Monday, February 18, 2019

File It Under Fun From The Past : EverQuest, EQ2

Last night I was working on getting my EverQuest II Warlock to the level cap. He was a few bubbles into 108 when I finished Plane of Innovation, the first of the solo dungeons from 2017's Planes of Prophecy expansion. I exited into the lobby zone, Coliseum of Valor, and handed in my completed quest to the Goddess Druzzil Ro. Ding! 110.

It's a very positive indication of the quality of that expansion that I've now run four characters through all or most of the Signature questline and it still feels fresh and enjoyable. Counting the one character I bumped straight to 110 via the boost that came with last year's Chaos Descending, I now have five max level characters. It's the most I have ever had at one time in either EverQuest.

One of the benefits of having multiple characters at the cap in EQ2 is that the whole account gains a 20% xp boost for each, up to a maximum of 200%. My All Access account now has a "permanent" 100% xp bonus. That encourages me to carry on and level up even more characters. The faster and easier it gets, the more I enjoy it.

I put quotation marks around "permanent" just now because you get the bonus for having max level characters, not specifically level 110s. If and when the cap goes up the entire bonus will go away until I can level up all over again. Still, it's here now and for the rest of the year, at least, and I plan to make some use of it.

While I was dismantling clockworks and foiling Meldrath's schemes for the umpteenth time I was half following a conversation on the Test channel. For the longest time, one of the least-celebrated pleasures of playing Daybreak MMORPGs has been the wealth and depth of chat options available. Not only can you make custom channels, you can invite people to join them from any server and even from other games.

It's a great way to keep in touch with people you once played alongside, long after you may all have gone your separate ways. It's been many years since I played regularly on EverQuest II's Test server but all my accounts are registered with the Test channel and I regularly see and occasionally chat with familiar names from years ago.

This time they were talking about a new Public Quest that had just appeared for testing. In recent years, Public Quests - PQs as everyone calls them - have proliferated across Norrath. From their humble beginnings in Antonica and The Commonlands PQs have spread to Velious, Kunark and even The Planes. They feature increasingly heavily in recent expansions and public questing is becoming almost de rigeur for the holidays.

I've been running the new Erollisi Day PQ several times a day, most days, since it appeared a couple of weeks ago. I've hatched two eggs and the extraordinarlily cute familiars that popped out are bouncing along behind my Berserker and my Warlock in the least appropriate manner imaginable.

According to what I was hearing, the Test server was struggling to muster enough people to give the new PQ a good airing so I logged out and swapped accounts to throw one of my characters behind the team effort. The best I could do was either a Bruiser or a Necromancer at Level 90 but the PQ was supposed to be "for all levels" so I was hoping my lack of a maxed character on Test wouldn't matter.

It didn't, but my lack of the latest expansion on that account did. I asked where the PQ was and someone told me to go to Sinking Sands and use the portal there. That took me to an ethereal, unworldly lobby-zone where the portals for the Chronoportal event hung in space, drawn from all across Norrath.

I'm a bit vague on whether that's new for this year or I just missed it last time around. Later in the evening I found the portal to the Qeynos Hills instance next to the Antonican lighthouse, so you can still travel to the past from the specific locations as well. Although didn't that one used to be over by The Tower of the Oracles?

Whatever the story, I couldn't get in to see the new PQ, despite being in a raid group with the eight or nine people who could. I went to the Test board on the official forums and recounted my experience in case it might be considered a bug, then I wandered off to do some Chronoquesting on my own.

Fittingly, since all the quests celebrate events or tropes from the older game, EQ2 is once again planning on making some play of the Chronoportal "holiday" to help EverQuest celebrate its twentieth birthday. The event, which is always in March, dates back to 2011. I wrote about it the following year.

It's too early to say what the rewards might be. Usually there are some nostalgic paintings to hang on your wall. This year you get one of those just for logging in. Unfortunately the art assets haven't yet be linked so I can't reproduce or even describe it, only confirm that it's called Rise of Kunark.

What with yesterday's digression on casual play and last night's foray, I have been thinking - and researching - the current state of play on the Test servers for both EverQuest and EQ2.

It seems that, since last August, you have been able to create a Level 100 character on EQ2 Test for free. What's more, you can also bump a tradeskill to 100 for nothing. That's a very good deal. I do already have two Level 90s there, though, both of whom are also high-level crafters. Leveling through the 90s is good fun so I probably wouldn't bump them. I might add another class, though.

What's considerably more attractive is the deal available on EverQuest's Test server. I had completely forgotten that the long-running battle to keep Test free from copied characters was lost over a decade ago. 

Back when I played there was a strong feeling among many Test regulars that allowing characters to be cut and pasted across from Live would somehow damage the soul of the server. At the time I kind of agreed, but then again the practical advantages were so compelling it seemed churlishly selfish to insist on such a self-abnegating standard of purity.

Anyway, SOE enabled copying and it still pertains. This morning I copied my Level 93 Magician from Luclin/Stromm to Test and her clone is standing in the Guild Lobby, hoping for buffage, as I type this. To my considerable surprise there are forty other characters idling along with her, which is a Woodstock-sized turnout by Test standards.

There are major disadvantages to playing on Test but also some huge benefits, double xp all the time being the biggest. You can also re-copy characters as often as you want and all their gear and money comes with them so you have an endless money machine at your disposal. Which would be amazing if Test had an economy. Which it really doesn't.

How far any of this goes remains to be seen. I would love to hit three figures in EQ but I also know that it won't feel quite "real" on a copied character. Then again, since I swapped my All Access accounts around I haven't been playing the original mage much, anyway...

One way or another, all things Norrath seem to be heartily back on the agenda. I guess anniversaries do have weight. I'm very much looking forward to seeing what the official celebrations bring but in the meantime maybe I'll light a few candles to my own past glories, such as they ever were, and take a few turns around the Test servers, where I once had some of the funnest times ever.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

A Casual Affair : EverQuest

When Daybreak announced a few weeks ago that they were planning a "casual" progression server for EverQuest's twentieth birthday I got quite excited. I've been playing EQ, on and off, for the whole of those twenty years but it's been a long time since I last had a character at the level cap.

Building on yesterday's theme of expansions, there are few things that change the playing field so much as an increase in the Level Cap. If you came to MMORPGs via  World of Warcraft, as so many did, you might well believe that an increase in levels is a given when a new expansion drops. With the exception of Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria, which each added just five, WoW expansions come with ten levels included.

Had EverQuest followed that pattern, the level cap in old Norrath would now be somewhere close to three hundred. Despite being five years older and having released more than three times as many expansions, it's actually lower than WoW's. Battle for Azeroth took the cap to 120. EQ's last level increase, coming with the Ring of Scale expansion in 2017, went to 110.

Looking at the list of cap increases on Wikipedia, Sony Online Entertainment was surprisingly conservative from the start, especially when you consider that in those early days leveling up your character was the beating heart of the game. There were fifty levels at launch.That jumped to sixty with the first expansion, Ruins of Kunark, then held steady for two and a half years, two more expansions, until Planes of Power arrived in late 2002, bringing an increase of just five levels, making 65 in all.

That set the pattern for a while. There were four more expansions before Omens of War moved the bar to 70. Although no-one knew it at the time, that wasn't how it was supposed to go: one of the reasons the preceding expansion, Gates of Discord, was such a disaster was that the content had been tuned in the expectation that everyone would be Level 70 when they got past the opening zones. Someone forgot to put the extra five levels in the box.

My original Firiona Vie ranger, born Oct 9 2001.
EQ's endgame sat at Level 70 for four more expansions, until the semi-reboot of 2006's The Serpent's Spine took it to 75. At that point something changed. The next three expansions arrived with five levels apiece and since then it's been a comparative sprint to 110.

Raising the cap brings a lot of problems for any MMORPG still looking to attract new players or bring prodigals back into the fold. That's how we ended up with Heroic Characters and expansions that come with a Level Boost as part of the deal.

For some reason that I can't quite fathom, while Daybreak has been perfectly happy for EQ2 to put max level boosts in the imaginary box and hand out free gear to bring anyone and everyone up to the required starting spec, they don't offer anything similar for the elder game. The best you can do in EverQuest is to pay $35 for a "Heroic Character", which takes you to the giddy heights of Level 85, twenty-five levels below the cap.

There's a seven page thread about this on the forums, in which even the hardcore veterans, usually so dismissive of anything that smacks of EZMode, generally agree that 85 is ridiculous and should be raised, probably to either 100 or 105. As someone comments on the final page of the thread, though, "7 pages and not one word from a DBG person. I guess we know how seriously they take this request."

This is where I was hoping the upcoming "Casual" server would save us. I imagined a ruleset with accelerated XP, faster than currently available on Live, and very possibly a bunch of other adjustments to make leveling quicker and easier, such as more frequent spawns and faster travel. The current plan is very much not that.

It seems that both Daybreak's and the current playerbase's idea of "casual" is radically different from mine. DBG have interpreted it as involving slower xp than a regular Live server, although faster than the slowed-down Progression servers. About the only other difference from Live is the sequential unlocking of expansions at one a month. Since the plan is to open the server at Shadows of Luclin, the third expansion, that would bring the "Casual" server, Selos, to parity with Live in just two years.

The reaction to this has been vitriolic. Almost no-one likes it. The other new Progression server, the supposedly Hardcore Mangler, which has even slower xp and longer unlocks, is being seen as more casual because apparently "casual" means "very, very slow" to a lot of people. Who knew? Selos, with its fast unlocks, is reckoned by many to be ideal for the Hardcore because it means more raids opening sooner.

Firiona Vie's Plane of Knowledge: pop. "too many to count"

DBG have gone away to think about this for a while, acknowledging that they may have misjudged their audience. They are getting a lot better at doing that these days (aknowledging their mistakes, that is - they were always good at making them).

I took the trouble to post my own thoughts about what I would want from a "casual" server but I think I'm shouting into a bucket. There will be an announcement later this week to say what, if anything, they are going to change but I don't anticipate getting the faster xp and easier conditions I was hoping for. I think Selos is out.

I would still like to get a character closer to the cap without having to go uphill in the snow both ways to do it. And there are options.

The Test server has always had permanent double XP running. I even have characters there, although not on the All Access account. I could make a Heroic Character there and start at 85 with decent gear but there are enough disadvantages to playing on Test to offset that somewhat.

Not quite capped. You can have 500 traders. Pretty darn close though.
Test comes with extra resets and brand new bugs as it does what it's there to do - test content. There's no economy so you can't buy anything in The Bazaar, something I rely on for gearing up. What's more, if I ever did hit the cap and wanted to do some actual grouping, that's not going to happen: Test has a population in the single figures during my normal play hours.

There's one more possibility and it's something I hadn't even considered until I started fact-checking for this post. The "role-playing" server, Firiona Vie, has apparently had a permanent 50% xp boost running since 2010. No wonder it almost always shows "High" on the Server Status page!

I do, in fact, have a character on Firiona Vie, although once again it's not on my current paid account. Mrs Bhagpuss and I started characters there back when the server launched, when it did, briefly, have an actual roleplaying ruleset, including the hilarious mechanic that made everyone speak only in their own racial language until they could get someone to teach them the Common tongue.

Whether it's worth starting over, even from level 85, just to get a 50% leveling boost I'm not sure. It might be. I think I might at least go over to FV and have a wander around to get a feel for the place. I hear it's... different.

Much better would be if DBG would decide to bundle a Level 100 or 110 Boost with the next expansion, assuming there is one. I'd get my wallet out for that.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Same Same But Different

Wilhelm has a provacatively-titled post up about expansions. He's bouncing off another very interesting post on the same subject by Kaylriene. Now here am I, bouncing off both of them. Isn't blogging wonderful?

Both posts have long comment threads that are well worth reading. It's a topic that could sustain many discussions and it would be all too easy to wander off into the thickets of detail about this expansion or that, something I'm extremely tempted to do, a temptation to which I may very well give in, some other time.

For now, though, I'm going to try and opine on the generalities a little. Why do I like expansions so much? Why do I feel uncomfortable with any MMO that shies away from them? What makes for the perfect cadence?

As is so often the case, a little research finds my memory playing me false. In a comment on Wilhelm's thread I repeated a claim I've made many times; that I'd found EverQuest's six-monthly expansion release schedule, something they kept up for five years between 2002 and 2007, perfectly suited to my needs.

This is not entirely accurate. Checking the list of expansions that appeared during those years I find that, while I did indeed buy and play, on release, the first four bi-annual expansions (Planes of Power, Legacy of Ykesha, Lost Dungeons of Norrath and Gates of Discord), after that I skipped an entire year, missing both Omens of War and Dragons of Norrath, before returning for Depths of Darkhollow in September 2005.

There was a very good reason for that: Gates of Discord. GoD, with SOE's unerring timing, arrived in February 2004. That gave EverQuest players most of the year to struggle with the worst expansion they'd ever seen. GoD was not just brutal and unforgiving, it was buggy and often unplayable. It was later revealed that it had been released unfinished for reasons having mostly to do with arcane internal politics within the company.

Gates of Discord broke guilds. It broke the one I'd been with for years. Before Omens of War appeared in September to stem the hemorrhage, EQ had bled players in all directions. I went to the EQ2 beta along with half my guild. Others I knew went to the beta for a new Blizzard MMO called World of Warcraft. It was more than a year before I returned. Most never did.

This is a lesson; a bad expansion can break your game. Many, myself included, would say Storm Legion broke Rift. I've heard it argued that Mines of Moria broke Lord of the Rings Online or that Trials of Atlantis broke Dark Age of Camelot. Every expansion upsets someone but when you upset almost everyone you give yourself a lot of work just to get back to where you were. You never quite do.

As many people have observed, though, as a developer you can't just sit back and do nothing. Assuming your goal is to make money and keep everyone in work, you have to have something to sell and your players have to have something to do. These days a canny combination of premium membership, cosmetics and cash shops can make for a surprisingly substantial and consistent income stream but even now, the big cash injection comes when you have a "box" to sell.

Expansions also get you coverage. Over time, as your MMO ages, people write and stream and talk about it less and less. Everyone wants novelty, except your slowly shrinking installed base, who want anything but. You have the inevitable dilemma to face: new players or old?

When you're talking about a video game that's ten or fifteen or even twenty years old, the chances of attracting fresh blood are vanishingly small. Everyone who cares already knows about your game. Anyone who's interested has already tried it. It's huge and tangled and complicated and the barriers to entry are so high there's snow on top.

EverQuest last made a concerted effort to draw in a new audience all the way back in 2006, with The Serpent's Spine. TSS added an entire wing of the game that allowed new players to progress from tutorial to level cap in brand new zones, just as though the game was new.

That was seven years after the game began. It's now been running for twice as long, mostly as a nostalgia train for devotees, than it ever managed as walk-in entertainment for newcomers.

This, again as many have pointed out, is another lesson: you need to decide who your customers are. After a certain point, almost all your income is coming from people who play your game because yours is the game they play. They may not have much interest in what's new or hip in the genre any more. They may actively dislike most of what they know about "that sort of thing", assuming they know anything at all. They may be staying with you because your game is old-fashioned, not in spite of it, however uncomfortable that feels.

Every change you make risks shearing off a chunk of your playerbase with no realistic chance of attracting a significant number of new players to replace them. On the other hand, you have to have something to offer that doesn't feel like last year's leftovers warmed over. Your regular players will probably be happy enough with more of the same but the goal is to pull back some of those who've drifted away, while not driving off too many of the ones you've managed to keep.

Fortunately, the MMORPG genre has been around long-enough to have established a number of recognized nodal points. A clever developer can plan ahead. There are certain levers to pull that should have predictable results: mounts; flying; housing; NPC Mercenaries; PvP Battlegrounds; cloaks. (Yes, cloaks...)

Farm the changes and you can keep the installed base as happy as installed bases get (tar and feathers but no torches and pitchforks). Meanwhile, you get to enjoy a few months of revived interest from the much greater number of people who used to play and still have relatively rose-tinted memories of how it felt.

Just how often can you pull that trick off, though? EverQuest has almost certainly had more success in developing and marketing pure nostalgia via the Progression Server production line than it could ever have hoped for from the last decade of high-end-focused expansions. Who, reading this, has actually played through any of the new content in an EQ expansion since 2010's House of Thule? There have been  eight more since then.

EverQuest II is five years younger but that's still plenty of time for expansions to pile up. There have been fifteen, which averages out at one a year although the schedule has had some bumps. World of Warcraft, exactly the same age, has managed fewer than half that with seven.

Evidently, commercial success and frequency of expansions are not inextricably linked. Then again, who can say whether there would be more people subscribed to WoW right now had they kept to the same cadence as the erstwhile rival they left in the dust so long ago?

WoW's astonishing success could have - perhaps should have - killed both EverQuest and EQII, but it didn't. How far has the willingness of first SOE and latterly Daybreak to keep pumping out expansions, year in, year out, contributed to the impression that these are games people still play? If (when) the expansions stop, as some of us, myself included, thought they might this year, will the conclusion be that the games are over? Or will that installed base just carry on, regardless, grumbling and complaining but still paying and playing?

My own feeling is that an MMORPG that no longer releases expansions has become a curiosity, a period piece. That doesn't mean its days are over: Final Fantasy XI proves that much, but it does mean an almost inevitable drift, slipping out of public awareness into the muzzy comfort of history.

While your game can still raise a news item or two on its upcoming release schedule, no-one can reasonably claim it's dead. People may shake their heads in wonder that anyone's left to care but the corollary is that someone must.

What, then, to make of busy, active, successful MMORPGs that eschew expansions altogether? Guild Wars 2 is one. Alright, GW2 has had two expansions in seven years but only in the way your cat might have had two baths. ArenaNet had to be dragged kicking and screaming to the expansion cycle and all the evidence right now is that, having wriggled free, they hope never to go back.

The Living World/Story concept was devised to replace both the desire and need for expansions with a continual stream of expansion-like live content. It took ANet many years to get that cadence right; so many years that they were forced to drop two expansions just to fill the gaping holes. Now it looks as though they finally have the pattern down pat. Will GW2 fans ever see another expansion? Maybe. Money is still nice. Just don't expect one any time soon.

The effect this has on me, as a regular, long-time GW2 player, is enervating. It's arguable that four quarterly updates comes to something not so different in size and scale to a full expansion but that's not at all how it feels. Also, there's nothing to buy. That's important.

I don't look forward to LS releases any more. If anything, I dread them. GW2 feels to me like an MMORPG already in maintenance mode, except every few months there's a very brief upset that annoys me for a few days before everything settles back to normal. I spend nothing on the game even though I play every day. Without an expansion to look forward to, there's not much to hold my attention, which is wandering.

Then again, I strongly disliked Path of Fire. I rate it the second-worst expansion for any game for which I've ever paid money (Storm Legion being the worst). And since it was hugely more popular than Heart of Thorns, which I loved, I should probably be glad there's no sign of a third. I'll most likely loathe it, if and when it arrives.

In a way, that sums up the problem: every expansion is a roll of the dice. If it changes the game too much people who liked things the way they were will leave. If it changes it too little people who were getting itchy feet will take it as a cue to quit. There's a Goldilocks zone there somewhere but good luck finding it.

It's a truly fascinating subject, or I find it so. Because I came to the MMO genre via the undisputed emperor of expansions, SOE, my expectations have been sculpted into a certain shape. I love expansions and I want them for any MMORPG I play. I like to anticipate them, I like to pay for them, I like to play them. And when I've done all that I want to do it again. And again.

On balance, for a game I'm playing regularly, I think once a year is about right. First there's the three or four months playing through the new expansion that just appeared. Then there's the announcement of the next one to look forward to.

Half a year of mild anticipation follows, with plenty of time to get up to speed in any areas that may be lacking. Then there's a couple of months of gentle pre-expansion activity both in and out of game before the next one drops and the whole cycle rolls over. Perfect.

Which is not to say I'd turn my nose up at an expansion every six months. If the content was decent that would certainly reduce my desire to play multiple MMOs. I can't see that ever happening again, though.

To conclude, my feeling is that expansions are essential for the ongoing health of any MMORPG that hasn't yet slumped into maintenance mode. In the early years, expansions can and do bring in new customers in numbers but after a time the best that can be expected is for the expansions to keep the players who are already committed from having other ideas. Crucially, if your expansion isn't going to do more harm than good, it better not be a stinker.

As to what constitutes a "good" expansion, that's a question for another day and another post. I feel this is a topic I might come back to, again and again.



Sunday, February 10, 2019

A Funny Thing Happened...

As long as I've been playing MMORPGs I've been reading Forums. Longer. Back in 1999, when I was considering dipping my toe in the online gaming waters, almost the first thing I did was visit the Official Forums of the games I was looking at (Ultima Online and EverQuest) to get a feeling for what I might be letting myself in for.

Back in those days, forums tended to be lively. There were often frank exchanges of views. Some people became tired and emotional, as the tabloids used to put it.

Forums then were not for the faint of heart. Communication between players and developers could be... robust. Several of Sony Online Entertainment's so-called Community Representatives adopted tones more suited to a nightclub bouncer or the sarcastic host of a late-night panel show.

Games companies were very well aware of the impression their forums could have on potential customers.  They needed to be. Social media was in its infancy. There weren't a whole lot of other places to look for information on games you might want to try other than the company's website and forums.

Both the quality and intensity of debate varied enormously, forum to forum. Much depended on the skills of the moderators. I remember Dark Age of Camelot having surprisingly well-mannered forums, particularlyfor a PvP-oriented game, something that was most likely the direct result of Mark Jacobs hiring Sanya "Tweety" Weathers to run them.

EverQuest, in direct contrast, had first Abashi and then Absor. Things got so bad after a while that SoE became probably the first and possibly the only MMORPG to close its own forums because they were bringing the game into disrepute.

What's missing?
Even so, they had to return, albeit very heavily moderated. In the early 2000s no online game could afford to run without public forums indefinitely. It was reckoned at the time that no more than ten per cent of players ever visited forums and only one per cent posted or commented there, but those minorities were what we would now call "Influencers".

"Read the Forums" is a phrase I remember keenly from public chat. The forums were where you sent people to find out things you didn't want to spend ages typing out; then there'd be an argument about it and you - or someone - would end up typing it all anyway.

There was always someone in every guild who made a practice of reading the forums and relaying all the info in guild chat. Sometimes that person was me. Over the years, though, I did that less and less.

At some point Official Forums stopped being central to companies' communications. There were flashier, sexier, zeitgeistier options. At the same time, tolerance for bad behavior diminished. Moderation became stricter. Swearing and name-calling, something not always limited to players, fell out of fashion. Forums became anodyne, bland.

After a while, even official communications drifted away. You can probably still find the weekly or monthly Patch Notes somewhere on the official forums of most MMOs, but you're more likely to find the latest news releases on Reddit or, increasingly, on Discord.

Reddit was, for quite a while, the up-and-coming channel for hip developers to hang out with their fans. The crowd-controlled moderation there supposedly allowed for more civilized discourse. That was hard for some older players to believe, given Reddit's widespread reputation for vindictive flame wars and general bad behavior, but I have to say my own experience of MMO sub-Reddits has been pleasant enough.

The problem with all such third-party applications, though, is ephemerality. Social media is littered with the rusting hulks of former giants. It may seem cost-effective to avoid customer service bills by outsourcing communications to the current hot social media platform but how long before you have to move again? And again?

There was a time, not so long ago, when many of the MMORPGs I played were very keen to push their presences on Facebook. That's a name I don't hear so much any more. Reddit is still going strong, especially when it comes to Ask Me Anything, but increasingly Discord is the place to be.

Discord, the theory is, allows for both instant and asynchronous communication. It also handles both speech and text. You can chat in real time to game developers while you and they are playing the game. Or you can hold forum-style discussions that persist over days or weeks.

If only ten percent of players ever went to the official forums, though, how many visit the Official Discord? Based on numerous in-game conversations I've heard over the past few months, as various Guilds and Alliances in World vs World attempt to shore up their organizations, Discord doesn't yet have much of a universal recognition factor.

I admit I'm somewhat biased. I don't much like Discord. I find it over-fussy in appearance, fiddly in function and vaguely patronizing in tone. It gives every impression of trying too hard to be popular, like one of those teachers who insists the class calls them by their first name.

Even if I did like Discord more, though, what I would still object to is being asked to make an account with a third-party just to have access to official communications from the company that operates the game I'm playing. As an alternate channel I can put up with it but as the only one? That's a step too far. 

I don't play Revelation Online any more and I'm not likely to, so when I noticed today that has permanently closed the Official Forums for that game I didn't have to make any hard choices. And let's not get melodramatic: I don't imagine forum closure would immediately lead to me leaving an MMO I was otherwise enjoying.

It's a bad omen, though. Fortunately, it's not something that seems likely to affect the games I'm playing, or not right now, at least.

I've noticed over the past couple of years that Daybreak, who appeared very keen indeed to talk to players via both Reddit and Discord, have quietly reinforced their presence on the official forums. Discord is still the place to go to get immediate dev feedback but most of the answers I've found to issues I've been researching of late have turned up in developer posts on the the forums.

The Guild Wars 2 forums are also very lively. I would guess traffic is down compared to a few years ago, and ArenaNet developers are infamously cautious about what they say in public, but there's still plenty of to and fro going on. I visit the forums most days and find something to keep me amused.

Looking ahead, I was reading the Ashes of Creation Q&A on Reddit this morning and literally the top question in the comment thread that follows it is "Official Forums. When?". To which the next commenter has appended "That is the most important question of all".

If AoC turns out not to have any Official Forums it wouldn't stop me playing. It wouldn't encourage me, though. And when you're already on the fence about a game it doesn't take all that much to tip you off. I hope the devs have been reading Reddit.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Second Time Around

In a post called "What Should Everquest 3 Even Look Like?", Wilhelm quotes John Smedley, ex-CEO of Sony Online Entertainment and Godfather of the EverQuest franchise, as saying the main lesson he learned from launching EQ2 was that he shouldn't make any more MMO sequels.

Smed didn't follow his own advice and neither has anyone else. Off the top of my head and in no particular order I can think of

Lineage II
Guild Wars 2
Asheron's Call 2
FFXIV (Twice!)
Planetside 2
EverQuest II 

Releasing a game under the same name with "2" or "II" appended (or XIV, if you're Square) isn't the only way to follow up a hit MMORPG. Ultima Online was going to have a sequel, Ultima Worlds Online: Origin. That never happened. Dark Age of Camelot is hoping for a spiritual sequel in Camelot Unchained. That may or may not ever happen. City of Heroes spawned City of Villains and Wizard 101 was followed by Pirate 101.

You don't even have to make a new game. Archey, in the comments to Wilhelm's post, suggested World of Warcraft already had its sequel in Cataclysm. Or you can just port your current game to another platform. It worked for H1Z1.

Sequels, then, seem fairly well-established. Success varies but by and large the effort seems worthwhile. FFXIV and GW2 have been unequivocal successes and most of the rest would seem to have washed their faces, at least.

What's missing from the above round-up is threequels. Quite a few companies have seen fit to take a second trip to the well but no-one so far has risked a third. Okay, that's not strictly true. NCSoft has had a third Lineage title in development for seven years and that's where it remains - in development.

The only MMORPG I can think of that actually has had three discrete versions of the same IP, all running as full MMORPGs simultaneously is... EverQuest. Long before Lineage Eternal, just after the peak of EQ's success, in the mid-2000s SOE had three MMORPGs set in Norrath : EQ, EQII and EverQuest Online Adventures, the PS2 Console version. Arguably they had four, with the Mac version but since that was effectively just a sliver of the main EQ game, frozen in time, we'll discount that for now.

By that count, if Daybreak did go for a new EverQuest game it would either be EverQuest 4 or EQ5. No wonder SoE went with EQNext. Whatever number or name they stuck on the back of it, I'm not wholly convinced it would be a great idea even to try. But then, if they don't try, where does that leave them?

As I've mentioned before, there's been an increasing murmur of speculation among GW2 players about the possibilites of a second sequel to Guild Wars. There hasn't been the least scintilla of a hint from any official source that such a thing is even in the earliest planning stages, let alone imminent. On the contrary, there have been past statements suggesting the developers are minded never to let it happen.

Even so, people talk. MMORPGs have very long lives and by design they don't need to be replaced. They can be refurbished and re-purposed to meet changing requirements without any need to scrap the whole thing and start over. But.

Yes, and it's a very big "but", indeed. Old game is old game. Old players are old players. Every time you make a radical change to attract new blood, first you have to convince anyone you have something genuinely fresh and then you have to calm your existing players who think you're going change the game they love. Hard circle to square.

It's a dilemma no-one has quite figured out yet. Blizzard has been steadily "re-starting" WoW with each expansion for years now but the evidence for that approach working is sketchy at best. If they'd just carried on building on top of the same systems instead of tearing them down and starting over every 18-24 months, would they have fewer subscribers now or more?

Perhaps it is a safer bet to launch a sequel after all. Maybe you will split the audience but you also might find a way to keep your hardcore while also attracting players who hadn't really wanted to buy what you were already selling.

When you've made the decision and your sequel, what then? Maybe you planned for obsolescence and your elder game goes to maintenance (FFXI, Guild Wars) or even sunsets. Maybe you run both in tandem, serving two sets of players, hoping they have synergies you can exploit (EQ/EQII, Lineage/LineageII).

And then what? What happens when your sequel is itself fading, long in the tooth and bleeding players, server count shrinking and press releases going unreported? Do you double down on what you've got, dig in for the long haul, husband your diminishing resources and declining revenues to keep the lights on as long as possible? Or do you risk throwing everything you have to the winds with another roll of the same dice?

No-one knows the answer to any of these questions. The concept of online video games with no "use before" date is still fresh and untried. As Wilhelm regularly reminds us, people still play MUDs. Why? Who? For how much longer?

TorilMUD, EQ's direct ancestor and therefore WoW's, too, turns thirty in four years' time. EverQuest is twenty this year, EQII and WoW both fifteen. Are these things ever going to stop? Will they die faster if they spawn sequels or will the publicity extend their lives, too?

The calculations are going to work out differently in every case and there is, of course, the small matter of whether the sequel is any good. FFXIV:ARR and GW2 are strong sequels because they're strong games. Had they been launched with different titles they'd most likely have been successful too.

On the other hand, standing on the shoulders of strong, successful MMORPGs probably didn't do either of them any harm. To go back to Wilhelm's original question, if it ever happens, what EverQuest 3 should look like is a good game.

I'm not naive enough to believe that quality is its own reward. There's timing, luck and publicity to consider, for a start. I also understand that brand recognition matters. When you have a tainted brand like EverQuest, however, people knowing your name cuts both ways. Whether the next Norrath comes to us on PC, Console or Mobile, it is going to have to be good.

It doesn't have to be original. Originality gets you column inches and awards but it doesn't necessarily get you customers. It also doesn't have to be perfect. Was Fortnite? Was PUBG? Was WoW?

No, what EQ3 has to be is a game that people want to play; a lot of people. Those people could be the people playing EQ and EQ2 right now, in which case EQ3 could replace either or both, or they could be new people, in which case Daybreak might end up running three EverQuests again.

When - if - DBG announces a new EverQuest title, what it can't afford to be is something no-one wants. Something that alienates almost everyone. Something people laugh or sneer at or even plain ignore. Something no-one believes will ever happen. Not again.

It's a big risk. Would you take it if your livelihood depended on it?

For what it's worth, I think the opportunity waiting to be explored here is indeed a sequel. Not to the original, nor yet to EQ2. The Norrathian game that's crying out for the full-blown sequel treatment is EverQuest Online Adventures.

PC gaming is in its twilight years. The future is Mobile, Consoles and, one day, VR. The concept of MMOs, once alien, is becoming very familiar to console gamers. They seem to like it. And DBG already has a very successful console title with DCUO.

What's more, EQOA has an unblemished reputation and a nostalgia market of its own. Combined with the much-discussed trend towards less-punishing mechanics and more action-oriented gameplay, interest in a new, well-designed, console-based MMOLite under the EverQuest rubric could be considerable.

I'd buy a console to play that. Although, come to think of it, I'd have to buy a television, too...

Friday, February 8, 2019

That Old Familiar Feeling : EQ2

If it's Valentine's Day on Earth it must be Erollisi Day in Norrath. Call it a day? More like two weeks. The celebrations started yesterday and run until Tuesday the 19th.

I never really thought of Erollisi Day as one of the big dates on the calendar but looking at the schedule it's really grown over the years. There are half a dozen one-off quests and almost a dozen repeatables, as well as a race, two collections and getting on for twenty achievements.

When you consider that most of those can be done per character, not just per account, that's almost too much to cram into just under a fortnight. And that's not even considering the dozen recipe books of craftable items or the event currency you can farm to spend at a special vendor.

There's a new collection this year, which I did right away, but the highlight of 2019's holiday is a new Public Quest. I love PQs. They're often chaotic and I generally have no idea what I'm doing. I just follow everyone else, attack anything that's aggro, click on anything that's not and have a rare old time.
My team on the right, waiting for the slowcoaches coming down the hill to meet us. All those colored lights are flowers.

The new PQ is called "Love Will Lead You Back". It's beautifully designed; easy to understand, simple to run, fun to do and thematically appropriate.

The idea is to re-unite two lovers, separated by death. Literally. One's a zombie, the other a skeleton. I think. It was hard to see with all the mounts, mercs and familiars milling about.

The two lost souls begin on opposite sides of the zone and you have to guide them towards a re-union in the middle. To do this you pick various colored flowers as they spawn. The yellow and red ones urge the lover on (his or her outline glows the color of the one you're supposed to hand over) while the purple and black ones spawn aggressive undead out to spoil love's union.

The first time I  ran the PQ (I've only done it twice so far) I followed my regular method outlined above and attacked/clicked on anything I could see. This turned out to be a sound strategy. When our group came in range of the other coming towards us, the two lovers sprinted into each others' decaying embrace, together for eternity.

Mount training is a big deal these days. So they tell me.
As well as a warm glow (someone did actually say "Awww, that's so sweet!" in chat) I got eight Erollisi coins, a five-day Mount Training accelerator token and a Heart Shaped Egg. I examined the egg. It seemed to be a Familiar but there was no obvious way to hatch it.

I would have looked it up but at the time no-one had written the new PQ up in detail. Fortunately the Test chat channel, which I have been in since the game began, even though I haven't played on Test regularly for nearly ten years, was buzzing with people talking about the new content.

I learned that this PQ has a couple of clever mechanics. Firstly, as is often the case with Public Quests, your participation is graded. This time, however, you can be rated Passive, Active or ProActive.

For "Passive" you just have to be there. It's a reward for bothering to turn up. "Active" means hitting stuff when it spawns and registering sufficient damage. Probably. No-one seemed entirely sure. ProActive, the one you want, means not only hitting the mobs but also handing the flowers to the lover and, crucially, clearing the black and purple flowers before they have a chance to spawn baddies. 

To hatch your egg you need to be graded "ProActive" a number of times. No-one seems quite sure exactly how many - there's probably a random factor - but the consensus is somewhere between six and ten. Most of this is subject to revision as more information comes in.

I can see that this is going to annoy some people but I think it's rather clever. The familiar, a patchwork baby dragon named Carina Cuddleblaze, is exceptionally cute. It also has decent stats. Quite a few people are going to want that egg to hatch and some are going to want it on more than one character. I can see the PQ staying busy for the whole of the holiday.

Less welcome is the cadence for the Public Quests themselves. Yet again, facts are hard to come by, but it seems the PQ happens about once an hour, alternating between The Commonlands and Antonica. It takes about five or ten minutes and there's no global or even zone-wide broadcast. This is not ideal.

I spent a lot of time just sitting around waiting for the Antonica one to start last night and it never did. It would, however, have been easy for me to have missed it because I kept tabbing out to look at stuff on the web. In the time I was waiting, I also missed one in The Commonlands, which by my reckoning shouldn't have been up at all.

It would be nice either to have these things on a known, set schedule or for there to be a global Broadcast. The PQ is tons of fun but waiting for it, not so much.

Anyway, that's a very minor complaint. Once again EQ2's small but dedicated development team has done us proud. I will be making every effort to hatch my egg so that Carina can join me on me travels. Everyone needs a patchwork baby dragon with Group Hug!

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Money Is The Anthem

BioWare's Anthem is The Big New Thing. There seems to be absolutely no doubt in anyone's mind about that.

I foresee finding myself in a very familiar position: reading thousands of words about a video game I have no interest whatsoever in playing. I predict there will be a torrent of posts, varying from the gushing to the gutted. Some will skate across the surface on a wave of feels; others will dive into the depths, dragging up a deadweight of extraordinary detail.

After a couple of weeks the torrent will turn to a stream then a trickle. In six weeks only a couple of die-hards will be left, working the pump-handle for those last few drops. Everyone else will either have moved on to the Next Big New Thing, if there is one, or back to an Old Favorite. Either that or they'll be posting about how bored they are and why doesn't anyone make any good games any more?

The game's not even out yet and already the dam is breached. There are leaks springing up all over the place. I've already heard plenty about the Demo Weekend and its issues. Isey and Gevlon had a sparky little interchange about that.

The post that prompted me to join in, however, was Alli Rense's compelling anti-Anthem rant at The Parent Trope, unequivocally entitled Anthem? No Thank You. Alli isn't just uninterested in playing the game, like me; she sees it as an active threat to the future of the kind of games she enjoys. Very specifically she imagines that if Anthem is successful it will lead to future BioWare games following the Anthem model and abandoning the narrative RPG format on which they built their brand.

She's probably right, too, although she doesn't speculate on what might become of BioWare if Anthem isn't successful. Hard to imagine that would have a positive outcome for the company or its future projects - if any.

I don't have any emotional attachment to BioWare, either past or present. They made one game I really liked - Baldur's Gate - and one I quite liked - Baldur's Gate 2. That was twenty years ago. Since then they've made nothing I care about at all.

I did try the first Dragon Age and found that, while it had a powerful impact at first, it very rapidly became tedious, repetitive and obvious. I played DA intensely for about a week and then one day I couldn't stand the thought of ever playing it again.

It was a useful learning experience. The most important thing I learned was that I really, really hate the "Companion" mechanic, where the player character is expected to schmooze, romance or otherwise jolly along various NPCs, either by buttering them up with flattery or giving them gifts.

Who ever thought this was a good idea? And how old were they? Six? Will you be my best friend if I give you my Action Figure?  No, cos I can't be your friend any more, cos you like Jimmy and Jimmy's bad! Geez. Give me a break.

That experience beyond anything else is why I have yet to even download Star Wars: the Old Republic. The mere thought of having to deal with managing the imaginary emotions of a bunch of virtual pre-schoolers in battle-armor gives me the heebie-jeebies.

The other lesson I learned from Dragon Age is that I really can't take any more Generic Fantasy Plots (or Generic Science Fiction Plots for that matter). I can stomach them as background in MMORPGs, where all narrative is set dressing for the main performance - building my character - and I can get on board when  narrative provides atmosphere for enjoyable mechanics, as in the two Baldur's Gate games or Pillars of Eternity, but the last time I encountered a plot in a video game that I found as immersive or compelling as a good novel or movie...well, if it ever happens, I'll let you know.

When Alli says "I think video games are the best way we have to tell a story. Better than TV, film, and even books. Because they’re the most immersive, they have the biggest impact." I imagine she speaks for quite a few people who might be reading this. Even I would say that the medium has the potential to compete on equal terms with established narrative forms.

It's potential that's gone largely unfulfilled for decades, though, primarily because of the mechanics involved. I have a big issue with all video game mechanics when it comes to storytelling. Video games are clunky. They persistently pull you out of the moment to fight things or solve puzzles or click through dialog trees. It's the equivalent of trying to watch a movie with someone sitting next to you going "Who's that guy? Wasn't he in that movie we saw last week? Are you sure you switched the lights off when we parked? Can you hold my Coke, I want to get a mint out my, wait, your pocket. You had the mints, didn't you?"

The ones that do it the least and which probably make the best stab at telling an uninterrupted narrative come from the sub-genre often somewhat derisively labelled "Walking Simulators" but what those mostly seem to me to be doing is trying to edge as close as possible to being movies. One of the main criticisms often levelled at them is that they aren't really video games at all.

We do all make some sweeping assumptions at times, about what a video game can or can't be - or should or shouldn't be. At one point, in a piece that has enough comment hooks to hang a dozen blog posts on, Alli asks "Aren’t video games supposed to be an introverted hobby?".

Are they? I don't know. They certainly have had that image at times, particularly in the eyes of worried parents or politicians in search of a headline. I did think the image of video games as the exclusive province of the socially maladjusted was behind us but it does recur disturbingly regularly, even now.

Getting back to Anthem itself, while I don't feel as disturbed by the prospect of its success as Alli, I do see it as not so much a straw in the wind but a bloody great haystack in a hurricane barrelling towards the traditional MMORPG. Belghast said something very revealing in his recent post on returning to FFXIV: "I am trying to get back into playing an MMORPG again…  but it just feels weird considering how much of the Destiny style MMO Lite I have been playing of late."

Pete S in reply to Belghast clarified that feeling with some solid reasoning: "I’m really struggling to engage for that same “been playing quasi-MMOs too much” reason. I just feel like the time-invest:reward ratio is off now."

Pacing in MMORPGs is something many of us have been talking about and around for years. People have argued that leveling is too fast, too slow, too uneven; gear ladders have been both too long and too short. The genre suffered years of post-WoW speeding up that then slewed into a "Slow MMO" car-crash that threatened to bring the entire crowdfunding process into disrepute.

While all that was going on deep in The Niche, the hinterlands were filling up with somewhat successful hybrids like Destiny and The Division and bona-fide hits and mega-hits like PUBG and Fortnite. If the last five years have told us anything, it's that there's a huge market for Massive Online Games - provided you don't add those fatal three missing letters.

So I can see why Alli is worried. The current trend in large-scale online games, supported by sales, would seem to have little to do with either narrative storytelling or traditional rpg character-building. What's more, I would contend that, with Destiny, Warframe and now Anthem all choosing to house the player character in form-fitting, personality-occluding body armor, the current version of "character building" has closer affinities to driving games than to any imagined ancestry in Dungeons and Dragons.

Beyond any other reason, that was why I lost interest so fast in Warframe and it's very high on the list of things that put me off trying Anthem: I don't mind my character owning and driving a vehicle but I draw the line at them being one. But no-one cares what I think because not every game has to be for me.

Anthem will be a success. Possibly not as big a success as it needs to be but there or thereabouts. The trend of narrative-light, combat-heavy, fast-paced MMOs set in open worlds or open maps, using or at least including Battle Royale and Survival mechanics is going to be with us for a good while yet.

Will that trend prejudice the production of other types of video game? Of course it will. That's what bandwagons do - roll over everything else. Will there be anything left for the rest of us? Of course there will. Whether we'll want it when we get it, though, that's another story...

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Existential Angst

ChaosConstant at Occasional Hero posted some thoughts about GW2 under the banner "Why I'm Not Playing Guild Wars 2". I'm not playing it as much as I used to, either, although for almost the opposite reasons, as I explained in a lengthy comment there.

Not that I've stopped. You never really stop playing GW2. You can only be not playing it right now. If you want to delete your account you pretty much have to get written consent, countersigned by your parents and a recognized medical authority.

I've dropped to a kind of maintenance mode. I do my dailies, open my Lunar envelopes, see if there's any action in World vs World and then log out. Even so, doing no more than that on three accounts takes at least an hour most days, sometimes more if the dailies aren't co-operating.

It's not that there isn't a ton of stuff I could be doing. I have something like seventeen Level 80 characters and most of them could use some attention. I could spend hundreds of hours just on getting all of them geared up in full Ascended and after that, were I certifiably insane, I could start working on Legendary, the tier-that's-not-a-tier to which we all supposedly aspire.

Then there are all those Masteries. Even my main account has plenty left to tick off and the other two have barely started.

Looking deeper down the rabbit hole, by now there must be dozens of collections I haven't completed, several of which I told myself I would definitely do. A couple even give rewards for which I have a semi-urgent, practical use.

Then there's map completion. In getting on for seven years I have never ticked every explorer box in the base game on one, single character. Even I'm starting to think that's a bit odd. Similarly, not one of my characters has ever completed the Personal Story. Let's be honest, most of them never even started.

That's just the old stuff. I gave up exploring the new maps that come with every Living Story chapter long ago. Most of my characters have never even set foot in these new territories. There's plenty of content there I've never even seen, let alone finished.

All of that and I'm not even considering the endless torrent of Achievements I could be working on. Or Raids, which apparently now come with semi-authorised carries for a price I could very easily pay (I'm Rich, You Know). Or Fractals. Come to think of it, forget Fractals, there are still dungeons I've never been inside, let alone dungeon paths...

I think it's fair to say that, despite what does feel like an ongoing content drought that's been going on for years, not having enough to do does not cut it as an explanation for why my interest is wandering.

Over-familiarity doesn't explain it, either. If the problem was knowing the systems and the sights too well, why would I be flitting off to flirt with EverQuest II instead of staying faithful to Tyria? I mean, I've played EQII for twice as long and I probably know it twice as well...

Part of the problem - if indeed it is a problem, and I'm not entirely convinced it is - is that, yes, there's a lot to do in Tyria, but there's not much that I want to do. Once you take out the things I've tried and don't like (Fractals) and things I'm not interested in (Raids), most of what's left involves either a long, repetitious grind (Collections, Legendaries) or jumping through hoops (Achievements, Masteries).

Not that I object to any of that on principle. Hoop-jumping, box-ticking and repetitious grinds are the foundations on which the MMORPG genre was built, after all. Not to forget farming for gold to pay someone else to do it all for you.

And when you've finished, what do you have? I was going to say "not much" but then I've already said there are things I could use that I'm making no effort to get, so that won't wash.

Take Princess. I've been meaming to get her for my third account for about two years now. If I could be bothered to do that I could free up a whole load of bank space and that's always a happy moment. It would be even more useful if I knuckled down to get the Mastery points for Autoloot on the two accounts that don't yet have it. That's a game-changer.

Okay then. It's not lack of things to do and it's not lack of things worth doing. It's also not boredom or ennui; I still enjoy the game enough to be actively leveling up yet another Ranger on my F2P account. In fact, I'm having so much fun doing it I'm considering making some new characters on my regular accounts too.

I don't know. I'm not going to get to the bottom of this, am I?  

Zubon was expressing some puzzlement over why "people find it odd that people spend X amount of time on games, when they spend >2*X amount of time on television". I don't find it odd at all. Television offers discrete, complete chunks of content that can be consumed in a fixed, known amount of time. Leaving aside the quality of that content, it's just more manageable.

Gaming never stops. MMORPGs are particularly bad (or good) in that respect, being open-ended and always on, but you can always, always have one more round of any game.

I've just started watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer from the start. It's free on Amazon Prime. I watched the first couple of seasons in the late 1990s, right at the very tail end of my television years. I have the entire series from start to finish in VHS box sets somewhere. A friend lent them to me around the turn of the millennium and I've never watched them. Nor given them back.

The main reason for that - apart from not having a VHS player (I have one now, funnily enough, but for a long time I didn't) - is that all my screen time for more than fifteen years went to gaming. Exclusively. I was playing MMOs and they never end. Or stop. Or even pause, except on patch day, and how we moaned about that...

Starting in on Buffy (which is wonderful, as everyone knows), it might look daunting to see eight years of content piled up ahead of me. Only I play MMORPGs, so it looks like nothing much at all. A slight bump in the road. A pebble. I know I'll watch every episode; it will take a specific amount of time; then it will stop. That's so easy.

I don't have anywhere to go with this. It's a post much like my gaming. I'm starting something I never really planned to finish, knowing I'll come back and chip away at it some more another day. Or I won't. It doesn't much matter either way.

This must be why so many gamers like to organize and schedule. It forces structure even if that structure often fails. I've talked about that before. Recently, too. It must be on my mind. No doubt I'll talk about it again. Blogging can be as repetitive and predictable as doing your dailies, sometimes.

I like doing my dailies, though. Perhaps a better question (it's not a question) than "Why I'm Not Playing Guild Wars 2" might be "Why Am I Still Playing Guild Wars 2?"

Because I am. That'll do.
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