the nine minute mark.

I watched it. Then I watched the Dromund Kaas one. All that rain looks better from the inside. I went for Coruscant.

Of course, had I thought of this a week ago, I could easily have earned enough credits to buy both. I still could, I guess, in the forty-eight hours before my sub ends. I will, eventually.

There's no need to hurry. That's the real joy of housing in MMORPGs. It persists more persistently than any of the supposedly persistent features upon which the genre depends. Buy a house and it holds its relevance, value and utility for the lifetime of the game. Tell that to your armor or your weapons.

You know spectacular sunsets are caused by air pollution, right?
If anything keeps me coming back to TOR for the long haul it won't be the story or the combat. It'll be the housing. I can imagine logging in after months away just to go out on that balcony and watch the sky change color.

I guess I probably should start thinking about getting some furniture if I'm going to stay. I wonder if you can buy a rooftop pool?
Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide